Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The New Moon with the Old, by Dodie Smith

For a large part of my childhood my favourite book was Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmations; I even have its much less well-known sequel The Starlight Barking. Later it was replaced in my heart by her fabulous novel I Capture the Castle (my rainy day book). This blog even takes its name from I Capture the Castle, which is written as its narrator’s journals, the first of the three being The Sixpenny Book. So you see, Dodie and I go back a long way. I was thrilled then, when Corsair released three of her out of print novels last year, and promptly ordered myself a copy of The New Moon with the Old. With the anticipation there was of course the dread - sometimes forgotten books are forgotten for a reason. So I was relieved as much as pleased with how much I enjoyed this book. It conjures the well-to-do-but-cash-poor-English just as wonderfully as I Capture the Castle, but without rehashing the same territory.

The New Moon with the Old tells the story of four young siblings whose cosy domestic life in a country house is abruptly ended when their father flees the country accused of fraud. Without his financial support they are forced to find ways to make a living, something they have not been raised to do. In this they are aided (or hindered) by their father’s new secretary, Jane Minton. Smith has structured the book in four parts, each telling the story of one of the siblings, with an introduction, conclusion and three ‘interludes’ from Jane’s point of view.

The England of this book (published in 1963) is a far cry from the one we know today. In this England a young woman (or as it turns out, man) can still make a living acting as a companion to those better off than themselves; reading books and pouring tea makes for a fairly comfortable servitude in my opinion! There is a hint though, of the burgeoning sexual revolution. The teenage Merry reassures her brother upon her return to their home that she is still a virgin
‘Of course you are,’ he said heartily.
‘There’s no “of course” about it. Lots of girls my age aren’t”
It is clear though that Smith writes at a time where females are judged much more harshly than men. The clashing sexual politics of the new and the old are best portrayed in the story of the lovely, but listless, elder sister Clare. Of the four she is the least well equipped to survive in the working world, but she ventures forth anyway. She finds herself in what is almost a conventional romance, but Smith subverts her, and our, expectations. It is masterfully done, and had me laughing in delight.

Smith conjures up a not-so distant past of England, cosy - yes, but not cloying. Most importantly her novels are full of wonderful characters. Charm and eccentricity are often words used to describe Smith’s books. While this is true it is also a rather reductive view. Her novels are peopled by all sorts of characters – dreamy schoolgirls, sure, but also the spiteful and selfish, the hapless and the ambitious. Smith brings a humanity to them all.
They’re typical because of…their unusualness, their eccentricity. I’m convinced England’s overflowing with eccentric people, places, happenings. Indeed you might say eccentricity’s normal in England.
As much as I applaud Corsair for bringing these books into print, for the second review in a row I find myself grumbling about basic editing errors. I have little understanding of how the technical process works, but I can only assume that these books were scanned by computer, and were not read by an actual person at any point. There are a number of nonsensical words scattered through the book, such as ‘dosed’ when ‘closed’ is clearly correct. It is lazy, and very disappointing.

Immediately upon finishing I ordered myself the other two Dodie Smith novels, and I’m itching to read them (but I’m going to make myself wait!). I enjoyed this book immensely; Smith is proof that books read for pure pleasure don’t have to be brainless. If my glowing review hasn’t won you over, then try reading her books yourself.

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