Most of the letters by Stevie Smith I’ve seen, so far, have been written in the 50s and 60s. My research has turned up a lot of back-and-forth about publication rights, translation, performances at festivals – and very little about her actual writing.
Which is why yesterday’s visit to Trinity College, Oxford, was so exciting.
Trinity has three letters from Smith, all addressed to Robert Nichols. All are dated 1936, immediately after the publication of Novel on Yellow Paper. Smith is thanking Nichols for his interest in the book – and sharing insights into her work, at the same time.
The first letter is dated 30th September 1936.
The Novel on Yellow Paper is altogether the truth as you will have supposed and as I am Pompey I must only say that I hope you are right and that she is wise and brave. But I am afraid that she is often not either.
It’s a nice, wry moment. Smith moves from fully inhabiting her protagonist (‘I am Pompey’) to a slightly disapproving, distanced schoolmistressy act of judgement – ‘I hope you are right and that she is wise and brave. But I am afraid that she is often not either.’ B- on Pompey’s report card, then. Which Smith manages, somehow, to dodge for herself.
But the letter gets even better.
I think the idea that Death is my Servant and that there is this insidious poison is thinking that things may become more than we can bear that came to me when I was a child, the one idea to be the antidote to the poison of the other, is right enough so far as it goes and as an antidote, but I feel that it is childish too in its content, as a childish gesture of defiance in the face of pain, as it came to me when I was a child, but that there is something else remaining to be thought of by now that I am grown up.
These long run-on sentences are extremely rare in her later, very correct letters. And I love the ambivalence of this passage. She pulls back, at the last minute, from subscribing fully to her glorious, assertive proclamations in Novel on Yellow Paper: “when I sat up and said: Death has got to come if I call him, I never called him and never have.”
Yet she doesn’t commit to an alternative approach. ‘There is something else remaining to be thought of’. But what could this something be?
Thanks to Clare Hopkins at the Trinity College Archive, for generous permission to share images of these letters from the Nichols collection!