Writer Dodie Smith’s influences were far from Primrose Hill…
Instead of the chocolate-box pink stucco houses of Primrose Hill, it was the castles and cottages of Suffolk which served as Smith’s inspiration
A London estate agency is currently marketing a Primrose Hill villa, on the basis that ‘it helped to inspire’ Dodie Smith to write One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Smith, who lived in Dorset Square, Marylebone, in the 1950s, regularly walked her nine dalmatians around Primrose Hill. She placed the family of the novel, the Dearlys, and their dalmatian pups in a ‘modest but pretty’ pink stucco house near the outer circle of Regent’s Park.
There are other pretty pink houses in Primrose Hill, but presumably someone knows she was inspired by this one. The evidence is slight. In many ways it does not matter as there is nothing singular about the house in the novel. The Dearlys’ house in One Hundred and One Dalmatians could be swapped with 32 Windsor Gardens, where the Brown family take in Paddington Bear, or 17 Cherry Tree Lane, where Mary Poppins cares for the Banks’ children, and nothing would be that different. These are all picturesque Victorian villas in upper-middle class London neighbourhoods, owned by moustachioed fathers who work in banks.
Her most magical novel was not inspired by a house she walked past, but a castle in a country she was exiled from and deeply nostalgic for
In fact, you have to go a long way from NW1 to find a building that we know inspired Dodie Smith. Smith’s early success as a playwright enabled her to buy a cottage in 1934 in Finchingfield, on the Essex / Suffolk border, a part of the country she adored. One evening that year, she glimpsed a medieval castle through the mist in Wingfield, Suffolk. She went on to create a novel that was not only inspired by this castle but that would not have existed without it.
Wingfield Castle was remade as Godsend Castle in Smith’s mind. Godsend isn’t a place in I Capture the Castle; it is the essence of I Capture the Castle. At Godsend Castle live five members of the Mortmain family: seventeen year-old Cassandra, who narrates the novel through her diaries, her father James, a writer, her artist’s-model stepmother Topaz, her elder sister Rose and her younger brother Thomas. Their poverty is desperate. James Mortmain has not written anything for years and has retreated to the castle turret to read Agatha Christie novels. There is rarely enough to eat. Rose and Cassandra have been fed exclusively on a diet of nineteenth-century literature, cocoa and cheap margarine. They go to bed cold, with stubs of candles to be lit for bedtime reading, and dream of romantic escape. As if on cue, two rich American brothers, Neil and Simon Cotton, arrive. Not only are they admirers of James Mortmain’s work, but they are the owners of Scoatney Hall and, by default, the Mortmain’s landlords.
The novel’s plot pushes into gear with the Cottons’ arrival. Cassandra considers it her role to capture the essence of everything as it occurs and, as many writers before her, she uses her family as a training ground. Starting with the castle and those within it, she begins to document the episodes in the Mortmain family life that follow in her diaries.
While the narrative remains in deepest Suffolk, the penury of the Mortmains stays in a sort of suspended animation. The grind of poverty exhausts and shames the girls, but does nothing to dull their exuberance. The castle protects and contains them from the realities of knowing what life is. The plot move to London is the catalyst that suddenly throws everything into sharp relief, as Cassandra and Rose collide into the two universally corrupting forces of sex and money. It is London where life is no longer ‘just fun, like something in a book’, to Cassandra. For Rose it is where her engagement to Simon Cotton stops being a dreamlike fantasy and shifts into hard reality, where revelatory scenes are played out in Park Lane apartments and West End hotels. The Suffolk castle offers a periodic respite, connection and reflection for Cassandra throughout the coming of age narrative. Giving no details of the plot away, the end of the novel sees Cassandra, James and Topaz are all returned to the castle, a little wiser and, in Cassandra’s case, a little more experienced.
It is easy to imagine Dodie writing this love letter to Suffolk in that cottage she bought in Finchingfield, North Essex. However, during the Second World War, Dodie Smith was in California. Contracted to write for a Hollywood studio, she developed a deep, painful homesickness for England. She had left a West End life in which she had been a successful playwright and now, traumatised by the reports of wartime bombing of British cities, she desperately longed for home.
She sat down at a desk in Malibu and ploughed her homesickness into work. With her dalmatian, Pongo, by her side, she started to create the Suffolk world of I Capture The Castle. It was her first novel and she revised it for two years. She used her RADA acting training to rehearse all of the dialogue. Smith’s anxious terror at the prospect of failure manifested itself in sleepless nights. The novel was subject to rewrite after rewrite and her notebook on its plot and characterisations ran to over 100,000 words. Her husband even built a model of Godsend Castle in their Malibu home. When it was published in 1949, Smith was still in Malibu, where she would remain for another four years. The novel was an immediate hit, going straight to the top of the bestseller lists following its London and Boston publications, was listed in one of The Sunday Times Books of the Year in Christmas 1949 and has never been out of print since.
Her most magical novel was not inspired by a house she walked past, but a castle in a country she was exiled from and deeply nostalgic for. Her homesickness for pre-war England is there in every page; in the evocation of castle life in Godsend, in the 1930s artistic demi-monde represented by James and Topaz, in the far-reaching glamour of fairy tale engagements to Americans in aristocratic houses, in Cassandra’s ancient midsummer rites, in the occasional ‘egg tea’, and in the English spring rain. A sense of what Suffolk meant to Smith is there in the words of her heroine, Cassandra Mortmain, with whom Dodie identified so strongly:
“We were driving through Godsend and the early sun was striking the moss-grown headstones in the churchyard. I tried to realize that I shall die myself one day; but I couldn’t believe it – and then I had a flash that when it really happened I shall remember that moment and see again the high Suffolk sky over the old, old Godsend graves.”
Dodie Smith died in 1990, in the house she had bought in 1934 in Fitchingfield, by the Suffolk border. She asked to be cremated and her ashes scattered to the winds in her village, a world away from the villas of Primrose Hill. A painting of Wingfield Castle remains on the wall of her country home, as a testament to the novel she considered her masterpiece.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe