In her Novel on Yellow Paper, Stevie Smith had to choose her character names and attributes with care to avoid offending those who served as models those characters. By selecting to use events from her actual life, she risked the threat of libel. Smith had to learn to refashion and blend fiction with fact to create alternate tellings of her real life stories and events. In showing so much care to protect herself from those who would sue her, Smith shows she would go to the same amount of care in crafting for her alter ego, her semi-autobiographical self, an interesting and provocative name to suit not only herself but the events she’s recreated in her novel. Smith created for herself a name to hide behind and create subtle and not so subtle differences in real life events and fictional events, and in a way, she treated herself as a character within her own novel, protecting her own name and life events against libeling herself. In creating her own likeness, Smith is able to show those aspects of Pompey’s life which matter the most to both the author and character.
In Novel on Yellow Paper, great importance is placed on the name of protagonist Pompey Casmilus. In his article “Stevie Smith, ‘A Most Awful Twister’”, Stephen James call Smith’s moniker choice “a sheer oddity of using two male names for a female protagonist (a gender bending tendency that persists through the work of ‘Stevie’ nee Florence Margaret Smith)” (243). However, it’s not simply important that Smith chose for the protagonist two male names, but the names of two males whom Smith considered powerful through history and mythology. By selecting two powerful males, Smith is, in a way, harnessing for herself the power of not only the male gender, but that of the two individuals: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, a respected Roman military general; and Casmilus, an obscure name for the Greek god Hermes, who a quick internet search informs us is the Greek god of boundaries, merchants, travelers, and thieves, served as a messenger of the gods, and acted as an intermediary between the divine and mortal. Armed with this knowledge, the first word in Novel on Yellow Paper, Casmilus, takes on deeper meaning. The name first comes to the reader in the form of one of Smith’s poems, and as such recalls the feeling of one invoking a Greek muse. The calling of Casmilus feels like a petition for intercession to that realm between fiction and reality.
In looking at the words of Smith’s poem, one can see the importance of the aspect of hiding one’s identity. Smith’s poem begins with the lines “Casmilus, whose great name I steal, / Whose name a greater doth conceal” (Smith 9). By admitting that she’s stealing the name, the speaker of the poem reveals a sense of dissatisfaction with her own name and an interest in hiding or concealing her own identity by sidling herself along with the “name a greater doth conceal”. In disguising her identity with Hermes, the god who travels between, we can see the importance of Pompey’s concealed identity and gender from the reader, and possibly from herself. Pompey conceals her identity through her clothing choices and through the words she uses to describe herself, a girl and a woman. Even Pompey’s choice to remain unmarried and immersed in the male-dominated corporate world could be seen as a screen to conceal her gender. Pompey clearly traverses the in between realm just as her namesake.
As important as the names are which serve as Pompey’s new suitable name, the name Pompey replaces (and conceals) is equally important: Patience. Pompey states, “Patience I was christened, but later of when I got grown up and out and about in London, I got called Pompey. And it suits me” (Smith 20). Not only does a refusal of the name Patience go against the very act of being patient, it goes against her christened name, and, therefore, against the patriarchy of religion. However, the name does show passivity in that she “got called Pompey” rather than the stealing of her surname as the beginning poem claims. In this instance, Pompey does not inform the reader of the circumstances of how she earned the nickname of Pompey and does not disclose the person who gave her the nickname. It may not seem important; however, if the giver of the nickname was a male, she could just as easily be falling under the rule of the patriarchy again by allowing one of its members to name her. However, in true Pompey fashion, she might have given up the virtue of patience in order to claim the name for all its meretricious decay and elegance that suits her just fine (20).
James, Stephen. “Stevie Smith, ‘A Most Awful Twister’”. Essays in Criticism, vol. 66, no. 2., 2016, pp. 242-259. Project Muse. www. http://eic.oxfordjournals.org/content/66/2/242.full.pdf+html.
Smith, Stevie. Novel on Yellow Paper. Virago Press Ltd. 1936.