It was near the top of The Times personal column:
Calling Moll Byblow, the Mouse and the Gazelle. Madame Lily de Luxe reminds you of a long-standing luncheon engagement, at one p.m. Next Thursday. The window table is reserved. Do not fail. This may be the last reunion.
The opening of Dodie Smith’s Town in Bloom is set in the 1962, when Molly, Mouse and Lilian keep their date, just as they have done every five years for the last four decades, but they haven’t seen or heard from Zelle since the long-ago summer that shaped their lives. This time around, however, Mouse follows an old lady who might be their missing friend... So the stage is set for the past to unfold, revealing the anguish of first love, the nature of friendship, and the betrayal of trust.
Following the death of the aunt who brought her up, Mouse moves to London armed with a letter of introduction to theatrical legend Rex Crossway, and an all-consuming ambition to be an actress. Her efforts are hampered by a total lack of talent, and she fails to gain a stage part with Rex’s theatre company – but the secretary takes her on as a junior assistant.
Mouse, who is tiny but not timid, lives in a club, a kind of hostel, similar to the May of Teck Club in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Girls of Slender Means’, but this one provides accommodation for actresses, singers and the like. There Mouse (we never know her real name) is befriended by Molly and Lilian, who are both in musical comedy. I loved the descriptions of life in the hostel and the camaraderie as the girls discuss men, love, work and clothes. They share secrets and late-night feasts, tucking into toasted Veda bread (a type of malt loaf) when they return from their theatres, and enjoying breakfasts in bed the following morning.
The three girls meet Zelle when they break into a house to shelter from a storm. Beautiful and mysterious, with unlimited reserves of cash, and no discernible way of earning it, she tells them little about her past, but she is as entranced with the trio as they are with her, and rents a room in the club.
But life gets complicated as Mouse falls in love with Rex. Lilian also falls for the actor-manager in a big way – although personally I’m convinced she covets his house rather than his body. Molly worries that the love of her life may think she’s a gold digger, and Zelle remains an enigma until she falls in love with Rex’s vicar brother and it turns out that she is a woman with a secret life...
I’ve glossed over the details because I don’t want to give away the various strands of the plot, but the events of that summer determine the futures of the four friends, and it was interesting to see what happened to them as they grew old, and whether they got what they wanted – and whether they were happy if they did.
The theatrical setting deserves a mention because it’s much a part of the novel as the characters. Dodie Smith gives such a detailed description of the building that you would have no problem finding your way around should you ever find yourself inside – OK, I know, it only exists within the pages of this book, but it seems so real. And the workings of the theatre – the auditions, rehearsals, performances, reviews, costumes, scenery and so on – seemed very true, which is hardly surprising since Smith was an actress and playwright, and presumably she brought some of her own experiences to bear on this book.
‘The Town in Bloom’ is not as enchanting as ‘I Capture the Castle’ but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Smith’s work, including the four volumes of her autobiography. I shall see what the library has in stock, and hassle them if they don’t have anything.