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