Jean Guthrie-Smith

Jean Guthrie-Smith (1895 - 1949)

Biography

Summary

Jean Guthrie-Smith expressed her strong sense of social justice through many of the poems in her 1922 collection, and painted contrasting portraits of Glasgow and London in the first decades of the 20th century. 

Full Biography

Jean Guthrie-Smith was born on 4 August 1895 in Kelvinside, Glasgow, the second daughter of John and Lizzie Guthrie-Smith.  John Guthrie-Smith was a solicitor in the firm of Maclay, Murray and Spens, a senior figure in the Glasgow Freemasons, and also drama critic for the Glasgow Herald.

At the age of about twelve Jean was sent to St. Leonard's School for Girls in St Andrews, and it seems she wrote poetry there. At seventeen, she attended a finishing school in Brussels for about a year, and absorbed Belgian history and culture, judging by poems later published. She enjoyed her time there, and made life-long friends.

On her return to Britain Guthrie-Smith was influenced by the women’s suffrage movement, and became an active member of the Labour Party. Her sense of social justice and her response to the suffering she had seen in Glasgow is apparent in poems such as ‘Tenements’ and ‘The Canal’. She moved south to London and, though it was not then possible for women to gain degrees, she attended the London School of Economics where she studied social science. Social and welfare work, and later war work, then occupied her.

Around 1916, Jean Guthrie-Smith met Lawrence Neal through a Glasgow friend, Kenneth Lindsay, later an Independent MP.   The couple married on 1 May 1918 – before the end of the war, but not before Neal had been twice injured in battle (once during the Battle of the Somme, with a sniper’s bullet to the head), and had also survived the Spanish flu.  Theirs was a love match; Jean wrote to Neal every day while he was away in France.
Their first child was born in November 1919.  Neal was by this time running and starting to expand his family business, Daniel Neal's, a children's outfitters.  The couple lived a full and happy life, with a wide circle of interesting and active friends. They settled in Kensington, where a second son was born in 1925, and a daughter in 1929.  Jean was devastated by the build up to the Second World War, dreading a repeat of the horrors of the Great War. The Neals made the difficult decision that their two youngest children should be evacuated to Jean’s sisters in New Zealand. The first son, Kenneth, was called up to the Army by the end of 1940. He had several poems published in Poems of This War, by Younger Poets (Cambridge University Press, 1942). Tragically, he was killed in Normandy in July 1944; Jean never recovered from his death, and could not find the will to live. She died on 22 July 1949.

The family possesses some delightful juvenilia of Jean Guthrie-Smith’s, including a little bound volume of poems written when she was about eight or nine. Later she found outlets for her poetry in magazines and newspapers, including The Athenaeum, The Glasgow Herald, The Nation and The New Age. Her only collection, Adventure Square, was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1922. A notice for the book in The Daily Telegraph ran:

The verse of Miss Jean Guthrie-Smith is indisputable poetry; it has the atmosphere, the enchantment, the natural magic which transmutes the commonplace into the ethereal. She is unquestionably a true poet.

A natural sympathy for factory workers, miners, the poor and downtrodden fill poems such as ‘Ballad’, and ‘Nocturne’; the seared landscape and blighted lives of the industrial west of Scotland in the early years of the twentieth century are depicted in ‘Ayr’ and ‘The Black Belt‘ :

Gruff trams and trains criss-cross and intersect
With glittering steel this leprous countryside;
Pyramid slagheaps threaten …

London provided more colour for her pen, with its markets and mighty river, and here too her empathy for her fellow creatures comes through. Her poem ‘The Soldier’s Wife’ explores the nervous distance between couples who had been parted by war, and the awful destiny of lives ‘turned stone’ by the traumatic effects of conflict.

Although there were no further poems published, Jean turned her talent to writing stories for her children, which are still fondly remembered by her surviving son.

2014