Monday 17 December 2018

Obituary: Emma Smith

Award-winning novelist whose career flourished after half a century in obscurity

FOCUS: The famous Robert Doisneau photograph of Emma Smith working at her typewriter by the Seine in 1948
FOCUS: The famous Robert Doisneau photograph of Emma Smith working at her typewriter by the Seine in 1948

Emma Smith, who died last Tuesday aged 94, looked set in the late 1940s to become a leading English novelist after publishing two highly successful books in her early 20s. In the event, she virtually stopped writing, but in old age, saw her early works republished to renewed acclaim, and resumed her career with two highly praised volumes of autobiography.

She was able, in her early fiction, to draw on a range of unusually adventurous experiences for a young middle-class woman of her generation, having been spared the life of secretarial drudgery by the intervention of World War II.

She was born Elspeth Hallsmith in Newquay, Cornwall, on August 21 1923, into what she called "a deeply unhappy, dysfunctional family". Her father Guthrie, a bank clerk who had been badly affected by his service in the First World War, "overshadowed our family like a black cloud", she said.

He was prone to terrifying outbursts and when she was 12, not long after the family had moved to Dartmoor, she felt relief when he abandoned his wife Janet and their children to pursue a career as a painter. In later life, though, she came to appreciate how much he had done, despite his other shortcomings, to stimulate her love of literature.

Early in the war, she went to do clerical work for a branch of Britain's War Office - or MI5, as she admitted in later life - in Blenheim Palace, but although glad to have escaped home, she was bored stiff, and answered an advertisement for women to work on canal narrowboats idle since their male crews had been called up. Aged 19, she found herself working with young women from all social backgrounds on three-week round-trips ferrying steel to Birmingham and coal back to London.

It was physically demanding work and lavatory facilities were rudimentary - "bucket and chuck it", she recalled - but she was proud to earn the respect of bargemen and dockers, and found the experience hugely liberating. In 1948, she published Maidens' Trip, a lightly fictionalised account of her adventures, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was a bestseller. "It was what people wanted, something light-hearted about the war," she reflected in old age.

In the meantime, she had met the film-maker Raymond "Bunny" Keene when he asked her to dance at the Gargoyle Club, and in 1946 she agreed to accompany him as a gofer on a trip to India to make a documentary about tea plantations.

The scriptwriter accompanying the party was Laurie Lee, who encouraged her early attempts at writing (as she encouraged his) and suggested she take "Emma Smith" as a pseudonym. "People always tried to make me say I had a love affair with Laurie," she said in 2009. "But he was just a very good friend. I went off [him], though - he needed so much adulation."

The contrast between drab wartime London and the colour of Bombay and Calcutta hit her "like an explosion", she said, and she kept a detailed diary of her trip; on her return she went to live in Paris and started to write another novel based on her experiences. One day, while working on her typewriter by the Seine, she was unwittingly snapped by the photographer Robert Doisneau. It became one of the most famous examples of his work, but it was not until 2013 that Emma Smith revealed herself to be its subject.

Her second novel, The Far Cry, was published in 1949. The story of an English girl spirited off to India by her neurotic father to escape the clutches of his loathed ex-wife, her mother, it proved to be Emma Smith's masterpiece. It was another popular and critical success, and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Elizabeth Bowen hailed "a savage comedy with a vicious streak... She brings to English fiction something too often lacking: a super-abundant vitality."

In 1951 Emma Smith married Richard Stewart-Jones, an architectural conservationist who had once been the lover of James Lees-Milne, a month after she met him at a new year ball. She enjoyed a smart social life unlike anything she had known before, and lost interest in writing.

In 1957 her husband died of a heart attack, leaving considerable debts, and Emma Smith went with her son and daughter to live in a cottage with no electricity or running water in Wales; she occupied her time by writing children's books. She published another novel for adults, The Opportunity of a Lifetime, in 1978, and the following year Maidens' Trip was dramatised on BBC Two, but it was not until 2002, when Persephone Books reissued The Far Cry as part of a series of neglected classics by women, that her work again received serious attention.

Emma Smith, who wore bright colours and even as an octogenarian, had an air of 1930s' Bohemia, was delighted to receive praise from writers such as Michael Ondaatje. She decided to return to writing for a wider audience, keen to record her experiences for her grandchildren.

Her two volumes of memoir were The Great Western Beach (2008), describing her childhood in Cornwall, and As Green As Grass (2013), dealing with her life up to her marriage. It was typical of her determined personality that she finished the latter despite a broken back. Her publisher noted she had "total recall" and, unlike many memoirists, invented nothing.

Emma Smith is survived by her son and daughter.

© Telegraph

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