Elizabeth Smart: Possessed by love

by dollydelightly

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a threnody for an illicit love affair between Elizabeth Smart and George Barker, which lasted 18 years caused outrage, despair, shame, bouts of “happiness as inexhaustible as the ocean” and resulted in four children. All this while Barker was married to someone else. In the early 1930s, Smart – a promising young writer from a prominent Canadian family – was visiting London. While there she chanced upon a collection of Barker’s poetry in a bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Fascinated by his work she determined to seek him out as she later confessed in the book, saying he was the one she had “picked out from the world”.  By sheer coincidence, Smart was proffered Barker’s address by Lawrence Durrell, with whom she was corresponding at the time about submissions to his poetry magazine, Booster. She wrote to Barker on several occasions, initially under the pretext of buying one of his poems, which she did; and then later in 1939 while he was teaching English poetry at the Imperial Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. Unbeknown to Smart, Barker was growing dissatisfied with his teaching post but feared he would be conscripted into the army if he were to return to England. He wrote to Smart imploring her to help him emigrate to the US. In return for two tickets (which came as a surprise to Smart as she didn’t know Barker was married) he offered her the unpublished manuscript of his journals. Eager to escape, he also dispatched a telegram “begging rescue”. Smart hastily replied urging Barker to join her on the Californian coast. The rest is documented in Smart’s chef d’oeuvre, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

What the book doesn’t document, however, are Smart’s efforts to “rescue” Barker and his wife, Jessica, from Japan. Smart was short of money and in order to scrape together the $300 needed she worked tirelessly (as a maid at one point), begged shamelessly and borrowed indiscriminately. In the end, it was Christopher Isherwood – who was working in Hollywood as a script writer – that offered Smart the $200 shortfall to subsidise the Barkers’ trip. The couple disembarked in Vancouver, docked a boat to San Francisco and then took a bus to Monterey, where Smart was eagerly waiting to meet them. She describes the anguished anticipation in the opening paragraph of the book, saying “all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire”.  Barker’s wife was the first to come down the steps of the bus, “her Madonna eyes, soft as the newly born, trusting as the untempted”. Already pricked by compunction over her intentions toward Barker, Smart resolved to forgo her future with him “and postpone indefinitely the miracle hanging fire”.  But forgo she did not, albeit she did postpone it temporarily. Smart’s guilt is palpable on every one of the book’s 112 pages. And yet she never attempts to solicit pity or justify her indiscretions  merely trying to tell the story of a woman “possessed by love,” which is so much part of her world it often stands for the world itself. “He is everything,” she writes of Barker, “the night, the resilient mornings, the tall poinsettias and hydrangeas, the lemon trees, the residential palms, the fruit and vegetables in the gorgeous rows, the birds in the pepper tree, the sun on the swimming pool”. He is in fact the sum total of “where all roads strove to lead”. And this feeling was very much reciprocated, at least for a time. “She is what makes my blood circulate” Barker confesses at one point, “and all the stars revolve and reasons return.”

Smart experienced emotion very acutely and at times conveyed its multifarious graduations with a sentience rarely matched. Even in the most humdrum moments she captures the atmosphere with melancholic poetry as the three of them, for example, sit on the wooden steps of their respective cottages –  surrounded by “flowers that grow without encouragement” and “avalanches of sand” – while she thinks to herself with quietly intense dejection how once “loneliness drove women to jump into the sea”. But her introspection is fleeting. “Like Macbeth, I keep remembering that I am their host,” she writes, “So it is tomorrow’s breakfast rather than the future’s blood that dictates fatal forbearance.” And yet she cannot help herself as every time he is near she feels “every drop of my blood springing to attention”. She adds: “My mind may reason that the tenseness only registers neutrality, but my heart knows no true neutrality was ever so full of passion.” Despite mutual efforts to refrain from embarking on an affair, neither Smart nor Barker could resist. It developed slowly, secretly, with Barker’s wife in the background while the two budding lovers would sit at the typewriter “pretending necessary collaborations” with love hung between them. A sense of inexorable doom pervades the book and even though Barker’s wife initially had little idea about the burgeoning love, “like the birds” she felt “foreboding in the air”.  But, of course, by that point it was already too late.

Both Smart and Barker felt intense guilt and later remorse but neither could sever the romance, spending more time together than permissible for a married man and a single young woman. Eventually, Jessica confronted Barker about his infidelity. Despite the fracas the group continued cohabiting for another six weeks with Barker vacillating between the two women. The triumvirate moved to New York in the autumn and shortly after Barker and Smart decided to travel across the country, leaving Jessica behind. After three days on the road, the lovers reached a state border between California and Arizona, where they were stopped and handed over to the FBI. The war was raging in Europe and the US authorities were being overly cautious of potential spies. Barker’s papers were in order while Smart’s were in disarray; she was therefore arrested for illegally entering the country and on suspicion of committing fornication. Barker was released after a brief interrogation and hastily made his way back to his wife, explaining his absence away with sortilege and fabrication. Smart was questioned for hours and subsequently imprisoned for three days while her story was being collaborated. Writing of the experience in the book she says defiantly: “Love lifted the weapon and guided my crime.” It is at this point in the story that one begins to question the extent of Smart’s naivety; but more importantly the authenticity of Barker’s feelings, his integrity and his intentions, eventually coming away with the prevailing impression that they were neither true nor decent.

Barker continued to juggle and deceive both women, caroming from New York to Hollywood to Ottawa. Eventually, he left Jessica again and absquatulated with the now-pregnant Smart to Canada. But not for long. The affair continued back and forth, through correspondence, after a particularly stagnant period, which Smart spent “heedlessly drifting” with her ear against her heart, which was beating to the “poisonous rhythm of the truth.” The day after Barker left she wrote him a letter. “I simply cannot live without you,” Smart declared, “You must come back & get me. There’s nothing, nothing at all in the world but this. You can’t destroy me like this. You can’t…As for the baby if I don’t stop crying & beating my head I’ll have a miscarriage…George I am going crazy. My brain rattles around like a dry pea…I simply cannot endure this. I don’t know what will happen.” What did happen was she found herself completely alone awaiting the birth of her first child. “He is not here,” she writes in the book, “He is all gone. There is only the bloated globe. Nothing but the bracelet he put around my wrist reminds me I was once alive.” And later in a tone of complete resignation at the thought of him back with his wife, Smart says: “She is his present. And if then she is his present, I am not his present. Therefore, I am not, and I wonder why no one has noticed I am dead and taken the trouble to bury me.” Despite on-going communication with Barker, Smart was feeling like all the battles were lost; and did not dare “grasp either life or death” electing to endure the mechanical motion of existence submerged in grief and torpor.

Eventually, Smart returned to the US and found employment as a filing clerk with the British embassy in Washington. By this point Barker was back in England, where Smart moved in 1943. The couple had three more children together. When By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was published in 1945 Smart’s family used their political clout to have it banned in Canada. The slender book materialised from Smart’s journals, adding an autobiographical authenticity to the story, which mortified and appalled her parents in equal measure. But Smart quite clearly felt a need to print it, perhaps as a cathartic exercise but more likely because she was a writer, a class of human being who according to Friedrich Nietzsche act “shamelessly toward their experiences” primarily because “they exploit them”. This is precisely how one sometimes feels reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Not only that, Smart fluctuates between disclosing too much and too little, between superbly lyrical prose and overlaboured writing, between aesthetic excellence and a propensity for the melodramatic. In fact, the only thing that doesn’t fluctuate is her devotion to Barker, which is both infuriating and heart-breaking. But perhaps that’s love, a love so rapturous yet cruel it is only ever really understood by its casualties.

Publisher: Flamingo
Publication Date: November 1992
Paperback: 112 pages
ISBN: 9780586090398