Obituary: Janet Seymour-Smith

JANET SEYMOUR-SMITH, wife of the poet Martin Seymour-Smith, has died two months after the sudden death of her husband. She died in her younger daughter Charlotte's arms, the official cause of death being pneumonia, but those who knew her will say that it is more a matter of completeness, and that this remarkable woman died not exactly of a broken heart but because her heart was spent.

Janet Seymour-Smith was many things besides being what she was first and foremost: Martin's muse. A classical scholar, she provided Robert Graves with the translations of original texts which formed the basis for his two- volume The Greek Myths (1955). She worked indefatigably to help her husband in the making of his Guide to Modern World Literature (1973, revised and expanded 1985), described by one reviewer as "an amazing feat of a book, about half a million words long; half the size of Proust, nearly as big as the Bible".

In fact when some expressed incredulity that Martin could actually have read all the authors on whom he passed judgement in that vast but so lively volume he used, cheerfully, to confess that he hadn't. Some were undoubtedly left to Janet. Her mind was his mind in such matters. And what a mind it was - as incandescent as it was delicate and particular. She was certainly, for instance, the Proustian in the family, and delighted in the complete edition of A la Recherche du temps perdu in the Pleiade text which had been given her for a birthday present, comparing Proust's prose with Monet's painting of water-lilies.

Proust's celebration of Combray, the long-lost paradisal place kept alive in love by remembrance, had deep personal significance for her. When Martin died, Janet's message in tribute to him at his funeral was "Car bien des annees ont passe depuis Combray" ("Many years have passed since Combray"). Her daughter Miranda repeated the words for her own passing rite.

She was born Janet de Glanville in 1930 in Exmouth, Devon, where her father was a GP. Her childhood was spent in the West Country and at school in north Wales before she went up to Somerville to read Greats (Latin, Greek, ancient history and philosophy). It was at Oxford that she met Martin, two years her senior, already a published poet and the centre of an admiring circle but at first just one of the many young men who were dazzled by her. Asked at this time by her lifelong friend the novelist Susan Chitty what she thought of the young poet, Janet replied: "Martin will always be around."

The words proved prophetic. For the rest of her life, with the exception of its last eight weeks, Martin was always around. The pair were indivisible and the vitality of their marriage saved Janet on more than one occasion over the next five decades when her own intellectual brilliance exacted its toll. She suffered all her life from episodes when she was overwhelmed by her own mind. At these times, above all, she relied on Martin's love and care and protection. But he relied equally on her as the mainspring of his being and the very pulse of his poetry, much of the best of which was about her, though never sentimentally:

Oh but compassion's gift is merciless,

Lover: delusion's ghost cannot forgive

That in its element, of my distress,

I cruelly make you, you unkindly, live.

"Unkindly", there, means against kind, or as some might say, unnaturally. There was never any lack of the other kind of kindness in Janet Seymour- Smith.

The couple were married at the British Consulate in Mallorca, in 1952. They had gone to the island to live with Robert Graves, who had been Martin's friend since his childhood and whose biography he was eventually to write (Robert Graves: his life and work, 1982, revised 1995) - a book which Janet rightly insisted was by far the best of the lives of that poet, as well as being the one which other biographers of Graves have relied on for primary material and because it is written with a fellow poet's inwardness.

As well as helping Graves with The Greek Myths, Janet taught Latin to his son, William. Martin and Janet's first child, Miranda, was born in 1953 while they were still living in Mallorca. Their second daughter, Charlotte, was born soon after their return to England a year later.

Some difficult years followed, during which they lived in various rented cottages in Sussex, while Martin laboured at uncongenial schoolmastering jobs, before he became a full-time writer in 1961. Three years before that they had moved to the rambling old house in Bexhill-on-Sea, originally a Working Men's Library, which was to be their home for the next 40 years. Here, when their daughters had grown up, the emblems of their love became a series of cats, all named after characters in novels by Thomas Hardy: Picotee, Tamsin, Sweetapple.

Martin worked harder than any other serious writer of his generation, pouring out (usually for little money) a stream of critical studies, as well as major biographies, most notably the Graves and his 1994 biography of Thomas Hardy, a true labour of love. Poetry, and the writing and reading of poems, was at the heart of the Seymour-Smith household. The last book Martin published in his lifetime was the volume of poems Wilderness, dedicated to Janet, which contains these lines from a poem entitled "To My Wife in Hospital":

Two people who were very old

Once loved each other so much

That a god decreed

That they should die at the same time

And become one tree.

That poem goes on, ironically, to lament the fact that he and Janet never even managed to walk the long hot way to visit such a tree when they were together in Umbria. "Too far, really, / We said".

Tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, Janet Seymour-Smith inspired such poems most notably from her husband, but also from others who fell under her spell. She was capable all her life of calling forth love and devotion from those with whom she came in contact, yet treated her admirers with intelligent amusement as well as tact and tenderness.

A lover of roses and Grand Opera (especially Verdi) and in her younger days of greyhound racing, this uniquely gifted woman who gave so generously of herself in nurturing and sustaining her husband's work was always as Graves called her "splendid Janet". I once heard her silence three drunken poets who had been denigrating Milton simply by reciting from memory the first two dozen lines of Lycidas and then saying, "Not that we have to like this stuff, but here we are 300 years on and I can't quite forget it, you see."

Robert Nye

Janet de Glanville, translator and classical scholar: born Exmouth, Devon 25 August 1930; married 1952 Martin Seymour-Smith (died 1998; two daughters); died Tunbridge Wells, Kent 2 September 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable