I should probably state quite early on in this review that I am a huge fan of Dodie Smith’s earlier work, I Capture The Castle. It’s a cliché, I know; I’m sure everyone says this when they review her other books. I first read ICTC when I was in my early teens and nearly twenty years later it is still a favourite. I could quote entire passages by heart.
So you can imagine how pleased I was to find an original hard-back copy of The New Moon With The Old in the Oxfam shop for just a few pounds (original price: 21 shillings!). I’ve never read anything else by Dodie Smith and this seemed like a good time to start exploring some of her other works. Unfortunately, however, it is surprisingly difficult to read The New Moon without comparing it to I Capture The Castle. I tried, I really did, to give it a fair chance but I think my review is unfavourably biased.
The book begins with the efficiently spinsterish Jane Minton, who has been hired as a sort of secretary/housekeeper to a rich, dashing banker named Rupert Carrington. In the first chapter Jane arrives at his beautiful Suffolk mansion, Dome House, and meets his four children: Richard, Clare, Drew and Merry, all of whom are aged in their teens or early twenties. Within a few days of Jane’s arrival Rupert is accused of fraud and flees the country, leaving Jane and his children with a little money, mounting debts, a house to maintain and two servants to support. The book then follows each of Rupert’s children, one by one, as they abandon their former lives and try to make their own way in the world.
The plot really rests on a series of lucky, but often bizarre, events which sometimes stretch the imagination a little far. I don’t think it spoils things too much if I say that the Carrington children land on their feet rather quickly, three of them securing implausible but promising positions away from Dome House within just a week or two. I liked Drew’s story best, I think, and Clare’s least. And Merry… well, when has that sequence of events ever happened to anyone? I’m pretty sure never.
So the plot is a bit weak but I did find the characters engaging. I liked the Carrington children from the beginning and I understood Jane’s unspoken longing to be one of them. It’s the 1960s (although it’s easy to forget that) so there’s none of the ‘conscious naivety’ of Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle, even in fourteen year old Merry:
“She had been falling in love since the age of nine and had recently been in love with three men at once: two famous actors and a waiter at a hotel in Ipswich. And nowadays her imagination went beyond merely kissing men; she considered the implications of going to bed with them, though hampered by being none too sure what the implications were, having found Weary Willy’s biology lecture so dull that she had (a) not listened carefully and (b) discounted much of what she heard. No doubt the rough outline was correct but as to the details – well, Weary Willy’s knowledge was likely to be purely academic.”
The description of Merry’s rather, um, mature performance as Juliet in the school play might be my favourite bit.
Having said that, it is the sexual morals that I find a little troubling in this book. As soon as the two female Carrington children enter the big, wide world they are preyed upon by much older, rich men and no one seems to find this overly worrying. Instead, after a few half hearted objections, everyone seems to agree that it’s all very romantic. I’m pretty sure that if I found myself in Clare Carrington’s position my siblings would think it was sleazy; they’d be appalled even if I was desperately in love. And at least Clare is an adult; the Merry story is all the more unsettling because she’s so young.
Perhaps the problem is that I’m reading this with 21st century eyes. Or perhaps I’m just being a bit of a prude?! I’m sure, in fact, that it’s a combination of both these things. And this isn’t to say that there’s not a certain sort of innocent charm to The New Moon With The Old. I really did enjoy reading it, in spite of how improbable it all was.
Of course it doesn’t stand up well when you compare it to I Capture The Castle (as I am inevitably going to do). But I’m not overly disappointed by this. I had prepared myself to not expect much so I was either going to be pleasantly surprised or proven right; somehow I was both.