Obituary: Janet Seymour-Smith
Wednesday 16 September 1998
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."
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.
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