Another Stevie Smith sighting in the biography of yet another writer. Last week it was Penelope Fitzgerald; this, Olivia Manning, author of the underappreciated novels that make up The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. The biography is Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (Oxford University Press, 2012) by Deirdre David. The women met in the late nineteen-thirties in London, where Smith (1902-1971) worked as private secretary and Manning (1908-1980) as a typist for a department store. David describes them “all[ies] in these years of being underpaid, overworked, and living on macaroni and cheese.” She continues:
“Both were daughters of naval officers, both were notably quick-witted, and both had serious literary ambitions. Neither had gone to university. They wandered London together—exploring Soho streets, visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum (it was free), and, when they could afford it, seeing the latest French film at the Curzon in Mayfair, which opened in 1934 and was the first British cinema to import and show foreign language films.”
David is good at deploying interesting, revealing details without bogging down her narrative – a gift rare among biographers, who tend to lard their stories with much-cherished irrelevancies. Recently arrived from Portsmouth, Manning often stayed with Smith and her Yorkshire aunt at their house in Palmers Green. She described her meeting with Smith, who served as her guide to London, as “momentous.” Smith had already published her first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper, in 1936, and her first poetry collection, A Good Time Was Had By All, the following year. David writes:
“They were both notoriously fond of gossip and loved to broadcast rumors of intrigues and affairs about their friends and acquaintances, especially women. Francis King [novelist, 1923-2011] believes they were a `tricky and malicious’ duo, although he argues that Stevie’s tongue was more insidious; certainly as spitefully inaccurate as Olivia, Stevie was `far more skillful—so that, whereas people often dismissed Olivia’s gossip, Stevie’s tended to be accepted. Far more damaging, therefore.’”
Smith’s three novels revel in gossip, fictional or otherwise. Her wit is seldom gentle, usually barbed, and thus reliably entertaining. David tells us Manning spoke of Smith’s “calculated cruelty.” David reports: “The shared love of intrigue and fondness for a tactless witticism at the expense of someone’s feelings led to a temporary souring of their friendship, at least according to Olivia.” They reconciled. The biographer goes on:
“. . . Olivia never forgot that the pleasures of friendship with Stevie had sustained her during her early months in London, and although her literary talent did not run to the strange and wonderful qualities of Stevie’s verse, she felt herself in perfect accord with the sentiments of `The Pleasures of Friendship,’ first published in 1942:
“The pleasures of friendship are exquisite,
How pleasant to go to a friend on a visit!
I go to my friend, we walk on the grass,
And the hours and moments like minutes pass.”
Monday, March 7, was the forty-fifth anniversary of Stevie Smith’s death.