Let’s say you haven’t even heard of this writer before and, as a good little feminist, you wonder why I’ve chosen to read her for the Women Unbound Challenge, and you hustle over to Wikipedia and plug in her name, follow the tiny link that’s available because you want Elizabeth Smart (author) and not the Elizabeth Smart you’ve landed on, and look to fill the gap in your feminist knowledge.
You quickly scan the page and note that the section titled “Relationship with George Barker” is actually the longest section of the article.
Wait a minute, this is not a woman unbound, you’re thinking: this is a woman very much bound, a woman who admitted openly her obsession with a man, who pursued him internationally, and who made countless sacrifices (personal and professional) to establish and sustain their relationship.
Even the section titled “Single Mother and Writer” is noticeably shorter than that devoted to discussion of her relationship with George Barker and Wikipedia is hardly alone in presenting this woman’s love affair as the central event in her life.
And, indeed, that might be true. As her lover, as a serious reader of her work, as the father of her children: George Barker took centre stage.
But if you were to only look at this kind of summary about Elizabeth Smart’s life, you might miss her daring.
You might forget how many conventions Smart challenged just by pursuing the life of a poet, by insisting on women’s sensuality and incorporating it into her work, by having a child out of wedlock (and again, and again, and again), by continuing to write after her children were born proving that women could create babies and create art.
These are things we take for granted but despite the privilege accorded to her via family status and wealth Elizabeth Smart’s choices were publicly and privately censured at the time.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, too, focuses on a passionate, romantic relationship and, as it is consistently presented as a fictional account of the author’s relationship with George Barker, reading this does nothing to abuse a reader’s notion that Elizabeth Smart’s life revolved around a man, that she was a woman bound.
But the journals, though substantially edited by Alice Van Wart, consider Smart’s relationship in the context of her life: her life as a daughter, a friend, a lover, a confidante, a poet, a writer, as much more than a woman defined by her relationship to her lover. The journals reveal Elizabeth Smart’s daring.
And, okay, I should say, to begin with (although I’m not sure this is still technically considered a beginning) that I like reading writers’ diaries. If you want to know why, want a few quotes from Elizabeth Smart’s journals, click the Continue link.
I enjoy reading about other writers’ reading. I even want to know when Elizabeth Smart has washed her hair, when it’s followed by her reading Finch’s Fortune “because I think it my duty to read Mazo de la Roche. I didn’t like it. It annoyed me intensely and after V. Woolf [To the Lighthouse], it is like a resort advertisement.”
(It doesn’t even put me off reading Finch’s Fortune because I’m sure there are moments in a reader’s life when that’s a better choice than Woolf’s masterpiece.)
And I appreciate that she reads Moby Dick and says “The whale swam in and out of my dreams, but 675 pages is too much for even the most lyrical jokes.”
And I enjoy reading other writers’ perspectives on literary trends of their time, like Elizabeth Smart’s thoughts on literary censorship (about which I’ll say more in Freedom to Read Week) and her observation about the preponderance of autobiographical writing in the early 1930s:
“What a lot of autobiographical writing there has been lately! Tonight I picked up The Atlantic Monthly and it was all diaries and records and autobiography – perhaps in the wake of Testament of Youth – or perhaps just a sign of the adolescent emergings of the age. If it isn’t frightfully good it’s boring – at least to one who so lately has been in its throes.”
(Doesn’t this sound like all the recent chatter about memoir-this and memoir-that?)
And I never tired of news about writerly successes and angsty-ness.
“Why don’t I write the terrible, heavy blanks. I open the book, I stare. I say, there is nothing to write.” I find this comforting.
So I would have enjoyed these journals regardless, but add the Women Unbound element and they are particularly worthwhile for me.
Last week I was just beginning to understand ES and next week, I’ll have my ES wrap-up, which will consider Kim Echlin’s Fugue on Women and Creativity. Meanwhile, here are two quotes that fill in the gaps left by her Wikipedia page and clearly express why ES is a Woman Unbound.
From Volume I:
“But though unable to articulate my protest I feel that the thing I want to say is the thing never said but always done, the saying invariably abandoned for the being. Which is, in truth, the simple fact of being a woman overpowered by voices of blood each time she rises to speak her piece. And love that gives, compels her to adore being devoured surrendering to a destruction that of course causes her to be born again, but obliterates all private ambition and blinds her eyes and her heart with images of unborn babies.”
From Volume II:
“Poor women with their lost souls and their hopeless causes. Poor world with its security anxieties, literally dying for prestige, for beggar my neighbour, for pride, for vanity. Is it worth it being involved again?”
And yet I must put it all down because of all the other drowning women to whom no one has ever thought it worthwhile to speak, or to whom no one would speak.