The destructive love affair captured in the cult novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept always puzzled Laura Barton. She reveals how she finally unravelled the mystery
It was in a bookshop that Elizabeth Smart first fell in love with George Barker. Thousands of miles away, Barker was teaching at a university in Japan at the time, but that day in Better Books, on London's Charing Cross Road, Smart came across his poem Daedalus and was instantly smitten. "It is the juicy sound that runs, bubbles over, that intoxicates til I can hardly follow," she wrote in her diary of that first encounter. Although they had yet to meet, although he was still only words on a page, she declared him the love of her life.
What followed was by any standards an extraordinary relationship, a mingling of love and infatuationplayed out across continents, carrying the pair from California to London, from rural Ireland to Essex, taking in breakups, reunions, poverty and the glorious mayhem of the Soho scene along the way. It was also a relationship that Smart would document in her 1945 work By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – a novel that straddled poetry and prose and garnered a cult following. When it was reissued in 1966, Angela Carter described it, in the Guardian, as being "like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning".
But, for all its furious romance, it was also a relationship that has confused many, riddled as it was with rows, alcoholism, absences and affairs. "I never understood my mother's love for my father," their son, Christopher Barker, wrote in this newspaper. "Even when I was younger, their relationship perplexed and baffled me. They would knock lumps out of each other, he usually flouncing off in a huff to return later in gracious manner, and the cycle would begin again."
This year sees the centenary of both Smart and Barker's births – she to a wealthy family in Ottawa, Canada; he into markedly less plush environs in Essex. Smart, who was expensively educated and well-travelled, began writing poetry at an early age. Barker meanwhile had dabbled in a variety of odd jobs before pursuing writing, but by his early 20s found himself feted by TS Eliot and published by Faber and Faber.
It says much about Smart's spiritedness that, on the strength of his poetry, she set out to meet and marry Barker, conjuring up a correspondence with him via the writer Lawrence Durrell. The fact that Barker was already married did little to quell her ardour: she paid to fly both the poet and his wife from Japan to California, where she had joined a writers' colony. And so their affair began.
Although they never married, Smart bore Barker four children, and their liaison raged across many years. Both drank heavily and had other lovers, Barker fathering a total of 15 children by four different women; but even in their later years, when Barker had remarried, they stayed close. On Smart's death in 1986, her children discovered, under her bed, every memento of her relationship with Barker.
Recently, while putting together a Radio 4 documentary about the couple, I made an attempt to unravel the great tangle of their partnership. It was hard, at first, to warm to Barker, an incorrigible liar inflated by self-regard, who refused to choose between all the women in his life. While he basked in the glow of being a celebrated yet penniless young poet, Smart's career sat in the shadows, as she took a job in advertising to support their children.
I read Christopher Barker's account of his parents' relationship, The Arms of the Infinite. He speaks of a childhood yearning for his father's presence that would later turn to rage and resentment. I spoke to Fay Weldon, a former colleague of Smart, who recalled how Barker had abandoned his family in a French hotel when he was unable to settle their bill. It was impossible to see him as much more than a self-indulgent cad, and I felt a lick of satisfaction when I learned how Carter had confided to a friend that Smart's work had been fundamental in her founding the feminist press Virago, fired up by "the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in the position to write By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, exquisite prose though it might contain. By Grand Central Station I Tore Off His Balls would be more like it, I should hope."
But it was also difficult not to feel frustrated by Smart, a woman so intoxicated by the poetic idea of love that it brought an apparent perversity to her actions – at times deserting her children to be with Barker, nigh-on prostrating herself before him. Yet slowly, I began to see that this whirling, impractical love was something of a muse to her: that she was in many ways the designer of the entire relationship. And through her eyes, it became easy to understand Barker's charm, and the wit and the humour that united them. The couple's other son, the poet Sebastian Barker, talked of the perpetual spark between them, of how Smart would travel 50 miles on a moped through severe gales just to see him.
I realised that throughout their relationship, the idea of Barker was as important to her as the reality: the journey through the storm was as important as the arrival at his door. What kept them together was what had brought them together – a simple love of one another's words. First in his poetry, then in their written correspondence, and through Barker's encouragement of Smart's own writing. In a letter to her once, he spoke of reading By Grand Central Station, calling it "a catherine wheel of a book". It seems to me the perfect description not only of that work but of the great spark and flame of their relationship.