For years, the only Dodie Smith book most U.S. readers had heard of was The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was the basis for one of Disney's most successful animated films. More recently, Smith has become known as the author of one of J. K. Rowling's favorite novels, I Capture the Castle, the captivating tale of a 17-year-old writer and her eccentric family.
Before Dodie Smith died in 1990, she asked the novelist Julian Barnes to be her literary executor. As Barnes later told The Guardian, "She said she didn't think I'd have much to do as her literary executor -- in the last years of her life she was only earning around £12,000 from her books -- but since her death her career has revived in a spectacular way."
Indeed it has. Smith was once best known in the United States for her children's book The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which inspired an animated film from Disney -- and, later, the live-action movie starring Glenn Close. Her other major work, the 1948 novel I Capture the Castle, was out of print here for many years (though it has always had a following in Britain). But with the book's 1998 reissue, and the 2003 release of a film version from BBC Films, modern readers are rediscovering Dodie Smith.
As a young woman, Smith's first ambition was to be an actress, and she enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Art (later the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) with hopes of going on the stage. But at five feet tall, she was "too short and not attractive enough," in her own words, so she gave up acting and took a job at Heal's in London, where she became the store's toy buyer. She still loved the theater, however, and in 1929 she wrote and sold a very successful play, Autumn Crocus. Smith followed it with several more hit plays, including Dear Octopus, which starred John Gielgud.
During World War II, Smith and her pacifist husband, Alec Beesley, moved to America to avoid the British draft. She wrote screenplays for Paramount and formed "great friendships" with other writers, including Christopher Isherwood. Although Smith missed her home, she and Beesley stayed in America for many years after the war ended -- they didn't want to put their Dalmatian dogs through the six months' quarantine that was then required to bring pets into England.
Homesickness helped inspire Smith's first novel, I Capture the Castle, which evokes a peculiarly English version of genteel poverty. The 17-year-old narrator and her family, who live in a dilapidated house built onto a ruined castle, belong to "that odd class of intelligent and cultured people who are also unskilled and unemployable," as Salon writer Charles Taylor put it. From its much-quoted opening sentence ("I write this sitting in the kitchen sink") to its bittersweet ending, Smith's witty coming-of-age tale has captivated adolescent and adult readers alike. Writers from J. K. Rowling and Susan Isaacs to Armistead Maupin and Erica Jong have praised it for the merits Penelope Lively summed up as "a good story, flourishing characters, and the most persuasive narrative voice."
Smith's other well-known work, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, was published in 1958 and is now considered a classic work of children's literature, though not all fans of Disney's 101 Dalmatians realize that the movie was based on a book. (Smith's sequel to Dalmatians, a fantasy titled The Starlight Barking, bears no resemblance to the Disney film sequel 102 Dalmatians). Towards the end of her life, Smith produced four volumes of autobiography: Look Back with Love: A Manchester Childhood, Look Back with Mixed Feelings, Look Back with Astonishment and Look Back with Gratitude.
A few of Smith's plays are still produced occasionally, but she remains best known for I Capture the Castle and The Hundred and One Dalmatians. To Smith's fans, this is no small accomplishment -- as Sue Summers pointed out in The Guardian, "Two prose classics in one lifetime is more than most writers achieve."
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Though Smith's books have a cozy, old-fashioned charm, Smith herself was a bit of an iconoclast. After several youthful love affairs, she fell in love with a co-worker, Alec Beesley. For the first few years of their relationship, they lived in separate London flats but shared a weekend cottage in the country. After they married and moved into one house, Smith attributed their years of happy domestic life to their habit of keeping separate bedrooms.
Pongo, the canine hero of The Hundred and One Dalmatians, was named after the first of Smith's own much-loved Dalmatians. Smith said she began to get ideas for the story after a friend joked that a Dalmatian would make a good fur coat.
Disney once planned to film I Capture the Castle as a vehicle for child star Hayley Mills, but script problems kept the movie out of production. Years later, Smith's estate got the movie rights back from Disney in exchange for permission to make a live-action version of 101 Dalmatians.