Fifty thousand bloggers can’t be wrong, can they? Dodie Smith’s charmingly funny memoir, Look Back with Love, has received rave reviews on several of the blogs I read. Simon loved it at Stuck in a Book, Elaine adored it at Random Jottings & so did Geranium Cat. They’re right. This is a lovely memoir about a happy childhood in early 20th century Manchester. One of the things I love most about Slightly Foxed editions (well, the ones I’ve read so far) is that the memoirs they publish are not misery memoirs. There may be poverty, misfortune & heartbreak but these are memoirs written with affection & restraint.
Dodie Smith’s memories of growing up with her mother’s family are full of fun & mischief. Her father died when she was just a baby & her heartbroken mother went home to live with her parents, two sisters & three brothers in a house in Old Trafford. The family lived in a series of houses in Manchester & Smith describes the houses beautifully. Dodie & her mother usually shared a room & often another little room, usually the boiler room, would be fitted out as a playroom or later a study for Dodie. Dodie & her mother were devoted to each other.
Of all the women I have ever known I liked my mother best. Of course I loved her, but most children love their mothers and it is no particular compliment. True liking implies a reasoned judgement and I have come to believe it is more important than loving; it wears better. Now, so long after my mother’s death that I have no emotional sense of loss, I still find myself wishing to share things with her.
As the only child in this household of adults, Dodie was loved & indulged but not spoilt. She was a mad performer & reciter, encouraged by the example of her Uncle Harold who was a star in the local amateur dramatic society. Dodie would recite at the drop of a hat & her family & later her schoolfriends, provided a willing audience. The uncles were all great teasers & Dodie was as credulous as most children. She could be frightened almost into fits by one uncle who would solemnly tell her that he thought he was going mad & get madder & madder until he suddenly decided that he wasn’t going to go mad today.
Her Aunt Bertha was eccentric. She had strange ideas, for example, that her teeth would go soft if she was left alone for more than three hours. She couldn’t bear to throw out anything that might be useful to someone at some time & took this to extreme lengths when they were clearing out Dodie’s grandmother’s room after her death,
The only times Auntie Bertha accepted anything with a good grace was when it had been discarded as useless and put in the rubbish pile. Then she would rescue it and happily make plans for its future.
‘Don’t love, you’ll make me laugh.’ Nan kept saying sorrowfully. At last Auntie Bertha pounced on an ancient bodice which must have been used for patching, for little of it remained.
‘It’s got one good sleeve, anyhow,’ she said defensively.
Nan and my mother began to laugh and soon we were all laughing helplessly, apologising to God, my grandmother and each other. Nan kept saying, ‘We mustn’t, we mustn’t,’ but we went on laughing, while Auntie Bertha smoothed out the solitary leg-o’-mutton sleeve.
There are so many hilarious scenes in the book. I laughed out loud many times. Dodie has such a sense of the ridiculous & her schooldays, birthday parties, games with friends & family excursions to the old family home at Darley are described with a sense of irresistible fun. Dodie was an aspiring writer from early childhood. She didn’t want to play with her dolls, she sat in front of them & invented their characters,
And then there was Ruth, the wax-faced doll, who had belonged to my Auntie Dora, dead in childhood. Ruth could never have been a beauty and by now most of her hair had gone and her almost square face had a corpse-like pallor. At last my mother and I agreed she must be thrown out but I relented and rescued her from the dustbin. My mother then made her a rakish bonnet and rouged her wax cheeks. Rouge was kept locked up and was referred to by my mother and aunts as ‘brightening’. Brightening did wonders for Ruth, who now looked like a raddled old trollop and took on a new lease of life.
I could go on quoting passages forever. The scene in the ice-cold swimming baths with Auntie Carrie smoking her ever-present Gold Flake & shouting “Pink it, you children’ which was her favourite rallying cry; the dreadful seasick-inducing boat trip across the Bristol Channel when the family were on holiday; the struggles of Uncle Bertie (Aunt Bertha’s husband) with his car, a great novelty, even with the threat of being suffocated by the dust thrown up on country roads or falling out of the car altogether when it was going up a hill. Unhappiness, in general, is only hinted at. Dodie Smith’s mother’s second marriage was evidently a mistake but it isn’t dwelt on. This is partly because this book only takes Dodie up to the age of about 14. There are several subsequent memoirs & I’d love to read them. I can recommend that you get hold of Look Back with Love if you want a funny, fascinating, sometimes moving, reading experience.