Dodie Smith: Look Back With Love

Last month, Jacqueline Wilson spoke to a packed hall at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music about her 100th book Opal Plumstead, which is set in Edwardian England and features the Suffragist movement.

During the talk, attended by young readers (mainly girls aged 8-13) and their families, Jacqueline revealed that probably her favourite book is I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. Although this novel (published 1949) is cited by several notable authors as a major influence, Smith is still more generally remembered for The Hundred And One Dalmations (1956) immortalised by Disney in 1961.

Dodie Smith grew up in Old Trafford and Whalley Range during the Edwardian era; she attended Whalley Range High School from the age of 11 until she moved to London around 1910, aged 14. She describes her childhood brilliantly in Look Back With Love, the first volume of her memoirs, all of which are now inexplicably out of print! I therefore feel no guilt about directly reproducing a few excerpts here!

This charming photograph of Dodie with her mother was taken in 1903:

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Dodie’s father died while she was still an infant and her mother moved back to her own parent’s home where all her five grown-up siblings still lived. The family depended financially upon Dodie’s three uncles, none of whom married until middle-age.

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Around 1905, nine-year-old Dodie’s extended family moved from the faded grandeur of Kingston House on the bank of the Manchester Ship Canal (because it was due to be demolished) to Thorncliffe, which still stands on Stretford Road:

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From Chapter XI Thorncliffe (About 1905):

“Thorncliffe, unlike most Old Trafford houses, was stuccoed and painted cream. It was not impressive from the outside as the front door was tucked away at the side and the front garden so shallow that the electric trams, which had replaced the old horse drawn trams, were unpleasingly close. Still, I found their goings-on interesting. Their points were changed almost opposite to us, where the two roads met, and their trolley poles were swung from wire to wire, resulting in surprising electric sparks. But their clanging gongs had none of the charm of the clop of horses’ hooves.”

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I love the lengthy description in this chapter of trips to the local Public Swimming Baths with her female family and friends, although I don’t know which particular baths they visited:

“The first thrill of the baths was the noise as we approached, a high pitched screaming which in the distance had an almost musical quality. We would look at each other ominously and say they sounded full, but they never were; two or three girls in an echoing swimming bath can make a very carrying noise. We must have been a formidable group for frequently people got out at the sight of us, or sometimes they were chivied by the attendant, who said their time was up. Our time, I may say, was never up and, though the attendant occasionally remarked that some of us were quite blue, she never made any effort to eject us. Coerced (and handsomely tipped) by the commanding Auntie Carrie she merely stoked the boiler which provided the water with some heat and then went back to her knitting. As a rule we had the bath to ourselves.”

“We were very leisurely about our undressing, leaning out of the half-doors of our bathing boxes, rather like horses looking out of loose-boxes.
…My mother, who was well aware that she had a beautiful figure, wore a tight-fitting bathing dress that was considered by some to be indecent, but the rest of us wore vaguely flapping garments that meandered well below the knee. Auntie Carrie, massive in ample stockingette, smoking a Gold Flake and saying ‘Pink it, you children’ – her favourite rallying cry – was truly impressive. We wore check bathing caps reminiscent of sponge bags and about as much use at keeping the water out. Only Auntie Bertha had an efficient cap. It was putty-coloured and, in repose, resembled a chef’s cap; in action, it became inflated by air and made her look like a High Priest of Israel.”

“We had only one pair of water wings but Auntie Bertha, at her husband’s suggestion, brought two bicycle inner tubes which she placed under her arms; these enabled her to take her feet off the bottom for a few seconds. She looked most peculiar and made one think of sea serpents.
…After some weeks we could all swim a few strokes, but now Auntie Bertha had struck a snag, for when she stopped swimming her head went down and her feet went up; no one could explain this, it was just Auntie Bertha’s devilish originality.
…My mother soon learnt to swim with dainty strokes and no strength whatsoever. A great believer in cultivating a pretty expression, she always retained a look of stony winsomness and once, exhausted at the deep end, she managed an agonised smile before sinking – to be grabbed by Auntie Carrie who told her to pink it.
…Auntie Carrie discovered that she could float, which she did contentedly, puffing a cigarette and suggesting a red stockingette volcanic island.”

From Chapter XIV Goodbye To Old Trafford: (Around 1907?)

“That once pleasant suburb was fast going downhill and the beautiful Botanical gardens had been turned into an amusement park called the White City. We all went on the opening day and were shocked by the changes. The cave, the grottoes, the lawns and the hot-houses were gone. I could find no trace of Monkey Hill nor of the lakes where I had fished. The sunken flower garden had been flooded to receive the water-shoot and there were cheap restaurants and entertainment booths all over the place; also as the crowds increased, a nasty smell. The scenic railway was supposed to outswitch all switchbacks, but didn’t and it cost sixpence; indeed all the amusements were so expensive that Uncle Eddie said he was surprised there was no charge for coming out.
…The old concert hall had been turned into a roller-skating rink which was one innovation my mother and I approved of.”

From Chapter XV Claremont:

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“Claremont, Wood Road, Whalley Range, was a tall, narrow house only a few years old and, bitter shame for me, semi-detached.
…Beyond the garden was a large field onto which backed a fine old mansion with a rookery. It was mainly because of this field, which could not be built on for some years, that we had taken Claremont. ”

“Whalley Range was still a pleasant, unspoilt suburb. Our road, very muddy in winter, was blind-ended but from one side of it – like the arms of an E – Whalley, Carlton and College Roads, with their fine trees, old houses and large gardens, led to the shopping district of Alexandra Park, a mile or so away. At the dead end of our road was a dark Victorian Gothic Ecclesiastical College with impressive grounds. I thought it picturesque but a bit of a fake. I had, however, no such superior feelings about the painted cream Victorian Gothic houses which helped to give Whalley Range its basking, Sunday afternoon charm. I only wished we lived in one.”

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From Chapter XVI A Season Made For Joy (Around 1907):

“The day after we returned from London we discovered that Whalley Range High School had inconsiderately begun its autumn term without me. My mother hurried me to it and we saw the Head Mistress, who led me to a classroom. I was impressed by the large building and the wide corridors and felt I could sniff discipline in the air. But the classroom was flooded with sunshine, there were interesting pictures on the walls, girls looked up and smiled, and the form mistress was encouraging. A Composition class had just begun. I was given foolscap paper and told to write on ‘A Summer Day’. After fifteen minutes we had to read our work aloud. Mine was in the form of a letter. This was thought original and I was given top marks. When the class ended I was put in the charge of a girl who made sure I was included in playground games. She behaved much as a good hostess would and so did most of the girls in my form…”

From Chapter XII Farewell Manchester (Around 1910):

“A school can hardly rise higher than the level of its head mistress and no doubt much of the excellence of Whalley Range High School was due to the red-haired, business-like Miss Field; but the almost lyrical charm which pervaded the school was, I feel sure, entirely due to Miss Allen. As well as History and Literature she taught Singing and everything she taught was worth remembering, and is remembered by me to this day. Folk songs, madrigals, German Lieder, songs by Elgar and other living composers; no children could have been taught more lovely and lasting music. Most of all, I loved Sumer is icumen in which epitomises that whole period for me.”

“Miss Allen was also in charge of entertainments and something was generally afoot: plays, tableaux, folk dancing, cantatas…, the bulb show and, most charming of all, the May Day Festival. For this, the big gymnasium was decorated with spring flowers and all the three hundred pupils wore flowers in their hair and garlands round their necks, over white dresses. As we mainly used daffodils the scent was less poignant than during the bulb show, but delicately fresh. A Maypole was erected for us to dance around, we recited original poems as a tribute to the May Queen and Miss Allen arranged a programme of spring-like music.”

In her second book of memoirs Look Back With Mixed Feelings, Dodie writes about her brief return to Wood Road in Whalley Range following her mother’s death, during the summer of 1914:

“Once dressed I sometimes went for a walk, but most of the fine old houses I remembered had now been replaced by rows of nasty new ones.”

(Ironcially the part of Whalley Range which has been designated a Victorian Conservation Area by Manchester City Council contains many 20th Century houses, the large Victorian villas having been demolished during the Edwardian era. Meanwhile many more humble Victorian houses which remain, for instance, within several of the Dukeries off Clarendon Road, lie outside the Conservation Area boundaries.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dodie’s account of life in Old Trafford and Whalley Range vividly portrays a particular kind of middle class life – charming, eccentric, more impoverished than it might have appeared to onlookers – the family seemingly obsessed by the theatre, amateur dramatics and other innocent pleasures. But also I wonder about the sacrifices made by her uncles, who prioritised supporting their parents and sisters above setting up their own homes.

I am struck by the huge gulf between Dodie’s childhood world, which appears very much a hangover from the Victorian era, and the culture she became part of as a twentieth century adult. When you see photographs from the Edwardian era, it is worth remembering that the people pictured didn’t remain trapped in that mode for very long… if they lived. Really the rate of change in the twentieth century was incredible, even by today’s standards. When I hear young pop/rock musicians crediting their parents as their major influences (as regularly happens these days) I sometimes wonder if we’re actually moving culturally backwards.

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6 Comments

  1. My friend Leesa reckons the local baths for that area of Stretford Road were where Bath Crescent is now… Off Northumberland Avenue: http://www.housingcare.org/housing-care/facility-info-11682-bath-crescent-old-trafford-england.aspx

    • Michael Dunne

      The baths at Bath Crescent were public baths where people went for a wash.

  2. Wendy Driffield

    Having just finished reading I Capture The Castle & really enjoying it , I looked on the net for her autobiographies only to find them ridiculously expensive . So thank you for giving us these extracts – wendy

  3. Michael Dunne

    I enjoyed reading this Mancky. Thanks for posting it.

  4. Adele Matthews (O'Connell

    Thank you for this delightfull
    post.
    I have Loving childhud memories of Old Trafford ,
    Chester Rd; & local Areas
    visiting my Grandparents
    Those Grand Edwardian
    Houses and buildings which had long been left.
    Have now been given life
    to the dear memories I have
    of my past.
    Blessings, Adele x

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