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date: 06 March 2021

Smith, Florence Margaret [Stevie]free

(1902–1971)
  • Janet Montefiore

Florence Margaret Smith (1902–1971)

by Jorge Lewinski, 1966

© Jorge Lewinski; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Smith, Florence Margaret [Stevie] (1902–1971), poet and novelist, was born on 20 September 1902 at 34 Delapole Avenue, Hull, Yorkshire, the second daughter of Charles Ward Smith (1872–1949) and his wife, Ethel Rahel (1876–1919), daughter of John Spear, a successful maritime engineer, and his wife, Amelia Frances. The couple were described by their daughter as 'ill-assorted', and when his shipping agency collapsed in 1906 Charles Smith left home to join the merchant navy, leaving his family to survive on the remaining Spear inheritance. With her older sister Margaret Annie Spear, Ethel Smith and her two daughters moved to Palmers Green, then a hamlet on the extreme north edge of London, later to become a suburb. Originally taken on a six months' lease, 1 Avondale Road was to be Stevie Smith's lifelong 'house of female habitation', for after her mother's death in 1919, she shared it with the much loved aunt whom she described in her fictions as the 'Lion of Hull' until the latter died in 1968; she then lived there alone until her final illness.

Peggy, as her family knew her (she acquired the nickname Stevie in her twenties), was a delicate child who almost died in infancy, and when five years old developed tubercular peritonitis, for which she was sent to a sanatorium in Broadstairs for three years. Lonely and homesick, the child began to consider suicide, but found the thought that she could choose to kill herself paradoxically strengthening her own wish to live. She was then educated at Palmers Green high school (1910–17), and at the North London Collegiate School (1917–20), where despite her intelligence and love of literature she did not shine academically. She did not go to university, partly for lack of funds and partly because she had no interest in schoolteaching (then almost the only career option for women graduates in humanities). Instead she trained at Mrs Hoster's prestigious secretarial academy, and after a year's work for a consulting engineer, entered the firm of C. Arthur Pearson in 1922, being appointed personal secretary to Sir Neville Pearson, bt (who appears, somewhat idealized, as Sir Phoebus in her first two novels). She had mixed feelings about this job, in which she stayed until 1953. She found her secretarial work boring and unrewarding, but also undemanding enough to leave her plenty of spare time, of which she took full advantage, to read and write seriously. She developed a passion for European literature both ancient and modern, educating herself by omnivorous, solid reading.

In 1934 Stevie Smith submitted a collection of poems to the literary agent Curtis Brown, unsuccessfully; but her first major publication, Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), made her name almost overnight. Its darker ‘sequel’, Over the Frontier (1938), was almost equally well received, as was her first book of poems, A Good Time was Had by All (1937), illustrated like all her poetry collections by her own idiosyncratic line drawings, reminiscent of Edward Lear and James Thurber. Tender Only to One (1938) also did well; but Mother, what is Man? (1942) was less successful, and the publication of her third novel, The Holiday, written in 1943, was delayed until 1949. In the 1940s and early 1950s her writing was unfashionable, and she was often dismissed as a fausse-naïve eccentric whose work few editors liked; between 1953 and 1955 Punch was almost the only established periodical willing to publish her work, although she was writing much of her finest poetry at this time. Despite many friends in the literary world, including Naomi Mitchison, George Orwell, Storm Jameson, Rosamond Lehmann, and Olivia Manning, she grew increasingly isolated, bored, and unhappy in her office work. The title-poem of Harold's Leap (1950), her fourth poetry collection, describes suicide, a subject close to home: in 1953 she became clinically depressed and attempted to slash her wrists in her office. She was then, on medical advice, retired from the company, now called Newnes, and given a modest pension, which she supplemented by reviewing extensively for The Observer and various periodicals. She re-emerged from comparative obscurity with the justly successful collection Not Waving but Drowning (1957), followed by The Frog Prince (1966); thereafter her reputation steadily increased, and in the 1960s she became a distinguished performer at public poetry readings, where she recited or chanted her own poems alongside much younger writers, including the Liverpool ‘pop’ poets, to delighted audiences. She received the Cholmondeley award in 1966, and in 1969 was awarded the queen's gold medal for poetry. Her last collection, Scorpion and other Poems, appeared posthumously in 1972.

Throughout her life Stevie Smith retained certain childlike qualities, apparent in her bright, dark eyes, her slim figure, and the ‘schoolgirl’ style of dress which she adopted in middle age. She needed attention and cosseting from friends as well as the Lion Aunt, and she was emotionally vulnerable, often depressed, yet also capable of much warmth and gaiety. Since her death she has increasingly been recognized as an important writer. The publication of her Collected Poems in 1975 was a landmark in establishing her as a uniquely original poet, while both Me Again, the 1981 anthology of her uncollected writings, and Hermione Lee's Stevie Smith: a Selection (1983) helped to make her widely known. (Hugh Whitemore's 1981 biographical play Stevie, which also popularized her name, regrettably helped to perpetuate the legend of Stevie Smith the childlike, eccentric spinster rather than the sophisticated, original writer that she was.) The republication of her three novels as Virago Modern Classics in 1980 introduced them to new readers who acclaimed the autobiographical 'talking voice that runs on' through her novels, especially Over the Frontier, which is now recognized as a classic of 1930s writing in its subtle exploration of antisemitism, gender politics, and cruelty.

Stevie Smith said in a 1963 interview that she feared writing novels because they drew her into dangerous psychic depths, whereas in her poems she was free to invent characters and stories. She excelled at 'storytelling poems', sometimes retelling old tales from an unusual angle, as in 'The Frog Prince', sometimes inventing new ones, as in 'Angel Boley'. Often funny and always serious, and for long more popular with readers than with critics, these poems combine a lightly worn literary and psychological sophistication with simplicity, strangeness, and a deceptively casual handling of line and cadence. Her studies of patriarchal egotism, such as 'The River God', or of corruption, such as 'The Last Turn of the Screw', are as psychologically subtle as Robert Browning's monologues, and yet retain the chaste simplicity of true story-telling. As the poet D. J. Enright perceptively observed, her poetry is 'in essence uncluttered' and yet inclusive, dealing with such large subjects as love, estrangement, intimacy, sadism, the lives of animals, and God, who inspired many questioning poems in which her deep feeling for Christianity contends with a tough scepticism about religious myths. Death is also the subject of many haunting poems which hover between irony and melancholy in a stylized world of their own, where a barren Romantic landscape forms a bleak setting for a lonely consciousness that welcomes extinction.

In late 1970 Stevie Smith became ill with a brain tumour. She died at Ashburton Cottage Hospital, Devon, on 7 March 1971. Her funeral was held on 12 March in Holy Trinity Church, Buckfastleigh, Devon; she was cremated in Torquay.

Sources

  • J. Barbera and W. MacBrien, Stevie: a biography of Stevie Smith (1985)
  • F. Spalding, Stevie Smith: a biography (1988)
  • Me again: uncollected writings of Stevie Smith, ed. J. Barbera and W. MacBrien (1981)
  • K. Dick, Ivy and Stevie (1983)
  • H. Lee, ed., Stevie Smith: a selection (1983)
  • D. J. Enright, ‘Did nobody teach you?’, Man is an onion: reviews and essays (1972), 137–48
  • J. Barbera, W. MacBrien, and H. Bajan, Stevie Smith: a bibliography (1987)
  • L. Severin, Stevie Smith's resistant antics (1997)
  • G. Plain, ‘Faith in a watching brief: Stevie Smith and the religion of fascism’, Women's fiction of the Second World War (1996), 68–84
  • J. Montefiore, Men and women writers of the 1930s (1996)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Sound

  • BL NSA, London [recordings listed in J. Barbera and W. MacBrien, Stevie Smith: a bibliography (1987)]

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1919, University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library; repro. in Barbera and MacBrien, Stevie
  • three photographs, 1938–1969, repro. in Barbera and MacBrien, Stevie
  • J. Lewinski, photograph, 1966, NPG [see illus.]
  • portrait, 1971, NPG

Wealth at Death

£23,834: probate, 26 July 1971, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

University of Hull, Brynmor Jones Library
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
National Portrait Gallery, London
University of Birmingham Library
King's College, Cambridge
Oxfordshire Record Office, Oxford