Out of Ottawa

John Bayley

  • By Heart. Elizabeth Smart: A Life by Rosemary Sullivan
    Lime Tree, 415 pp, £17.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 413 45341 3

Frank Kermode observed in a recent article that critics are always being needed to rediscover work that, for whatever reason, has gone silent. Good literature is more silent than one might suppose: it waits mutely on the shelves, it cannot attract attention to itself, and in the conditions of our own or any other time it could wait till judgment day without being found and proclaimed. The finding and proclaiming, on an organised basis, might be part of the business of university English schools. On the other hand, there is nothing quite like doing the thing for oneself: opening the book in a shop or library and becoming riveted at once.

At various times since it first appeared in the war a number of people have been riveted in this way by Elizabeth Smart’s one-off nouvelle. When the manuscript was accepted in 1941 she had wanted to call it Images of Mica, but George Barker, whom it was all about, flipped the typed pages at random and found a sentence beginning: ‘By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept ... ’ Images of Mica would have remained on the shelf for ever, but the trouvaille title was just it: nor would anyone whose attention was caught be disappointed on opening the book, which succeeds in spite of itself and the line it takes. Edward Garnett told Lawrence that The White Peacock had every fault known to the English novel but that its author had genius. Elizabeth Smart was not a genius: but she is the rare case of a writer who succeeds by writing as if she were one. She succeeded in her own way, the inflated and overheated style she used proving a surprisingly exact instrument for registering a singular case of obsession, pathos and absurdity. Its very pretension produces its own sort of humour.

Born in 1913, she was a privileged girl, from a rich and cultured Ottawa family, and in girlhood a great striver and succeeder, as Sylvia Plath was to be. To this ominous comparison it must be added that Elizabeth is apt to fatigue the reader by her normality, to a greater extent even than do accounts of the American poet. Self-groomed like her hairstyle and worn like a twinset, her intensity seems healthy and normal, as it seemed to her sensible and amiable lawyer father, or to a family friend, the rising young diplomat Charles Ritchie, who was to meet Elizabeth Bowen in London in the war and become the great love of her life. Our Elizabeth’s father was one of those people who, as his friends said, ‘always gave a lot more than he got’, and in an odd sense his daughter followed the pattern, for the greediest wanting and getting was for her also a form of frenzied bestowal. Lady Bountiful is by tradition a predatory and demanding figure, evaded by the victims of her benevolence. And as Rosemary Sullivan remarks in this readable and informative study, Elizabeth and her younger sister ‘acted out a fantasy of social achievement’, orchestrated by their socially ambitious mother. The Ottawa Citizen reported their presentation to the Governor General in ‘a lovely bouquet of winsome girlhood’; in 1937 they were absorbed, both in London and Ottawa, in the preparations for King George VI’s coronation. Elizabeth – ‘all pink and white and golden’, as Ritchie remembered her – was much more enthusiastic than her sister Jane, an unimpressed aggressive girl who resented the flummery and chiefly remembered not having been able to find the bathroom.

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