No False Modesty

Rosemary Hill

  • Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius by Richard Greene
    Virago, 532 pp, £25.00, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 86049 967 8

‘Gothic enough to hang bells in’ was, apparently, the response of one American visitor to a portrait of Edith Sitwell in the Tate. Elizabeth Bowen, herself an imposing physical presence, described Sitwell in real life as like ‘a high altar on the move’, and Virginia Woolf, on first encountering her in 1918, noted that she was ‘a very tall young woman, wearing a permanently startled expression, and curiously finished off with a high green silk headdress, concealing her hair, so that it is not known whether she has any’. The style, perfected over decades, was part performance, part optical illusion. Sitwell’s passport recorded her height as five feet eleven but she was often reported as being well over six feet. The sharply faceted features, set off by angular drapery and semi-precious stones like a great Vorticist doll, were designed to deflect the eye as much as they attracted it.

How she contrived this appearance on a slender budget – the combination of glamorous bespoke gowns and cloaks from the Chelsea dressmaker Nina Astier with cleverly chosen off the peg hats from Whiteley’s (for many years her local department store in Bayswater) – is one of several interesting points on which Richard Greene has nothing to say in this disappointingly flat biography. Why she did it she explained herself. It was, like so much in her life and work, the result of a famously (if productively) unhappy childhood.

The Sitwells, Edith and her two younger brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, their ill-suited and erratic parents and their life at the family home, Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, have long since been lodged, along with the Mitfords and some outlying members of the Bloomsbury group, in the national Pantheon of the higher eccentricity. These are people who, it is felt, with some pride, could only be English and about whose private lives and sexual habits it is respectable to speculate, not least because they talked so much about themselves. The Sitwells left particularly abundant material. Both Edith and Osbert wrote memoirs giving strikingly contrasting accounts of the family. Sacheverell, the only one to marry, was more reticent and in later life somewhat estranged from his siblings, embittered by what he believed to be the unfair neglect of his poetry. He was nevertheless an integral part of the Sitwell phenomenon. In the photographs of Cecil Beaton, for whom they posed often, they appear as an inseparable trinity caught from dramatic, sometimes elevated angles, their heads fitting together as if to present three aspects of a single personality.

Greene’s intention is to do justice to his subject as more than a public eccentric and indeed she was much more than that. Further, he seeks to defend her as not only ‘a poet of incomparable skill’ but as ‘Britain’s outstanding woman poet of the 20th century’, a point on which he is much less convincing. Sitwell’s poetry is not negligible but it is repetitive, voluminous and often unresolved. The verdict of the Times obituarist in 1964, who described her long poem of 1929 ‘Gold Coast Customs’ as ‘Miss Sitwell’s version of The Waste Land’ does not now seem tenable and it would take a stronger, more penetrating critical argument than Greene can muster to make it so.

But she had other achievements. As an editor she was responsible for getting Wilfred Owen’s poems into print in her magazine, Wheels. With Façade, devised in collaboration with William Walton and first produced in 1922, she invented something new, a kind of Symbolist/Futurist performance poetry. Like her appearance, indeed her entire life, Façade treads fearlessly the fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous. Greene seems to regret her use of a megaphone in early performances as an unhappily comic touch, although it could as well be seen as another of those striking, slightly surreal images she excelled in creating. Yet undoubtedly her greatest creation and her most fertile subject matter, the foreground, background and context for everything else, was herself.

Born in 1887 (she was older, Woolf later realised, than she looked in 1918) she was the first child of George Sitwell, fourth baronet, and his beautiful young wife, Ida, ‘my frightful mother’. From birth she was a disappointment, ‘in disgrace for being a girl’, and as she grew up matters got worse. She was too tall to be feminine, her nose was large and long and like her spine it had a kink in it. The hair she often concealed in later life was fine and lank and to judge by a photograph taken in her mid-teens, attempts to crimp it into thickness only made her look odder. There was no false modesty in her claim to have been an unprepossessing child and the elaborate carapace of later years shielded a permanently bruised self-image. In her fifties, while being fêted on a tour in America, she remarked to an acquaintance: ‘I can’t stand myself. I’m so ugly.’

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