Friday, December 27, 2013

Everything is sunshining

‘At about quarter to five, after nothing but music in its dissected form, I did the only right and inevitable thing to do when the sky is singingly blue and the sun is showing up the nakedness of London and everything is sunshining and smelling of new-forgotten damp earth and crocuses - I went out.’ This is the Canadian Elizabeth Smart - born 100 years ago today - not yet 20, writing in her diary with youthful enthusiasm and literary precociousness.

Smart was born on 27 December 1913 into a privileged family in Ottawa, Canada. She was educated at private schools, and became very keen on poetry, before being sent to King’s College, London, where she studied piano. In her mid-20s, she was taken on as secretary by Margaret Watt, head of Associated Country Women of the World, and travelled extensively with her to conferences. It was during this period that she first became interested in the poet George Barker. She wrote for The Ottawa Journal for some months, and she travelled on her own, mostly in the US.

Eventually, Smart managed to arrange a meeting with Barker, with whom she launched a long-lasting affair. She returned to Canada to give birth to a daughter (by Barker), and then went to work for the British embassy in Washington. She fell pregnant again during the war, and travelled to the UK to join Barker. There she worked for the British Ministry of Defence while caring for her two children. Her best known work, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a semi-autobiographical novel about her relationship with Barker, was published in 1945. Thanks to the negative influence of her parents, the book was banned in Canada.

Thereafter, Barker visited Smart often in London, and they had two more children, although Barker never left his wife. Smart worked as an advertisement copywriter and as a magazine editor, living in Westbourne Terrace, where her flat is said to have been a magnet for the city’s bohemians. Retiring in the mid-1960s to a cottage in Suffolk, she took up writing poetry and fiction again, and also looked after her daughter’s two children (her daughter, having become involved with drugs, died in 1982). The early 1980s saw her publish - more than three decades since her last book - a few poems and The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, a kind of sequel to By Grand Central Station. She died soon after, in London in 1986. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Canadian EncyclopediaABC Bookworld, or Studies in Canadian Literature.

Two volumes of Smart’s diary were published posthumously, one in 1987 and the other in 1994, Necessary Secrets and On the Side of the Angels. Their editor, Alice Van Wart, believes ‘a remarkable personality’ emerges from the journals, ‘passionate, vibrant, extravagant, sensitive, yet subject to lethargy and self-doubt’. She says the entries were rapidly written, usually at night in bed, and ‘are the private record of the heart of a woman, a woman who never overtly rejects the standards and expectations placed upon her but quietly begins to construct her own personal values’.

The brightest, liveliest of Smart’s diary entries, in which one can sense her nascent literary talent and an interest in describing experiences of the world around her, were all written in her early diaries; later on her diaries become consumed by her difficulties, especially those in her relationship with Barker. (See also - O God George, can’t you see.)

7 March 1933
‘At about quarter to five, after nothing but music in its dissected form, I did the only right and inevitable thing to do when the sky is singingly blue and the sun is showing up the nakedness of London and everything is sunshining and smelling of new-forgotten damp earth and crocuses - I went out. [. . .]

The streets were full of tulips and narcissus and daffodils and it was spring - really. I passed by that little pool in Hyde Park by the Serpentine, cut from the bridge by bushes. A heron was standing dark and blue grey by the edge and there were sky and bushes shining in its bottom. The grass was bright green and fresh looking and on all the little hillocks purple and white and yellow crocuses are coming up.

I walked along the Serpentine - not on the bank because there were too many people there. Why do people when they go for a walk look at each other? - but up on the other side of the road - and there was a breezy wind enough to blow your hair and make you feel a little like mascots on motor cars - so I took my loose, loose hat off before the wind did. Before I came to the end, I took a new path across - on my right were two lovers walking away - he bending over and around her with his arm and head. The sparrows were making so much spring noise that I took off my gloves and scarf in spite of the brick red dress showing, and stuffed them in my purse. And then just as I thought I was alone I saw two more lovers on my left who thought they were alone. They were sitting on a seat under a gigantic trunk of a tree. [. . .]

I came out at a gate and crossed the bridge. There were boats on the water - people lazing - or working hard - and gulls flying and ducks in the water - just like summer. The wind blew my hair the right way. I forgave everybody their trespasses. I got into the gardens again and went down to the river past that mass of bushes that makes you so conscious of them and followed the water - watching the ducks and a child or two - until I came almost to Peter Pan. I had to pass a smug jealous woman sitting on a seat with some male. She tittered. Then I stepped over the low rail and walked on the grass which was quite muddy and hard to walk on in ladies’ heels. [. . .] I looked at the statue which turned out to be one by G. F. Watts called ‘Physical Energy’ - about twice life size of a huge horse. He was a god with naturally curly hair and a seductive Greek mouth. I saw that the path went in the same unbroken way - a sort of huge green path edged by huge trees on either side right up to the palace - in front of which sits the ‘Big Penny’ statue of the Good Smug Queen [Victoria]. By the time I got to the Round Pond it was quite dark and there were foreboding clouds over the palace - a shadowy purpleness more than an actual cloud - behind there was a pink light - and everywhere there was an expectancy as if something was about to be revealed - something too wonderful or too intangible.’

9 March 1933
‘On the bus [. . .] there was only one seat on top which a nondescript man was trying to camouflage. However, I was resolute and made him move over - sitting uncomfortably and precariously on the edge. Soon, the seat in front was completely empty and I moved into it - it was the very front seat. In a couple of moments a lady who had been sitting beside someone else came and sat beside me. She was not startling, but if you looked into her face it was queer and uncanny - you could see she lived in a very different world from most people. [. . .] When the conductor came up to collect the tickets she said to him in a very loud voice, “Why don’t you stop there and get some petrol. We might get on a bit quicker.” I smiled at her when she seemed to be muttering her hates to me - but I didn’t speak for fear of bringing down on my head the accusations of an insane person - though I wished I had later when she left. [. . .]

I went to the Tate Gallery on a 2 bus and was inspired and thrilled and imagitated by William Blake’s illustrations - especially the one of Dante and Virgil approaching the angel who guards the gates of Purgatory - there are mystical yellow and red lights and rays upon the water - and you can look into it and into it - and you feel a sacred feeling like the light of twilights and dreams when you were little. Strange, lost beautiful things and imaginings and forgotten inspirations.’

31 March 1933
‘We took a bus from Sloane St to the Ritz and our white gloves began to look faintly grey at the tips. We walked along to Givans and tried on the blue checked blouse which was wrong and didn’t fit. We made an exit there - and London was making an awful noise. Men drilling and buses roaring and things falling - you couldn’t hear or think. [. . .] The noise and confusion was worse and worse - and then what should have been spring sunny air was filled with gas smells and dust and tired heat and hard dirty pavement - horrible dusty gas coming out of the bowels of dirty motors and buses.

O the clashing and jarring. It never seemed so bad. We went to Lilley and Skinners and sat in a fairly comfortable seat and Mummy tried on shoes that looked awful and cost pounds. [. . .] We took a taxi and came home and then Mummy and I had a sherry in the lounge and I was a little tight but I camouflaged it and she went out to lunch. Then I reeled into the dining room and had lunch. Then I took a bus to the Ritz and walked or rather strutted in a clipped sort of way up Dover St - and my hair was unspeakable and looked untouchable in fact - I wore a hanky under my new silk hat. The girl gave me a wash and wanted to pluck my eyebrows which made me mad - why should they want to standardize even me? I am sick of this Mayfair fashionable smart - socialness - Tatler-Spectator - jealousy - boredom - toeing the mark.’

28 February 1937
‘Hampstead still has that air of concealing just around the corner, the house I read about in some old book when I was a child, a different life. I know someday I shall find that family whose smell is in the very Hampstead mists, behind the clipped hedges, under the arched doorways. Keats walking with Leigh Hunt, or the whole Sanger family sitting in the sunshine in an untidy studio making music in the middle of the afternoon.’

The Diary Junction

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This was lovely. I just pulled out her "On Grand Central Station..." the other day and was thinking of writing about her on Storyacious too. I haven't read her journals, but these excerpts make me want to. Especially liked the bit where she describes Blake's artwork.