My goodness, how they pile up, these English spinsters. Barbara Pym, Edith Sitwell, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and tacked onto the list is Stevie Smith, a contemporary of Pym. As was the case for me with the author Vita Sackville-West, I first came into contact with Smith’s work via film. The film in question is a wonderful performance of Hugh Whitemore’s play about Smith’s life, appropriately and economically entitled “Stevie,” with the inimitable Glenda Jackson in the title role. The film was released in the UK in 1978 and in the USA in 1981. Jackson’s performance is compelling. After devouring the film over repeated viewings and imbuing myself with the sense of Smith’s work Jackson conveys, I decided to have a look for myself at Smith’s words on a page.
What ensued can’t exactly be called disappointment because the poetry declaimed in the film gives one a heads up about what the page will offer, but I must say, stood in front of you on paper in black and white the poems seem spindly things, hardly robust enough to keep company with the work of other women poets of my acquaintance like Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, or Edna St. Vincent Millay. They have their charm, to be sure, and if one extrapolates with sufficient time and energy one can elaborate an interpretation with enough facets to qualify the work as “interesting,” that English word often used to damn with faint praise. I much prefer to characterize Smith’s work as “quirky,” which isn’t far off the mark of other assessments of her oeuvre I’ve come across in the course of my research into her writing.
To be honest, I much prefer Smith’s prose to her poetry. When she’s not being aphoristic her rambunctiousness cuts loose and the language swoops up and down like a bird in flight. The reader follows as if watching a flock of sparrows dart among the chimney tops of Palmers Green, the North London suburb where Smith lived her whole life save the last bit when she went to Devon to care for her older sister and ended up terminally ill herself and finishing her days there. But Smith belongs quite squarely in Palmers Green, where she lived most of her life with her mother’s sister, whom she called “The Lion Aunt.”
Glenda Jackson is such a magisterial presence that the impression of Smith she conveys in her film performance is much more solid and energetic than Smith can herself have been. After I listened to a few recordings of Smith reading her own poetry I realized that Jackson’s portrayal — on its own terms magnificent, that stands beyond question — doesn’t reproduce the wan character that Smith’s voice clearly communicates. Jackson is a powerhouse of a human being, far more forceful than ever Smith was even on her best days, I think. In the film it all hangs together and Jackson’s version of Smith makes sense, but that forceful, unerringly articulate person stands at variance with the tenuous, monotone voice of Smith, who seems to be whispering things from the sidelines thinking nobody will hear. Smith’s voice fits her poems. There is a flatness, a sense of anomie in it that makes the somewhat perverse irony of her poems seem somehow right.
How all these spinsters came about in England continues to astonish me. We lack the aesthete spinster trope in the United States, our one prime example being of course Emily Dickinson who comes closest to the English version of the article. The history of American literature is not littered with spinsters as is English literature. There is no American Jane Austen, no equivalent of the Bronte sisters stuck out in some village in Ohio, no Barbara Pym holding forth in some small town in Pennsylvania. The reason for that difference leaves me without plausible explanation. There must be some reason English soil pushes up right and left spinsters with a knack for writing, but I can’t discern it. I suppose you’d have to be English to accomplish that task, which leaves me quite out in the cold.
It amuses me to imagine myself in the spinster category in England to see how my native stock would fare in such circumstances. I may not be English but I share with the English character a type of personality I call “refractive” because it’s always at a certain angle to the foundation. Jackson in her performance as Stevie brings that refractive element wonderfully to view. The substance of Smith’s poems is hardly the stuff of conversation over Battenburg cake, ginger nuts and tea. Yet it comes from the core of the person and is the most authentic voice the author can offer. That core gets mixed up with all sorts of other things — amusing stories from the past, witty banter about this or that, and of course gratuitous exercise of the ability to shape language elegantly. Smith came from an age in which language still mattered and her speech shows it. Stevie was raised by people who doubtless had strong northern accents — the Lion Aunt must have pronounced “book” as “bewk” — but when you listen to Smith recite her poetry there’s no trace of it. She’s as Queen’s English as you can hope to find, but one gains the impression it costs her some effort to adopt that kind of speech. In other words, Smith has constructed herself as a superstructure over a foundation that would not in and of itself have led natively to the result she presents to the world. I understand that process quite well because it was my path in life, too. I know all about constructing a self at oblique angles to a foundation — been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
Of course the foundation bleeds through in Smith’s case. The dismal experience of a girl growing up in the lower middle classes of England in the first quarter of the 20th century is never far away. Smith lived with a sickly mother who died when the future poet was in her teens, and Smith herself spent three years in an institution because of tuberculosis when she was a child — such things would naturally incline a girl’s mind to thoughts of dreariness and death. And so it remained for the rest of her life. One of her most famous poems is “Not Waving But Drowning”:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,But still he lay moaning:I was much further out than you thoughtAnd not waving but drowning.Poor chap, he always loved larkingAnd now he’s deadIt must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,They said.Oh, no no no, it was too cold always(Still the dead one lay moaning)I was much too far out all my lifeAnd not waving but drowning.
Such are the musings of the adult Smith came to be — in many ways a quintessential English spinster, in other ways a neurotic modern incapable of grabbing hold of life and whirling it round in a dance to the music one strikes up oneself. It’s more than a simple failure of self, it’s an entire civilization in the balance, really. When one dissects Stevie into her constituent psychological and social parts, the threads out to the social phenomena of her era become clear. Her father abandoned the family when Stevie was three, after which her mother moved with Stevie and her sister Molly to Palmers Green. Since the mother was sickly her sister, the “Lion Aunt” came down to take care of the girls and lived with Stevie in the same house on Avondale Road for the rest of her life. Stevie remained in the same house until she finally left to take care of her elder sister Molly, who had had a stroke. This is a Victorian/Edwardian spinster life pattern to a T. Stevie remained an Edwardian middle-class phenomenon, she never launched herself into the life going on around her in the foment after World War II other than to go to parties when opportunity arose. Otherwise she stayed in Palmers Green, drinking sherry before dinner out of a small glass no doubt, living in the same space she had known since the age of three. Such things don’t happen anymore. They have been cancelled by modern life.
In a certain sense, it seems, Stevie herself was cancelled by modern life in her own estimation of things. Accolades came toward the end of her life, to be sure, including the Queen’s Medal for Poetry. I’ll never understand what people see in her work to merit that kind of distinction. The massive depth and intrigue it supposedly spawns in the minds of susceptible readers has never sparked alive in my head. That may well be because I’m not susceptible to the peculiarly English charm she offers. She’s have had a hard go of it in the States, I wager. But as a dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile who’s been around the English poetry block more than once, I can’t help but consider her success to be bound up with the figure she represents. The English love a mildly eccentric spinster who does a spot of scribbling, especially if she goes about giving talks and intoning recitations some might think just a tad dotty. Stevie fit that bill quite well. Her work is easily comprehensible to the middle classes. She wasn’t one of those abstruse modernists who require tomes of exegesis to understand at all. In a word, she was easy to grasp, she was picturesque in the way English spinsters were meant to be picturesque, as a throwback to a bygone era that has passed away now. We don’t have spinsters anymore — all we have is “self-partnered” people. There will be no more spinsters like Stevie drinking sherry out of small glasses before dinner and going on about a fondness for reading Gibbon.
That may be a good thing, it may be a bad thing, who can say? It is as it is and there we have it. As curious as it may sound, there are authors whom I like less for their authorship than for the person they were. I find the phenomenon of the English spinster charming. It’s lovely to think of them having their tea and their Battenburg cakes, carrying on at great length on topics that would stump most of us if presented out of the blue as a subject for extemporization to be continued for at least half an hour. Spinsters are cozy. Spinsters are predictable and safe. They don’t raise challenges like those abstruse modernists. You can sit down to your tea with a decent bit of nosh and have a bit of a natter. What could be more charming than a few afternoon hours spent thusly?
There’s a new edition out of Smith’s complete works of poetry. Would I buy it? No, it wouldn’t even cross my mind. Smith is for me a phenomenon I appreciate greatly but I don’t find her poetry at all interesting. I much prefer her novels, which I do own. But Smith wasn’t a novelist, really — that shows clearly in the novels themselves — and it’s as a poet she is both known and respected. Be that as it may, I restrict my appreciation of the written word from her to the prose.
But I appreciate her even more as a waymarker of Englishness. Her life is as important to me as her words. She is something of a paradigm for an Englishness that has all but ceased to exist. I’m grateful to her for bringing that picture of the past to my awareness so that I may appreciate it like the sherry Smith used to take in a small glass before dinner. There are strands of human existence in the present for which her paradigm from the past serves as touchstone — I can identify some of them in myself, in point of fact. I also appreciate her individuality. It’s in that particular charactertistic that I find the closest bond with her as the individual I myself am. Despite all the limitations and neuroses that raised their Hydra heads over the course of her lifetime, she soldiered on being quintessentially herself as she was in her core. That’s a trick worth a tip of the hat, to be sure.
Given a few twists of fate I could easily imagine myself in her position. Indeed, there are times as I go about my days where it seems to me all I need is a sex-change, a grey cardigan, some sensible shoes with low heels, a plaid skirt, a single strand of pearls and voila, I’d become the very spit and image of the original article. The discernible differences between the life she describes living alone in Avondale Road after the death of the “Lion Aunt” and my own are not that great. There are the routines of daily life, the housekeeping, the cooking, then the bouts of reading and writing. She commented that in her later life she read more than ever — Gibbon, of all people, of whom she said she never tired, and Agatha Christie. The Gibbon I own, the Christie not (nor likely ever shall). It’s been a good while since I’ve owned a bottle of sherry, but that’s an easy thing to lay in to complete the picture. So we are outwardly not all that unlike one another, Stevie and I. I simply have other neuroses. 🙂
So above all I appreciate her human example. She shows me that despite being in a state of advancing age and living alone, a substantive world of mind and imagination can continue unabated by outward circumstances. My appreciation of her stands quite apart from my opinion of her poetry. And while I admire her prose for its individuality, I’d still appreciate her even had she written nothing other than her letters. She still has something useful and important to say to me, even if I never read a single poem she wrote.
So let’s have an enthusiastic round of applause for Stevie, our English spinster author of the moment, who brings to the table something we would be ill-advised to sweep aside as historically irrelevant. Yes, we’ve come a long way baby, but some things never change. And quite right, too.