2018-06-27 23:42:03 UTC
Few writers get a second chance at success, but after a hiatus of more than 50 years after her first work was first published, Emma Smith, who has died aged 94, enjoyed that rare experience with two acclaimed memoirs.
Her début novel, Maidens’ Trip, an account of life on the Grand Union Canal during the second world war, was published in 1948 and won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. It was one of two novels written while she was working as a runner-cum-secretary for Laurie Lee, then a young screenwriter, in the postwar years. He suggested the nom de plume Emma Smith – she disliked her birth name, Elspeth Hallsmith, because its sibilance landed her with the nickname “Spitty” at school. She encouraged him to write Cider with Rosie. But though close, their friendship was never romantic, in part, Smith said tartly, because Lee was capable of loving only one person: himself.
In 1946 she travelled to India with Lee for a documentary. The soon-to-be independent country left an impression, and, pressed for a follow-up to Maidens’ Trip, Smith drew on the trip for the comedy The Far Cry (1950), another bestseller. The following year she married and, over the following decades, published little.
More than 20 years later, the writer Susan Hill discovered a copy of The Far Cry at a school jumble sale. It was, Hill enthused in her World of Books column in the Daily Telegraph, “a forgotten masterpiece”. She lobbied for it to be republished, but the novel did not reappear until 2002. Soon afterwards the author was hunted down to write a memoir...
(includes old photo)
The Second World War altered the course of many lives, not least that of Emma Smith, who recalled her stint as a volunteer boatwoman on the canals as a time of “poor food and clammy garments and insufficient sleep, of bedbugs and general discomfort”. Yet it was to prove the inspiration for the award-winning novel that would fulfil her children dream of becoming a writer.
Smith, who has died aged 94, was born Elspeth Hallsmith. She was one of four children. Both her parents served in the Great War. Her mother Janet was a nurse. Her father Guthrie was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, though he never spoke of the circumstances that led to his being decorated.
Smith spent her early years in Newquay, Cornwall. Her childhood and that of her siblings was greatly coloured by the moods of her father, a frustrated artist working as a bank clerk, who could be cruel to his children and his wife. When Smith was 12, the family relocated to Crapstone in Devon for her father’s work. When he left the family two years later, after a period of mental illness, Smith and her father became largely estranged, though she wrote in her memoir, As Green as Grass: “It is to my poor unhappy father I owe, and am grateful for, my obsessive ineradicable love of words.”
Upon leaving school, Smith took a job at the War Office. She worked for MI5 at their temporary HQ at Blenheim Palace and volunteered as a canal boatwoman. It was her experiences as a boatwoman on the Grand Union Canal would informed her debut novel, Maidens’ Trip...
(includes photo from 1948)
(birthday post from 2013, with booklist)