Smith’s Life


Stevie Smith (1902-1971) was born in Hull, the second daughter of Ethel and Charles Smith. She was christened Florence Margaret, but always called Peggy by the family. She aquired the name Stevie as a young woman when she was riding in the park with a friend who said she reminded him of the jockey, Steve Donaghue.

Her father runs away to sea.

When she was three years old her father left home. His business as a shipping agent, which he inherited from his father, was failing and so was his marriage and he ran away to sea where he worked as a ship’s purser.  Stevie Smith saw very little of her father, he appeared only occasionally and sent brief postcards, for example: "Off to Valparaiso, love Daddy’. She resented the fact that he had left the family, found him boring and always disliked him.

The extended female family moves to a London Suburb

Her aunt Madge, Ethel’s sister, came to live with them after Charles deserted them. Awidowed aunt also attached herself to the household, everyone pooled their resources and the 3 women and two small girls moved to Palmers Green, then on the edge of London. The family were regular churchgoers and as a child Stevie enjoyed the hymns and psalms. Later her relationship with religion changed; she became agnostic and even antagonistic to Christianity but she said that there was always a danger that she would lapse into belief.

The TB sanatorium

When Stevie was 5 she developed tuberculous peritonitis and was sent to a sanatorium near Broadstairs, where she remained on and off for several years. She maintained that her preoccupation with death began when she was seven, at a time when she was very distressed at being sent away from her mother. She thought that if she kept refusing to eat she would die, and her misery would end. When she found she did not die immediately she began to think that she need not die today, death could be put off to another day. However she always kept in mind the thought that death could be summoned at any time is she decided that her suffering was more than shw could bear. She continued to find this thought helpful throughout her life.

Schooldays and the death of her mother

Stevie Smith went to a local girls school but did not go to university; she said her teachers did not feel she was suited to University, and maybe she did not want to become a teacher, the main career open to female graduates at that time. Her mother die of heart disease when Stevie was sixteen which she found a harrowing experience. Her aunt Madge, a stalwart and sensible Yorkshire woman continued to mother Stevie for the rest of her life, or until she became so old and infirm thst Stevie had to look after her. Aunt was not a literary person, regarding her neice’s early poems as ‘unnecessary’. 

Stevie Smith works as a Secretary and becomes engaged

Stevie wanted to become an explorer when she left school but as an advert in the Times yielded no serious response she attended Mrs Hoster’s secretarial school for 6 months and then worked for the publishing company Newnes as private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson. This occupation was much beneath her talents but gave her time to write. The title of her first novel; Novel on Yellow Paper refers to the fact that it was typed on the yellow paper that Newnes  used for carbon copies. During her twenties Smith read extensively and used notes she made then throughout her career as a writer. She also visited art exhibitions regularly where she met a German student, Karl Eckinger in1928. She visited Germany in 1929 with Karl, and again in 1931, by which time the relationship was over.

in 1932 she became involved with a young man from Palmers Green, Eric Armitage, who became upset when Stevie refused to marry him. The poem Freddy highlights the difference between the worlds of her literary friends who considered Eric was dull, and that of the local tennis club which she found very dull. Smith never married and said she would not have been much good as a wife and mother. Remaining with her aunt had advantages to her as a writer, she had a room of her own and someone dependable and undemanding to look after her.

Smith’s first novel and collection of poems is published.

Although Smith had been writing for about 10 years it wasn’t until 1934 that she submitted some poems to a literary agency. She was given the rather strange advice to write a novel. Novel on Yellow Paper appeared in 1936, so called because it was printed on the yellow paper that Newnes used for carbon copies. It is a stream of consciousness novel closely based on her own life and was immediately popular. She acquired a wide circle of literary friends, with whom she often stayed for weekends or longer. She continued to live with her aunt a Palmers Green, which fiends found inconvenient when they were asked to drive her home from parties. Smith’s first book of poems A Good Time was had by All appeared in 1937. In 1938 her second novel Over the Frontier and second book of poems Tender Only to One were published and in 1942 another poetry book Mother What is Man. During the war she did fire watching at night.

Smith develops her writing and friendships

in 1949 her father, who had remarried and been widowed for a second time, died. Smith did not go to the funeral as she was doing a reading for the BBC that day. In the same year Smith’s third and last novel The Holiday was published. Her novels are all lightly fictionalised accounts of her own life, and she said that two of the male characters in The Holiday were different aspects of Geoge Orwell, who was a close friend. It was even rumoured that they. were lovers, he was married to his first wife at the time. Smith once said that she found it difficult to get the ‘a deux fixe’. her relationship with her aunt may well have been the strongest attachment in her life. it has been suggested that Stevie also had a lesbian affair not long after the war.

The 50’s are difficult

In 1950 another book of poems Harold’s Leap was published, but she found it difficult to find magazines that wanted her poetry and in 1953 she had some sort of crisis at work. it’s not known what happened exactly but she cut her wrists with scissors and was taken to hospital.  This does not seem to have been a very serious suicide attempt as she was discharged to a friend’s house. She was reported to be angry rther than depressed and later very remorseful as her aunt had been very upset. She recovered after a short holiday in Pembrokeshire but was retired from Newnes on health grounds and givn a small pension of £5.10 shillings a week. She supplemented this tiny income with book reviews on a variety of subjects ncluding theology. These books often sparked ff poems. In 1957 the collection not Waving but Drowning was published and in 1958 a collection of her sketches Some are more Human than Others . In 1959 she wrote the text for The Batsford Book of Cats in Colour and edited The Batsford book of Children’s Verse

Fame again in the 60s.

In the 60’s she often appeared at poetry readings with younger poets such as Michael Horovitz and Brian Patten. She was popular with younger audiences and took great care with the performance of her poems, often half singing them. She read her poems for the BBC and made a long playing record. In 1962 the first edition of her Selected Poems appeared and in 1966 the Frog Prince collection. Her aunt became increasingly disabled, and Smith learned for the first time hw to peel potatoes and run the house. She cared for her aunt until her death from a stroke at the age of 96.  

Death from a brain tumour

In 1969 the collection The Best Beast was published. in 1936 Smith’s sister had a stroke, and though they had not been close Smith spent s lot of time with her following her aunt’s death. in 1970 Smith noticed that she was often unable to remember words, a terrible thing to happen to a poet. A brain tumour was diagnosed and she died in hospital in Devon, where he sister lived, on 13 March 1971 ans was cremated at Torquay Crematorium. The entry in the records is under the name of Florence Margaret (Stevie) Smith.  Her last collection Scorpion and other poems was published posthumously in 1972 and the Collected Poems in 1975. A new edition, The Collected poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith was published in 2015, edited and with an introduction by Will May.


My main source for this short biography was Stevie Smith, a Critical Biography by Frances Spalding, pubished by Faber in 1988 and republished in 2002. I also read Stevie, a Biography of Stevie Smith by Jack Barbara and William McBrien, published by Wm Heinmann in 1985 and now out of print, Me Again, Uncollected writings of Stevie Smith published by Virago Press in 1981 and now out of print and also In Search of Stevie Smith by Stanford Sternlicht and published in 1991 by Syracuse University Press and out of print. I also read Smith’s semi-autobiographical novels.

For more on Smith’s connections with other writers and other writers opinions of Smith’s poems go to Smith’s connections 

Link here to Smith and music , the poems  Cats RolandineFrog PrinceJungle HusbandSuburb Fafnir Smith’s relationship with God  or the Darwin Homepage © Anne Bryan 2018