Rating: 4 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge (substitution for I Capture The Castle)
This was a hoot. Dodie Smith was one of my mum’s favourite authors. She read all the volumes in her autobiography, urging me to do so too, although that hadn’t happened yet. She borrowed I Capture The Castle from the library and passed it on to me when she’d done. I loved it. I don’t remember her mentioning The New Moon with the Old, though. I hope she read it. She would have loved it.
On the surface, it’s an old fashioned romance, but it has a knowing wit to it, too. Nothing truly bad happens, just a bit of financial misconduct that forces a family of ill prepared people to engage with reality. Except it’s a magical kind of reality, populated by actors who marry into property, a vastly wealthy and eccentric woman, and an ex-king. It’s escapism of the purest kind, but certainly not trashy.
It had all the innocent romance that I have always enjoyed, right from Rapunzel seeking out her blind prince to Emma not realising she loves Mr Knightley until it’s almost too late. That will-they-won’t-they tug that’s so delicious, made more so by the everyday things going on around the two hesitant but predestined lovers. Ahh! There were some rum aspects to the love affairs in The New Moon with the Old but the women who might have ended up being exploited were put firmly in control by Smith. She dealt with the bizarreness so matter of factly that it ceased to seem quite so bizarre.
It felt like a gentle satire on Smith’s class, as well. In some ways it was similar to the two Nancy Mitford books I read earlier this year, but the characters were less caricatured. Smith seemed to be taking a rise out of her own life experiences. I have no evidence for this, I haven’t read her autobiography, only read her Wikipedia entry, but she was a child of the Edwardian era, the daughter of a banker who died when she was two, was raised by her mum and grandparents not far from where I live now, and then moved to London aged 14 when her mum remarried. There are numerous parallels in this novel to that sketch of her life. I wonder how many of the people in the novel are based on herself and people she knew. They are so warmly described that there must be nuggets of reality at their centres.
The book is structured into five parts. The first ‘book’ introduces the key characters through the eyes of Jane Minton, who has been employed in the role of secretary to a London banker, but based at his country home. After the banker’s financial misconduct, each of the following books describes how the four children cope with life in the real world. As I mentioned, it’s not a very real reality that they engage with. One of the sons, Drew, sums their experiences up neatly.
I’m convinced England’s overflowing with eccentric people, places, happenings. Indeed, you might say eccentricity’s normal in England.
The book is chock full of eccentricity, which is why I loved it so much. We English do eccentricity so well, and in all four of the books I’ve now read by Dodie Smith, she handles it with charm and humour.
There was one thing that annoyed me about the edition of the book that I read, though, and that was the poor editing. The book was originally published in 1963, and the 2012 book I borrowed from the library was a reprint by the Corsair imprint of Constable & Robinson. I’m all for forgotten or under appreciated books being revived and put in front of a new audience. I understand that publishers reissuing books originally published in an analogue era have to resort to scanning and OCR to obtain a digital copy of the text, but is it too much to ask that the OCR-generated text is checked properly before publication? There are many misrecognised letters that create some jarring typos in this edition.