Elizabeth Smart: Cultural Context
by Alice Van Wart
Elizabeth Smart gained limited recognition in 1945 when 2000 copies of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept were published in London by a small press. Because of the book's subject -- an adulterous affair between a young woman and a married man -- the Smart family used political connections to have the book banned from entering Canada. The novel circulated in London and New York, however, and acquired a cult following that led to a paperback reissue in 1966 and to critical acclaim. In 1977, following 32 years of silence, Elizabeth Smart published two new works, The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals and a small collection of poetry, titled A Bonus.
As these new works were being published in England, Smart was being discovered in North America with the 1977 publication of a new paperback edition of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and a 1982 hardcover edition in Canada. In the Meantime (1984), a collection of Smart's unpublished poetry and prose, and her two volumes of journals, Necessary Secrets: the Journals of Elizabeth Smart (1986) and On the Side of the Angels (1994), brought new critical appreciation. By the time of her death, Smart's literary reputation was established and her life had acquired legendary status.
In the canon of English Canadian literature -- a canon dominated by the realist tradition -- Smart's work stands apart. The publication history of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and its continuing popularity attest to its position as a literary classic. An incantatory cry of passion and loss, the novel is less closely related to traditional forms of fiction with their emphasis on plot and character than it is to lyric poetry. The novel is hailed as a unique masterpiece of poetic prose and celebrated for the power and beauty of its language.
The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, like its predecessor, is a poetic meditation that uses voice and language rather than plot to create its narrative. In this way, Smart tells the story of a woman who gains maturity by coming to terms with the pain of her past life. Smart's prose depends highly on the figurative devices of poetry to achieve its effect. In contrast, her poetry is simple and unadorned, casual in its conversational and elliptical style. Smart's poetry is moving in its exploration of the problems faced by a writer who chooses to abandon the distractions of love for the necessary self-absorption of the artist.
Smart complained that people were more interested in her life than her writing. Readers are naturally curious, given the dramatic events of Smart's life, and the fact that her experience was the subject of her writing. It is almost impossible to separate Smart's personal life from her writing, since all of her work is an attempt to articulate the self. In an early novella published in In the Meantime, "Dig a Grave and Let Us Bury Our Mother," Smart's first-person narrator states, "I am the only thing I know. And even that I only see through a glass darkly from time to time, as a great way off."
Smart's need to record her life began early and once discovered, her desire to write never wavered. Because of illness at the age of eleven, Smart was confined to bed for six months. During this time she began what became a life-long habit -- sometimes daily and at other times sporadically -- of keeping a journal. Into these journals the young Betty Smart wrote stories, poems, and plays. At fifteen she collected her writing and her illustrations into "The Complete Works of Betty Smart." These early writings are now published in Juvenilia: Early Writings of Elizabeth Smart (1987). The juvenilia show a delightfully precocious and witty sense of humour and Smart's early love of language.
The journals that Smart kept throughout her life were of vital importance to her writing; they display the inextricable link between her personal and professional life. Smart recorded just about everything in her journals: events of daily life, ideas, feelings and observations. She wrote about her family and friends, her travels, her social life and her children. She kept lists of people she met, books she was reading, of her family accounts; there are lists of plants, flowers and trees. She made notes for what she would like to write and for articles she was working on. She included recipes and accounts of money she had spent. In the pages of Smart's journal, a poem might be found beside a grocery list.
The acquisition of Smart's papers by the National Library of Canada has both literary and historical significance. The substantial collection includes not only her personal journals and writing notebooks, but also correspondence, artwork, juvenilia, memorabilia, garden journals and other miscellaneous materials. These various materials have been organized for reference purposes into series that include personal documentation, journals, diaries, notebooks, correspondence, finance, published works, writing, critical reception, gardening and other writers' papers. Smart often wrote in several notebooks at one time, making it difficult to determine the exact chronological order of her writings, and, because she often wrote at night sitting up in bed, her writing is sometimes difficult to read.
The Smart collection is also of interest historically; it provides glimpses into the lives of a privileged class in Ottawa during the 30s. The Smarts socialized with diplomats and the bright young men of External Affairs. Smart was introduced to and became friends with Lester B. Pearson, Charles Ritchie, Graham Spry and Norman Robertson. She also knew various artists, including the poet Frank Scott, the folklorist Marius Barbeau and the painter Pegi Nichol.
Following Smart's departure from Canada, her journals offer glimpses of various other artists with whom she became involved in Mexico and California, such as the painter Jean Varda and the poet and painter Alice and Wolfgang Paalen. The journals also document Smart's meeting with George Barker and their subsequent affair.
The collection allows us a clearer understanding of a complex person: a passionate, vibrant, accomplished woman given to periods of lethargy, self-doubt and depression. Romantic by nature, Smart searched for the vital connections in life that she believed could only really be found in love, art and the natural world. After moving to Suffolk, Smart poured her creative energy into gardening; much of her last journal writing is dedicated to that pursuit and published in Elizabeth's Garden: Elizabeth Smart on the Art of Gardening (1989).
The journals shed added light on Smart's life, particularly after the birth of her first child, her return to England and the publication of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. They record her struggles as a young mother living in the country during the war years and as a single working mother following the war. Smart's work for various periodicals, from which she made her living for many years, are not well known. The collection contains the scrapbooks Smart kept of her commercial writing, including the advertising copy she wrote for clients such as Jaegar and Simpson's and various articles ranging from "How to Mend a Broken Heart" to "Toys Have Work To Do." These pieces show an Elizabeth Smart who was fashionable and very successful at her work.
Of significance in the collection and testifying to the importance of family in Smart's life are the notebooks, correspondence, and childhood drawings that she kept of her four children and her grandchildren, as well as her correspondence with her family, particularly with her mother.
As well, there is material of George Barker's that Smart had in her possession -- letters, manuscripts, notebooks and memorabilia. Of special interest is Barker's insightful critique of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Smart also saved the letters and manuscripts of the writer W.S. Graham, with whom she had a brief relationship. Besides Barker and Graham, there are also letters from Lawrence Durrell and various Canadian writers.
Smart kept reviews of her work and articles written about her that give us an overview of her critical reception. At one point, Smart undertook to write a biography of Marie Stopes, the crusader of birth control. Although the book was never written, the research material she collected remains in the collection. There are also copies of the numerous gardening articles she wrote for magazines.
From a literary perspective, the most important part of the collection consists of the writing journals that served as Smart's personal diary and writing apprenticeship. The notebooks are numerous and vary in size as well as in style and content. In them can be found ideas for writing, preliminary notes, and various versions of her published work. The style and thematic concerns of her early novella "Let Us Dig A Grave and Bury Our Mothers" are similar to those of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. There are drafts of her last works, "Scenes One Never Forgets" and "In the Meantime: Diary of a Blockage," both published in In the Meantime.
The writing journals also include early drafts of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals. There is also a film script of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept that Smart was commissioned to write but which was never made, and a radio script, also based on the novel, that was broadcast on the BBC.
These journals show Smart's development as a writer. As she turned from an initial interest in character and event to an internal focus, her writing style and her use of language changed. By the time Smart met Barker she had found her voice and parts of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept were already written. Meeting Barker gave Smart the subject she needed.
By the time Smart had written her apprentice work "Dig a Grave and Let Us Bury Our Mother," she knew what she wanted to write and stated it clearly in a journal entry dated November 26, 1939: "I want my book to be about love." In an entry from December 6, 1939, she says, "I need a new form … each word must rip virgin ground." For Smart, art and life were one and the same.