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This item is taken from PN Review 130, Volume 26 Number 2, November - December 1999.

In the 'Introduction' to her Collected Poems (1988), Patricia Beer recalls how latterly, living as she did a secluded and happy life, for the most part in rural Devon, 'winning few prizes, wielding no power, exercising no patronage,' she heard it reliably reported that she was dead. She remedied this misinformation by assembling her book.

Now 'the dark rain' has at last 'flicked on the porch like ink', as in her 'Epitaph in a Country Churchyard'. On 15 August, a Roman Catholic mass at the Holy Family Church, Honiton, was followed by an Anglican burial service, according to the Book of Common Prayer, in an ancient churchyard among yew and hawthorn and beneath circling rooks. The best of both afterworlds, one might say, for one born into a Plymouth Brethren family. Re-reading her Collected and the slim, perfected volumes that followed, Friend of Heraclitus (1993) and Autumn (1997), one is reminded of how many of her poems, from the very beginning, are about death, and how wryly at home she always is with this bleak fact of life. Of course 'the very beginning' of her collected poetry is 1959 when she was not 35 (as she had caused the world to believe) but 40.

Still to come there is the Exeter Cathedral Millennium Oratorio, the libretto for which she was delighted to be asked to write and which she recently completed; there is a book of her vivid essays and reviews to be compiled; there is a novel-cum-autobiography to add to her classic memoir Mrs Beer's House. She has 'a few years of conversation left'. And the poems are here for good, their voice, uniquely hers, a pleasure for new readers and a consolation for old.

When she elegised Stevie Smith, she recognised that one of the things that will prove durable in Smith's writing is the closeness of the poems to the poet's speech, the continuity between her everyday vision and the words on the page. It's a quality that, in Smith and in Beer, offends high table reviewers and male Martians. Whimsy is not the poems' only or even their dominant note, but whimsy too can be wise:

Muriel, dressed up to the nines, with even
Her tiara on, must in the end
Have heard death knock, and opened to her beau
With the black suit come to take her out.
The swimmer whose behaviour was so misinterpreted
At last stopped both waving and drowning.

Like Smith, Patricia Beer 'struck compassion/In strange places'. In her poem called 'Millennium' near the end of Autumn, she releases her imagination back to the alliterative end of the first millennium, between Roman and Norman times, when unthreatened Saxons stood on her hillside surveying Wessex.

They left us language and lymph, verse
Made of sibling sounds and strong heartbeats.
We have always talked of lasting till Two Thousand.
From January on we could join them, justly,
For now comes Nunc Dimittis, if needed.
It is dispiriting to dodge death for ever.

* * *

In his autobiography Where Did It All Go Right? (Richard Cohen Books, Metro Publishing) A. Alvarez remembers a handful of literary editors who helped to shape his career. They also helped to shape the reading habits of his and at least one subsequent generation. Editors are generally unsung, and Alvarez's evocation of Janet Adam Smith in particular brought to mind that scrupulous and fair intelligence which sharpened the attention of many a reader and refined the style of many a reviewer. Two weeks after reading Alvarez's tribute, I read Janet Adam Smith's obituary. She died, aged 93, on 11 September.

In 'A Letter to Philip', published in Ariel at Bay (1990), marking the end of Critics' Forum and the retirement from the BBC of Philip French, Janet Adam Smith declares, 'I remember an agreeable tussle with Alvarez over Auden.' It is the word 'agreeable' that is so characteristic and - agreeable: as an editor, in radio discussion or over tea, conversation with her never became merely polite or platitudinous, even when her interlocutor was young and naive. She had the keen expectations that a tutor entertains of a new scholar. She wrote to Philip French: 'One was ready to take trouble because one wanted to earn your esteem, for you are one of those who without bullying or bossiness, demands that one does one's best.' She was like that, too.

What made Janet Adam Smith a great editor at the Listener (1930-5) was in part the literary milieu from which she could draw poems and reviews. She also met there her first husband, Michael Roberts, the outstanding British anthologist of this century and a critic and poet who helped shape the cultural scene at the time. Later, when she was literary editor at the New Statesman and Nation (1952-60) her task was more difficult and her impact perhaps greater. The literary scene was not in array and she helped to give critical and creative shape to it.

She was a fine editor because she was a professional scholar (editor in particular of the letters to Robert Louis Stevenson) and a remarkable writer. Her book on John Buchan remains a model of literary biography. She wrote on mountaineering and other subjects. She was a durable anthologist. Endlessly curious, she was also generous in giving time, serving for over two decades on the committee of the London Library and for eight years as President of the Royal Literary Fund, among many other services. She made a difference, one of those people who quietly see that things are done, done well and done justly or, as a literary editor, done justice. Wrenched from context, a line of Patricia Beer's 'Epitaph in a Country Churchyard' seems appropriate to mark the death of this other remarkable woman: 'I agreed to lie here, understanding who I was.'


This item is taken from PN Review 130, Volume 26 Number 2, November - December 1999.

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