Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith is the first full-length biography of the English poet and novelist. Based upon Smith’s writings and letters and upon extensive interviews with her friends, this study offers a balanced interpretation of Smith as an artist and as a witty yet maddening woman. The popular view of Smith comes primarily from Stevie, the 1978 film version of Hugh Whitemore’s play about the writer, which offers a somewhat idealized impression. Jack Barbera and William McBrien, editors of Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (1981), provide a “warts-and-all” portrait which makes Smith less enigmatic and more human.
Much of Smith’s eccentric character resulted from her uncommon childhood. After Charles Smith abandoned his wife and two young daughters for a life at sea, Ethel Smith and her sister, Margaret Spear, took the girls from Yorkshire in 1906 to live in genteel poverty in Palmers Green, eight miles from central London. For the rest of her life, Smith’s home was One Avondale Road. They were soon joined by Smith’s grandaunt, Martha Hearn Clode, whom the girls called “Auntie Granma.” From ages five to eight, Smith was away from her family much of the time, for she developed tubercular peritonitis and was sent to a convalescent home for children on the Kentish coast. This experience helped create her lonely introspection, her need always to be looked after, and, according to Smith, her sense of herself as an individual.
Ethel Smith, always sickly, died about the time her daughter finished school. What money the family could spare went toward Molly Smith’s university expenses, and her younger sister had to be content with Mrs. Hoster’s Secretarial Training College. Smith became private secretary to magazine-publisher Sir Neville Pearson in 1923 and held that position for thirty years. Around the same time, she began writing poetry. She acquired her nickname when some young boys thought she rode like jockey Steve Donoghue. After her grandaunt died in 1924, Smith lived alone the next forty-four years with the woman she called “the Lion of Hull” and “the Lion Aunt.”
Smith learned her craft for a decade before her first poem was accepted for publication in 1935, and shortly afterward, her first work of fiction, Novel on Yellow Paper: Or, Work It Out for Yourself (1936), was published. The heavily autobiographical novel quickly established her as a literary celebrity in London when it was endorsed by such writers as Noël Coward. With A Good Time Was Had by All (1937), a collection of poems, Smith was even more firmly established. Her wit made her a sought-after guest in intellectual circles for the rest of her life. Although her duties with her employer left her considerable time for writing, she resented having to continue her job.
Smith’s poetry and fiction were less well received after the 1930’s, and she turned increasingly to reviewing to supplement her meager secretarial salary, reviewing almost eight hundred books between 1945 and 1950 alone. She became depressed because as far as the public was concerned good poetry “might be one of those branch lines scheduled for closing.” She was even more depressed by her secretarial work, by not having control over her time and energies, and in 1953 she slashed her wrists in her office. When her physician said that she was too nervous to return to work, Pearson gave her a pension.
Despite poor sales for her books and frequent rejection of her poems, Smith kept in the public eye through readings of her poems throughout England, occasionally on the Continent, and on BBC radio. When Selected Poems was published in 1962, her originality was rediscovered, and she was in even greater demand as a reader. This new interest in her poetry, especially her popularity among young people, surprised Smith.
Barbera and McBrien strike the right balance in presenting Smith’s creative and personal lives. In trying to understand why she never married, they examine her romances in the early 1930’s with Karl Eckinger, a Swiss-German studying in London, and with Eric Armitage, to whom she was apparently briefly engaged. Yet the biographers fail to explain why she was attracted to either man. Smith and Eckinger disagreed about politics—he was sympathetic to National Socialism—but why she broke her engagement to Armitage is not so clear. Smith’s friends suggest that she may not have felt up to the physical demands of marriage. The evidence in Stevie implies that...
(The entire section is 1872 words.)