Biography of Elizabeth Smart (1913 – 1986)
Elizabeth Smart (December 27, 1913 – March 4, 1986) was a Canadian poet and novelist. Her book, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, detailed her romance with the poet George Barker. She is the subject of the 1991 biography, By Heart: Elizabeth Smart a Life, by Rosemary Sullivan, and a film Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels produced by Maya Gallus.
Smart was born to a prominent family in Ottawa, Ontario; her father was an attorney, and the family had a house on Kingsmere Lake next door to the future Prime Minister, WL Mackenzie King. She began writing at an early age, publishing her first poem at the age of ten and compiling a collection of poetry at 15. She attended Hatfield Hall, a private school in Coburg, Ontario, and at the age of 18 studied piano for a year at King’s College of the University of London.
In 1937 she gained employment as the secretary to Margaret (Mrs. Alfred) Watt, who was head of the Associated Country Women of the World. Smart travelled extensively throughout the world accompanying Mrs. Watt to various conferences. It was during this time that she happened across a book of poetry by George Barker, immediately falling in love not only with the poetry, but with the man himself.
After her employment with Mrs. Watt she returned to Ottawa, where she spent six months writing for the women’s page of the Ottawa Journal. At parties, she would often ask about Barker, saying she wanted to meet and marry him. Soon she began a correspondence with Barker.
Eager to launch her writing career, Smart quit the Journal and left Ottawa for good, and began to travel on her own, visiting New York, Mexico and California, joining a writers’ colony at Big Sur. While in California, she paid to fly Barker and his wife from Japan, where he was teaching, to the United States. After the two met, they began having an affair which was to last for years.
In 1941 Smart became pregnant with her first child by Barker, Georgina, and returned to Pender Harbor, British Columbia to have the child. Barker attempted to visit her in Canada, but Smart’s family exerted influence on officials, and consequently Barker was turned back at the border, cited with “moral turpitude.”
Smart soon thereafter returned to the United States and began work as a file clerk for the British embassy in Washington. Two years later she became pregnant again, and left the United States by ship during the height of the war in 1943 to join Barker in the UK. She gave birth to their second child, Christopher, and obtained employment at the British Ministry of Defence to provide support for her son and daughter.
It was during this time that Smart produced her best-known work, Grand Central Station, which was published in 1945 but didn’t achieve great popularity until a good deal later. It is a fictional work, but largely based on Smart’s affair with Barker up to that point.
Smart’s mother Louise (“Louie”) was not at all pleased with the book. Again availing influence with government officials, she led a successful campaign to have its publication banned in Canada. Of those copies that made their way into the country from overseas, Louise Smart bought as many as she could find and burned them.
Barker visited Smart often in London, and their affair produced two more children (Christian, born 1945, and Rose Emma, born 1947). Through it all Barker often said he would leave his wife for Smart, but this never occurred. Barker’s wife, Jessica, was aware of the affair and nevertheless stayed on good terms with Smart; the two corresponded for several years.
In addition to the unconventional nature of the relationship, the affair was fraught with turmoil. Barker was a heavy drinker, and Smart took up the habit, which intensified when the two were together. The couple were involved in numerous fights—during one argument, Smart bit off part of Barker’s lip. Nonetheless, as evidenced from writings in her journals, Smart’s love for Barker continued for the remainder of her life.
Raising the four children on her own, Smart worked for thirteen years as an advertising copywriter, then joined the staff of Queen magazine in 1963, later becoming an editor. She became at length the highest-paid copywriter in England. During this time her physical involvement with Barker waned; she lived a bohemian lifestyle in Soho and took several other lovers, some men and some women.
In 1966, Smart retired from commercial writing and relocated to a cottage in north Suffolk named “The Dell.” It was here she produced the bulk of her literary work, much of which has been published posthumously. Eager to make up for the time away from creative writing forced by the demands of raising her children, Smart wrote voluminously and on several subjects, poetry and prose, even her love of gardening.
Smart returned to Canada for a brief stay in 1982-3, becoming writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and afterwards spending another year in Toronto on a Canada Council writer’s grant. She then returned to England, where she died in London of a heart attack.
Biography By: This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Elizabeth Smart.