Elizabeth Smart was a Canadian author born just before WWI. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is her ‘prose poetry’ novel of her long term love affair with the married English poet George Barker. Her novel is almost all raw emotion, so Wikipedia helped me to fill in some of the details: Smart read a volume of Barker’s poetry in a bookstore in London in the late 1930s and fell in love with him through his work. She arranged to meet him, their attraction was mutual and it led to a long trans-Atlantic love affair through and following WWII. Smart gave birth to 4 of Barker’s children and eventually moved to rural England; the affair had cooled by then, but the two remained friendly.
The text is a first person fictionalized description of Smart’s feelings, with very little description of Barker or what he is feeling. The beginning, with its crackling attraction, is tempered by the guilt Smart feels for pulling a married man away from his wife; these feelings meld with the California redwood/coast setting where the affair starts. There is a chapter about getting arrested for morality violations when crossing the California/Arizona border- an unmarried couple travelling together in the 30s without a chaperone clearly attracting some societal disapproval. I’m not sure if this was an actual event, or if it stands in for the way that Smart’s family was able to prevent Barker from crossing from Washington State into British Columbia, the westernmost province where Smart gave birth to their first child.
I don’t think this was the right novel for me at the time I read it- I picked it because I wanted to hit my 52 book goal for the end of the year, I already owned it but had never read it, and the length was right (nice and short!). This feels like a piece I would have read over and over as a teenager, and would have built into so many feminist essays as a college student. The things I am most curious about now aren’t the emotions that overwhelmed Smart but how she managed as a single mother in the 1940s- who looked after her children when she worked? Did she have family support? (Her mother allegedly tried to get her book banned and then bought and burned all copies she could get her hands on. I can’t tell if this speaks to her family disowning her, or sticking by her through what they felt was a scarlet letter). How did she feel about Barker having many other affairs during/after theirs? (The man fathered FIFTEEN children with numerous women).