On The Side of the Angels: The Second Volume of the Journals of Elizabeth Smart

Edited by Alice Van Wart
Harper Collins, Toronto, $29.95
Reviewed by Tim Mclaughlin
The wet paving stones had a diurnal look. They presented themselves pathetically, pleading that they last so much longer than life. They greeted me as if we were all dust together at last.

- The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals

Journals are the snapshots of a literary life. They are all the bad angles, savage moods, poorly cut phrases and boredom. In many ways they are unfocused and crude compared to the writer's finished work. Yet they are compelling in a manner that a fictional work can never match: they document life the moment before fate strikes, often with a painful and ironic ignorance of the future.

The Second Volume of the Journals of Elizabeth Smart picks up her life in 1941 with the terse comment, 'it is really too terrible to record' and travels through five decades until her death in 1986. Letters and entries document Smart's relationship with poet George Barker (with whom she had four children). At around this time Smart's classic work By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was being published. It describes her struggle to raise children alone in post-war Britain; the death of her parents; her love and conflict with siblings; and her struggle to write creatively after doing commercial work (Smart was at one time the highest paid female copy writer in England). Toward the end Smart's entries reflect on aging, the distractions of the garden, and, as she began to prepare her memoirs, instances from her childhood and youth.

Smart lived a passionate and turbulent life. She believed in the ideal of living by the heart and the verities of poetic inspiration. This belief has led to perhaps one of the most romantic and desperate love stories in Canadian literature. Certain details have become notorious. For example, Smart's mother bought all the copies of By Grand Central Station that came into Ottawa, burned them, and then had the book banned in Canada. Smart's family exerted its will again when George Barker tried to visit Elizabeth in Canada. Barker was refused at the border on charges of moral turpitude. Throughout, these details make up a story that is driven by longing, frustration and desire.

Hardships intrude and many of the entries consist of little more than a date and an appointment. The most beautiful passages of the second volume, however, are moments of rare inspiration when the words overtake her or when Smart is knowingly self-conscious:

I am trying, as much as is possible, to see what is going on, to catch myself unawares and, if I listen carefully enough, I will hear what is true universal and what is surface disturbance. It's unmistakable, with true ardour.

The tension between loves is tangible. Her entries reflect a fear that her muse will never return or that she has been too lazy, too distracted by the mundane. These fears combined with Smart's obligation to a lifework of writing made her an obsessive diarist.

The second volume shows Smart's evolution as a writer. Her style shifts from describing people and places in a way that is physical and sensuous to exploring a reflexive emotional landscape. As Smart matures, her prose grows stronger, more precise. The journals document her frustration with traditional narrative prose - frustration that led directly to her own unique style of lyrical prose for which she is so well known. Contained also are many of the entries which pass directly into her work, The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, as well as notes toward other unfinished projects.

Smart's journals have been carefully edited by Alice Van Wart to include, 'only what seems to me the important elements relating to Smart's writing and her inner life.' Although Wart has produced a compact volume the reader is always aware that much may be missing. Wart admits that she has removed the lists, poetry, and rough notes for reviews, 'consequently the journals lose much of their texture.' Readers who want to regain this texture must seek out the work Autobiographies, edited by Christina Burridge and published in Vancouver by Tanks in 1987. This work, though less elegant, contains facsimile reproductions of childhood documents, a photo album that Smart had made for Christopher Barker and a script for By Grand Central Station when Metropolis Pictures considered it for filming in 1980. Also available is By Heart, a compelling biography written by Rosemary Sullivan and published in 1991.

On The Side of The Angels, together with the first volume of journals, Necessary Secrets, covers Smart's literary life. The Journals are engaging and meaningful, for Smart was never content to accept the ordinary. As she herself writes:

Only as much as my life or anything in my life corresponds to true things in other people's lives is it of interest, and this depends on telling the deep truths, and the surface facts are just relieving frills, a few little restful thrills, a bit of colour in a bare garden.

Tim McLaughlin is a Vancouver bookseller.

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