Florence Margaret Smith in Kingston upon Hull, the second daughter of Ethel and Charles Smith, she acquired the name Stevie as a young woman when she was riding in the park with a friend who said that she reminded him of the jockey, Steve Donaghue. She was always called Peggy within her family. When she was three years old she moved with her mother and sister to Palmers Green in North London, after her father left home (his business as a shipping agent, which he had inherited from his father, was failing and so was his marriage, and he ran away to sea, becoming a ship's purser). Stevie saw very little of her father as a child – he appeared seldom and sent very brief postcards ("Off to Valparaiso, Love Daddy"). She resented the fact that he had abandoned his family. Later, when her mother became ill, her aunt Madge (whom Stevie called "Lion") came to live with them. It was Madge Spear who raised Stevie and her older sister Molly, and who became the most important person in Stevie's life. Miss Spear was a feminist who claimed to have "no patience" with men (as Stevie wrote, "she also had 'no patience' with Hitler"). Stevie and Molly were raised without men and thus became attached to their own independence, rather than what Stevie described as the typical Victorian family atmosphere of "father knows best". When Stevie was five she developed tuberculous peritonitis and was sent to a sanatorium near Broadstairs, Kent, where she remained off and on for several years. She related that her preoccupation with death began when she was seven, at a time when she was very distressed at being sent away from her mother. Death fascinated her and is the subject of many of her poems. When suffering from the depression to which she was subject all her life, she was so consoled by the thought of death as a release that as she put it, she did not have to commit suicide. (She wrote in several poems that death was "the only god who must come when he is called".)
She was educated at Palmers Green High School and North London Collegiate School for Girls. She spent the remainder of her life with her aunt, and worked as private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson with Sir George Newnes at Newnes Publishing Company in London from 1923 to 1953. Despite her secluded life, she corresponded and socialized widely with other writers and creative artists, including Elisabeth Lutyens, Sally Chilver, Inez Holden, Naomi Mitchison, and Anna Kallin. She was described by her friends as being naive and selfish in some ways and formidably intelligent in others, having been raised by her aunt as both a spoiled child and a resolutely autonomous woman. Likewise, her political views vacillated between her aunt's Toryism and her friends' left-wing tendencies.
After she retired from Sir Neville Pearson's service, following a nervous breakdown, she gave poetry readings and broadcasts on the BBC that gained her new friends and readers among a younger generation. (Sylvia Plath became a fan of her poetry—"a desperate Smith-addict"—and made an appointment to meet her, but died before the meeting could occur.)
She died of a brain tumour on 7 March 1971. After Smith's death, her last collection, Scorpion and other Poems was published posthumously in 1972, and the Collected Poems in 1975. Three novels were republished, and there was a successful play based on her life, Stevie, written by Hugh Whitemore. It was filmed in 1978 by Robert Enders and starred Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourne. Although she had many lovers, she never married.
Smith wrote three novels, the first of which, Novel on Yellow Paper, was published in 1936. All her novels are lightly fictionalised accounts of her own life, which got her into trouble at times as people recognised themselves. Stevie said that two of the male characters in her last book are different aspects of George Orwell, who was close to Smith (there were even rumours that they were lovers; he was married to his first wife at the time). She also wrote nine volumes of poetry. Her first volume of poetry was A Good Time Was Had By All. It was this that established her as a poet, and soon her poems were found in periodicals. Her style was rather dark; her characters were perpetually saying goodbye to their friends or welcoming death. At the same time her work has an eerie levity and can be very funny, though it is neither light nor whimsical. "Stevie Smith often uses the word 'peculiar' and it is the best word to describe her effects" (Hermione Lee). She was never sentimental, undercutting any pathetic effects with the ruthless honesty of her humor.
Apart from death, common subjects include loneliness; myth and legend; absurd vignettes, usually drawn from middle-class British life; war and human cruelty; and religion. Stevie Smith could never entirely abandon or accept the Anglican faith of her childhood, and wrote sensitively about theological puzzles: "There is a God in whom I do not believe/Yet to this God my love stretches." Though her poems were remarkably consistent in tone and quality throughout her life, their subject matter changed over time, with less of the outrageous wit of her youth and more reflection on suffering, faith and the end of life.
Her best-known poem is "Not Waving but Drowning." She was awarded the Cholmondeley Award for Poets in 1966 and won the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry in 1969. Another poem, which was featured on London Underground's Poems on the Underground campaign, is Lady Rogue Singleton.
Not Waving but Drowning
heard him, the dead man,