She was educated at Palmers Green High School and North London Collegiate School for Girls. She spent the remainder of her life with her aunt, and worked as private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson with Sir George Newnes at Newnes Publishing Company in London from 1923 to 1953. Despite her secluded life, she corresponded and socialized widely with other writers and creative artists, including Elisabeth Lutyens, Sally Chilver, Inez Holden, Naomi Mitchison, and Anna Kallin. She was described by her friends as being naive and selfish in some ways and formidably intelligent in others, having been raised by her aunt as both a spoiled child and a resolutely autonomous woman. Likewise, her political views vacillated between her aunt's Toryism and her friends' left-wing tendencies.
After she retired from Sir Neville Pearson's service, following a nervous breakdown, she gave poetry readings and broadcasts on the BBC that gained her new friends and readers among a younger generation. (Sylvia Plath became a fan of her poetry—"a desperate Smith-addict"—and made an appointment to meet her, but died before the meeting could occur.)
She died of a brain tumour on March 7 1971. After Smith's death, her last collection, Scorpion and other Poems was published posthumously in 1972, and the Collected Poems in 1975. Three novels were republished, and there was a successful play based on her life, Stevie, written by Hugh Whitemore. It was filmed in 1978 by Robert Enders and starred Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourne. She never married.
Apart from death, common subjects include loneliness; myth and legend; absurd vignettes, usually drawn from middle-class British life; war and human cruelty; and religion. Stevie Smith could never entirely abandon or accept the Anglican faith of her childhood, and wrote sensitively about theological puzzles: "There is a God in whom I do not believe/Yet to this God my love stretches." Though her poems were remarkably consistent in tone and quality throughout her life, their subject matter changed over time, with less of the outrageous wit of her youth and more reflection on suffering, faith and the end of life.
Her best-known poem is "Not Waving but Drowning". She was awarded the Cholmondeley Award for Poets in 1966 and won the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry in 1969. Another poem, which was featured on London Underground's Poems on the Underground campaign, is "Lady Rogue Singleton".
Stevie Smith's first novel is structured as the random typings of a bored secretary, Pompey. She plays word games, retells stories from classical and popular culture, remembers events from her childhood, gossips about her friends and describes her family, particularly her beloved Aunt.
As with all Smith's novels, there is an early scene where the heroine expresses feelings and beliefs which she will later feel significant, although ambiguous, regret for. In Novel on Yellow Paper that belief is anti-Semitism, where she feels elation at being the "only Goy" at a Jewish party. This apparently throwaway scene acts as a timebomb, which detonates at the centre of the novel when Pompey visits Germany as the Nazis are gaining power. With horror, she acknowledges the continuity between her feeling "Hurray for being a Goy" at the party and the madness that is overtaking Germany.
The German scenes stand out in the novel, but perhaps equally powerful is her dissection of failed love. She describes two unsuccessful relationships, first with the German Karl and then with the suburban Freddy. The final section of the novel describes with unusual clarity the intense pain of her break-up with Freddy.
Smith herself dismissed her second novel as a failed experiment, but its attempt to parody popular genre fiction in order to explore profound political issues now seems to predate post-modern fiction. If anti-Semitism was one of the key themes of Novel on Yellow Paper, Over the Frontier is concerned with militarism. In particular, she asks how the necessity of fighting Fascism can be achieved without descending into the nationalism and dehumanisation that fascism represents.
After a failed romance the heroine, Pompey, suffers a breakdown and is sent to Germany to recuperate. At this point the novel changes style radically, as Pompey becomes part of an adventure/spy yarn in the style of John Buchan or Dornford Yates. As the novel becomes increasingly dreamlike, Pompey crosses over the frontier to become a spy and soldier. If her initial motives are idealistic, she becomes seduced by the intrigue and, ultimately, violence. The vision Smith offers is a bleak one: "Power and cruelty are the strengths of our lives, and only in their weakness is there love."
Smith's final novel is her own favourite, and most fully realised. It is concerned with personal and political malaise in the immediate post-war period. Most of the characters are either employed in the army or civil service in post-war reconstruction, and its heroine, Celia, works for the Ministry as a crytographer and propagandist.
The Holiday describes a series of hopeless relationships. Celia and her cousin Caz are in love, but cannot pursue their affair since it is believed that, because of their parents' adultery, they are half-brother and sister. Celia's other cousin Tom is in love with her, Basil is love with Tom, Tom is estranged from his father, Celia's beloved Uncle Heber, who pines for a reconciliation; and Celia's best friend Tiny longs for the married Vera. These unhappy, futureless but intractable relationships are mirrored by the novel's political concerns. The unsustainability of the British Empire and the uncertainty over Britain's post-war role are constant themes, and many of the characters discuss their personal and political concerns as if they were seamlessly linked. Caz is on leave from Palestine and is deeply disillusioned, Tom goes mad during the war, and it is telling that the family scandal that blights Celia and Caz's lives took place in India. Just as Pompey's anti-semitism was tested in Novel on Yellow Paper, so Celia's traditional nationalism and sentimental support for colonialism is challenged throughout The Holiday.
Smith's novels are serious, stylistically radical, and politically complex. They are also very witty and enjoyable. Smith is particularly good at describing the liveliness of parties, the intricacies of office politics and the small pleasures of family life. She is also one of the few English writers who can describe suburbia with insight and warmth.