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A Variance Of Verdicts
by Phyllis Grosskurth

I DO NOT THINK it would be a supreme breach of confidence if I revealed that I was a member of the Canada Council jury that awarded Elizabeth Smart a literary award in, I believe, 1983. I am probably being more indiscreet if I say that I strongly supported her application over the opposition of at least one other jury member. Now, having read Rosemary Sullivan`s By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, a Life, I found myself wondering if I did the right thing. In hindsight, if I were faced with the situation today, I might vote for her again -but for the wrong reasons. Sentimentality could cloud my judgement. At the time I voted as I did because I was convinced that she had far more talent than many of the other applicants. I still believe this, but it is only too clear that she squandered her gifts. Perhaps it was a squandered life as well. One should not be judgemental but it is impossible not to have opinions about the way she spent the time allotted to her. The fascination of Sullivan`s biography is that she has as a subject a woman who was sui generis, a natural, a true eccentric. She was selfish, egocentric, and an exhibitionist. She was also -especially in her last years - a little girl lost, hungry for affection, and very warm to those who responded to her. The general outlines of her story are fairly well known, but I have been extremely curious about hidden corners, propelling motives, and, above all, why her talent did not develop. Here I feel Sullivan fails her readers, but let us look first at the general scope of the story. Smarts father was a well-to-do patent lawyer in Ottawa, and her family prominent in the social life of the pre-war overgrown town. Her mother, Louie, adored being the centre of things. Louie had a wonderful capacity for fun and a serious talent for wounding. She moved erratically from house to house. Sometimes her family would find her huddled weeping on the bathroom floor; and on one occasion she thrust Elizabeth through a cupboard door, almost crushing her fingers. On the other hand, many of her letters to her daughter are filled with loving common sense, but unquestionably she seems to have suffered from psychotic episodes. Sullivan, however, never explores the effect on Elizabeth of having a mother who was slightly unhinged, nor of the neurotically symbiotic bond between them. "Beth" was never encouraged to be anything but a dilettante; even so, I think a case could be made that she was a dilettante by nature. She was determined to live dangerously and irresponsibly, and her family had the money to indulge her whims and to bail her out whenever it was necessary - and it often was. Betty might have considered herself an outrageous flapper, but the truth of the matter is that she was an out and out romantic. From the time she was a little girl she was in love with words. She was determined that her life would be a romance, and she was interested in writing about no other subject than herself. According to her version of her life, she picked up a copy of George Barker`s poems in a Charing Cross bookshop, and decided on the spot that he would be the object of her romance. She told anyone who would listen that she was pursuing him. She bought some of his manuscripts - and naturally he got the impression that he had snagged a rich patron. At the outbreak of the war he was teaching in Japan, and she sent him the money to travel to America. Eventually they met in Monterey when he stepped off a bus accompanied by his wife, whose existence he had neglected to mention. The presence of Jessica Barker did nothing to deter a mutual seduction. In time Barker and his wife disappeared from the scene. Elizabeth stuck a pin in a map and settled in Fender Harbor, British Columbia, to produce the first of Barker`s children. It is impossible to follow her restless itinerary, particularly when Sullivan doesn`t give us any sign-

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