Obituary: Janet Adam Smith

Leonard Miall
Sunday 12 September 1999 23:02

BIOGRAPHER, MOUNTAINEER, critic, literary editor, textual scholar, comic versifier, visiting professor, hostess, anthologist, traveller - there seemed to be nothing at which Janet Adam Smith did not shine. And she shone with an intensity that made others glow in response.

A cosmopolitan with close friends in many countries, she was first and foremost a Scot. Her father, the Very Rev Sir George Adam Smith, had been Principal of Aberdeen University and was a fellow minister of the father of J.C.W. Reith, the founder of the BBC.

In 1927 Sir John Reith, as he had just become, was on a visit to the BBC station at Aberdeen and dropped in to see the Adam Smiths. Janet was then at home learning typing and shorthand in the hope of becoming a secretary in London. She had been a scholar of Cheltenham Ladies' College and an exhibitioner at Somerville College, Oxford, where she had read English. Reith urged her to try the BBC secretarial pool. She had one false start when she was asked what sort of typewriter she was using and made the mistake of replying "a Triumph", which happened to be the make of motorbike a friend allowed her to ride. But she tried again, and was given a job with BBC Publications.

Soon she found work worthy of her talents, first as a sub-editor on The Listener, later as Assistant Editor. She dealt with articles on art, selected reviewers for literary books, and published new poetry, especially the work of W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Herbert Read, Louis MacNeice and Michael Roberts.

Roberts, schoolmaster, poet and keen mountaineer, applied to review books for The Listener. Janet Adam Smith had been properly instructed in mountaineering by her father. Indeed the BBC's Yearbook for 1930 has a photograph of her high in the Alps with the Matterhorn behind her and a copy of The Listener in her hand. With a common interest in both poetry and mountaineering Roberts was soon a frequent guest at the parties for young intellectuals Adam Smith often gave.

They married in 1935 and moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, where he taught mathematics at the Royal Grammar School. This meant her relinquishing her job as Assistant Editor of The Listener. She resigned, early in April, a couple of weeks after the annual pay increases were announced. To her surprise she found that her salary had been put up from pounds 550 to pounds 650. When she went to say goodbye formally to the Director-General, Reith revealed that he had personally overruled the recommendation that stood against her name: "No increase - leaving".

"In the future you may want to do a job again," he told her, "and they will say to you, `What was your pay when you left the BBC?', and it would be better if you could say pounds 650 than pounds 550." It was an action typical of Reith - imaginative and canny.

Two children were born to the Robertses in Newcastle, and a third in Penrith, Cumberland, where the RGS was evacuated in 1939. Janet Adam Smith remained in Penrith with the children when her husband joined the European Service of the BBC. There she wrote Mountain Holidays (1946; reissued 1996), in which she recalled pre-war climbs in Scotland and the Alps.

In 1945 the family moved to London, where Roberts had become Principal of the College of St Mark and St John, in Chelsea. Janet Adam Smith continued to write and to edit. She contributed to the series "Britain in Pictures"; Life among the Scots (1946) and Children's Illustrated Books (1948). She had already established herself as an authority on Robert Louis Stevenson with a short biography published in 1937. She now edited the correspondence between Stevenson and Henry James (1948) and prepared a scholarly edition of Stevenson's Collected Poems (1950); both were published by Rupert Hart- Davis.

After Michael Roberts's untimely death in 1948, Janet Adam Smith moved to Lansdowne Road, near Holland Park, which remained her home on and off for the rest of her life. In 1949, to support the family, she became Assistant Literary Editor of the New Statesman and Nation; as its Literary Editor from 1952 until 1960, she made the second half of the magazine essential reading for all sorts of people who had little sympathy with the first half.

Adam Smith still found time for her own work; she edited The Faber Book of Children's Verse (1953). She also edited Michael Roberts's Collected Poems (1958), and with her friend and fellow climber Nia Morin, translated from the French several mountaineering books, notably Maurice Herzog's Annapurna (1952). In 1965 Rupert Hart-Davis published her magisterial biography of John Buchan; she had been invited to undertake this by Buchan's son Alastair, then Professor of International Relations at Oxford. (She was justly proud when her son Adam Roberts was later appointed to the same chair.)

In 1965, after 17 years as a widow, Janet Adam Smith's life took a new turn when she became the wife of the headmaster of Westminster School. It was a surprise to many, for John Carleton, then aged 57, was regarded as a permanent bachelor. It was a very happy marriage and their conversation was often punctuated by gales of laughter. Janet was a marked success in her role as headmaster's wife. She began to list "mountain walking" rather than "mountaineering" as her recreation, but her vitality was undiminished. The Carletons were the only married couple who served together on the committee of the London Library; Janet herself served on it from 1955 to 1977.

After John Carleton's death in 1974, Janet Adam Smith continued to contribute literary criticism and memoirs to a variety of publications; throughout her eighties, she wrote for the New York Review of Books. Her reviews, especially of books about Scotland, were penetrating and beautifully written. She frequently broadcast on Critics' Forum. From 1976 to 1984 she was President of the Royal Literary Fund; she also served as Vice-President of the Alpine Club (1978-80), and for many years was active in the affairs of St John's, Smith Square, which John Carleton had helped to establish as a concert hall.

Janet Adam Smith also continued to travel. She visited her nephew, John Thomson, when he was High Commissioner in New Delhi, and was delighted to glimpse Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling. She made several trips to see friends and relations in the United States; in 1994 she returned to the Alps with a family party, and her 91st year was marked by an expedition to Paris by Eurostar. She retained a zest for gossip, never malicious, but always apt. Friends treasure felicitous rhymes which she sent as notes of thanks, apologies or simple festive greetings.

Janet Adam Smith, in a phrase she sometimes herself used, was worth a guinea a box.

Leonard Miall

Janet Buchanan Adam Smith, writer and journalist: born Glasgow 9 December 1905; staff, BBC 1928-35, Assistant Editor, The Listener 1930-35; Assistant Literary Editor, New Statesman and Nation 1949-52, Literary Editor 1952- 60; trustee, National Library of Scotland 1950-85; President, Royal Literary Fund 1976-84; OBE 1982; married 1935 Michael Roberts (died 1948; three sons, one daughter), 1965 John Carleton (died 1974); died London 11 September 1999.

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