I wish more people would read ... The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

You’ve seen the films, but the novel is far richer and funnier – and in these locked-down days it’s as comforting as hot buttered toast

You probably think you know the story of One Hundred and One Dalmatians. You’ve seen the film, whether that’s the charming 1961 animated version with one of the catchiest tunes ever (“Cruella de Vil, Cruella de Vil, if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will”), or the 1996 live-action version starring the goddess that is Glenn Close.

But while the films should be an integral part of any childhood, they don’t really measure up to Dodie Smith’s book. For one thing, that’s not even the real title. The novel is called The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and, as you might expect from the author of I Capture the Castle, it’s far richer and funnier than the films. When I went back to it recently – favourites from my childhood seem to be what I need to read right now – I was entirely entranced by it, once again.

In Smith’s story, the dogs are vastly superior to the humans, though they’re very fond of them and consider them as pets who are “gentle, obedient, and unusually intelligent – almost canine, at times”.

“Like many other much-loved humans, they believed they owned their dogs, instead of realising that their dogs owned them,” writes Smith, a dog lover herself, who owned nine Dalmatians. “Pongo and Missis found this touching and amusing and let their pets think it was true.”

Spots all over … some of the pups featured in a 1996 version of Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Spots all over … some of the pups featured in a 1996 version of Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

And the novel also includes a third adult Dalmatian. When Pongo and his wife Missis have 15 puppies, Mrs Dearly (no Roger and Anita here) goes out to find a dog who can help feed them and bumps into Perdita by the roadside. (But don’t worry, this doesn’t spark some canine menage a trois, Pongo is clear that while Perdita is a “very pretty girl”, she’s “not a patch on his Missis”.)

Fortunately for the Dearlys, they find themselves “rather unusually rich”, because Mr Dearly has “done the Government a great service (something to do with getting rid of the National Debt) and, as a result, had been let off his Income Tax for life”. This is the sort of line I’d have had no idea about as a child, but which amuses me enormously as an adult.

But unfortunately, while out for a walk in Regent’s Park with Nanny Cook (plump) and Nanny Butler (plumper), they run into a certain Cruella de Vil. She was at school with Mrs Dearly, until she was expelled for the hilarious crime of drinking ink, and when she spots the Dalmatians she notes that they would make “enchanting fur coats”. The Dearlys are invited for dinner – purple soup, green fish, pale blue meat and black ice cream, all of which tastes of pepper – and the adventure begins.

You know what happens next. The puppies are kidnapped, Pongo and his wife (who is Missis, not Perdita, remember!) set out to find them. They rescue them, all 97, The End. But there is so much more to Smith’s novel along the way: Cruella’s “absolutely simple white mink coat”; Pongo and Missis trying to tell the Dearlys where the puppies are with a “wuff, wuff, wuffolk”; Colonel Sheepdog promoting himself to Brigadier General, and making his cat assistant Pussy Willow a Captain after the puppies are saved.

Dodie Smith in 1934.
Dodie Smith, who owned nine Dalmatians, pictured in 1934. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images

There is genuine terror here as well. When the puppies are trapped in Hell Hall, they fling a bone over the wall scratched with SOS: Save Our Skins. And there’s something nightmarish about Hell Hall itself. When the rescuers arrive, Missis gasps, “It’s seen us!” because “it really did seem as if the eyes of the house were staring at them from its cracked and peeling black face”.

The wisdom of the book feels particularly poignant during these strange times: as the Dearlys sit sadly on Christmas Eve, waiting in vain for their dogs to come home, Mr Dearly puts some carols on the gramophone. “Now carols are always beautiful but if you are sad they can make you feel sadder. (There are some people who always find beauty makes them feel sadder, which is a very mysterious thing.)”

There’s no more comforting scene in all literature than when Pongo and Missis – bedraggled, injured and exhausted – are taken in by an ancient spaniel, whose pet is the equally ancient Sir Charles. The spaniel feeds them his supper, lets them sleep in Sir Charles’s four-poster bed, and then brings them to the Great Hall, where Sir Charles toasts endless slices of bread on the fire, buttering them thickly before tossing them to the spaniel who hands them on to his friends.

So if you’re feeling sad, anxious and exhausted – and aren’t we all these days? – there’s no better antidote than returning to The Hundred and One Dalmatians. All I need now is one hundred and one slices of hot buttered toast.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
I wish more people would read ... Damon Runyon's short stories
Look beyond Guys and Dolls – the Depression-era legend wrote some of the funniest short stories ever published, writes Sam Leith

Sam Leith

15, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
I wish more people would read ... Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
Yes, it is very long. But Ellmann’s story mixes profundity with everyday madness in a way that will leave you wanting even more

Ammar Kalia

06, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
I wish more people would read ... Fup by Jim Dodge
Rereading this brilliant novella about grief and consolation under lockdown felt like getting the hugs I’ve been missing

Sam Jordison

04, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
I wish more people would read ... HG Wells's Mr Britling Sees It Through
In a series where writers make the case for a book they want you to try, author Adam Roberts champions what was once the world’s bestselling novel

Adam Roberts

01, May, 2020 @8:10 AM

Article image
I wish more people would read ... The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield
The self-effacing diarist anxiously trying to keep up appearances in the Great Depression provides consoling comedy in trying times

Kathryn Hughes

11, May, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
I wish more people would read ... How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher
Intended to rally home cooks during the second world war, this is food writing that addresses privation ‘with grace and gusto’

Sarah Ditum

29, Apr, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
I wish more people would read ... The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank | Hadley Freeman
As much of a stylist as St Aubyn, Bank tends to be dismissed because she’s writing about being single in New York. But this book is perfect

Hadley Freeman

27, Apr, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
I wish more people would read … A Scrap of Time by Ida Fink
These tightly focused stories of Jewish life in Nazi-occupied Poland should be be remembered, as vital historical witness and as great literature

Chris Power

08, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
I wish more people would read ... Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
This fantasy novel brings meticulous craft to its gothic story of fairies and God-fearing Victorians

Samantha Shannon

13, May, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith - review

jammiedodger: 'If I could I'd give it 100 stars, I totally think you should read it!'


06, Oct, 2014 @8:00 AM