- Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography by Frances Spalding
Faber, 331 pp, £15.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 571 15207 4
In a long tape-recorded conversation she had with Kay Dick in November 1970 (the best source for the flavour of her speech), Stevie Smith remarked:
I’m straightforward but I’m not simple ... In some ways I’m romantic but my basic root is profoundly sensible – profoundly sensible. About everything. There is a balance; I am aware of a balance. I know the sort of things that can knock me off my balance – snakes. If I’m very tired I’m very easily knocked off by talking too much.
Since her death in March 1971, there has been much talk, much writing, much speculation about her. A good deal of this has had to do with whether she was a dotty spinster with a whimsical gift for droll verses and amateurish Lear-and-Thurber-derived drawings, or a serious and in many ways profound literary artist. Christopher Ricks wrote: ‘The first question to ask about the poems of Stevie Smith is, can she possibly be as ingenuous as she sounds?’ Towards the end of this essay, having demonstrated with his usual prestidigitation and allusiveness Stevie Smith’s own prestidigitation and allusiveness, Ricks judged that ‘there has been something spurious about Stevie Smith’s posthumous reputation,’ seeing dangers in her co-option ‘into a feminism for which she felt some sympathy but also some distaste’, and ‘her poems and her nature cropped so that she might be plausibly rendered on stage and screen by Glenda Jackson’.
I can see Ricks’s objections to Hugh Whitemore’s film Stevie without entirely sharing them. When Whitemore wrote to me, telling me of his project and asking whether I had anything to contribute, I found the whole notion so unlikely that I refused. When I eventually saw the film, I found it astonishingly accurate in its presentation of the woman I knew, or thought I knew, altogether more sensitive and less coy than, say, a comparable one-woman Emily Dickinson ‘show’ which was at one time going the rounds. The only thing shared by Stevie Smith and Glenda Jackson was femaleness, but the actress had the effect of producing a true portrait. The danger in Stevie lies in its emphasis on the ‘hey-ho’, ‘ahem’ and ‘tra-la’ side of its subject. But when the lights went up at the end of the performance, I was in tears (and so, incidentally, was my companion that afternoon, Philip Larkin, who admired her poems but who had, I think, never met her). The ‘hey-ho’ was in fact part of the tears.
One merit of Frances Spalding’s excellent critical biography is that it helps to restore to Stevie Smith her dignity. Her earlier biographers, Professors Jack Barbera and William McBrien (who also compiled the uncollected writings under the nauseating title Me Again), for all their hard work and evident devotion, too often failed in their tone, by turns solemn and arch: a combination of a perhaps mimetic sort to which writing about Stevie Smith is peculiarly susceptible. Like the American professors, Frances Spalding never met, or even saw, her subject. She is not primarily interested in anecdote (though she deploys anecdotes skilfully) but in the relationship between the life and the work. And she explores this with as much questing and well-furnished unobtrusive cleverness as Richard Sewall brought to his two-volume life of Emily Dickinson – another ‘dotty spinster’, who wrote of her own life: ‘Nothing has happened but loneliness.’
Stevie Smith would not, I think, have said that, though she was much aware of loneliness. Her life was uneventful – if one supposes that D’Annunzio and Hemingway (or Shelley and Byron) led the sort of lives writers should eventfully lead. But Stevie’s life (and I now fall, as Barbera/McBrien did and Frances Spalding does, into the given nickname) was dense with people who kept loneliness at bay, except when she actually wanted solitude: not so much family (father skedaddling off the scene at an early stage, mother dead when Stevie was 16), but a rather difficult sister and an indomitable aunt (‘the lion’) who shared most of Stevie’s life – and a vast succession of friends, male and female, single and married, literary and non-literary. She was not a recluse, for all the supposed quaintness of her incarceration in 1 Avondale Road, Palmers Green, ‘run’ by the lion aunt. She was also a copious letter and postcard-writer, a keeper-in-touch. At the same time, in both Barbera/McBrien and Spalding, it’s noticeable how many of her correspondents were publishers and literary editors (that is, employers), with most of whom she quickly established a remarkably lively and gossipy relationship. Diana Athill, John Guest, Terence Kilmartin, and many others, were recipients of chat, grumbles, doubts, jokes, questions, japes – often with cross-references to each other: if one editor disapproved of a new poem, she told you, and shot it in your direction, thus giving you the chance to make amends. But Frances Spalding is right, I’m sure, to begin her book by saying that Stevie ‘enjoyed few personal relationships of any intimacy’. We all felt we knew her much better than we really did.
John Lehmann, writing of his early meetings with the young Stephen Spender, described Spender as ‘the most rapidly self-revealing person I had ever met’. Something of the sort might be said about Stevie: but one was simultaneously aware of a great deal that was not revealed, and never would be. The public manner (at readings, or at literary-guest-laden meals) and the private manner (face to face, or on the telephone) might appear to be the same pert, chirpy, ‘hey-ho’ and ‘tra-la’ thing, apt at any moment to disconcert. Yet there was always a sense of levels and depths and angers which were undredged, and probably unfathomable. A one-time secretary of Douglas Cleverdon (probably Stevie’s most sympathetic and certainly her most gifted BBC producer) muttered to me one day in 1958: ‘That woman is a witch.’ Stevie could disconcert people, as well as enliven and charm them. Literary editors learned how to use this disconcerting gift to advantage, sending her for review books on the monastic life, or – as I did, in one notorious case – the New English Bible. Stevie, in the New Statesman in 1970, memorably accusing the translators of being ‘smudgers and meddlers’, revealed more than once that she was not as intimate with the textual history of the Gospels as I had supposed. As a grandson of the Manse, and an alumnus of the school John Wesley founded, I both completely agreed with the drift and temper of her arguments and at the same time turned what I now see was a foolishly blind eye to her mistakes. ‘Pure ignorance,’ she commented, when acknowledging them. But I was not ignorant, and I should have told her: I preferred to let her onslaught go unchecked, and I was wrong. She was a powerful presence.
This is another of Frances Spalding’s acute correctings of the prevalent image – the supposed helplessness of Stevie. She was a very definite, assured person. She drew on a great deal of reading, both expected and unexpected, and used what she read both in her poems and in her criticism and conversation. In spite of her NEB lapses, she knew her Origen and Augustine, her Cranmer and Laud, her Belloc, Chesterton and Ronald Knox. She could drive her friends to fury with casuistical arguments and ‘being impossible’. Olivia Manning, a gifted writer but one who never felt that justice had been properly done to her own gifts, had a forked tongue where her sometime friend Stevie was concerned. She recognised, I think, the presence of a genius greater than her own; recognised, too, that Stevie was as keen for success as she was, for all Stevie’s ‘little girl’ airs; and, when Stevie had her second bout of success, beginning in the late Fifties (following the first bout, after Novel on Yellow Paper in the mid-Thirties), could not bear to see the triumph of the former secretarial drudge from Newnes, the low-grade publishing house at which Stevie spent her whole salaried life.
Stevie’s departure from Newnes is glancingly dealt with by Frances Spalding, though nothing is hidden of what is known. Was it an assault with scissors on her boss, or a suicide attempt (slashed wrists), or both? It might be seen as a maddened child’s assault on tedium, frustration, life. I’m not at all sure, and Frances Spalding is right not to be sure. Stevie loathed, in reviews and comments on her work, the often-approving epithet of ‘childlike’, and she loathed even more the less approving epithet ‘faux’ (or ‘fausse’) ‘naif’. My memory is that she forced Penguin Books into removing some such remark from Edward Lucie-Smith’s 1970 anthology British Poetry since 1945: certainly what appeared in his headnotes to his selection of her poems was an altered or watered-down version of what he had written. She also disliked the notion that she was ‘eccentric’. Frances Spalding quotes a remark Stevie made to me in a 1962 letter: she found it ‘odd being told so often I am eccentric because I never once have felt that I am, but a plain down-to-earther as ever was’.
Yet there was – even to children – something childlike about her. She came to Sunday lunch with us in Richmond in July 1970. We had agreed to follow lunch with a trip together in the car to Hampton Court; but before this Stevie said she had to have ‘a little rest’ – and she stretched out, all five foot two and a half inches of her, on the living-room sofa, thus ineradicably stamping her memory on our four daughters (then aged something between thirteen and five) as a strange miniature grown-up who had to have her ‘little rest’ after lunch, as children did in those far-off days. How does this square with the sophisticated reader of Homer and Racine, read in the original; with the lecturer to the St Anne’s Society on ‘Some Impediments to Christian Commitment’; with the acute reviewer of so many new novels, good and bad, over the years for so many periodicals? Literary editors didn’t employ her (and they did employ her) because she was ‘child-like’: in fact, Terence Kilmartin at the Observer was made to dispense with her services because – as a fiction-reviewer – she was held by his bosses to be ‘too highbrow’. She was valued as a reviewer because she was trenchant, serious, unphoney, and readable.
What about her ‘real’ work – the novels, stories and poems? My own feeling is that the novels and stories are patchy. She herself grew to hate Novel on Yellow Paper, though she had some affection for The Holiday (1949). Frances Spalding has mined the fiction very deftly for many biographical truths, but to me little she wrote in prose can match the poised, poignant, darkly and lightly measured assurance of her many memorable poems. Perhaps her fictional prose could best be seen in brief anthology form, in which her toughness and quotably ‘reactionary’ plain-speaking would be picked out – for example, from The Holiday, Caz’s observation of the English character: ‘We are not a sophisticated people ... and our education has not yet succeeded in taking from us the weapons of our strength – insularity, pride, xenophobia, and good humour.’ There isn’t much our new enlightenment could make of that sort of thing, but one would be hard put to it to pretend that it wasn’t the true voice of Stevie Smith. In her poems, the voice becomes a matter of voices – a range of personae unequalled since Eliot, and possibly Browning, but always recognisably issuing from the same tormented, lyrical, hymn-haunted, Poe-addicted, teasing, inconsequential, truth-telling mouth. Not everything is worth reading more than once: she wrote an enormous amount, and her assurance didn’t always extend to knowing when precisely to stop, or when to recognise that she had done it before. Yet the fact remains that she wrote, between the Thirties and the early Seventies, a body of poems of which one can say (as Larkin said): ‘one could never forget when reading one that this was a Stevie Smith poem.’
Stevie had a just and sensible view of what characterised her poems. Frances Spalding reveals that Stevie herself wrote the blurb for the American edition of Selected Poems, at the same time asking that the words ‘whimsical’ and ‘primitive’ be removed from the publisher’s catalogue: ‘There may be echoes in her work of past poets – Lear, Poe, Byron, the gothic romantics and Hymns Ancient and Modern – but these are deceitful echoes, as her thoughts may also seem deceitful, at first simple, almost childlike, then cutting at depth with a sharp edge to the main business of her life – death, loneliness, God and the devil. Her metric, with its inner rhymes and assonances, and the throw-away line that can seem mischievous, is very subtle ... ’ One consequence of Stevie’s shifting patterns of metre is that most poems need to be quoted in full: plucked out of context, lines can look clumsy or merely odd. In his essay, Christopher Ricks makes some telling points about the rhymes (such as her thrice-used ‘couple’/‘rubble’), but such excursions into the art of sinking (‘the stone of bathos falling through the waters of pathos’, as Ricks put it) demand complete readings. She had, and enjoyed, a narrative gift, sometimes storytelling, sometimes briefly anecdotal. The long poem touched off by the Moors Murders, ‘Angel Boley’ (about which Stevie began to tell the Queen when receiving the Gold Medal for Poetry – and then noticed the monarch’s smile ‘got rather fixed’), is a supreme example of her moralising, or amoralising, talent, in harness with narrative. It illustrates another of her self-written blurbs, this time for The Frog Prince: ‘Stevie Smith’s is a highly nervous talent, one of the most individual of our time; and the laughter that is in it runs often close to panic.’
Frances Spalding has caught very seriously and sharply the identification between person and poem, together with the essential enigma: who, or what, was Stevie Smith? The sickly girl who, without the usual wiles and charms, was drawn into the well-known metropolitan literary racket, looked bemusedly but with unblinking eyes at the whole thing: if Janet Adam Smith at the New Statesman wouldn’t print her, Anthony Powell at Punch would; a lull in Fleet Street somehow brought on a glut in Portland Place; and – ‘hey-ho’ – the villains in one publishing company would be succeeded by the angels at the next. Too much now is made of Stevie’s ‘neglect’: once she had published Novel on Yellow Paper in 1936, she was never really neglected. Her ups and downs in reputation and acceptability were certainly no worse than many other 20th-century writers whose graph-readings one might think about. What has been missing has been a proper account of how she both established herself, and turned the establishment towards her. Frances Spalding has now done this, in a way of which I am almost certain her subject would have approved – though not without the odd ‘hey-ho’, ‘ahem’ and ‘tra-la’ on the way. Or, to use Stevie’s own subtitle to Novel on Yellow Paper, ‘Work it out for yourself’. She always had the last word, chanting, or muttering, or standing indomitably yet tremulously on the poetry-reading platform, being herself: ‘sensible’.