Stevie Smith in July 1966, by Jorge ('J.S.') Lewinski
Born September 20, 1902(1902-09-20)
Kingston upon Hull, UK
Died March 07, 1971 (aged 68)
Occupation Poet, Novelist
Debut works Novel on Yellow Paper
A Good Time Was Had By All
Stevie Smith (September 20, 1902 – March 7, 1971) was a British poet and novelist.
Born Florence Margaret Smith in Kingston upon Hull, the second daughter of Ethel and Charles Smith, she acquired the name Stevie as a young woman when she was riding in the park with a friend who said that she reminded him of the jockey, Steve Donaghue. She was always called Peggy within her family. When three years old she moved with her mother and sister to Palmers Green in North London, after her father left home (his business as a shipping agent, which he had inherited from his father, was failing and so was his marriage, and he ran away to sea, becoming a ship's purser). Stevie saw very little of her father as a child – he appeared seldom and sent very brief postcards ("Off to Valparaiso, Love Daddy"). She resented the fact that he had abandoned his family. Later, when her mother became ill, her aunt Madge (whom Stevie called "Lion") came to live with them. It was Madge Spear who raised Stevie and her older sister Molly, and who became the most important person in Stevie's life. Miss Spear was a feminist who claimed to have "no patience" with men (as Stevie wrote, "she also had 'no patience' with Hitler"). Stevie and Molly were raised without men and thus became attached to their own independence, rather than what Stevie described as the typical Victorian family atmosphere of "father knows best". When Stevie was five she developed tuberculous peritonitis and was sent to a sanatorium near Broadstairs, Kent, where she remained off and on for several years. She related that her preoccupation with death began when she was seven, at a time when she was very distressed at being sent away from her mother. Death fascinated her and is the subject of many of her poems. When suffering from the depression to which she was subject all her life, she was so consoled by the thought of death as a release that as she put it, she did not have to commit suicide. (She wrote in several poems that death was "the only god who must come when he is called".)
She was educated at Palmers Green High School and North London Collegiate School for Girls. She spent the remainder of her life with her aunt, and worked as private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson with Sir George Newnes at Newnes Publishing Company in London from 1923 to 1953. Despite her secluded life, she corresponded and socialized widely with other writers and creative artists, including Elisabeth Lutyens, Sally Chilver, Inez Holden, Naomi Mitchison, and Anna Kallin. She was described by her friends as being naive and selfish in some ways and formidably intelligent in others, having been raised by her aunt both as a spoiled child and a resolutely autonomous woman. Likewise, her political views vacillated between her aunt's Toryism and her friends' left-wing tendencies.
After she retired from Sir Neville Pearson's service, following a nervous breakdown, she gave poetry readings and broadcasts on the BBC that gained her new friends and readers among a younger generation. (Sylvia Plath became a fan of her poetry—"a desperate Smith-addict"—and made an appointment to meet her, but died before the meeting could occur.)
She died of a brain tumour on March 7, 1971. After Smith's death, her last collection, Scorpion and other Poems was published posthumously in 1972, and the Collected Poems in 1975. Three novels were republished, and there was a successful play based on her life, Stevie, written by Hugh Whitemore. It was filmed in 1978 by Robert Enders and starred Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourne. She never married.
She wrote three novels, the first of which, Novel on Yellow Paper, was published in 1936. All her novels are lightly fictionalised accounts of her own life, which got her into trouble at times as people recognised themselves. Stevie said that two of the male characters in her last book are different aspects of George Orwell, who was close to Smith (there were even rumours that they were lovers; he was married to his first wife at the time). She also wrote nine volumes of poetry. Her first volume of poetry was A Good Time Was Had By All. It was this that established her as a poet, and soon her poems were found in periodicals. Her style was rather dark; her characters were perpetually saying goodbye to their friends or welcoming death. At the same time her work has an eerie levity and can be very funny, though it is neither light nor whimsical. "Stevie Smith often uses the word 'peculiar' and it is the best word to describe her effects" (Hermione Lee). She was never sentimental, undercutting any pathetic effects with the ruthless honesty of her humor.
Apart from death, common subjects include loneliness; myth and legend; absurd vignettes, usually drawn from middle-class British life; war and human cruelty; and religion. Stevie Smith could never entirely abandon or accept the Anglican faith of her childhood, and wrote sensitively about theological puzzles: "There is a God in whom I do not believe/Yet to this God my love stretches." Though her poems were remarkably consistent in tone and quality throughout her life, their subject matter changed over time, with less of the outrageous wit of her youth and more reflection on suffering, faith and the end of life.
Her best-known poem is "Not Waving but Drowning". She was awarded the Cholmondeley Award for Poets in 1966 and won the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry in 1969. Another poem, which was featured on London Underground's Poems on the Underground campaign, is "Lady Rogue Singleton".
Novel on Yellow Paper (Cape, 1936)
Stevie Smith's first novel is structured as the random typings of a bored secretary, Pompey. She plays word games, retells stories from classical and popular culture, remembers events from her childhood, gossips about her friends and describes her family, particularly her beloved Aunt.
As with all Smith's novels, there is an early scene where the heroine expresses feelings and beliefs which she will later feel significant, although ambiguous, regret for. In Novel on Yellow Paper that belief is anti-Semitism, where she feels elation at being the "only Goy" at a Jewish party. This apparently throwaway scene acts as a timebomb, which detonates at the centre of the novel when Pompey visits Germany as the Nazis are gaining power. With horror, she acknowledges the continuity between her feeling "Hurray for being a Goy" at the party and the madness that is overtaking Germany.
The German scenes stand out in the novel, but perhaps equally powerful is her dissection of failed love. She describes two unsuccessful relationships, first with the German Karl and then with the suburban Freddy. The final section of the novel describes with unusual clarity the intense pain of her break-up with Freddy.
Over the Frontier (Cape 1938)
Smith herself dismissed her second novel as a failed experiment, but its attempt to parody popular genre fiction in order to explore profound political issues now seems to predate post-modern fiction. If anti-Semitism was one of the key themes of Novel on Yellow Paper, Over the Frontier is concerned with militarism. In particular, she asks how the necessity of fighting Fascism can be achieved without descending into the nationalism and dehumanisation that fascism represents.
After a failed romance the heroine, Pompey, suffers a breakdown and is sent to Germany to recuperate. At this point the novel changes style radically, as Pompey becomes part of an adventure/spy yarn in the style of John Buchan or Dornford Yates. As the novel becomes increasingly dreamlike, Pompey crosses over the frontier to become a spy and soldier. If her initial motives are idealistic, she becomes seduced by the intrigue and, ultimately, violence. The vision Smith offers is a bleak one: "Power and cruelty are the strengths of our lives, and only in their weakness is there love."
The Holiday (Chapman and Hall, 1949)
Smith's final novel is her own favourite, and most fully realised. It is concerned with personal and political malaise in the immediate post-war period. Most of the characters are either employed in the army or civil service in post-war reconstruction, and its heroine, Celia, works for the Ministry as a crytographer and propagandist.
The Holiday describes a series of hopeless relationships. Celia and her cousin Caz are in love, but cannot pursue their affair since it is believed that, because of their parents' adultery, they are half-brother and sister. Celia's other cousin Tom is in love with her, Basil is love with Tom, Tom is estranged from his father, Celia's beloved Uncle Heber, who pines for a reconciliation; and Celia's best friend Tiny longs for the married Vera. These unhappy, futureless but intractable relationships are mirrored by the novel's political concerns. The unsustainabilty of the British Empire and the uncertainty over Britain's post-war role are constant themes, and many of the characters discuss their personal and political concerns as if they were seamlessly linked. Caz is on leave from Palestine and is deeply disillusioned, Tom went mad during the war, and it is telling that the family scandal that blights Celia and Caz's lives took place in India. Just as Pompey's anti-semitism was tested in Novel on Yellow Paper, so Celia's traditional nationalism and sentimental support for colonialism is challenged throughout The Holiday.
Smith's novels are serious, stylistically radical, and politically complex. They are also very witty and enjoyable. Smith is particularly good at describing the liveliness of parties, the intricacies of office politics and the small pleasures of family life. She is also one of the few English writers who can describe suburbia with insight and warmth.
This Englishwoman (?,1937)
A Good Time Was Had By All (Cape, 1937)
Tender Only to One (Cape, 1938)
Mother, What Is Man? (Cape, 1942)
Harold's Leap (Cape, 1950)
Not Waving but Drowning (Deutsch, 1957)
Selected Poems (Longmans, 1962) includes 17 previously unpublished poems
The Frog Prince (Longmans, 1969) includes 69 previously unpublished poems
The Best Beast (Longmans, 1969)
Two in One (Longmans, 1971) reprint of Selected Poems and The Frog Prince
Scorpion and Other Poems (Longmans, 1972)
Collected Poems (Allen Lane, 1975)
Selected Poems (Penguin, 1978)
Some Are More Human Than Others: A Sketch-Book (Gaberbocchus, 1958)
Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (Virago, 1984)
Stevie Smith Papers, at the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa
Stevie Smith, British Library
Stevie Smith reading "Not Waving But Drowning", BBC (includes poem text and poet's photo)
Essay on Stevie Smith’s "I Do Not Speak", Cosmoetica (by Dan Schneider)
Author profile for Stevie Smith, LibraryThing
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