Ian Mulvany

June 24, 2023

In our time - Stevie Smith

My rating - a solid A rating.

I’d not heard of Stevie Smith before, and found this episode truly delightful. The participants of the episode had a clear fondness for the writing, and their enthusiasm shone through.

I ordered a copy of the collected works, and I love them. There is so much whimsy, and a deeply unassuming nature.

There is an 8 minute profile of her in the BBC archive, it’s well worth a watch https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/stevie-smith/zkrwcqt.

Maybe it’s the very high contrast black and white of this footage, but I get the sense of there being something of Samual Beckett in her. They were close contemporaries.

In case she is as unfamiliar to you, as she was to me, I asked GPT to summarise her life for me, this is what it came back with:

GPT generated bio:

Stevie Smith, whose real name was Florence Margaret Smith, was an English poet and novelist born on September 20, 1902, in Kingston upon Hull, and passed away on March 7, 1971. She was affectionately called “Peggy” by her family, but acquired the nickname “Stevie” when a friend remarked that she reminded him of the jockey Steve Donoghue.

Stevie’s early life was marked by the abandonment of her family by her father, who was a shipping agent. When she was three, Stevie moved to Palmers Green in North London with her mother and sister, a place she called home until her death. Her father’s abandonment affected her deeply. When Stevie was five years old, she developed tuberculous peritonitis and was sent to a sanatorium for three years. This period of illness and separation from her family gave rise to her preoccupation with death and fear, themes that later became central to her poetry.

Her mother passed away when Stevie was 16, and she was raised by her aunt Madge Spear, who was a feminist and became a significant influence in her life. Stevie was educated at Palmers Green High School and North London Collegiate School for Girls. After her education, she worked as a private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson at Newnes Publishing Company in London from 1923 to 1953.

Stevie’s poetry often dealt with themes of death, fear, and the human psyche. Her personal struggles with depression and acute nervousness influenced her works. She found solace in the thought of death as a release from her mental struggles. In her poem “A House of Mercy”, she portrayed her childhood home as a place of female strength despite the looming presence of fear.

After retiring from her secretarial job due to a nervous breakdown, Stevie gained popularity through poetry readings and broadcasts on the BBC. She attracted a younger generation of readers, including the American poet Sylvia Plath, who was a great admirer of her work.

Stevie Smith won the Cholmondeley Award and was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Her life also inspired a play titled “Stevie” by Hugh Whitemore, which was later adapted into a film starring Glenda Jackson.

If you want to dig into in our time episodes more there is a fantastic site that allows you to explore the archive in all sorts of ways: https://genmon.github.io/braggoscope/.

About Ian Mulvany

Hi, I'm Ian - I work on academic publishing systems. You can find out more about me at mulvany.net. I'm always interested in engaging with folk on these topics, if you have made your way here don't hesitate to reach out if there is anything you want to share, discuss, or ask for help with!