- Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith edited by Jack Barbera and William McBrien
Virago, 359 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 86068 217 X
Stevie Smith said that she was straightforward, but not simple, which is a version of not waving but drowning. She presented to the world the face which is invented when reticence goes over to the attack, and becomes mystification. If you visited Blake and were told not to sit on a certain chair because it was for the spirit of Michelangelo, or if Emily Dickinson handed you a single flower, you needed time to find out how far the mystification was meant to keep you at a distance, and to give you something to talk about when you got home. Eccentricity can go very well with sincerity, and, in Stevie’s case, with shrewdness. She calculated the effect of her collection of queer hats and sticks, her face ‘pale as sand’, pale as her white stockings, and also, I think, of her apparent obsession with death. She was interested in death, and particularly in its willingness to oblige, she had survived a suicide attempt in 1953, she was touched by the silence of the ‘countless, countless dead’: but when in her sixties she felt the current running faster and ‘all you want to do is to get to the waterfall and over the edge,’ she still remained Florence Margaret Smith, who enjoyed her life, and, for that matter, her success. Her poetry, she told Anna Kallin, was ‘not at all whimsical, as some asses seem to think I am, but serious, yet not aggressive, and fairly cheerful though with melancholy patches’. The melancholy was real, of course. For that reason she gave herself in her novels the name of Casmilus, a god who is permitted to come and go freely from hell.
Stevie was good company and (what is not the same thing) a good friend. She could be ‘Comfort Smith’. Deep intimacy she drew back from, because she respected it so much. ‘That troubled stirring world of two’ was always strange to her, though love was not.
In the serious process of trying out friendships, Stevie liked to say exactly the same things to a number of different people. There was even a kind of guided tour of Palmer’s Green, to Grovelands Park, round the lake, and back to Avondale Road. But if, for her own purposes, Stevie was sometimes repetitive, she was never predictable. Patric Dickinson, in his introduction to Scorpion, says that she loathed cruelty, and so she did, but although (for instance) she was fond of children she was not deceived by them, and knew that it could be satisfactory to put them sharply in their place. Again, she was encouraging to beginners, but when she was pressed (probably quite mistakenly) to support Yevtushenko for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, and was told he would encourage the students to meet and read their poems aloud, she paused for a moment and said: ‘How terrible!’ After her aunt’s death she took to plain cookery, and wrote that she loved to feel a slim young parsnip under her knife.
I Avondale Road, the ‘house of mercy’, was certainly necessary to Stevie. She tired easily and had never liked going to the office.
Dark was the day for Child Rolandine the artist
When she went to work as a secretary-typist.
It was the privilege of employers, the rich, to waste the time of the poor, and in particular the forty-five minutes or so it took for her to travel back to Palmer’s Green. The problem of getting her home as soon as she wanted to go became, in fact, one of the first considerations of her friends. ‘Riding home one night on a late bus, I saw the reflected world in the dark windows of the top deck and thought I was lost for ever in the swirling streets of that reflected world, with its panic corners and distances that end too soon.’ Everyone wanted to spare her this. But once she was safely back, the beloved suburb where she had been brought up became a refuge. She was not known as a writer there, and could keep the observer’s stance which was precious to her. Through the laburnums and the net curtains, she said, ‘you may snuff the quick-witted high-lying life of a suburban community.’ Her heart went out to all she saw and overheard of the lonely, the peculiar, the poisonously nice, the fatally well-intentioned, and to those misplaced in life who, respectable to all appearances, would prefer to give up and ‘storm back through the gates of birth’. She also liked to sense the warmth of ‘father’s chair, uproar, dogs, babies and radio’, and yet she would point out that she was really on the edge of the open country, only six stations to the middle of Hertfordshire. The sky was clearer in N13 and she could come to terms with herself there. At the same time she insisted she was driven to write because there was absolutely no company for her in Palmer’s Green.
When Kay Dick interviewed her in 1970, Stevie complained about her photographs. ‘They make me look dead, and as if I’d been dead for a long time. I haven’t got a thing about age, but I do rather have a thing about looking dead and buried.’ She made no particular objection, however, to being written about, though her three novels and 12 volumes of poetry seemed to have taken her self-portrait as far as it need go. It might be thought, too, that after the death of her sister in 1975 the truth about Stevie, if hidden, would be hard to find. However, her biography has now been undertaken by two American scholars – a matter of satisfaction in itself, since during her lifetime she was not much appreciated in the States. One can only admire the courage of the joint venture. Not only are they collaborating at long distance (Barbera at the University of Mississippi, McBrien at Hofstra NY), so that they can only meet to compare notes twice a year, but, as neither of them ever met Stevie, they are getting to know her by running the documentary film about her life over and over again. No investigators can have worked harder. And although she has proved elusive (there is no evidence, for example, that George Orwell was her lover), and has turned out to be a somewhat off-centre eccentric, they have remained sweet-tempered and continued to gather, research and file their discoveries together. The first result of all this is Virago’s handsome selection of uncollected stories, essays, reviews and poems, and sixty-odd letters, only two of which have been printed before.
For some reason which the two editors don’t reveal, nothing, except for the letters, is arranged in chronological order. James MacGibbon, Stevie’s literary editor, does not comment on this, but says in his rather cautious preface that their choice is ‘tantamount to an autobiographical profile’. This is not quite so, but he is surely right in saying that the book will give most readers their first authentic idea of her religious convictions. These were self-convictions. She had almost made up her mind that God was one of man’s most unfortunate inventions. What needed explanation was not man’s failings but his continued demand to love and be loved, even when
Beaten, corrupted, dying,
In his own blood lying.
But that was not enough, and the frail poet hurled herself against Von Hügel, Father D’Arcy, Ronald Knox and all the propositions of the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic Churches. ‘Some Impediments to Christian Commitment’, which is a talk she gave at St Cuthbert’s, Philbeach Gardens just over two years before her death, is an account of her own spiritual history, a touching one, with her own particular sense of the sad and the ridiculous. It has never been printed before. ‘Torn about’, as one might expect, by the loss of her childhood faith, she was driven year by year to conclude that ‘the Redemption seems a Bargain dishonourable to both proposer and accepter.’ Uncertainty, however, which she finally settled for, proved treacherous, and she had to admit finally that she was a back-slider as a non-believer.
Among the ten stories retrieved for us is perhaps the most lyrical of all, ‘Beside the Seaside’, a languorous fin-de-saison holiday impression, the pebbles of the beach still warm to the touch but deeply cold underneath, and her friends’ tempers just beginning to fray. There is a variable delicate friction between the interests of wives, husbands and children, and between human beings and nature – one might say between the seaside and the sea. Helena (the Stevie of this story) detaches herself, unable to help doing so, and wanders away inland across the marshes, returning ‘full of agreeable fancies and spattered with smelly mud’ to confront the edginess of the party with her artist’s sense of deep interior peace. In ‘The Story of a Story’ she again defends herself as an artist. This wiry situation comedy shows why Stevie sometimes longed, in her character as Lot’s wife, to be turned into a pillar of asphalt, since she seemed to give offence so often. Her friends did not want to become her material, as they had in ‘Sunday at Home’ (also reprinted here), and her publisher hesitated, afraid of libel. ‘The morning, which had been so smiling when her employer first spoke, now showed its teeth.’ Sitting alone in the rainswept park, the unhappy authoress regrets the loss of friends, but much more the death of her story. She had worked on it with love to make it shining and remote, but also with ‘cunning and furtiveness and care and ferocity’. These were the qualities which went into Stevie’s seemingly ingenuous fiction.
About the poems, also industriously tracked down, I am not so sure, since she herself presumably didn’t want them included in the collected edition of 1975. Stevie Smith had a remarkable ear (‘it’s the hymns coming up, I expect’) and when she was manipulated by whatever force poetry is, she knew that all she had to do was listen. She produced then a kind of counterpoint between the ‘missed-shot tunes’ that haunted her and the phrasing and pauses of her own speaking voice. Not all the verses in Me Again seem quite to reach this, although you can hear her distinctive note of loneliness, which, as she pointed out, ‘runs with tiredness’, in ‘None of the Other Birds’ and ‘Childhood and Interruption’.
In the end, one of Stevie’s greatest achievements was to be not only a connoisseur of myths, but the creator of one. Out of an unpromisingly respectable suburb at the end of the apparently endless Green Lanes she created a strange Jerusalem.