9 Westbourne Terrace, Paddington, London W2, UK
The Dell, Flixton Hall Est, Bungay NR35 1NP, UK
St George's churchyard, Fox Hill, St Cross South Elmham, Harleston IP20 0NX, UK
Elizabeth Smart (December 27, 1913 – March 4, 1986) was a Canadian poet and novelist. Her book, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, detailed her romance with the poet George Barker. She is the subject of the 1991 biography, By Heart: Elizabeth Smart a Life, by Rosemary Sullivan, and a film, Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels, produced by Maya Gallus of Red Queen Productions.
Smart was born to a prominent family in Ottawa, Ontario; her father, Russel Smart, was a lawyer, and the family had a summer house on Kingsmere Lake located next door to the future Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Her sister, Jane became a filmmaker, teacher and sculptor.
Smart attended the Ottawa Normal School in her formative years, but was soon transferred to the Elmwood School, a private prep school for girls located in an affluent Ottawa neighbourhood. She later attended Hatfield Hall in Cobourg, Ontario for secondary school.
At the age of 11, Smart was confined to bed for a year due to a misdiagnosed "leaky heart valve". She began writing at an early age, publishing her first poem at the age of 10 and compiling a collection of poetry at 15. In her youth, she often kept regular journals, a habit she would keep up throughout most of her life.
Smart grew up among the social elite of Ottawa through her father's connections as a lawyer. Her mother often hosted parties for prominent politicians and civil servants. As a result, Smart socialized with many members of Ottawa's political class who were or would become important figures in Canadian history, including acquaintances such as Graham Spry, Charles Ritchie, Lester B. Pearson, and William Lyon Mackenzie King.
At the age of 18, following graduation from secondary school, Smart traveled to England to study music at the University of London.
In 1937 Smart took a job as secretary to the noted Mrs. Alfred Watt, head of the Associated Country Women of the World, an international organization for rural women, travelling extensively throughout the world accompanying Watt to various conferences. It was during this time that Smart happened across a book of poetry by George Barker, immediately falling in love not only with the poetry, but with the man himself.
After her travels with Mrs. Watt, Smart returned to Ottawa where she spent six months writing society notes for the women's page of The Ottawa Journal. At parties she would often ask about Barker, saying she wanted to meet and marry him. Soon Smart began a correspondence with the poet.
Eager to launch her writing career, Smart quit the Journal and left Ottawa for good. Traveling on her own, she visited New York, Mexico and California, joining a writers' colony at Big Sur. While there, Smart made contact with Barker through Lawrence Durrell, paying to fly Barker and his wife to the United States from Japan where he was teaching. Soon after meeting, they began a tumultuous affair which was to last for years.
In 1941, after becoming pregnant, Smart returned to Canada, settling in Pender Harbour, British Columbia to have the child she would name Georgina. Barker attempted to visit her in Canada, but Smart's family exerted influence on government officials, and consequently he was turned back at the border, cited with "moral turpitude." It was during this time that Smart produced what would become her best-known work, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945).
Smart soon returned to the United States and began work as a file clerk for the British embassy in Washington. Two years later, in 1943, during the height of the war, she sailed to the United Kingdom to join Barker. There she gave birth to their second child, Christopher Barker, and obtained employment at the British Ministry of Defence to support her children.
Just 2000 copies of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept were published in 1945, and it did not achieve popularity until a good deal later. It is a fictional work, largely based on Smart's affair with Barker up until that point. "The power of emotion to transform one’s perspective on the world," a recent Open Letters Monthly review of the novel states, "is the theme of this wildly poetic novel. The inspiration for Smart’s classic work of prose poetry is just as famous as the book itself.
Smart's mother Louise ("Louie") was not pleased with the book. Again availing influence with government officials, she led a successful campaign to have its publication banned in Canada. Of those copies that made their way into the country from overseas, Louise Smart bought up as many as she could find and had them burned.
Barker visited Smart often in London where she worked. She became pregnant again, and was fired from the Ministry of Information. Their affair produced two more children (Sebastian, born 1945, and Rose Emma, born 1947). Through it all Barker, who was Catholic, said he would leave his wife for Smart, but this never happened (he was to have fifteen children by several different women). They lived a bohemian lifestyle and associated with many of the 'Soho' artists. Christopher Barker writing in the Guardian about this period: "On many occasions through the early Sixties, writers and painters such as David Gascoyne, Paddy Kavanagh, Roberts MacBryde and Colquhoun and Paddy Swift [Swift lived downstairs from Smart and his wife, Agnes, wrote cookbooks with Smart] would gather at Westbourne Terrace in Paddington, our family home at that time. They came for editorial discussions about their poetry magazine, X."
In addition to the unconventional nature of the relationship, the affair was fraught with turmoil. Barker was a heavy drinker and Smart took up the habit, which intensified when the two were together. The couple were involved in numerous fights; during one argument, Smart bit off part of Barker's upper lip. Nonetheless, as evidenced from writings in her journals, Smart's love for Barker continued for the remainder of her life.
Raising four children on her own, Smart worked for 13 years as an advertising copywriter. She then joined the staff of Queen magazine in 1963, later becoming an editor. She became at length the highest-paid copywriter in England. During this time her physical involvement with Barker waned; she lived a bohemian lifestyle in Soho and took several other lovers, some men and some women.
Meanwhile, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept had been circulating in London and New York, acquiring a cult following that led to its paperback reissue in 1966 and critical acclaim. In the same year, Smart retired from commercial writing and relocated to a cottage in north Suffolk named "The Dell".
It was at The Dell that Smart produced the bulk of her subsequent literary work, much of which has been published posthumously. Eager to make up for the time away from creative writing forced by the demands of raising her children, Smart wrote voluminously and on a number of subjects, poetry and prose, even her passion for gardening.
In 1977, following a 32-year absence from the book world, Smart published two new works, The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals and a small collection of poetry, titled A Bonus. Later, In the Meantime (1984), a collection of Smart's unpublished poetry and prose appeared, and her two volumes of journals, Necessary Secrets: The Journals of Elizabeth Smart (1986) were published posthumously.
Smart returned to Canada for a brief stay from 1982 to 1983, becoming writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta. Afterward she spent a year in Toronto on a Canada Council writer's grant before returning to England. In 1986 she died in London of a heart attack. She is buried in St George's churchyard, Saint Cross South Elmham, Suffolk.
An hour-long documentary, "Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels"(1991) by Maya Gallus starred renowned actor Jackie Burroughs as Elizabeth Smart and was narrated by author Michael Ondaatje. 'The publication of her journals in On The Side of the Angels brought further posthumous critical appreciation.
My published books:
BACK TO HOME PAGE