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.

The background has already receded into history, and acquired the special interest of how things used to be. Would Elizabeth’s nouvelle stand alone today, without any of these social and psychological data being filled in? Possibly not. In those days, before Larkin’s famous ‘1963’, the hunger for experience, for the breakthrough into ‘life’, could be a literary end in itself, offering what almost amounted to the comfort and reassurance of an object, a tactic, a goal for writers, a way of making it for girls. The permissive era knows nothing of that sort of breathless undertaking and would find it hard to re-imagine. There is no doubt something naive about it, a re-run, in part deliberate, of old romantic aspirations towards life, the dawn in which it was bliss to be alive, together with the bracing knowledge that one was always alive at the expense of someone else. There was, too, a conscientious, more than Shelleyan acceptance of the fact that the artistic genius was free and privileged, free to cause suffering and anguish – its own of course included – free to grab someone else’s girl or man.

That was all part of the romantic survival, so much a feature of wartime life and literature in England and America, and productive of a great deal of latterday ‘chatter about Harriet’, as Matthew Arnold had called it in deploring Shelley and his circle. What a set they had been, he said, and what a set was involved in the New Apocalypse, the wartime couplings of Fitzrovia and Poetry London. ‘Talent’ and the behaviour that went with it was taken for granted, a point noted with caustic vigour by the Movement poets of a slightly later generation, who none the less sometimes give the impression of looking back with a certain wistfulness on the wartime free-for-all. Berryman and Lowell, with all their overwhelming obligations to suicide and neurosis, were born as poets in that epoch. And as the storm began to gather, Elizabeth Smart was not only involved in the preparations for the King’s coronation but walked into Better Books in the Charing Cross Road and discovered George Barker’s poetry. Then and there she decided to annex him, to become poet and lover at one go, as her namesake Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice decides to annex Darcy, since ‘to be mistress of Pemberly might be something.’

It was to be uphill work, but she had all the necessary determination. Jane Austen herself might well have been intrigued by Elizabeth’s sense of the nature of the problem, engagingly illustrated in a poem she wrote at the time.

I am going to be a poet I said
But even as I said it I felt the soft roundness of my breasts
And my mind wandered and wavered
Back to the earthly things
And the swooning warmth of being loved.
Bright and hard and meticulously observant
My brain was to be
A mirror of things cut in eternal rightness
But before I could chisel the first word of a concrete poem
My breast fell voluptuously into my hand
And I remembered I was a woman.

One might have said that the girl who could write that would never write anything, and yet its badness is not unforceful. It contains a point clearly made, and to that extent has something in common with the real thing as it would be written by Bishop or Plath or Stevie Smith. It is aware, too, of its own comic potentiality. So was a phrase she liked using at this time about ‘kissing the dead lips of Emily Brontë’. Unlike Barker, Elizabeth always expressed herself with the clarity of the true egotist.

As recorded in By Grand Central Station, she met him first in California, having manipulated his appearance with some care, probably sending him the money for a ticket, as she was to do many times again. He was more than prepared to meet a passionate female admirer, but he came with his wife Jessica. This Elizabeth was not prepared for, but it was not an obstacle for long. No question of a ménage à trois, however: she pulled furiously one way and Jessica the other, with Barker enjoying the guilt and the ecstasy in between. Rosemary Sullivan re-creates the emotions shrewdly enough, aware that ‘torment was an element he cultivated.’ ‘He often felt like a victim with Elizabeth and Jessica standing over him as spiritual detectives, about to arrest him for any false feeling. Elizabeth was Cleopatra, Jessica the saint whose sanctity invites degradation. He often spoke of returning to Catholicism; it provided a route to absolution.’ It also provided a route to Graham Greene land. Barker discussed the situation with Anais Nin, who opined that he needed ‘more crucifixions than resurrections’, to which he added the rider that ‘we repeat the crucifixion over and over ... because we did not accomplish it totally, wholly.’ Perhaps nothing is ever accomplished totally, wholly; certainly not a grand passion.

Jessica, a more responsible sort of Catholic, did not accuse her spouse of showing off, but his friend Willard Maas remarked that no one took his hysteria, which he produced because he thought it required, very seriously; while Elizabeth he thought disappointed on the occasions Barker returned to her, because it might signal the end of ‘this great martyrdom which brought to her aid half of literary New York’. About these affairs people usually say such things. What interests at this distance is the clarity with which the two women stand out, and how shadowy is the figure of the man. He could vanish into the vagueness of his poetry like a squid into its ink-cloud. The poetry, and its ‘true confession’, was on its own terms real enough, and yet at this distance it has the air of something that seemed a good idea at the time, ‘powerfulness’ with too marked a period flavour. Whether apocalyptic or Byronic, the fierce expression of sincerity has dated. But T.S. Eliot believed in Barker’s poetry and fixed him up with jobs in Japan when he wanted to escape from one or both of his ladies. His troubles were real enough, and so was his father, a grim butler and ex-Guardsman known as ‘the colonel’, of whom Barker in his youth had been mortally afraid. Eliot, the kind evasive man with one big trouble, had more inspiration from it than Barker could get from all his many troubles, which from poetry’s point of view had the defect of being desperate but not serious. George Barker’s death was announced last month, but his person and his poetry seem already to belong to a vanished era.

And so things went on and on, with four children being born to Elizabeth. Her father had died uncomplainingly of a peptic ulcer; now comparatively poor, she coped heroically. Neither the children nor the coping are present in Grand Central Station, which wisely concludes on a note of enigmatic passion. This sort of art could hardly cope with the attritional grind of an extended relationship, and would have preferred terminal alcoholism, suicide or fatal accident. None of these things happened. Probably influenced by Auden’s cabaret songs, Elizabeth wrote one in 1946 ending: ‘lovers’ meetings end but the journey goes on.’ Barker proposed to her from time to time when one of his wives ran off, but she always refused him, knowing their egos were not compatible and preferring him for occasions. In literary terms, she and Barker exemplified a contrast which the Romantics explored, were indeed obsessed by – that between Wordsworth and Coleridge, or Keats and Shelley: sturdy existence on the one hand, shifting self-metamorphosing spirit on the other. Those twin types persisted in 19th-century art and artists’ lives. In her small way Elizabeth was a Tolstoy, with his twin egocentric female embodiments as Natasha and Anna Karenina; Barker took the polyphonic inspirational role of Dostoevsky. In spite of her wanting to be both poet and woman, there was no division in Elizabeth: her generous and capacious ego could cherish any number of children, friends, projects; and later, Soho drunks, industrious journalism and reviewing for Queen, a lucrative job with House and Garden. Barker’s role was not unlike that of X. Trapnel, the memorable bohemian literary ego invented by Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time. When Powell came to recreate that bygone literary world in his roman fleuve he could no doubt recall many Barkers about. When the eldest daughter Georgina asked why her father was so seldom with them, her mother replied: ‘Ask him.’

The passion and the pain were real enough, although only Elizabeth, as amateur, was able to convey as art, and from her side as Cleopatra, a sense of how absurd and wonderful it all was. It went with her Thirties role of would-be bohemian debutante, writing gushing letters to her parents from the Basil Street Hotel while she studied the art and poetry worlds for a suitable target. Her biographer, who has also produced a vivid picture of a whole literary epoch, sagely observes that a young man wishing to write joined a circle and became the protégé of a famous writer, as Barker did with Eliot, while the ‘more dangerous strategy’ of a young woman was to find an artist-lover. Elizabeth’s first and touchingly unpropitious shot was an RA portrait-painter called Meredith Frampton, whose father Sir George had designed the Peter Pan monument in Kensington Gardens. She asked him to paint her a tree near it. He obliged, enchanted by the beautiful Canadian, but basically he was a quiet man who lived with his mother, and nothing came of it. Elizabeth was very kind to him, but she, too, was overwhelmingly shy, as recalled by Peter Ustinov in his autobiography, where she figured at the drama school as poor gawky Betty, crimson with embarrassment if she had to read a suggestive part, ‘trotting around like an elk from her native plains, entangling herself in imaginary thickets and being hunted by erotic braves’. He was astonished later to hear that she had written By Grand Central Station. Virginal at first and never promiscuous, Elizabeth finally made it with the Surrealist Jean Varda at Cassis, afterwards with Wolfgang Paalen, an avant-garde architect in Mexico, who already lived with his wife and another girl – ‘like having a pair of crutches’, as she observed.

Reading about her is like looking into Larkin’s young lady’s photograph album (the real snapshots are excellent too), choking on all the nutritious images which her biographer has assembled. Writing her own sub-version of the Grand Central style, Rosemary Sullivan has produced a harmonious and illuminating account of a culture and habitat rich in significant incongruity. Elizabeth’s other two literary efforts are no good but they also have plenty of interest, particularly the early fantasy which she called Dig a grave and let us bury our mother, an awkwardly surreal dream account of a young woman literally giving birth to her mother, liberating the older woman from the social and family constraints which have prevented her from becoming what she should be. Its message if not its form is curiously prophetic, and could well fit today’s fashion in performance or on radio. A late attempt, The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, is a much less interesting account of the bohemian circles of middle age, when Elizabeth had become the matriarch who had brought up her happy family in the face of all sorts of difficulties. The ‘poet and woman’ had no trouble with the later roles of good mother, scrupulous over punctuality and cleanliness, and exotic literary figure with a fag on her lip, sniffing glue (in which she was a pioneer) and downing gin and Guinness. Not quite in the bosom of a busy family, she lived to a good age. While being helpful to her biographer, George Barker had a last and characteristically opacious word. ‘I find nothing quite so contemptuous as the art of temporal biography,’ he said.