Thursday 22 March 2018

An unsettling story of obsessive love

Poetic: Elizabeth Smart embarked on an 18-year affair with George Baker
Poetic: Elizabeth Smart embarked on an 18-year affair with George Baker
By Grand Central Station

Valerie Shanley

In a bookstore on Charing Cross Road in the summer of 1937, a young Canadian woman discovered a slim volume of poetry, fell in love with its English author, and vowed to marry him.

This is the back-story to Elizabeth Smart's novel about her on-off tempestuous affair with an unnamed lover; in real-life, the married poet George Barker. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, now reissued on the 70th anniversary of its publication, is a sensuous and unsettling tale of obsessive love. At just over 100 pages, this story, pulsating with passion and a poetic prose that sets it apart from romantic fiction, will resonate emotionally for some, and exhaust others.

Smart and Barker met in California in 1940. The affluent and highly educated young writer masqueraded as a collector of manuscripts and persuaded the poet to leave his unhappy teaching post in Japan and join her on the artists' colony where she was living in Big Sur. She even paid for his ticket... and his wife's. The book opens with that first meeting. "I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire." But it's Jessica, Barker's wife, who first comes into view, "trusting as the untempted. Her eyes shower me with their innocence and surprise." Jessica quickly becomes an afterthought; Smart is resolute, and besotted.

"He never passes anywhere near me without every drop of my blood springing to attention." When he first takes her hand and kisses her, she is almost overwhelmed by "the tremendous gentleness" of the moment. And so began the affair.

"Before this, nothing was. There are no minor facts in life, there is only one tremendous one."

When the two of them - travelling as a couple but regarded with suspicion as he is married elsewhere - are questioned while crossing the border from Arizona, the police have him down as 'a cad', she as 'a religious maniac'. Their 18-year, on-off affair, with Barker both geographically as well as emotionally distant for most of it, resulted in four children. She followed him, from California to London, and to Ireland at one point. Barker's mother was Irish Catholic and it suited him to observe the church's forbiddance of divorce. Single mother Smart becomes ostracised from her disappointed parents. The couple are socially outcast and the largely absent Barker's resolve to live life as a poet means Smart's existence is one of borderline poverty, vulnerability and loneliness. In the book, she hints at violence from him, yet her love remains true - baffling for many readers now, as then.

When it came out in 1945 with a limited print of 2,000, Smart's influential mother bought up and burned as many copies of the book as she could and also attempted to have it banned in Canada. Smart raised and supported their four children alone; Barker remained married, fathering 15 children with four different partners.

The writer Angela Carter said the book was: "Like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning," but later qualified that praise, explaining to her friend Lorna Sage that the reason she (Carter) set up the feminist press Virago was so that "no daughter of mine should ever be in the position to be able to write By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept - exquisite prose though it might be." Yet it's the consummation of physical love with a love of language itself that ensures the book's narrator is the poetic equal - if not superior - to the object of her desire.


By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept

Elizabeth Smart

Fourth Estate, pbk, 160 pages

Available with free P&P on

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