Smart, Elizabeth (1913–1986)

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Smart, Elizabeth (1913–1986)

Canadian-born novelist and poet. Born on December 27, 1913, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; died of a heart attack on March 4, 1986, in London, England; daughter of Russel Smart (a patent lawyer) and Emma Louise Parr; graduated from Hatfield Hall in Canada; attended King's College in England; never married; children: (with poet George Barker) Georgina, Christopher, Sebastian, Rose.

Selected writings:

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945); A Bonus (1977); The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals (1978); Ten Poems (1981); Eleven Poems (1982); In the Meantime (1984); Necessary Secrets: The Journals of Elizabeth Smart (1986); Juvenilia: Early Writings of Elizabeth Smart (1987); Autobiographies (1987).

Born in 1913 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Elizabeth Smart was the third child of Russel Smart, a patent attorney, and Emma "Louie" Smart , who highly valued their place in the social circle of Ottawa diplomatic and political life. Her mother would not permit her to attend college after she finished her studies at the private Hatfield Hall, so Smart and her sister instead spent a year in England. There she fulfilled her role as a debutante by studying music and violated it by attending King's College. On her return to Ottawa, she decided to pursue writing rather than music and wrote society notes and editorials for the Ottawa Journal before departing for the more literary environment of New York City. After she submitted some poems to Lawrence Durrell, Smart received an introduction to poet George Barker, with whom she would have four children and live with on and off for many years, despite the fact that he remained married to another woman.

Smart returned to Canada in 1940, living at Pender Harbour in British Columbia, where the first of her children with Barker was born in August 1941. During her stay at Pender Harbour, Smart wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), a lyrical novel in first person with a loosely autobiographical plot. The story of a passionate wartime affair which meets with social and legal repression, it depicts the impossibility of love in a brutalized world and the tragic predicament of a woman who views herself as condemned always to wait for a man over whose actions she can have no control.

Three decades would pass between this first novel and her second publication. During World War II, Smart lived with Barker in Washington, D.C., working at the British Army Office and then at the Information Office of the British Embassy. In 1943, expecting her second child, she arranged a transfer from Washington to London. Though she was dismissed from her job on arrival because of her pregnancy, she resolved to stay in England and over the next 20 years supported herself and her children with a variety of jobs in journalism, including writing for fashion magazines and doing advertising copywriting.

In 1966, Smart retired to a cottage in Flixton, north Suffolk. There she devoted herself to gardening, to raising two grandchildren, and, as evidenced by her journals during this period, to a long struggle with writer's block. A Bonus, a collection of poems published in 1977, reveals the preoccupations of Smart's life. It is an uneven book, reflecting its author's disdain for literary fashion and her ability to capture in an image or an epigram the wisdom and violence of her struggle. The great traditional theme of the garden dominates the book, its fertility and rampant energy moving the poet to meditations on her characteristic concerns of pain, futility, love, and death.

Smart's second novel, The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, was published in 1978. Employing a first-person narrator who sporadically observes her world and reflects upon it, this novel comments much more sharply upon the position of women in modern society than had Smart's earlier works. The novel as a whole presents its narrator's episodic discovery of her own strength and command of the "eccentric genes" necessary for writing. Ten Poems (1981) and Eleven Poems (1982) followed.

Published in 1984, In the Meantime is a varied collection of works—poems, an autobiographical sketch of childhood, a 1979 extract from her journals, and a biographical narrative, written in 1939, about Smart's lifelong sense of being haunted and determined by her obsessively protective mother. This story, "Dig a Grave and Let Us Bury Our Mother," is considered one of her most powerful works, and has been compared to Djuna Barnes ' novel Nightwood both in theme and style. Among the poems collected in In the Meantime is a sequence concerned with another aspect of Smart's last years, her return to Canada as a recipient of a Senior Arts Grant from the Canada Council in 1982. Living first in Toronto and then taking up an appointment as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Smart sought understanding from a new generation of readers. She then returned to England, where she died in London on March 4, 1986, shortly after the publication of her journals as Necessary Secrets, which reveals the autobiographical basis of most of her works.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Sullivan, Rosemary. By Heart: The Life of Elizabeth Smart. Flamingo, 1991.

Weir, Lorraine. "Elizabeth Smart," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 88: Canadian Writers, 1920–1959. Second Series. Edited by W.H. New. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.

Kimberly A. Burton , B.A., M.I.S., Ann Arbor, Michigan