Anthony Thwaite

  • 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.’

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