Apr 30, 2012

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

Dodie Smith’s 1963 novel The New Moon with the Old tells the story of the Carrington family: the first section is told from the point of view of Jane Minton, who arrives at Dome House to begin a new job as a secretary and housekeeper. Jane immediately feels welcomed, and she gets along well with the four artistic and slightly eccentric Carrington children: Richard, a composer; Clare, supposedly a painter but still unsure of what she really wants to do; Drew, who wants to write novels set in the Edwardian era; and Merry, a very talented and precocious actress. Shortly after Jane’s arrival, something unexpected happens to Mr Carrington; as a result, his four children have to find ways to make ends meet for the first time in their lives. The remaining sections of The New Moon with the Old follow the four Carrington siblings one by one, as they leave home and try and make their way in the world.

The New Moon with the Old is a realistic novel, but it reads a little bit like a fairy tale: the Carringtons go off and have solitary adventures; they’re met with trials and obstacles they have to surpass; they’re repaid for acts of kindness; and eventually they all end up finding exactly what they needed. If you pause to think about it carefully it’s all rather unlikely, but once you fall into the rhythm of the story it’s hard not to go along with it all.

Another thing about this novel is that even though it was written and is set in the 1960’s, it has the feel of a much earlier work. This seems like a deliberate choice on Dodie Smith’s part – the Carrigtons, after all, live quite a sheltered life at Dome House and seem mostly unaware of the post-war world. After the first few chapters, I kind of expected their stories to be about the clash between their markedly early twentieth-century lifestyle and modernity, but in reality they all end up finding places that are every bit as seeped in nostalgia as Dome House. However, this isn’t so much a flaw as it is part of what gives the novel its slightly magical, otherworldly feel.

My favourite narrative arc was the one concerning Drew, the aspiring writer and lover of Edwardiana who finds a job as a companion to an elderly lady. She lives in a house where time seems to have stopped; while the perfectly preserved Edwardian interior is great for inspiration and research, Drew soon realises that there’s something really amiss in his new employer’s life. Miss Whitecliff is a product of her times not only when it comes to the décor of her house, but also when it comes to her beliefs about what she, an unmarried lady, is and isn’t supposed to do. This section of the story reads a little like novels such as Consequences or Alas, Poor Lady — Dodie Smith’s tone is much lighter, and she does provide us with a happy ending of sorts, but she still does a fabulous job of depicting the tyranny of gender roles and the consequences of raising girls to be helpless and dependent.

My only slight “but” regarding The New Moon with the Old has to do with wishing Dodie Smith had imagined different life ambitions for some of her female characters: ones that weren’t solely circumscribed to romantic fulfilment. I should clarify that I don’t intend this to be a “romance is bad and anti-feminist” type of comment; I just can’t help but wish for more variety of representation when it comes to women’s wishes and life choices. Although to be fair, Merry is an exception to this pattern, and this is something I feel every bit as often with contemporary fiction as I did with this older novel.

The almost inevitable question about these Dodie Smith reissues is how they compare to I Capture the Castle, though it’s probably unfair to even ask it. Part of me wondered if Smith would prove to be another Stella Gibbons for me (although I’m a huge fan of Cold Comfort Farm, I love her other novels even more), but no, that didn’t turn out to be the case. But really, The New Moon with the Old was a delightful read, and that’s more than enough to make me happy. It may not be an earth-shattering novel full of new insights, but it belongs firmly in the comfort read category – and I’ve never felt that providing comfort was a lesser role among the many that literature can fulfil.

They read it too: Jenny’s Books, Fleur Fish Reads

(You?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

17 comments:

  1. No, there is definitely nothing wrong with a novel providing comfort. I loved I Capture the Castle and will add this to my list. Another great review!

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  2. I have never read I Capture the Castle, but I have owned it forever...

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  3. The book sounds good, but a little dated.

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  4. It would be difficult to live up to I Capture the Castle. Such an amazing book. That said, I agree that not every book we read can be or has to be "the most amazing book ever." Glad it worked for you as a good comfort read. I'd love to try one of her newly reissued books. Sometimes I just need a light comfort read.

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  5. Oh, this really does sound delightful. In fact it sounds just like the type of book I need right now. Of course there are undoubtedly several in the boxes in our reading room that would fit the bill as well. Like perhaps I should finally get around to reading I Capture the Castle...

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  6. I like the sound of this one, and think that it's a lot different than most of the stuff I read. Sadly, I have never read a book by Dodie Smith, but I think I might have to start with this one! Great review, by the way!

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  7. I just finished I Capture the Castle a couple of days ago and it was absolutely lovely. I've been wondering about her other books, and this one looks promising.

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  8. Nothing else by Dodie Smith comes close to touching I Capture the Castle -- but I'm awfully fond of The New Moon with the old. I shamingly love it that Clare's ambition is to be a king's mistress -- partly because it's such a charmingly silly thing to want to be, but mainly because she reminds me of a friend of mine (also a painter, also would make an awesome king's mistress). I imagine my friend doing all the things Clare does and responding in all the same ways, and it makes me feel fond of her.

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  9. Hmm, does the book feel like one unified story or a series of short stories? I just wonder because it seems like if everyone sets out on their own individual paths, if there is a lot going on that brings them all together.

    I LOVE the cover on this one. It's truly lovely. A very interesting title, too.

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  10. JoAnn: Thank you! I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

    Kelly: You really should! It's every bit as good as people say.

    Kathy: I was thinking more "charmingly old-fashioned", but I suppose it's a matter of personal taste :P

    Kristi: Yes, it really would, and i's unfair to even expect it! But this one did do a marvelous job of cheering me up, and that's no small thing :)

    Debi: Like I told Kelly above, you really should!

    Zibilee: I actually think I Capture the Castle is a better starting place - unless you want to save the best for last, which can also be a good approach.

    Alyce: It's not as good, but it's definitely enjoyable and worth seeking out.

    Jenny: I loved Clare! The story that made me go a bit "hmmm" was Jane's, as she mostly decided to wait around for her guy, but I know it's unfair to zoom in on this when the novel is full of smart, capable ladies whose agency is never compromised.

    Aarti: The five sections have mostly independent plots, but there are enough links between them that it DOES feel like a unified novel, albeit one with an unusual structure. And it all comes together very nicely at the end. And yes, isn't the cover gorgeous? All the Corsair reissues have absolutely lovely covers :)

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  11. Nice review, Ana! I thought that the only book Dodie Smith wrote for grown-up readers was 'I Capture the Castle'. I didn't know that there were others! This looks like a really interesting book! I loved the last line of your review - "it belongs firmly in the comfort read category – and I’ve never felt that providing comfort was a lesser role among the many that literature can fulfil." :)

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  12. I've been nervous to read any of Smith's other adult books because I loved I Capture the Castle so much! Maybe I'll try this one, but I'll keep my expectations in check.

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  13. I loved I Capture the Castle. I have to get to this one.

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  14. Having just read this, I really agree that the book has an otherworldly feeling and is a good comfort read! Interesting that your favourite storyline was Drew's. I think I liked Clare's the best - it was probably the oddest (in a good way) and I liked how she came into her own and discovered herself after being considered the least talented of the family. I'd like to read the other two Dodie Smith reissues now.

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  15. Vishy: The others have been out of print for decades, but fortunately they're being brough back now! She also wrote memoirs about her Edwardian upbringing, and those sound really lovely as well.

    Melissa: Yes, it's a good idea not to go in expecting it to be as good.

    Mystica: I hope you enjoy it!

    Sarah: Clare's was probably my second favourite, although I also really liked Merry's. Looking forward to your review!

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  16. I've seen these editions in stores in London and have been wondering whether they could be any good. One the one hand, could Smith actually write anything bad, on the other how could any book be better than I capture the castle? :)
    I'll give them a try!

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  17. This does have have the sound of a fairy tale so interesting that it is set in the 1960's. I've never read any Dodie Smith and wouldn't hesitate to add this one to my list.

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