Thanet Writers Spotlight Stevie Smith

David Chitty highlights the life, works and legacy of poet and novelist Stevie Smith, and spotlights her connection to Thanet.

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Stevie Smith was a poet and novelist. She was born Florence Margaret Smith in 1902, and later earned the nickname Stevie after a friend said that she reminded him of the jockey Steve Donoghue. When Stevie was three, her father ran away from home to escape a failing marriage and a failing company. This impacted her greatly and heavily influenced her work as an adult.

When Stevie was five, she suffered another blow when she was sent away from her family to a sanatorium—a medical facility for long-term illness—near Broadstairs, where she stayed for three years to be treated for tuberculous peritonitis. It was during this time that Stevie developed a preoccupation with death. Having lost her father not long prior and now being forced to be away from the rest of her family, Stevie suffered with depression for the entirety of her life, and this can be seen in the majority of her written work. She would describe death as “the only god who must come when called.”

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When Stevie’s mother became ill, her aunt, Madge Spear, came to live with the family and help care for Stevie and her sister, Molly. Madge was described as having ‘no patience’ with men and raised Stevie and Molly with strong feminist ideals. They were taught to value their own independence against the traditional Victorian notion of ‘father knows best.’ These ideals also made their way into Stevie’s writing.

Stevie’s first major work was in 1936, when she was thirty-four. Stevie published her first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper, which was followed up in 1938 with her second novel, Over the Frontier. In 1949 her final novel, The Holiday, was published. All of Stevie’s novels have a central theme running through them where certain viewpoints are challenged. Novel on Yellow Paper begins with the main character, Pompey, disrespecting the Jewish population, then visiting Germany during the rise of the Nazi party, which challenges these views. Over the Frontier discusses the issue around how one fights the rise of fascism without descending yourself into the very nationalisation and dehumanisation you’re trying to fight. The final novel, Stevie’s favourite of the three, challenges the main character’s views on nationalism and colonialism post-World War Two.

Stevie was a much more prolific poet than she was a novelist. In her lifetime she published more than ten poetry collections and published nearly as many posthumously. Her poetry was hard to define as it didn’t fit into any of the genres of the time and was different from what others were doing. This led to a sometimes lacklustre critical reception for Stevie’s works, but it did result in a great deal of respect and acclaim from her peers. Despite, at times, her childlike and innocent presentation, much of Stevie’s work focused around death and the horrifying nature of things that often hides behind innocent appearances.

Stevie Smith is not often a name that comes to mind when the majority of people think of influential people in the world of literature during the Second World War, unfortunately. Stevie’s work challenged the idea of nationalism and the traditional family values of the time and, ultimately, asked the hard questions of her readers—not in the least, how to fight something without becoming it yourself—and she did so in a way that almost defied definition. During the troubled times that we seem to be in at the minute, I think her work is just as pertinent and relevant as it was when she wrote it.

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David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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