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Stevie Smith: Novel on Yellow Paper

Allegedly, Smith took a collection of poems to a publisher and was told to go away and write a novel. In a few weeks she produced this whimsical, funny, virtually plotless novel. It has been called a poet’s book and, indeed, it is. There is little plot. Our heroine/narrator, Pompey Casmilus, works in an office, lives with an aunt, has affairs with Freddy and Karl, and contemplates marrying the former, meets her friends and castigates them and many other things. She does travel to Germany, with the Nazis coming to power but much of the rest of the book is Pompey’s view of the world, whether she is damning sex education, marriage, the Church of England and much else. It is Pompey’s jottings, written down on the yellow paper she uses in the office of her employer, Sir Phoebus Ullwater, Bt, as she thinks of them. She talks about literature, her employer, the Victorians, her boyfriends, history, where she lives, her family. And in everything she says, she jumps around, tells us her views in a witty, carefree manner, like an artist painting a picture or a poet writing a poem but not like a novelist writing a novel. As she says the thoughts come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and I do not pursue them to embarrass them with formality to pursue them into a harsh captivity. She is a woman who enjoys life, enjoys sex (Oh how I enjoy sex and how I enjoy it), has strong opinions on everything and everyone and is never, ever at a loss for words. And it works. Smith has such confidence in her creation and in her own ability that Pompey becomes a marvellous creation whose life we cannot help but enjoy.

Publishing history

First published in 1936 by Jonathan Cape