No 546 The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals by Elizabeth Smart

I first discovered Elizabeth Smart at the age of 17 when I read her classic novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept a fictionalised account of her affair with the poet George Barker. At that age I was completely taken with the relationship between Smart and Barker. When Smart, a Canadian poet, was in her twenties, she discovered a collection of Barker’s work on Charing Cross Road and fell in love with his words. There then began an 18 year affair, with Barker never committing to Smart but having children with her.

This was a time when I thought the ideal romantic relationship was Cathy and Heathcliff and the notion of falling in love with someone through their words seemed like the most wonderful thing in the world.

I have resisted rereading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept mainly because I am older and wiser and the realities of the relationship between Smart and Barker no longer seem in any way romantic. For me, it was the right book at the right time and I loved it. The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals is an unofficial sequel to By Grand Central Station… and again, Smart has presented me with the right book at the right time, exploring the realities of life as a grown woman, bringing up a family while trying to forge a career and an identity of your own.

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If anything, I think I may have enjoyed The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals more.

First published in 1978, the autobiographical book, set in a perfectly captured post-Blitz London, is the poetic and splintered thoughts of a 31 year old woman. As she struggles to bring up four children by her absent lover she muses on the passionate relationship of her youth that has now brought her to where she is today.

The narrative voice is one of survival – here is an everywoman who stands in the pub and the bus queue and wonders if she can maintain her own dreams and her own identity while bringing up a family and paying the bills. It is as unglamorous as By Grand Central Station was romantic, but it contains much more relatable truths.

Essentially Rogues is a book about getting older, particularly from the perspective of a woman, and it explores the difficulty of attempting to carve out a space of one’s own, both mentally and physically while, at the same time, doing what is best for our children.

If I fall, all falls. This intolerable weight I carry would be divided like a bad inheritance among my young. I wanted, I insisted, that they be blessed with this gift of living. So far so good…I can cry if I must, but I can’t die yet. Not yet, until the debts are paid.

It’s a shame, in some ways, that the novel hasn’t dated. It asks the intricate, basic questions that are still pertinent today. How do we do best for our children without losing our sense of self? Can we put a hold on our aspirations until our children are grown? Will we be better mothers, better women if we pursue our dreams while we can?

But where, woman wailing above your station, is it you want to go to, get to, accomplish, communicate? Can’t you be amply satisfied with such pain, such babies such balancing?

No. No. There’s a blood-flecked urge to go even a step further.

These are difficult questions, particularly for Smart’s single mother who often feels like the questions she faces are much more basic ones.

The problem now is how to put one foot forward, never mind best, just foot, foot, foot. Forward. On Just keeping your feet from going numb. Just keep them functioning.

In what direction?

Despite the subject matter, this is not a depressing book. There is a passion and ferocity of spirit here that feels hopeful for the future. Smart is self-aware enough to know that her experience is a universal one.

Miss Smart, you are not the first woman to have had four children.

She finds fulfilment in her work, in her moments of peace when she can write, in her time with her children and with her friends, the rogues and rascals of the title, whose generosity of spirit buoy her up when times are difficult.

The rogues and rascals have radiant faces in the Queen’s Head. They rise and welcome me. They raise their stolen hats and buy me a bitter with borrowed cash…The jackets they nabbed while their host lay sleeping shine like saint’s robes.

They are received into heaven.

Like By Grand Central Station, this novel feels almost like a prose poem. It is a memoir of fragments, a collage of connected thoughts and moments with no overarching narrative structure, but a series of vignettes that create a humane, powerful atmosphere. Casual rhymes give certain passages the echoes of poetry and the novel is heavy with repetition and replete with imagery. It may not have the overwrought operatics of its predecessor, but in my mind that makes Rogues and Rascals a more powerful book.

E Smart family
Elizabeth Smart with her children

With a current crop of women writers like Viv Albertine, Rachel Cusk and Deborah Levy exploring life and self after marriage and children, it’s interesting to think just how defiant and brave Smart was to write like this at the time when she did.

The Assumption of the Rogues and the Rascals is a cry from the heart, honest, searing and down-to-earth, asking us always to

Leave the washing up and take a look around.

Honestly? That’s as good advice as any I’ve heard.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 201

Number Remaining: 545

The 746

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

24 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Grand Central Station is a book that I have always known about but somehow not got round to reading. It sounds as though I might have missed my time with that but I shall certainly look out for a copy of Rougues and Rascals. My own ties were very different, but equally as real.

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  2. Beautiful and thoughtful review! I haven’t read it but I heard the title By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept years ago and always loved it. It does seem like one that would be more enjoyable when you’re younger though, I love the sound of poetic musings about everyday life in this one.

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  3. Amazing review! I’d not known of either book, but both sound excellent. I do enjoy novellas of this kind, ones that read as a series of poetic vignettes, so I’ll be sure to check this out some day.

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  4. I’m utterly shocked that you think 31 is middle-aged and growing older! You just wait, young woman! One day you’ll discover middle-age doesn’t even start till you’re sixty… at least!! *stomps off to the old folks home*

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  5. Oh, dear. I think the internet may have eaten the comment I left on here yesterday afternoon! Anyway…a little like Cafe Society, I’ve been aware of Grand Central for quite a while without ever actually getting around to trying it. One day, maybe – it’s certainly my kind of era. Good to hear about the sequel, too. A lovely post, Cathy.

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    • Yes Jacqui, I think the era would appeal to you. I am wary of recommending By Grand Central Station as I know many find it overwrought. But that was very much my thing when I was a young reader so I loved it!

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  6. Overwrought operatics a very apt description of Grand Central. I was a bit older when I read it, I was inspired to read about what happened to ES in real life. Interesting that she wrote more based on her experiences.

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  7. Oh Cathy you have made me want to turn back time and read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept so that I could fully understand this the unofficial sequel but sadly I am also too old and cynical to be taken in by such faux romanticism. That said this book with its universal questions that as you say haven’t really dated because even while there may be more options women are still trying to juggle being two roles that don’t really complement each other most of the time. I love that quote about putting a foot in front – the best one being too far out of reach somehow evoked feelings I had as a young mother. Brilliant review!

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    • Thanks Cleo! I so adored By Grand Central Station when I read it but I just think it would frustrate me to read it now. This, on the other hand was perfect for now but I don’t think I would have appreciated it in my late teens!

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  8. I did reread this in my mid/late thirties and was surprised to find it just as impressive (maybe even a little more so – though not in a romantic sense, as you’ve mentioned). My fear was that it would have lost its shine, but it most definitely had not. Also, I’m not sure how available they would be for you, but her diaries and autobiographical writings were very interesting to read as well. Such a fascinating story!

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    • Good to hear that it stood up to being reread. I loved it so much at the time that I’m worried I won’t appreciate it as much. I have her diaries in a box in my attic somewhere, I must try and get my hands on them.

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  9. The questions and challenges she explores are as relevant now – actually maybe even more so – with the pressure on women to feel they have to achieve something significant but also have to be the perfect parent/partner. Oh and of course show this via beautifully created Instagram pictures to prove it. This time of the year the pressure ratchets up yet again because of all those articles about how to cook the perfect lunch, be a domestic goddess a la Nigella Lawson and buy the absolute perfect presents. Then everyone sits around a roaring fire playing happy families. Am I cynical. Yes!! Because all the noise from many modern day feminists, is just that. Noise..

    anyway sorry for hijacking your post with a rant. The book sounds excellent and I’m sorry I missed Grand Central Station when I was younger and less cynical….

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