- Stevie by Jack Barbera and William McBrien
Heinemann, 378 pp, £15.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 434 44105 8
This biography gets off to a bad start with its title. The writer called Stevie Smith was also a celebrity called Stevie – a spiky sprite who was famous for being unfashionable. This creature thrived on being a spinster, which licensed her to be a bit cuckoo, and on speaking her hard words from a spindly frame decked out like a schoolgirl’s – as if it were a feat to think behind a fringe. For Stevie Smith the writer it was comfortable, though not always convenient, to live out of the centre of London: for Stevie the celebrity it was a triumph – an acquaintance is cited here as drawling that her ‘ability’ to live in Palmers Green while moving in London literary circles was ‘the most compelling thing about her’. First-named throughout this book, by biographers who apparently never met her, Stevie Smith and her work are draped in Palmers Greenery. Would a biographer of Hughes call him Ted?
It is not easy to write a forceful narrative about a woman who never changed her house, her job or her companion. From the age of three, when her father ran away to sea – prompted, one poem suggests, by a baleful look shot by the poet from her pram – Florence Margaret Smith lived in her Palmers Green house; from her mid-twenties, nicknamed Stevie after the jockey Steve Donoghue, she lived there alone with her aunt, producing three novels and a torrent of poems and articles, and working as a secretary at Newnes and Pearson’s publishing company. Nor is it easy to write a clear-sighted account of a gifted writer who is wily, opinionated and defensively self-descriptive: ‘This is a foot-off-the-ground novel,’ explains the narrator of Novel on Yellow Paper. ‘And if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation.’ Jack Barbera and William McBrien approach their subject with generous and indiscriminate zeal. They have talked to a great many people, waded through an enormous amount of newsprint, and found everything interesting: the fact that Stevie Smith once came third in an egg-and-spoon race; the idea that ‘commonplace neighbours’ should have provided her with ‘telling details of actual life’. They have made some delightful discoveries – for example, that Stevie Smith loved these lines by an unnamed satirist:
Hush, hush, it couldn’t be worse
Christopher Robin is having his nurse.
And they make some peculiar gestures towards imaginative analysis. Stevie Smith’s mother once won a prize for a short story in a local Eisteddfod: Barbera and McBrien say that her daughter’s literary career could be seen as an ‘emulation’. Can they be serious?
The zeal of these biographers wavers when they turn to discussing what Stevie Smith wrote. This is a book in which the celebration of talent comes to seem almost as important as the talent itself. Barbera and McBrien give considerable emphasis to the publishing history of each volume, and to the views of contemporary critics: much less to their own opinions. When Novel on Yellow Paper appears, we are told of the ‘mandarin approval’ of ‘wits so exquisite and discriminating’ as Raymond Mortimer, Noël Coward and Desmond Shawe-Taylor; on the publication of a book of poems a flurry of plaudits – ‘grimly entertaining’, ‘brilliantly funny and intimate’ – is produced. Barbera and McBrien summarise and categorise her output according to theme; they treat her address to her subject-matter and her characteristic effects as if they were mono-sodium glutamate – we learn of Novel on Yellow Paper that ‘style ennobles’ a plot which could be found in a woman’s magazine, and that many of her humorous remarks ‘arise out of sadness but transform it by wit’.
Stevie Smith’s poems are full of transformations and translations: a frog may become a prince, a typist gets sucked into the seascape of a Turner canvas in her lunch-hour. But what gives her verse its distinctive ring is her way of putting together the humdrum and the elevated in situation and vocabulary. In her poems large events happen to, or inside, people with names like patent medicines; slang runs up against over-proper English, and narrative description drops in and out of direct speech without warning: ‘Dust to dust, Oh how frightful sighed the mourners as the rain began.’ She casts doubt on the most booming phrase by closing it with a trick of the tongue: ‘World without end ahem’. Barbera and McBrien praise the poem in which this last phrase appears for the facility with which it ‘spots the comic amid immortal longings’, but her verse as often moves in the opposite direction, giving dignity to the neglected or the apparently absurd.
These are also poems in which accidents happen: which play on the accidents of language and on the idea of accident. Stevie Smith’s verse is full of near-misses and near-matches: shifts in metre, lines which bump or straggle, half-rhymes which can set up a sinister tinkle, as in ‘The Murderer’: