Mrs Killick’s Luck is, I think, the strangest of Stevie Smith’s literary involvements. Which is saying something for an author who captioned a book of cat photographs.
Mrs Killick’s Luck is a novel written by a nine-year-old. Christina Fitzgerald (Penelope Fitzgerald‘s daughter) won a writing competition in 1960. She expanded her winning short story – in which Mrs Killick marries Lord Poshenuff and ‘[gets] above herself’ – into a full-length book. More detail in Vicki Ziegler’s excellent post here.
Stevie Smith wrote the foreword. How did she get the gig? I suspect there was a veiled insult in there; someone probably thought she was childish enough to do right by it. Anyway, Smith awarded the book warm but measured praise:
This child’s sense of character seems to me remarkable…and always the exact right stroke to bring it out, and nothing too long or too much; and then the shape of the story – plot, sub-plot, satisfying ending; splendid.
Her introduction presents lots of quotations from the book in rapid succession. This is Stevie Smith’s mode; it’s how she writes essays like ‘Syler’s Green’, ‘Too Tired for Words’ and ‘My Muse’, packed full of her own poetry. And the parts which Smith picks out to praise, from Mrs Killick’s Luck, could have come straight out of her writing. She likes the inconsequential detail, granted hyperfocus:
The new furniture is ‘very feeble’ and comes in Mr Bloggitt’s van which is labelled in front ‘Here comes Bloggitts’ and at the back, ‘There goes Bloggitts’.
Novel on Yellow Paper and The Holiday are full of details of this sort: lingered on, affectlessly described, as by a mind too – what? Tired, or naive? – to discriminate between the significant and the insignificant. Then Smith quotes a poem which Christina has her characters write.
When the little children who are the heroes of this story come to visit the lord she sends them away without tea…The children write a poem about this, called Dissapointment. The last verse is:
We went to have a treat
There was no food to eat.
Echoes of Stevie Smith, definitely. Aloft,/ In the loft,/ Sits Croft;/ He is soft? Who are we giving too much credit to here: Stevie Smith, who writes this sort of thing aged fifty-eight, or the nine-year-old girl whose short story was granted a novel’s pomp and glory? Children troubled Stevie Smith: her friends thought they threatened her limelight, or showed up the cracks in her artless self-presentation. How should she hold her own writing against this text? A nine-year-old is naive, to publish her book is faux-naive, and Stevie Smith resisted being seen as either. Perhaps this is why her foreword pulls back into austere, noncommittal faint praise:
Sometimes, but not always, children’s talent is a passing thing…I do not know why this should be so, nor do I think it matters. The story we have here…is an act in itself and is enough.
Out comes the schoolmistress-voice – just a little, round the edges. Sit down and stop showing off. Enough.