- 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’:
She was not like other girls – rather diffident,
And that is how we had an accident.
Barbera and McBrien detect an ‘incongruous liveliness’ in the speaker of her most famous poem, but do not note the dissonant wail which settles ‘moaning’ into ‘drowning’. In her verse, allusion to earlier poets frequently carries the suggestion of another near-miss, expressing not a resonant continuity but a falling-off. Stevie Smith, who took a lugubrious satisfaction in ‘loamishly sad’ Victorian verse, turned Tennyson’s lament for lost delights into a dirge about desiccation:
Cold as no love, and wild with all negation –
Oh Death in Life, the lack of animation.
There are a variety of accidents in these poems – a bold leap between rocks turns into a tumble, a giant hat whisks a fiancée away to a desert island, people drown, get lost or are fatally misunderstood – and not all these mishaps are unwelcome. There are also poems in which people experience themselves as being beside the point, or are urged to consider that there may not be a point:
You are only one of many
And of small account if any,
You think about yourself too much.
This touched the child with a quick touch.
Stevie Smith fought a sustained and admirable battle with Christianity, and the best of her poems carry the conviction that, however disagreeable, it isn’t odd to feel accidental.
Her drawings – whose variable relationship to particular poems is examined with pertinacity by Barbera and McBrien – offer a mix of the idiosyncratic and the not-entirely-human which is characteristic of much of her verse. Ferocious, capering, drooping figures with currant eyes and sardonic mouths, they sprout unexpected personal effects – an umbrella, a fancy hat, a bunch of curls like cabbages. They have grace, and the comic appeal of sculptures wearing gloves. Both her drawings and her poems show people caught in a lifetime’s grimace or grin: ‘With my looks I am bound to look simple or fast ... ’ Barbera and McBrien, perhaps prompted by a letter in which Stevie Smith explained that one volume of her work could be divided into poems which were self-portraits and those which were ‘about being dead or dotty’, are on the qui vive for confession and revelation. They tell us that a poem about suicide is ‘immensely personal’, and that lines dealing in dream, loss and tears ‘read like autobiography’. It isn’t clear why they consider some verses more autobiographical than others, though they tend to attach confessional significance to particularly glum lines: ‘poignant’ is a word they favour, and we are told that one poem ‘seems poignantly autobiographical’. But the distinctive quality of Stevie Smith’s poems depends on the elusiveness of their speakers: she elides dialogue and comment, kidnapping voices to express what an individual would never say. Lady ‘Rogue’ Singleton is courted with a jingling rhyme which dashes her hopes of a glamorous match:
Come, wed me, Lady Singleton,
And we will have a baby soon
And we will live in Edmonton.
Her reply has the boom of drawing-room melodrama, as well as the jumbled idiosyncrasy of thought:
I am not a cold woman, Henry,
But I do not feel for you,
What I feel for the elephants and the miasmas
And the general view.
In an essay she wrote for Medical World in 1956, Stevie Smith talked of the tricks fatigue played with what she saw and what she wrote, of how everything became ‘just a bit off-beam’. Off-beamness can snuggle into cuteness. But it can also suggest a discrepancy between how people appear and what they are, and produces some stunning first lines: ‘She is not Indian, she’s ill’; ‘Drugs made Pauline vague.’ This may be what Barbera and McBrien mean when they talk of ‘vintage Stevie’.
Stevie Smith’s aunt thought her niece’s writing was ‘unnecessary’. Yet she helped it to happen: by her devotion, by running their house for more than forty years, by embodying attitudes about which her niece was both skittish and reverent. ‘People think because I never married, I know nothing about the emotions,’ Stevie Smith told a friend. ‘When I am dead you must put them right. I loved my aunt.’ In Novel on Yellow Paper Margaret Annie Spear is presented as staunch, sensible and surprising: a bossy housekeeper, fearful with her curling tongs; a church-going Tory, munching game pie and beer at midnight. Barbera and McBrien add some details to this picture: they stress the degree to which Miss Spear spoiled her niece – according to one friend, Stevie Smith was incapable of warming her bedtime milk by herself; they emphasise the bleakness towards the end of her life when the poet explained that her aunt had been equipped with a hearing-aid, but ‘there doesn’t seem much to say.’ And they tell us that Miss Spear looked like Gertrude Stein. However, they provide very little of the aunt’s own voice: two fragments from her correspondence are quoted, showing considerable dash, some malice, and uncritical loyalty towards her niece; other letters are mentioned as being ‘long’ or ‘characteristically loving’. And they make little attempt to work out to what extent the ‘Auntie Lion’ of Novel on Yellow Paper who is described as ‘a genuine bit of Old Fielding’ was actually a bit of Stevie Smith: the poet may have had an interest in creating a large eccentric to whom she could play the gamine.
Stevie Smith was quick to point out the disadvantages of having a husband, with their ‘boring old father-talk’ and their capacity for turning their wives into wimps, ‘so often delighted to tell you how splendidly bullying their husbands are ... it is as if they would say, You may not think it but I am married to a tiger.’ Yet she reaped some of the benefits of having an old-fashioned wife – a life outside the home, with solicitude and hot milk to come back to. And while she was sceptical about the ‘à deux fix’, and urged flight from its miseries in her verse, she did not entirely share her aunt’s position on romance: Miss Spear said that she could ‘understand liking a man, but not being in love with him’. The novels contain some mooning, and some rather strenuous celebration of the opposite sex. Barbera and McBrien identify the love-objects of her first two novels. The Karl of Novel on Yellow Paper was a Karl in real life: a German student who kissed her at the foot of the Duke of York’s steps. The Freddy of this and her next novel, Over the Frontier, turns out to be an Eric: an insurance man and attender of a Palmers Green social club, who is described here by one friend as ‘weak and unimpressive’, and by Eric’s niece as ‘tall, dark-haired ... good-looking’. Eric was once spotted with her in a derelict mansion – not ‘doing anything interesting ... just sort of crawling around’. In a passage she deleted from Novel on Yellow Paper Stevie Smith explained that Freddy wasn’t her lover – but only because he didn’t seize his moment.
These biographers produce several rather different views about what Stevie Smith got up to with men: a ‘probably not’ from her sister, a ‘never took the last fence’ from Elisabeth Lutyens, and one anecdote about the poet waking up in bed with a man and the memory of having ‘done some terrible things’. They discuss the possibility of a particularly grim coupling between Smith and George Orwell in a London park, and link this lightly and improbably with her verses about liking to be ‘tightly kissed’. They also report that she claimed to have been pursued by Orwell – with an uncertain degree of nudity – through the corridors of Bush House. Her bifurcated portrait of Orwell in The Holiday suggests interest, but not passion; her furious letter to him, claiming that he had cheated her out of a radio broadcast in 1942, suggests some intimacy, but is not evidently that of a woman scorned. Barbera and McBrien don’t come to any firm conclusion of their own, although, in a passage which goes beyond even Stevie Smith’s gloomy view of the rigours of wedded life, they propose that chronic fatigue made her ‘ill-fitted for marriage, its physical tasks, and perhaps even for sex’.
The romantic entanglements in Stevie Smith’s novels are described with the revolving self-preoccupation of adolescence. Freddy is languished over, grumbled about, patronised and treated so much as A Relationship that, although his social habits are sketched, his character is extinguished. Men are only one occasion for the many excursions and debates in her fictions, fictions which test the elasticity of ‘the talking voice that runs on’ by discoursing on sex education, proof-reading, the Church of England and Dionysus – and can seem to congratulate themselves on doing so. These fictions have the elliptical urgency of notes to an intimate; they can also, as David Garnett complained in a letter quoted by Barbera and McBrien, become ‘an impenetrable dossier of private day-dreams’.
Some of the incidents and arguments of her novels are treated more cogently in poems. Some of them might have been better not treated at all. Stevie Smith went to Germany in 1931, and in Novel on Yellow Paper she hits out at ‘all its whimpering lovey dovey get-all-together ... its Movements, and Back to Wotan’. Yet the same novel agonises with apologetic disingenuousness over a friend who ‘got married to a man that is a Jew, and the sort of Jew not like Herman or Bennie that has an artistic temperament working overtime on all cylinders, but just a plain ordinary safe businessman of a Jew with a whole hell of a great idea about money’. In Over the Frontier she is ‘in despair for the racial hatred that is running in me ... Do we not always hate the persecuted?’ Barbera and McBrien assert that hers was ‘the usual pre-war attitude of the English’: but it wasn’t the attitude of many of her friends, some of whom broke with her because of her statements.
Taken together, Stevie Smith’s novels could be seen as a continuous discussion about the state of middle-class England confronted by war. The party-going narrator of Novel on Yellow Paper becomes a boundary-crossing secret agent in Over the Frontier, and a melancholy debater of the end of Empire in The Holiday. But the central preoccupations of these books are more closely intertwined with those of her poems. Pompey Casmilus, the Hermetically-named narrator of Novel on Yellow Paper – patron of poets and thieves, intermediary between this world and the underworld – goes under cover, or underworld, in Over the Frontier. In The Holiday her identity changes, or splits: this unequivocally female narrator is in love with her cousin ‘Caz’, who is ‘quite mad about death’; she loiters with him beside lakes and sarcophagi – the scenery to which Pluto snatched Persephone. Read consecutively, these novels can be seen as a flight from ordinary romance and friendship towards death; Stevie Smith considered writing a novel called ‘Married to Death’. It is a flight in which there is little of the romantic swoon: as in many of her poems, death is seen as a good match.
In fact, Stevie Smith rarely ran from her friends: she liked to go visiting, and she liked to be given lifts back to Palmers Green. The liveliest passages in this biography are descriptions by friends of her behaviour. Much of Barbera and McBrien’s prose has a muffled quality: page after page is filled with accounts ‘based on’ what someone said, or on what Stevie Smith wrote. But they sometimes allow friends to speak for themselves. What they have to say is far from fulsome. According to Francis King, she was ‘a great character’, but ‘not, emphatically, not a nice character’. Elisabeth Lutyens talks of her ‘childishly screaming for attention’. Stalwart chums resented her endless cadging of car rides – one proposed writing an essay called ‘Taking Stevie Home’. Taken to Venice by one couple, she spurned their plans and instituted her own regime: shopping for safety-pins during the day, and sitting by the canals at night explaining that they were beautiful. Staying in Devon with another family, she flounced out of family picnics – apparently resenting the attention given to an ailing child – took to her bed, and posted grumbling letters to Palmers Green. Miss Spear, unreservedly supportive, suggested that her niece might write something about her visit, and if her hosts ‘recognised themselves serve them right’; when her poem ‘The Holiday’ – which speaks of ‘the malice and the misunderstanding’ suffered by a guest – was published in the Observer, it was taken to heart by more than one of Stevie Smith’s hosts. Barbera and McBrien make all this worse by insisting that most of her friends agree that she ‘was, basically, kind’.
This biography makes it easy to understand why Stevie Smith lost friends. She wrote harshly, in verse and prose, about their marriages and about their children – and she made her characters recognisable. In ‘The Story of a Story’ she examined the trouble this caused. She gives a subtle account of the distress and annoyance experienced by one couple – in real life, Francis and Margery Hemming – when they discover a friend is writing about them. But the writer’s distress has the last word: her dreamy self-absorption is mildly guyed, but her motives are held to be pure, almost lofty. The couple weep and threaten law; editors are presented as pusillanimous; the writer tells the truth, and is exiled for doing so. This is a story that it is good to believe if you want to go on writing about your friends, and it is delivered with conviction. Barbera and McBrien do not make it easy to see why Stevie Smith kept friends. Explaining that ‘failing to amuse one’s companions if invited to dinner or a weekend house party remains, of course, a cardinal sin in England,’ they doggedly detail their subject’s social manner: ‘natural wit’, ‘never glossed over painful realities’, ‘quickly seized the real point of any conversation’. None of this is cheering; none of it is inaccurate; none of it captures the lively responsiveness of her letters.
‘If she’s really dying, send her my love,’ Olivia Manning said when Stevie Smith was taken to hospital. The poet is reported to have enjoyed this. She had entertained the idea of suicide as an honourable way out since she was nine; she once tried to kill herself by slashing her wrists at Newnes and Pearson’s – an attempt which Barbera and McBrien ascribe, narrowly though not unreasonably, to being fed up with her job. But she died of a brain tumour. She sat in hospital with her shaven head in a shocking-pink scarf, and without turning to the fierce and ‘flower-like’ Christ against whom she had battled. The poet of accidents found her vocabulary disarranged: ‘I tried to say to ... someone that I could not find the word I wanted. But instead of “word” I said “milk” first – then “snow”.’