OBITUARY:Elspeth Davie

Share
Related Topics
One's first impression of Elspeth Davie was of her smallness; the second of her extreme shyness. One of her friends described her as looking like a mouse, neat, nervous, undeniably small. She could also have been mistaken for one of Miss Jean Brodie's young girls, a Morningside lady mingling the intellectual with the tearoom. This would have been an error. In her writing she may well have been the creme de la creme, but that phrase implies a certain self-esteem, an awareness of inner strength. Elspeth Davie was implacably modest, the least self-assertive of human beings or writers.

She was born in Scotland and, though she spent her earliest days in southern England and lived for a time in Ireland, in Scotland she remained. She went to school and university in Edinburgh, and also attended the Edinburgh College of Art (she taught painting, an ordeal which must have taxed her voice and her manner). Her early novels were Providings (1965) and Creating a Scene (1971), and she also published a collection of short stories, The Spark (1968).

It was in the form of the short story that Davie found her true presence. It afforded her the ideal outlet for her particular and highly idiosyncratic blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Her settings were often mundane, but her characters were usually involved in peculiar, even surreal, events. The short story was the perfect length and, though she wrote other novels, Climbers on the Stair (1978) and - probably her most successful - Coming to Light (1989), it was her collections of short stories which displayed her remarkable talent to its best advantage.

The High Tide Walker (1976) and The Night of the Funny Hats (1980) followed, and in 1978 she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for Short Stories.

Elspeth Davie had her admirers, who perceived the sharpness and the delicacy of her observations, but in a period of increasing emphasis on the big and the vulgar in fiction she could never come within a million miles of being dubbed a best-seller. Paperback editors shunned her, American publishers thought of her as thoroughly uncommercial (they were no doubt correct); she was unlikely to be sought out by television chat shows, and would have been aghast if such an event had occurred.

She did not seem to mind this state of neglect, indeed she was touchingly grateful for any praise or recognition. She was perhaps old-fashioned in her approach to writing, content to produce quirky, finely honed gems rather than sprawling sagas. Every word told: it was very often what she left out rather than what she put in that was of note.

In Davie's last collection of short stories, Death of a Doctor (1992), there is one story which seems to epitomise her qualities and her beliefs. "The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books" starts in this way:

This was the time when every book in the world had been put on the tape, when long ago every catalogue in every library could be read from hundreds of flickering screens which quickly settled down into a steady blue and green twilight shade, or at times a purple, violet and pink, the colour of rainbows. The library which had once been a murky, mysterious place was fun at last.

Into this brave new world comes a man who remembers what books looked like, what they smelled like. This character could so easily have been Elspeth Davie herself. Her books would not be suited to kaleidoscopic colours or flickering screens. She was a real writer of real books, which more people should have smelled and read. Like many other writers, with a strange, elusive but nevertheless strong voice, she remains to be discovered.

Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson

Elspeth Dryer, writer: born Kilmarnock, Ayrshire 20 March 1918; married George Davie (one daughter); died Edinburgh 14 November 1995.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
More From
Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there