Stevie Smith once described her life in two sentences: “Born in Hull. But moved to London at the age of 3 and has lived in the same house ever since.” Indeed, Smith’s life was externally uneventful, but her imagination worked overtime, and Spalding shows how Smith transformed commonplaces and platitudes into wry observations much in the manner of Dorothy Parker.
Christened Florence Margaret Smith in 1902, Smith was called Peggy until sometime in her twenties. She and her sister shared a modest, middle-class home with their mother; their father left for a life at sea when Smith was only three. Convinced that she was to blame for his departure, Smith spent much of her life attempting to exorcise in words her feelings of guilt and abandonment.
Smith’s maternal aunt, to whom she referred as “the Lion of Hull,” moved in with the family when Smith’s father departed. Spalding indicates that this woman’s strong, independent character probably influenced Smith’s decision to remain single all her life. In 1906 the family moved from Hull to Palmers Green, a London suburb, where Smith enjoyed a more upper-crust existence clouded only by the presence of two spinster neighbors whose obsession with the macabre sent Smith’s imagination careening toward a lifelong consideration of life’s horrors. Her formal schooling started when she was nine, and in her teens she wrote her first poetry.
After being graduated from Palmers Green High School, Smith attended North London Collegiate. In 1922, writes Spalding, Smith found a “mundane job that was to remain hers for the next thirty years.” The job was that of secretary to the son of the founder of C. Arthur Pearson, a magazine publisher. Smith’s position at Pearson’s remained her financial mainstay while she pursued her literary interests with determined independence; in time, she found her distinctive voice and developed her tongue-in-cheek style.
A detailed, thoughtful account of a poet whose talent and force are finally receiving the recognition they deserve, STEVIE SMITH is a must-read for scholars of twentieth century literature, students of women’s studies, and aficionados of well-researched, riveting biographies.