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