Stevie Smith was born in 1902 in Hull, moving to London with her mother and sister Molly when she was three. Her father was a distant presence in her life, spending most of his time at sea and visiting the family rarely. Her mother died when Stevie was sixteen, and thus her mother’s sister, who had been actively involved in her upbringing, became a core influence in her adult life. The name Stevie was not the one the writer was born with – her original names were Florence Margaret and her family called her Peggy. One day when she was riding a friend suggested she looked like the jockey Steve Donaghue; Steve became Stevie, and the nickname stuck. Stevie was a small woman, prone to illness both as a child and adult, she spent thirty years working as a secretary for the publishers Newnes. Stevie never married – her true love was writing, both prose and poetry.
Stevie Smith wrote three novels, published between 1936 and 1949 - Novel on Yellow Paper, Over the Frontier and The Holiday. Her novels, written before and after the Second World War, explore the politics of her time and the complexities of relationships. She was also an artist, using some of her drawings to illustrate her books, but was best known for her poetry. Stevie Smith published numerous poetry volumes, including one bearing the title of her most famous poem Not Waving But Drowning, an extremely powerful piece of writing which draws the reader/listener in from the start:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning.
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Kay Dick’s book Ivy and Stevie contains a transcript of an interview with Stevie Smith in November 1970, a few months before Stevie died. The interview is followed by the author’s thoughts about Stevie, imbued with insight gained through a long friendship which started when they both worked at Newnes. The book offers a wonderful insight into Stevie Smith’s life, and provided much of the material for a play, called simply Stevie, by Hugh Whitemore. The play demands a commanding performance from the actress in the title role; it was filmed in 1978 with Glenda Jackson taking the role of Stevie.
If you have not come across Stevie Smith’s work I would encourage you to try some of her poetry. It has both directness and eloquence; often a story is painted in a few sparse lines, as with Autumn, a poem that captures changing expectations and priorities in the autumn of life.