Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith
by Jack Barbera, by William McBrien
Oxford University Press, 378 pp., $24.95
“You are quite potty about death,” says Celia to Caz in The Holiday,
“how you do go on about death, listen if she can think of one other thing—death, death, death. I see you with black sequins and seaweed clinging to your hair. You are like the child in the story who saw the Italian funeral, very grand it was, and as black as a maidservant’s dream of death, and the child cried out, Che gusto avrei di morir’ anch’ io. You, my dear, might have been that little Roman, oh dear, oh dear, the little Roman monster amorous of death, be-jetted, be-feathered, besequined, death, death, death.”
And the voice Celia puts on to say it in is “rather peculiar, familiar too, rather lisping and thin, it squeaks a little at high pitch.”
Here is the dominant theme, the style, the vocal pitch of that odd fish Stevie Smith (born Florence Margaret in 1902, died in 1971). “A nugget of genius,” one reviewer ascribed to her; “nervy, bold and grim,” she called herself. Though she wrote three “novels” (more extended free associations than novels as we know them), she is best thought of as a poet of small, farouche poems illustrated with doodles, a cross between Ogden Nash and Blake.
Though her reputation has seesawed, there have always been Stevie Smith fans, and for long I resisted being one of them; the lisp in the voice, the high pitch, and the squeak seemed to me—that terrible English condemnation—affected. Fauxnaif, quaint, whimsical. But the freefloating imagination, the sure instinct for style, above all the deep note of death, death, death sounding through the wispy poems eventually wins one over. Stevie Smith loved to win admirers; she was abominably lonely as well as fey and funny.
The foundations for that were laid down in childhood, broken by illness and bereavement (perhaps even earlier; she wrote a poem on her weaning—”oh the famishment for me”). Her parents were mismatched and when she was three her father left wife and two daughters and went into the navy, sending occasional postcards and little else.
I sat upright in my baby carriage
And wished mama hadn’t made such a foolish marriage.
I tried to hide it, but it showed in my eyes unfortunately
And a fortnight later papa ran away to sea.
There is a suggestion in this, however airily put, that she had felt herself responsible for her father’s desertion; and certainly that she was a wary, precocious child. The result of never having been really childish was that the child lived on in the adult Stevie Smith, a source both of her talent and of her melancholy.
Mother, aunt, and great-aunt set up house with the two children in a far-out north London suburb where they had little money but good schooling. When Peggy (later Stevie) was five she fell ill of tubercular peritonitis and, following the horrible medical custom of the time, was sent away to …