When I included Elizabeth Smart on my list of reading for Women Unbound, I was sure that she belonged. Then, when I started into the reading in earnest, I wasn’t sure; she seemed decidedly bound by her relationship with George Barker which seemed to eclipse not only her work, but her very being.
But with more reading, particularly in her journals, I better understood her relationship to her masterpiece By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (which was made unavailable in Canada after it was published in 1945) and I recognized the ways in which she struggled against convention in her everyday and creative life. Reading Kim Echlin’s work about Elizabeth Smart cemented that burgeoning understanding.
Kim Echlin reminds readers of the contradictory messages that ES received as a privileged woman in the first half of the twentieth century. ”Her ambitions were undermined by recurring double messages: be educated but don’t show off your knowledge, be creative but be socially decorous, be free but marry.”
Not only was it difficult to pursue publication at that time (and this was echoed in the what I’d recently read of Dorothy Livesay’s writing covering the same time period) but the difficulties ES experienced were exacerbated by the kind of writing that she sought to do.
Much is made of the obsessive love story depicted in BGCSISD&W, which so many assume is a transposed version of the author’s own love affair with George Barker, but many have overlooked the significance of his support of her creative work. His comments on BGCSISD&W were the “first detailed praise and criticism and clear affirmation of her writing that Elizabeth had ever received” and, given the struggle she had in the arts and publishing community of her day, his response and his statement that “Emily Bronte and Heloise, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf would be the pallbearers at her funeral” must have been invaluable.
Kim Echlin also observes that ES’s later work in, for instance, “To Dig a Grave”, introduces characters who belong to a tradition of female characters who “defy the conventions of their culture and are not destroyed. They will not be constrained by the cultural roles assigned to them. Their quests do not follow the male hero pattern.” These “female questers leave homes that are too restrictive. They test their mettle against social conventions that constrain them. They carry their true homes within and when they transform themselves, they also transform the idea of home.”
It all sounds revolutionary when you consider it from this perspective, doesn’t it? I think that still sounds daring, even today. But when Kim Echlin was speaking to the English author Fay Weldon about her having met ES in England after the war when she herself was a single mother working in advertising, Weldon was clear: “Life was different then…[i]n those days men had Art and women had babies.” Now there’s the revolutionary part: Elizabeth claimed a space for her art, as unconventional as it was, and she had and raised her babies (four of them) too. (And, oh, BTW, in case you’re not aware, Kim Echlin herself is a writer worth reading. There’s an enticing article here.)
In 1965, in a column she wrote for Queen Magazine, Elizabeth Smart responded directly to this issue which she still, obviously, keenly felt: “A lot of men I knew kept saying that girls can’t write. Or paint. Or whatever. This got on my nerves, eventually. So I have segregated the ladies from the gentlemen in my bookshelves.”
Kim Echlin’s book reproduces a list that Elizabeth Smart kept, seemingly to encourage her when she felt she was not a “real writer”, as so many women writers do, a long list of women who dared to write, many of them lesser-known women of centuries past that ES had obviously read and appreciated. If I was going to segregate the Women Unbound books in my own bookshelves, there’s no question now for me in terms of where Elizabeth Smart’s works belong.
Have you ever found yourself hopping from one foot to the other getting to “know” a particular writer?
Next up for Women Unbound: Di Brandt, nonfiction and poetry.
Remember: Freedom to Read Week!
“Why should even ten centuries of the world’s woe lessen the fact that I love? Cradle, the seed, cradle the seed, even in the volcano’s mouth. I am the last pregnant woman in a desolated world. The bed is cold and jealousy is cruel as the grave.” (80)
Quote from Elizabeth Smart’s once-banned book,
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)