The Town In Bloom – Dodie Smith (1965)
I never got round to reading I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith’s much-loved coming-of-age novel – until I’d been of age for many years. It was on my bookshelf, I’d even opened it a few times, but somehow was never in the mood for a story that began with the famous first line: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’
When I did get round to reading it properly, like many others I fell in love – with the book, the setting, with its 17-year-old narrator Cassandra Mortmain.
So I was delighted to find another Dodie Smith novel with a similarly young protagonist, The Town In Bloom. Not because I was looking for one, but because this reissue presented itself to me, on face-out display in my local library. That is the beauty of libraries – they give you gifts you didn’t even know you wanted. (The same with proper bookshops.)
Expecting the same sort of enchanting comfort read, I was, in a way, disappointed. It has a charmingly wayward heroine, nicknamed Mouse, and wonderful detail that makes her 1920s London come alive: the residential Club for ladies, the ‘brown dinners’, the penny-pinching, and the clothes! The bulk of the plot concerns Mouse’s adventures when she arrives in London, aged 18, hoping to make a career in the theatre. Despite being young, diminutive and provincial, Mouse is far from mousey. Brought up by a very forward-thinking aunt, she confounds many of our received ideas about just-post-World War I attitudes and morals. She meets three other young women inventing their own independent lives and the four become friends. So far, so good. But once Mouse falls in love things change.
As a (failed) actress and then successful playwright Dodie Smith was very familiar with this world. It’s a long way – in tone, at least – from the seedy theatre milieu Jean Rhys knew and wrote about, but it’s still not exactly a romp. All-too-adult compromise, subterfuge and manipulations abound. There’s not much of the withheld – and then delivered – gratification for the reader that makes a romantic book, of whatever quality, satisfying to its reader. This is different, more realistic, anti-romantic in many ways. Independent young women don’t live fairy-tale lives after all.
I Capture The Castle may be shelved as a YA book these days, but I can’t see The Town In Bloom pleasing a similar readership. For one thing, the love interest. The men the four girls get involved with – all substantially older than them – are really not appealing, at least not to modern teens (I hope!) A philandering actor-manager, a career clergyman, a boring-but-decent chap – they’re thinly written and unsurprising. They’re pretty much all rotters, too. Another I’d pinned my hopes on only disappoints (as so often in real life, dear reader).
The second problem lies in the structure of the novel. Most of it revolves around Mouse’s first mad year in London, book-ended by two sections set in a later period, looking back. Three of the friends meet at five-year intervals (there’s a mystery with Zelle, the fourth). Looking back is fine – but how far? It turns out to be 45 years, which is huge stretch. Problematically, the women don’t seem to have changed much or feel like women in their late 60s – and in the 1960s, sixty wasn’t “the new forty”, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine my teenage self identifying with them and the paths their lives have taken.
But as a grown up reader I found this a fascinating if slightly unexpected period novel.