Stevie Smith biography
Stevie Smith (1902 to 1971)
Stevie Smith was born in Hull in September 1902, the second daughter of Ethel and Charles Smith. She was christened Florence Margaret, but always called Peggy by the family. She acquired the name Stevie as a young woman when she was riding in the park with a friend who said that she reminded him of the jockey, Steve Donaghue.
Stevie's father runs away to sea
When she was three years old her father left home. His business as a shipping agent, which he inherited from his father, was failing and so was his marriage and he ran away to sea, becoming a ship’s purser. Stevie saw very little of her father, he appeared seldom and sent very brief postcards, e.g. ‘Off to Valparaiso Love Daddy’. She resented the fact that he had abandoned his family. She found him boring and always disliked him.
The extended female family moves to London's suburbsStevie is sent to a TB sanatorium
Her aunt, Madge, Ethel’s sister, came to live with them after Charles left. One of their widowed aunts also attached herself and pooling all their resources the three women and two little girls moved to Palmers Green, then on the edge of London. Stevie’s family were regular churchgoers and Stevie enjoyed the hymns and psalms. Later her relationship with religion became ambiguous. Although agnostic and often antagonistic to Christianity she said there was always a danger that she would lapse into belief.
When Stevie was five she developed tuberculous peritonitis and was sent to a sanatorium near Broadstairs, where she remained off and on for several years. She related that her preoccupation with death began when she was seven, at a time when she was very distressed at being sent away from her mother. She thought that if she kept on crying and refusing to eat she would die, and her misery would end. When she found she did not die immediately, she began to think that she need not die today, death could be put off to another day. However she always kept in her mind the thought that death could be summoned at any time if she decided that her suffering was more than she could bear. She continued to find this thought helpful when she became depressed. Death fascinated her and is the subject of many of her poems. Schooldays and the death of her mother
Stevie went to a local girls school, but did not go to university, she says her teachers did not feel she was suited for university. Perhaps also she did not want to become a teacher, which was about the only career open to a female graduate at that time. Her mother died of heart disease when she was sixteen, a harrowing experience for Stevie. However her aunt Madge, a stalwart and sensible no nonsense Yorkshire woman continued to mother Stevie for the rest of her life, or at least until she became so infirm that Stevie had to look after her. Stevie called her aunt ‘the lion of Hull’ or ‘the lion Aunt’. Aunt was not a literary person, regarding Stevie’s early poems as 'unnecessary'. Stevie Smith becomes a secretary and gets engaged
Stevie wanted to be an explorer when she left school but she ended up in a secretarial college and then worked in a publishing firm, Newnes. She was the private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson, who was at one time married to the actress Gladys Cooper. This occupation was much beneath her talents but gave her time to write. Her first novel was called ‘Novel on Yellow Paper’ as it had been typed on the firm’s yellow paper. During her twenties Stevie read extensively, and used the notes she made then throughout her writing career. She also attended art exhibitions regularly and in 1928 met a student from Germany, Karl Eckinger, who was also interested in art. She visited Germany in 1929 with Karl, and again in 1931, by which time the relationship with Karl was over, although she met him by chance on her visit. In 1932 she became involved with a young man from Palmers Green, Eric Armitage, who apparently became very upset when Stevie decided she did not want to marry him. The poem Freddy, tells the reader how she does not fit into his ‘meelyou’, and he is regarded as dull by her literary friends. Stevie never married, and said that she would not have been much good as a housewife and mother, (probably true). Certainly remaining with aunt had advantages for her as a writer, she had a room of her own and someone dependable and undemanding to look after her. Smith's first novel and collection of poems is published
Although she had been writing regularly for about ten years it was not until 1934 that Stevie submitted some of her poems to a literary agency. Apparently she was given the rather strange advice to write a novel and she did. Novel on Yellow Paper appeared in 1936. It’s an unusual stream of consciousness novel closely based on Stevie’s own life, and was immediately popular. She acquired a wide circle of literary friends, with whom she often stayed for weekends or longer. However she continued to live with Aunt in Palmers Green, a fact which friends found inconvenient when they were asked to drive her home after parties in London. Her first book of poems, A Good Time Was Had By All, appeared in 1937. In 1938 her second novel Over the Frontier, and her second book of poems, ‘Tender only to One’ were published, and in 1942 more poems, ‘Mother, What is Man?’ During the war she did fire-watching duty in London.
Stevie Smith develops her writing and friendships
In 1949, her father, who had remarried and then been widowed for the second time, died. Stevie declined to attend the funeral, she was reading a poem for the BBC that day. The same year Stevie’s third and last novel, the Holiday, was published. All her novels are lightly fictionalised accounts of her own life, which got her into trouble at times as people recognised themselves. Stevie said that two of the male characters in her last book are different aspects of George Orwell, who was close to Stevie; there were even rumours that they were lovers; he was married to his first wife at the time. Stevie once said that she found it difficult to get the ‘a deux’ fix and her relationship to her aunt was possibly the strongest affection of her life. Frances Spalding in her Critical Autobiography writes that one of Stevie’s lesbian friends told her that Stevie had a short lived affair with her not long after the war. Stevie has been claimed by lesbians as one of them but it's impossible to know whether this lesbian affair, if true, was an experiment or an intrinsic expression of her personality.
The fifties are difficult for Stevie Smith
In 1950 another book of Poems, Harold’s Leap was published, but Stevie found it difficult to find magazines that wanted her poetry and her secretarial job at the publishing house became less congenial. In 1953 she had some sort of crisis at work. What happened is not known exactly but she cut her wrists. This does not seem to have been a serious attempt at suicide, she was taken to hospital and then to a friends house and was reported to be angry rather than depressed, and later very remorseful because she had upset her aunt. She recovered after a holiday in Pembrokeshire but was retired from the publishing firm on health grounds and given a small pension of £5.10 shillings a week. She supplemented her income with book reviews on a variety of subjects including theology. These books often sparked off poems. In 1957 the collection, Not Waving But Drowning came out. In 1958 a collection of her sketches, Some Are More Human Than Others. In 1959 she wrote the text for the Batsford Book of Cats in Colour, ( she probably needed the money) and edited the Batsford book of Children's Verse.
Fame again and the death of aunt in the sixties
In the 1960’s she became popular again, appearing frequently at poetry readings with younger poets, among them Michael Horovitz. She read her poems for the BBC and made a long playing record. She was pleased to be popular with young audiences and took a great deal of care with the performance of her poems, often half singing them. In 1962 the first edition of her Selected Poems appeared. In 1966 The Collection 'The Frog Prince' was published. Her elderly aunt became increasingly disabled, and for the first time in her life Stevie learnt to peel vegetables and run the house. She cared for her aunt as she had been cared for until the old lady had a stroke and died in 1968 at the age of ninety six.
Stevie Smith's death from a brain tumour
In 1969 another collection of poems, the Best Beast, was published. Her sister, who had been a teacher and was also unmarried, had a heart attack in 1963, and although they were not very compatible Stevie spent quite a lot of time with her following Aunt's death. In 1970 Stevie became ill, noticing that she was often unable to find words, a terrible thing to happen to a poet, and was found to be suffering from a brain tumour. Stevie died in Devon, where her sister lived, in March 1971and was cremated in Torquay crematorium. Smith's last collection, Scorpion and other Poems was published posthumously in 1972 and the Collected Poems in 1975. A new edition: The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith was published in hardback by Faber and Faber in 2015, edited and with an introduction by Will May. Sources
To write this short biography I read Stevie Smith, a Critical Biography, by Frances Spalding, published by Faber in 1988 and republished in 2002, Stevie, a Biography of Stevie Smith by Jack Barbera and William McBrien, published by William Heinmann Ltd in 1985 and now out of print, Me Again, Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, published by Virago Press in 1981 and also out of print In Search of Stevie Smith edited by Stanford Sternlicht and published in 1991 by Syracuse University Press, New York. I also read Stevie's autobiographical novels, Novel on Yellow Paper, Over the Frontier and The Holiday.
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Follow the links to find out more about Stevie Smith:
Stevie Smith's Suburb - Palmers Green, North London and how it features in Stevie's work
Stevie Smith’s Connections - an exploration of Stevie’s connections to her contemporary writers, with a quick look at Stevie's possible influence on today's poets.
Childe Rolandine - this poem is considered together with Robert Browning’s famous poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.'
'The Jungle Husband' - this dark poem about a jungle which is green on top is explored.
The Frog Prince - a dive into a deceptively simple poem with hidden depths.
Smiths suburban cats an introduction to three of Smith's suburban cat poems: 'Tidzal', 'The Singing Cat' and 'My Cat Major'.
Stevie's religious poems are explored in the light of the religious ideas of the time and the relevance of her poems today is considered
Stevie Smith Festival at Palmer’s Green - an account of a memorable poetry reading in the streets of Palmers Green to celebrate the centenary of Stevie Smith’s birth, with thoughts on the poems which were read.
Stevie and music - musical adaptations of Stevie's work
Stevie's Blue plaque: an account of the unveiling of a blue plaque at Stevie Smith's house in Palmers Green, London, on 16th September 2005 by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.
Stevie Smith links to other sites which feature her work.
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