Inspiring Older Readers
The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith
Last night I dreamed that a handsome and dignified older man sought me out and pressed a secret message into my hand declaring everlasting love, then bade his farewell into the darkness. I haven’t been prone to dreaming such cliched nonsense since I was a teenager who devoured novels by Georgette Heyer, so what on earth prompted this one? I think that is probably down to recently enjoying this rather silly but very readable romantic novel by Dodie Smith. I had decided that I needed to read something light and easy over the holiday period and this was the perfect choice.
Dodie Smith is most famous for writing the children’s book ‘One Hundred and One Dalmations’ and her first novel for adults ‘ I Capture the Castle’, both of which stories have been adapted into successful films. This very eventful novel is also peopled by many interesting, if two dimensional, characters who perform their parts rather as if they were on a stage - so it is no surprise to find out that she also wrote many successful plays. Because of this, I think that it would also work very well if adapted into a film.
The story begins with Jane Minton arriving at the mysterious Dome House where she has been employed as a secretary- housekeeper by the charming widower Richard Carrington (the first in a sequence of older male characters who clearly influenced my dream). Here she meets his four unusual and talented children who live a secluded but comfortable life fussed over by two elderly servants, as their father is far too busy in London to spend time at home. Everything changes dramatically when he becomes a fugitive from justice because he is about to be prosecuted for fraud. He has to leave the country immediately which means that there is no longer any money to sustain the household and so decisions have to be made quickly about how to survive without losing the house that they all love.
The youngest child, Merry is only fourteen but is very precocious and has a great desire to become an actress. Clearly she can’t stay at her fee-paying school so she decides to take the initiative and run away to London for a career on the stage (as you do). And so begins the first adventure where Smith treats us to the unlikely tale of a young girl pretending to be much older than her years helped by a disguise of home-dyed hair, clumsily applied make up, sophisticated clothes and a new brassiere that she was particularly pleased with. She sets off to catch the London bus but unfortunately accidentally sets off in the opposite direction and after many mishaps ends up staying at a palatial country house not that far from Dome House where she is nurtured by an extraordinary aristocratic family that seem even more eccentric than her own. In no time at all she convinces them all that she is a twenty one year old orphan with a background in repertory theatre The family includes the widower Lord Crestover, who at thirty nine fits the bill as the next older man in this story, and he is soon entranced by Merry and asks her to marry him.
Meanwhile back at Dome House, nineteen year old Drew has decided to earn some money by becoming a live-in companion to an elderly spinster who owns a wonderful house in a village many miles away. He is renowned for enjoying the company of old ladies and he’s also a wannabe writer so he uses his contacts with these elderly women to further his interest in the Edwardian era. So the second adventure begins as Drew finds out more about the gentle but anxious elderly woman who lives with her two servants who she describes as ‘the fiends’. He spends time reassuring her and helping her to gain confidence and although he feels a little hemmed in at times, feels that he has achieved some purpose in his life.
At twenty one, Clare is probably the oddest one of the children because she describes herself as ‘worse equipped than a Victorian girl’. She has so far wasted her time flopping about Dome House with a vague interest in painting flowers and has no interest in any future career other than being a king’s mistress, a fantasy which she has had for many years since reading about Nell Gwynn and Charles II. Her adventure into the real world to earn money involves becoming a live in companion to Mr Rowley, a very rich ninety year old blind man living in a grand London hotel who needs someone to read aloud to him:
‘He was the largest man she had ever seen, tall broad, with a massive head and a vast expanse of sallow-complexioned face. His hair, though she was later to see it was thickly streaked with grey, gave the impression of blackness. He wore a long dark dressing gown and as he stood there in the firelight he seemed to her a pillar of darkness.’
He becomes older man number three in what reminded me of the ‘ Beauty and the Beast’ fairy tale and his ugly, dissipated but nevertheless charismatic forty two year old grandson becomes older man number four.
The eldest son Richard is a talented composer and musician has his own little flirtation with facing reality but he remains living in the family home until the very last part of the book , when, with the help of Jane Minton they manage to find a way to keep everything on track without everyone needing to stay away indefinitely.
What a very silly story it is, but it is about coming of age and learning to be independent. The book I read was the first edition printed in 1961 but there is a 2012 paperback reissue from Corsair that is available for under £10.