Elizabeth Smart’s Autobiographies (1987)

I vividly recall my first attempt at By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept; I read about one page and set it aside because I’d been looking for a quick read.

Despite its slim form, Elizabeth Smart’s work is the sort that, for me, takes time, time to sink into the prose.

Brigid Brophy’s description is often quoted, but bears repeating, for it called this work one of the “half dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world”.

For me, that calls for reading aloud, forcing a steady pace through prose that is dense and intricate–and stunningly beautiful, even (arguably especially) in its painful bits.

The book is divided into ten parts and I ended up reading them, one part a day, over a much longer period of time than I would have guessed. But it depends on your reasons for reading and how comfortable you are with lyrical language.

It, too, however, like The Bondwoman’s Narrative is another work about which the back story is as interesting as the story so, read with that in mind, it might be possible to read the whole book in an hour or two, cutting through the poetic prose to find the parallels to Elizabeth Smart’s own experiences.

[Note: the novel draws upon her real-life love-affair with George Barker (a married man who fathered four children with Smart but refused to marry her, which would have required a divorce from his wife, a violation of his Catholic belief system).]

Last week I tried to re-read BGCSISD&W one night before bed, thinking that because I was actually planning to focus on her non-fiction this time around, that I could read through more quickly, but I set it aside once more.

Immediately the power of the prose struck me: it’s as though even the short and familiar words in the narrative carry a weight that’s untoward, the vicarious burden of her obsessive love for this man, whom she desired from the moment she read his poetry and sought out, deliberately and passionately.

So I decided to begin reading the non-fiction first, the autobiography and the journals, up to the point at which she began working on this manuscript, and then I would revisit BGCSISD&W. On the edge of your seat about how this decision turned out? Click the continue link.

And then I decided to keep on with the non-fiction because it gave a different perspective explaining, for instance, that BGCSISD&W was not so much a reflection of her experience, an extrapolation of it, but a fictionalized recreation of a passionate love affair.

This seems to directly contradict the general understanding about this work, for even the back cover of my edition describes it as a “fictional account of her intense love-affair with the poet George Barker”.

The word ‘account’ seems to draw that link between fiction and fact in black magic marker (don’t you think?) rather than the dotted penciled line that one imagines based on Elizabeth Smart’s accounting of her writing of it.

She writes about reworking some elements of her relationship with GB (e.g. his leaving her at the station) but taking them into another time and place and makes it clear that she didn’t see this book as an autobiographical work in any way. As her non-fiction writing is frank about that relationship it doesn’t seem likely that she’s being coy, simply that she did see it as a work of art, not experience.

Autobiographies isn’t, however, a true autobiography, which you might guess from its title; although she planned to write one, this is an assembly of journal entries, letters, photographs, scrapbook pages, and manuscript drafts.

I like this idea; it seems to make a space for the reader in that you can peruse these documents and interpret them through the lens of your own experience.

Of course we all do that — we can’t help but do so — but without a clear narrative in an autobiography, a linear “and then this is what happened” approach, it seems like there is even more of an emphasis on this, an invitation to participate in a more openly reflective, interactive process.

It’s down to you and the text to make sense of Elizabeth Smart and when there are such apparent misinterpretations (e.g. the general concensus being that BGCSISD&W is a recounting of her real-life love-affair being viewed so differently by the author) it seems doubly important to sift through, to read between the proverbial lines.

I’ve finished reading Autobiographies, but I personally haven’t made sense of Elizabeth Smart yet: I’m still thinking, still piecing my impressions of her together in the spaces left between the media that comprise this text.

I believe she was a good choice to read for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge; she dared to put her art forward, knowing that she would be censured for not only the unusual form of her novel, but also for her depiction of an adulterous relationship, feeling, even towards the end of her life, that she was challenging society’s core expectations of womankind.

A quote from her journal, November 10/78
This is why it seems that a woman cannot (maybe) tangle with art (inasmuch as she’s a woman & doesn’t repudiate it) except in the petit-point embroidering-the-environment way. And is not her true creativity (i.e. having babies) the most creative thing possible anyhow? Yes. AND YET. Many a woman working now would repudiate what I say. But would they UNDERSTAND what I say? […] (“Writing about the difficulties of writing,” one said. It wasn’t that. It was about the almost impossibility of making works of art if you’re a woman…)

I’ll be spending two more weeks on Elizabeth Smart, with posts to follow on February 17 and February 24…by the end of that I’ll be able to say for sure how she fits with my idea of Women Unbound. I hope you’ll follow along.

Has anyone else spent any reading time with Elizabeth Smart?