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By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, a Life.

Someone remarks in this book that Elizabeth Smart is worth reading for the name alone. There was a glamour about her, not only because of her beauty. She attracted attention before making her name as a writer by her extraordinary pursuit of the poet George Barker by whom she bore four children. Their affaire is one of the great romances of history. Of course it is tragic. Barker would not marry her, nor would he leave her alone. This both made and ruined her.

Her fictionalized account of all this is the masterpiece By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, its intense prose revealing layer upon layer of artless feeling to the core of her sensitive spirit. Tambimuttu published it in 1945 when it was well-received, especially by Cyril Connolly (who thirsted for such literature in wartime and wrote in The Unquiet Grave his own cri de coeur). A promising literary career had begun.

More than thirty years were to pass before Elizabeth Smart published another book. The final years of her life saw a late-flowering of her talent which seemed to have gone underground for ever. Her poetry, journals, and another novel, The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, articulated concerns which caught the mood of the times, although Smart herself was not a feminist. She became an international literary celebrity, returning in triumph to her native Canada where she was published at last. Her distinctive voice is an uncompromising aesthetic of female sensitivity. The failure of literary culture to capitalize half a century ago on her abilities may be said to have impeded the progress of the novel. Grand Central still reads not only well but with an originality amid the sea of conformist entertainments.

Her beauty combined with her touch of genius damned her, perhaps. Or was it simply that the demands of raising four children alone were too much for her? She was not, incidentally, as rich as people thought, although she did have a little private money. To house, feed and expensively educate her brood she worked hard in the missing years. These times are well-documented here. They were not years of regret and obscurity, but of success as an advertising copywriter, then as an editor of Queen. She had social success also in what remained of 'Fitzrovia', the legendary bohemia of mid-century London.

Yet one does regret what might have been, not only for Elizabeth Smart's sake, but for literary culture. Britain in 1945 was desperate for new voices and had to look to France, then the United States, for year after year. All this time there was Elizabeth Smart. 'They would speak to me one on one,' she told Rosemary Sullivan, 'but I had no place at the table'. Yet she did live her life without too much rancour. Professor Sullivan in her sympathetic and compelling book recounts the story in like manner. And that is how one must respond to this true story of what a woman's patience can endure, and of what her resolution can achieve.
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Author:Heptonstall, Geoffrey
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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