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Reviewed by:
  • Anne Quéma (bio)
Kim Echlin. Elizabeth Smart: A Fugue Essay on Women and Creativity Women’s Press 2004. viii, 238. $19.95

Kim Echlin's new biography of Canadian modernist Elizabeth Smart succeeds in catching the reader's attention and heart. Just as Smart strove throughout her life to create a voice by experimenting with theme and language, Echlin carves a new space in the biography genre by situating her narrative voice in her archival quest. In doing so, Echlin frees Smart from the myth of romantic love to which she is often confined and restitutes the sexual, economic, political, and historical significance of an ongoing struggle affecting women writers.

Smart's career spanned the period between the Second World War and the 1970s when Western culture underwent a major transformation. Well-read in women modernists, she was the inheritor of the first wave of feminism, and through her work as a copywriter and book reviewer for Queen magazine she contributed to the development of pop culture and the second wave of feminism. The common thread to this startling pattern is Smart's lifelong struggle with a deeply androcentric culture that shaped her as a woman and as a writer. Whether we read about her financial dependence on her father's allowance, her relationship to George Barker, or her work as a copywriter, the image persists of a woman deeply aware of social constrictions, trammelled in self-contradictions, yet always straining for creativity. Smart is both a fascinating and uncomfortable figure, as the reported scene with Dennis Hackett, editor of Queen magazine, exemplifies: 'Once she came in and rang me and said, "I resign," and I answered "You're fired." In a little while my door opened and Elizabeth was down on all fours crawling in, then I saw her hands on my desk and she stood there in front of me for the longest time and sank down again and went back to work.' This is a poignant mise en scène of self-irony and social defiance but, as Susan Bordo's analysis of anorexia and agoraphobia suggests, it freezes the rebel in poses of futile and painful extremism.

Echlin also treads on controversial ground by exploring the relationship between motherhood and creativity. Drawing on her experience, she shows that the androcentric biases that Smart encountered throughout her life still characterize the contemporary art world. In her thematic focus, Echlin is pertinently aware that she addresses a taboo subject either from a theoretical or personal standpoint. The dangers are well known and have been avoided like shoals in shallow waters. In particular, the debate on motherhood is fraught with essentialism from which Echlin does not always steer as when she analyses the genealogy of Smart's family: 'The Baldwin-Smart-Barker daughters needed, as any daughter does, their mothers' help to become independent, to have a firm sense of being loved, to stand up to whatever restrained them in society.' Yet we know that the [End Page 579] daughter's failure to become independent and benefit from a firm sense of love will invariably be attributed to a maternal origin.

However, Echlin's fugue essay deftly demonstrates that, despite famous monologues and theoretical explorations, the silence surrounding women's maternal bodies and practices is all the more deafening as we attempt to understand their connection to creativity. Echlin indicates that Smart's diaries rarely refer to her four children. At the same time, the destructive mother figure of Louie Smart casts her shadow on the writing and is central to Dig a Grave and Let Us Bury Our Mother, which Echlin regards as Smart's other enduring legacy. Echlin's own description of her children's activities and her reference to Adrienne Rich's and Louise Erdrich's narratives about their children pave the way for an approach that would perhaps enable the child to mother the woman to the extent that, in their physical, emotional, and cultural relationships to their children, women have one means among others of creating themselves anew in ways that will not be solely determined by the culture and the mistakes of the past. However, Kim Echlin's thoughtful and...


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pp. 579-580
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