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Ideas

poet, novelist Elizabeth Smart

by DG Graham | January 20, 1998

Getting to really know the women who lived before us can be a challenge. Although we often have factual records telling us what they attempted or what they accomplished, far less often do we have records – diaries, letters, observations of friends, interviews – that give us insight into their characters, likes and dislikes, thoughts, experiences, self-perceptions. Meet Elizabeth Smart, a woman who tells us through her writing how she lived for love.

Elizabeth Smart (1913 -1986) was a beautiful writer. Her prose is lyrical, poetic and unbelievably passionate. But, while I admire her talent as a writer – I wish I could one day accomplish something half as amazing as By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept – it’s not that talent I would borrow from her if I could; I’d like to borrow her capacity for love.

“I am possessed by love and have no options.” Elizabeth Smart’s own words in By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, a story about the beginning of her love affair with a man who fathered her four children and left her to raise them alone. For love, she gave up the respect of her family, financial security and her writing career. She believed he was worth every sacrifice, and that she was nothing, “made only for him.” Not exactly a modern attitude, but a pretty intense one, and one I really envy her for having.

She didn’t get it from her family or her society. She was born at the early part of the century – a time when some Canadian women like Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy and Flora MacDonald Denison were fighting to gain equality and enfranchisement, and others, like Louise Smart, Elizabeth’s mother, were fighting to keep the position they already had – that of the socially elite and politically disinterested.

Louise “Louie” Smart believed that women should be the unseen and dignified. She and her lawyer husband had a comfortable upper-middle class house in Ottawa and socialized with Ottawa’s elite. She sent her children to private school (Elizabeth attended Hartfield House in Coburg, Ontario) and was a firm believer in class distinctions. She saw a “good” marriage for her youngest daughter, certainly not a career in writing. Elizabeth, however, seemed to be a natural. She published her first poem when she was ten, and compiled a collection of her poetry when she was 15.

Elizabeth didn’t want her mother’s safe upper-class life, and made it pretty clear. She worked as a journalist, took a boat trip to Mexico (bunking down with refugees in the stern of the boat) and at the outbreak of World War Two, she left for Big Sur, California, to live in a writers’ colony. It was in California that she finally met George Barker, the man she’d love for the rest of her life, and with whom she’d fallen in love through their correspondence.

The first line of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept describes the meeting: “I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.” But George brought someone with him Elizabeth wasn’t expecting: his wife, Jessica.

In the best soap-opera tradition, she started sleeping with him anyway. Very shortly after meeting Barker, Elizabeth became pregnant and, in 1941, returned to Canada – to Pender Harbour, British Columbia – to have the baby. She returned to the States as soon as her child was born, and worked as a file clerk in the British Embassy in Washington to support herself and her child. Barker did not help; his reason was that Elizabeth could always count on her father. But Elizabeth didn’t tell her parents that she had a child; it was not until she was nine months pregnant with her second (again, George’s child) that she wrote to tell them, and by that time she had moved to England. She had taken the chance of being killed by sailing across the Atlantic at the peak of the war (1943) with two-year-old Georgina, carrying unborn Christopher.

Her parents weren’t crazy about the arrangement, and Elizabeth’s mother thought she should force George to divorce his wife and marry her. But Elizabeth didn’t want a husband; she wanted a home and children. The standard line for unmarried mothers was to pretend to be a widow, or that your husband was overseas or something, but she never bothered. She was proud of her children and proud of the love that had produced them. George kept up the charade that he would divorce his wife, but although he had three more “wives,” he never actually did divorce her. Jessica knew of “Blondie” (Elizabeth), they even wrote each other for several years.

George eventually was the father of 15 children with four different women.

Why did Elizabeth allow this? What made George seem so great? Descriptions of him say he was dynamic, exciting, poetic and arrogant, but is that enough? It works for Mick Jagger, but he’s a rock star, not a poet. Was she rebelling against the conventions of marriage and “nice behaviour” that were expected of women back then? Or maybe she just loved him so much she didn’t want anything more than that – just to love him.

Her choice did not make life easier for her. George visited her in England periodically over several years, and she bore two more of his children (Sebastian in 1945, Rose in 1947). She supported her family for the next two decades writing ad copy and as an editor for Queen and House and Garden, and gave up her own writing except for small pieces which she finally gathered together in 1984 (In the Mean Time). She became something of a personality in the hip Soho crowd in the late 40s and early 50s, made a name for herself as an editor at Queen magazine, and had several other lovers, some men and some women. George visited periodically, although they never lived together for longer than a month or two. Elizabeth only returned to Canada twice. She must have preferred England’s greener pastures. Or maybe it was the fish and chips.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept is now critically acclaimed as a “masterpiece of poetic prose and an homage to love unique in its style and sensibility.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia) But it was not well received in Canada when it first appeared in 1945 as a small edition of 4,000 copies, although, when it was finally republished in Canada in 1975, it was hailed as a triumph. Even her own mother didn’t like it; she felt it portrayed her and her husband in an unflattering light. She managed, with her political connections, to prevent the importation of Elizabeth’s novel to Canada, and bought any British copies that found their way into Canada and had them burned. Mother-daughter stuff. Been there?

Elizabeth Smart chose to follow a passionate love, and chose to have children. In the face of huge social and family resistance, she raised her family as a single mother and lived her life where she wanted to and how she wanted to. I hope I’m capable of feeling for someone the way she did for George. I think that would be the greatest feeling in the world. Totally impractical.

Elizabeth Smart December 27, 1913 – Ottawa, Canada to March 4, 1986 – London, England

resources for this story

The above relies heavily on the excellent and very thorough biography of Elizabeth Smart: By Heart, by ROSEMARY SULLIVAN, Viking Books, Penguin, Toronto | 1991

Writings by Elizabeth Smart include:

  • By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, novel | 1945
  • A Bonus, poems | 1977
  • The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals, novel | 1978
  • Eleven Poems, poems | 1982
  • In the Mean Time, collection of poetry and prose | 1984
  • Necessary Secrets, early journals | 1986
  • Juvenilia, early writings, ed. Alice Van Wort
  • On the Side of Angels, early writings, vol. 2, ed. Alice Van Wort

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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