Reading Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper definitely solidified the fact that I am a “foot-on-the-ground” (38) reader. Smith’s novel was difficult for me to get into, and that made it even harder to make connections with the text. It seemed like Smith would bring up really interesting issues, but as soon as I felt like I might be getting a grasp on what she had to say she would zoom into another topic. One of the things that stuck with me though was the roles that expectations played in the novel. Pompey was expected to marry and become a suburban wife, and that ruined her relationship with Freddy. Pompey’s mother was sick and she was supposed to let the illness run its course and subject Pompey to emotional scarring rather than committing suicide. The expectation that I found most interesting though was not an expectation placed on females, but the expectations that seemed to be placed on Pompey’s father.
When Pompey first introduced her father he seemed to be an average English gentleman who was ready to serve his country. Pompey described him as wanting to go into the navy initially, and then, “So when the war broke out that was the Boer War, so my papa that was then in Yeomanry he must, he would, he must go to the wars” (Smith 75). Pompey’s father seemed like the kind of English man that wanted to follow the expectations that society set out for him. He wanted to be brave, adventurous, and fight for his country. It was not those expectations that hindered him, but rather the expectations of his “female dragon” (Smith 76) mother, and later his wife. The females in his life, particularly his mother, forbade him from fulfilling the societal expectations that were placed on him, and I think that this took a toll on him as a man. I can’t condone a man running out on his sick wife and young child, but in a way, I do feel bad for Pompey’s father.
While men did have more privilege, we must not forget that men also had societal expectations that they needed to live up to. They were supposed to be the breadwinners, be strong, and brave, and if a man could not live up to that then what kind of man was he? I think that Pompey’s father cracked under the pressure because he was not able to fulfill either his expectations as a man in English society or as a family man and son. I think when he cracked and left that he ultimately chose his pride over his family and decided to fulfill the expectations of English men.
I wish I had enjoyed this novel more, and while I am not a fan of the writing style, I do appreciate all of the ideas and connections that Smith was able to fit into one novel.
Smith, Stevie. Novel on Yellow Paper. Virago Press Ltd. 1936.