Novel on Yellow Paper was published in 1936 while Stevie Smith was working as a secretary at Newnes, the stationery company. Her original suggestion for a title was Pompey Casmilus, after the book’s heroine, but this was rejected by her publishers, Jonathan Cape, and for a long time the manuscript hung around at the Cape offices where the staff referred to it as ‘the novel on yellow paper’ because of the cheap yellow Newnes stationery it was typed on. This finally became the title adopted.
The book is written in a rapid, breathless, at times incoherent style – the story goes that it was completed in ten weeks – but was a huge success on publication. Smith’s name was unknown at the time, and many assumed ‘Stevie Smith’ to be a pseudonym’: the poet Robert Nichols even wrote to Virginia Woolf congratulating her on her latest novel.
The book’s subtitle was Work It Out for Yourself. This was partly because of the novel’s perplexing surface, but also because Smith – a Teutonophile who had visited Germany and made friends there – intended her book as a call to face facts about the rise of Nazism and the persecution of Germany’s Jews. ‘God send the British Admiralty and the War Office don’t go shuffling on with their arms economies too long-o,’ she wrote. ‘And how many uniforms, how many swastikas, how many deaths and maimings, and hateful dark cellars and lavatories. Ah how decadent, how evil is Germany today.’
Spalding, Frances: Stevie Smith (1989)