I need a job with built-in reading and writing time
When Stevie Smith’s ‘Novel On Yellow Paper’ was published in 1936, some people thought by the rambling, stream of consciousness style it was Virginia Woolf in disguise. Those people were mad. Unless of course Virginia Woolf had the most vivid multiple personality disorder, as while they shared a modern style of writing, Stevie’s personality is so strong in this thinly veiled autobiography, and absolutely nothing like Virginia Woolf’s. For starters, I’m not scared of her, whereas Virginia scares the crap out of me. Reading Stevie, seems to me, very close to what it must have been like to hear Stevie speak. If you’ve ever wanted to meet a woman from the 1930s who could have been friends with Bertie Wooster, who is daring, happy to break social conventions, and sounds possibly like she’s been out in the sun too long, Stevie is for you.
Stevie was a personal secretary to two publishers, Sir George Newnes and Sir Neville Pearson. The character in the book is called Pompey and a personal secretary to a Sir Phoebus. Stevie didn’t hate her job, but also wasn’t greatly challenged and so had time for reading and writing. That really sounds like the ideal set up to me. I am lucky that I do have quiet patches in my job, where I can sneak away with a book, but it’s not the same as being paid to do your own work. I would love that so much. Reading and writing all day, with no need to worry about making a living from the work, as the money would taken care of. I’d write non-stop, and never worry about publication, just writing for the sake of it. If it was any good, my family could do something with it after I died, if it was rubbish, they could put it in the paper bin (recycling is important). Do they still have jobs like security guards with lots of sitting around? Jobs where you literally just have to be there? I need to look into that. Although I fear those jobs may not pay well.
The book covers an interesting time in history, just before the second world war. Stevie travels to Germany to stay with friends, both German and Jewish. She is a single girl travelling about Europe thinking about trains and what’s for dinner, and about the man opposite her who has asked her to return to his cabin with him (she says no) whilst the world is changing shape, and she sees it, but of course can’t know the extent of what is coming next.
She also writes about her earlier life, I love one particular passage, where she describes the pictures on the wall of her childhood home. The art our parents hang, that becomes part of us almost like osmosis, can have such an impact. Like songs and smells of childhood, I can’t see a J. H. Lynch print without thinking about an aunt who unhappily had one on her wall, but her husband had had it before they married, and wanted it in their joint home. I was also struck dumb a little ago when I saw Anton Pieck’s ‘The Toy Shop’ in a catalogue, as it had been on my table mat as a child. I’d eaten my dinner every night with that Dutch scene, staring at it, waiting for the food to arrive. My mother is very partial to Pre-Raphaelites. Almost everywhere you looked in our house there was a drowning Opheila or a woman looking moody, so much so, I assumed having a depressed, sullen or sultry look was part and parcel of having long hair. Especially long red hair.