This is another quite odd but very enjoyable novel (my favorite kind), but it's also true that perhaps it only peripherally fits this blog. It was published a full ten years after the period I’m focused on here, and Dodie Smith, who wrote both the perennially popular I Capture the Castle (1948) and the classic children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmations (1956), both still widely read today, might not even fit the criteria of being "lesser-known."
But although I Capture the Castle has remained in print, Smith’s other five adult novels, which the ODNB refers to as “increasingly fanciful,” have mostly remained out-of-print—though judging from their price tags on Amazon they remain coveted by Smith fans. The first three of those—The New Moon with the Old (1963), The Town in Bloom (1965), and It Ends with Revelations (1967), were finally reprinted in the U.K. by Corsair in 2012, but A Tale of Two Families and Smith’s final novel, The Girl in the Candle-Lit Bath (1978), remain out-of-print. (And the fact that the Corsair editions are currently remaindered in the
may not bode well for those titles staying in print for long either.) So that portion of Smith’s oeuvre, at least,
certainly seems to qualify as "lesser-known."
A quick Google search reveals that several other readers of the book had experiences similar to mine. The beginning of the novel does read rather like a play (not too surprising, since Smith was also a successful playwright), and it takes a bit of getting into as the numerous characters and the novel’s "fanciful" premise are introduced. However, once it does get moving, I found it hard to put down.
The basic plot revolves around two sisters—quirkily named May and June—who happen to be married to two brothers, George and Robert. George is a successful businessman, charismatic and philandering; Robert is an acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful novelist; May channels her frustrations about George’s occasional flings into a sophisticated façade and careful attention to decorating and homemaking; while June is ineffectual but loving—perhaps too much so, as she seems to be in love with George as well as Robert.
George and May lease the Dower House of a rather run-down country manor, and invite Robert and June to live in the staff cottage nearby. Meanwhile, two of the couples' children, Corinna and Hugh, double cousins who are having a luke-warm, semi-incestuous, celibate-unto-marriage relationship (with the marriage placed some time vaguely in the future), remain in the family's
flat but put in occasional weekend appearances.
The brothers' father, Baggy, lives with George and May, and the sisters'
glamorous septuagenarian mother, Fran, comes for a long visit. Sarah, the friendly (and attractive, if it
weren’t for her terrible voice) daughter of the manor also plays her part. And I could hardly forget the curiously
stunted, compulsively self-absorbed Aunt Mildred, who comes for a devastating
Most of the key events of the novel take place in the gardens around the houses—including a lilac grove through which diverging and confusing paths pass and a wood where a nightingale sings. The descriptions of the entire setup are calculated to make anyone with fantasies about English country life (such as those I just recently wrote about in relation to Ruth Adam's A House in the Country) drool with envy, but the garden and woods also seem intended to evoke Shakespeare’s
Forest of Arden with its almost magical ability to create
chaos and bring out hidden desires. (The
fact that Corinna is a budding actress who has recently stolen the show in As You Like It, outshining the lead
actress with her Celia, is a clue—and the image of a second-fiddle stealing the
show from a star seems like it ought to be symbolic of something, though I
haven’t quite figured out what…)
All of which sounds like the perfect setup for a cozy comedy of love troubled, renegotiated, and rediscovered. And it is. Sort of.
In a couple of previous reviews, I’ve floated the concept of—for lack of a better term—the “uncozy,” a novel that has all the makings of a cozy little lark, and indeed can be read and enjoyed as nothing more, but which, if you're inclined to dig a little deeper, may actually subvert that coziness and be more disturbing and more profound than one might expect. I think A Tale of Two Families has a claim to this designation as well, since—if I’m not reading too much into it, as I am admittedly prone to do—it seems to be surprisingly concerned with sex, and under the surface it may be a rather serious and sometimes dark exploration of female sexuality in particular.
The turning point of the novel, after all, hinges upon a fragile, undersized Dalmation puppy (of course—this is Dodie Smith, after all!), who is just, for the first time, "coming into season" as May calls it (Fran, characteristically, scoffs at this euphemism: "'Such a ridiculous expression,' said Fran. 'Sounds as if she's something to eat. My dogs, no doubt vulgarly, just came on heat.'") Because of her delicate health, a pregnancy now would be potentially deadly, and there is much concern about keeping her under careful watch or carefully locked in a room. Her escape from the house at the hands of rather disturbingly loony Aunt Mildred, who enjoys rape fantasies and feels that she simply must allow the dog to have her fling (and perhaps even vicariously enjoy it herself!), precipitates several major plot developments.
In addition, the dog's instinctive urges seem to be paralleled or contrasted with several of the other characters: Corinna, growing restless in her pure, sexless romance with the saintly Hugh, half-heartedly attempts to seduce him and, when that fails, is driven into the arms of a famous middle-aged actor; June briefly gives in to her lust for George despite her very real love of Robert; Fran, it emerges, may have had a fling with Rudolph Valentino in her girlish days and certainly, like Corinna, had a fling with a famous theatre actor before settling down with May and June's father; and George tries halfheartedly to control his indiscriminate lust, musing at one point about how he relishes pinching young girls' butts. All of them seem—at least in the somewhat magical setting of the lilac garden and woods—to be driven by, or resisting, or perhaps regretting the loss of, their sexual urges.
And then there's terrible Aunt Mildred, only three years younger than Fran, which puts her at around 69 years old, who is not only terminally (and hilariously) negative and condescending:
At the Dower House, Baggy and Robert came out to greet Mildred, Baggy having decided to please Fran by what he thought of as 'doing the civil' and Robert having been asked, by June, to be on hand. Mildred, her blue eyes at their widest, said to Baggy, 'Why, Mr. Clare!' (Baggy afterwards told Fran, 'She seemed amazed that I was still alive.') To Robert she said brightly, 'How's the writing?' somehow making it sound like a hobby, not a profession. Although she favoured the Dower House with a long look she made no comment on it, and that very fact was somehow an adverse comment.
but also seems stuck in a strange infantile obsession with sex—uninterested in actual intimacy, but perversely fascinated with the sex lives of others. Her attire reflects her childish self-image:
Almost on Fran's heels came Mildred, in pink, frilled mousseline de soie, the waist up under her arms which dangled from little puffed sleeves. The dress reached to her calves and below it were frilled pantalettes and pink dancing sandals with crossed elastics. Ignoring the group now formed by Fran, Robert and June, she tripped over to the lilac grove, stood on tiptoe with her feet close together, and pulled down a spray to smell. The pose perfectly suggested an illustration to some long-ago child's picture book.
And when she mistakenly thinks that Hugh and Sarah have had a passionate interlude, she is thrilled to have a new fantasy:
He would have been surprised to know that what they'd been doing was of no great interest to Mildred. What mattered was what she intended to imagine them doing. At last she had a new toy. She could take it for walks, think about it before she fell asleep. And she felt sure it would be a lasting toy; she tired of some of them so quickly. But Hugh, this splendid new Hugh who had shouted at her, and that dark handsome girl...she would think about them all the coming week and then take them home with her.
One or two reviews of this novel online mentioned that its weak point was its rather Freudian (or, more accurately, pseudo-Freudian) perspective on sexuality. As something of a Freudian myself, I don't necessarily agree that a Freudian perspective would be a weakness, though the popular version of Freud in play here—as in most popular culture—is patently absurd. But regardless, it is certainly true that Mildred is presented as a kind of case study. Various characters theorize about what caused her to become what she is—including George, who, from a typically offensive, seducer's point of view, suggests that "early and frequent rape might have made a different woman of her…" [!!!]
But it is really Mildred's arrival that gets the novel rolling along entertainingly, and regardless of the causes of her disturbing behavior, her ultimate function here—apart from the fact that other characters' reactions to her are often quite funny—seems to be to act as the catalyst for the novel's crisis and as a sort of warning of one negative extreme of narcissistic sexuality. Some of her behaviors are echoed, in milder form, in other women in the novel, so that the novel winds up forming almost a spectrum of various forms that women's sexual experience can take.
And that seems somewhat remarkable to me, because even in 1970 when this novel was published, representations of actual female desire and sexuality (as opposed to idealized romances or tales of women as glamorous sexual objects) seem to have been fairly rare. So I found myself impressed by Smith's daring and her ability to include an exploration of female desire in what is ultimately a light, highly-readable, very entertaining tale, without it seeming heavy-handed or lurid or in any way preachy.
One of the most likeable characters is Fran, an example of a sexually-liberated "free spirit" (so appropriate to the late 60s/early 70s period in which the novel is set) who has had a glamourous past and is now poignantly coming to terms with her increasing age, in part through her friendship (and maybe a wee bit of flirtation) with poor Baggy, who has a heart condition himself and has more or less resigned himself to doddering old age.
We first see Fran with Baggy assuring him that she refuses to have rheumatism: "'I'm a bit stiff sometimes but I take no notice of it. Take notice of stiffness and it calls itself rheumatism. Get your mind off it and it goes away.'" But not long after, while returning from shopping to meet Baggy for tea, she has a fainting spell on the street, and when she arrives for tea and goes to the ladies' room, she sees an empty room on the landing and has a vivid flashback to her youthful Bloomsbury flat and an early, torrid romance:
And now she saw the lilac, masses of it in her two Devon pitchers, three jugs she had borrowed from the crone in the basement—and, of all things, a bucket! Masses and masses of long-stemmed white lilac. And now she could smell it and it didn't smell at all like the lilac at the Dower House now in full bloom. And in a flash, she knew why. What she was smelling in memory was the scent she had used in those old Bloomsbury days, a scent called Le Temps de Lilas. It was that scent which had caused him to inundate her with lilac she had been almost hysterical with pleasure when he arrived positively weighed down with it all. He had put it down on the floor and they had sat amongst it, laughing and kissing. And later… That had been the first time, so long remembered, so long forgotten—and now suddenly there.
But only for a moment, perhaps only for a split second. Then she was back in her seventies, a respectable elderly lady whose legs would no longer run. And she would be very, very glad of a cup of tea.
There is a sad and funny sequel to this later when, resisting the realization that her days of glamourous conquest are at an end, Fran sneaks into the garden after dark and repeatedly—but with limited success—attempts to run about.
The various resolutions in the novel are perhaps, like many of its events, a bit Shakespearean. And like many of Shakespeare's endings, where the fantastic, passionate behavior of characters in the forest are so often reined in by death or marriage, the resolutions here are perhaps not all completely satisfying. But the overall effect remains one of a highly entertaining farce, albeit with surprisingly profound and serious undertones.