Canadian author Elizabeth Smart was born in Ottawa in 1913. She is best known for her prose volume, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, about her affair with British working class poet George Barker.
Smart began writing early and published her first poem when she was ten. Her family was fairly wealthy and Smart was well educated: she went to exclusive private schools and to England at age 18 to study piano at King's College, University of London. While browsing in a bookshop there she came across the book of poems by Barker and fell in love with him on the spot; thereafter she would apparently approach people at parties and ask, "Do you know George Barker? Because I'd like to meet and marry him."
In 1937 she travelled around the world in the employ of one Mrs. Alfred Watt, head of the delightfully obscure sounding group the "Associated Country Women of the World"; she was Mrs. Watt's private secretary. When she returned from her journeying, she wrote for the women's page of the "Ottawa Journal" for half a year, then left Canada and her parents' middle class life behind. She began to travel and work as a journalist - to New York, on a tramp steamer to Mexico, then to live in an artist's colony in California. All the time she was corresponding with Barker.
In California she finally met Barker, and the first line of By Grand Central Station describes how she felt: "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." She was unpleasantly surprised to discover he'd brought his wife with him, but Barker and Smart began a passionate affair anyway, and soon Smart was pregnant. She had the child in British Columbia, returning to New York with the baby to spend time with her lover. He did not give her money - he said she could count on her father, though she didn't tell her parents she had a child until she had left North America. Smart worked as a file clerk to support herself and her daughter. Barker returned to England in 1943, and, pregnant with his second child, she followed him across the wartime ocean; she spent most of her life in Britain. In all she would have four children by Barker, who had eleven other children with three other women.
She chose to live her life around a man who was never wholly hers: "I am possessed by love and have no options," she declared. Smart and Barker never married, and though he returned to her over the years, he never spent more than a month or two with her before leaving again. He didn't provide her with money, and she supported herself and her children by writing ad copy and editing; her creative work languished. She was an unwed mother of four who didn't even bother to pretend to be a widow, and she was looked down on for it, not that she cared. Her relationship with Barker was long and tumultuous; they drank heavily and had lots of fights. She once bit off part of his lip during a disagreement.
When By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was first published in 1945 it was not well received, though on its re-release in 1975 it was hailed as a masterpiece of passionate poetic prose. It has since been performed as a stage and a radio play. By 1966 Smart began to pursue her creative writing once again, and she went on to publish several volumes of poetry and prose. She returned to Canada once more to be writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta in 1982-83; she published a volume of her journals in 1985, a year before her death.
Though Smart's literary output was slim, she is a well-respected writer, even something of a cult figure, for her passionately romantic autobiographical writings.
By Grand Central Station, I sat down and wept: I will not be placated by the mechanical motions of existence, nor find consolation in the solicitude of waiters who notice my devastated face. Sleep tries to seduce me by promising a more reasonable tomorrow. But I will not be betrayed by such a Judas of fallacy: it betrays everyone: it leads them into death. Everyone acquiesces, everyone compromises. They say, As we grow older, we embrace resignation. But O, they totter into it blind and uncompromising. And from their sin, the sin of accepting such a pimp to death, there is no redemption. It is the sin of damnation.
By Elizabeth Smart:
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (novel, 1945)
A Bonus (poems, 1977)
The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals (novel, 1978)
Eleven Poems (poems, 1982)
In the Meantime (poetry and prose, 1984)
Necessary Secrets (early journals, 1986)
Juvenilia (early writings, 1987)
On the Side of Angels (early writings, 1987)
Elizabeth’s Garden (columns and journals, 1980)
About Elizabeth Smart
Memories of You (play by Wendy Lill, 1989)
By heart: Elizabeth Smart, a life (biography by Rosemary Sullivan, 1991)
Elizabeth Smart: On The Side Of The Angels (film directed by Maya Gullus, with Jackie Burroughs as Smart, narrated by Michael Ondaatje)