Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius 
by Richard Greene.
Virago, 532 pp., £25, March 2011, 978 1 86049 967 8
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‘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.’

Her father’s attempts to improve her looks with back braces, nose pegs and a strict regime that prevented her from playing the piano were possibly better intentioned than she gave him credit for, but she recalled them only as another source of misery. And as cramping as the iron frame she had to sleep in were the conventions of late Victorian and Edwardian country-house life. ‘In that age everything seemed inflated, more highly coloured than life, with enormous roses, pink as the Gadarene swine who swarmed in the gardens.’ The gargantuan hunting and shooting parties made her a permanent opponent of blood sports and she resisted the mating ritual of ‘coming out’ by stubbornly declining to master ‘the heavy art of light conversation’. The extended family of bustled and corseted female cousins ‘like very large empty omnibuses on very small wheels’ offered little sympathy. The worst blight of her upbringing, however, was, by her own account, her mother’s violent temper – the sudden unpredictable rages of which her daughter was the main object.

Against the staid routine of county society the Sitwell parents’ peculiarities blazed all the more brightly. Ida, who was superstitious and kept a piece of hangman’s rope on her bed head for good luck, drank too much, spent too much, got into dubious company when her husband stopped paying her debts and in 1915 was tried for fraud at the Old Bailey. She was found guilty and spent three months in Holloway. It was a public disgrace that delighted the newspapers and which Osbert, then in the army, and Sacheverell, at Eton, felt deeply, while it confirmed Edith’s belief that their mother was ‘a monster’.

Sir George meanwhile occupied himself with his life’s work, the landscaping of the grounds at Renishaw, spending hours motionless on one of several wooden viewing platforms he had had built, staring at his creation through a telescope. It was a landscape of seclusion, symmetry and silence from which ‘the menacing voice of the church bell’ was banished and where flowers were discouraged. In contrast to his wife, whom he had soon come cordially to loathe, Sir George served his guests at most a small glass of Bordeaux and after dinner would entertain the gentlemen on a favourite topic, such as Nottingham in the Middle Ages, without benefit of brandy.

The third dominating presence in the young Sitwells’ life was Renishaw Hall itself, with its ghosts (of which Edith had several alarming experiences) and its aura of rich melancholy. It was a Jacobean house much enlarged by the late Georgians, and she recalled it in the summers of her childhood as ‘dark and forgotten and a little precious … sunrays lying upon the floor … as dimly as the chapel’s smiling cherubim’, while in the ballroom, which shone ‘like the water of a kingfisher’s lake in the deep afternoon of a dream’, hung tapestries whose ‘pomp and splendour’ presented a vision of processions of queens and nymphs and pearls in forests that saturated her imagination and recurred in her poetry for the rest of her life.

Between these immense competing forces Sitwell’s adult self emerged with a combination of aristocratic self-confidence and the timidity of a bullied child. ‘I was shy,’ she recalled, ‘and yet, at unexpected moments, not silent.’ ‘The fear of people’ had been ‘instilled’ in her, as had a desperate need for love. She was impulsively generous, sympathetic to any suffering in people or animals, but desperately over-sensitive to criticism or rebuff. She changed her mind and her feelings about people violently and often and at such moments she was not silent, often in unexpected ways. When Robert Graves sold a copy of her book The Sleeping Beauty, which she had inscribed to him ‘in admiration’, she bought it back and resold it after adding: ‘I wrote this dedication at a time when Robert Graves was a tentative English nightingale and not an American loon or screech-owl. Though poor, I am happy to buy this book (from the shop to which he sold it) for the sum of 15s so that no one can accuse me of being a hoot-fan. Edith Sitwell.’ She would take on anyone who had seemed to slight her, from the Daily Mail to the Gas Board, and in exactly the same tone.

At the same time there was a side of her that retained the manners of an Edwardian country-house châtelaine. This enabled her to become an inveterate and successful hostess from the time of her earliest ‘Saturdays’ in a dingy flat in Bayswater, where over the years Yeats and Graham Greene, W.H. Davies, T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley were among those who came for tea and buns under a single, unshaded electric light bulb. It also added lustre to some of her put-downs. Dealing with a Boston psychiatrist who demanded to know why she wrote about Christ rather than mankind, she inquired whether Christ was not good enough for him and if he would prefer her to put her trust in the atom bomb. ‘I then bowed from the waist, and said I feared I was keeping him from his friends.’

Other conventions of her upbringing also shaped her. She was less well-educated than her brothers, dependent on governesses and her own wide reading. Nor was she expected to leave home, unless to marry. Her father, she later claimed, had been deterred from sending her to university by a misreading of Tennyson’s long poem on the subject of female education, The Princess. It is easy now to underestimate the desperate daring of her escape to London, where, with the help of a beloved governess, Helen Rootham, she took a flat in Pembridge Mansions, Bayswater. Here she and Rootham lived on a grudging and uncertain allowance from Sir George, plus what they could earn. Thereafter, Sitwell was always short of money and as each generation passed she was left or positively cheated out of a fair share of the inheritance by the rest of the family. Her aunt Florence felt she was undutiful; her brothers were selfish and the whole family felt the aristocratic imperative to concentrate wealth in the male line. After Sacheverell’s sons were born, her father often remarked to Edith that he hoped she was saving as much as possible for the ‘little men’.

In these unpromising circumstances she nevertheless made her way as a poet and editor and in due course drew her younger brothers into the same orbit. Sometimes the new world and the old collided. ‘A Mr D.H. Lawrence came over the other day,’ Ida Sitwell wrote to Osbert in some bemusement, ‘a funny little petit-maître of a man with flat features and a beard. He says he is a writer, and seems to know all of you.’ At a loss to entertain his guests, Sir George had apparently given Frieda a tour of Renishaw, during which she had bounced suggestively on all the beds. The unintended consequence of the visit was that Lawrence used some details of the family and the estate for his work in progress, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, causing another of Sitwell’s abrupt reversals of opinion. She decided that Lawrence’s poetry was not as she had thought ‘beautiful’ and ‘moving’ and that he himself looked like ‘a plaster gnome on a stone toadstool in some suburban garden’.

Her affection and gratitude towards those whom she felt repaid her trust was boundless to the point of being abject. She did not allow the unfairness with which she was treated in relation to her brothers to sour their relationship although she was not blind to it. She may never have known the extent to which they manipulated the family property to exclude her, but it was no more than the truth when she wrote in a rare outburst in a letter in 1950 that she had never had anything ‘excepting what I made for myself … I was poor, I lived in a poor cheap flat … my holidays were always at some cheap hotel … S[acheverell] is not rich; but he has a most beautiful house with wonderful things in it. He and [his wife] have always done everything they wanted, travelled and had fun.’

She would have been better off financially if she had not given so much of her scant income away. Rootham, though a talented musician, never succeeded in making the career she hoped for as a singer. Increasingly nervous and depressed and drawn to various forms of quasi-mystical philosophy and religion, she relied on Sitwell to support her, which she did with a constant stream of books of popular history and journalism. Although she sometimes complained about the time away from her poetry, the articles in the Weekly Dispatch on ‘Our Family Ghost’, ‘My Awkward Moments’ and ‘When Is Poetry a Crime?’ were done with gusto. They gave an outlet to the side of Sitwell that liked music hall and circuses and found Bloomsbury high-mindedness prissy, concurring with Gertrude Stein’s remark that they were like the YMCA without Christ. Despite her efforts, however, the situation deteriorated. She and Rootham moved to Paris, to another grim flat where Rootham’s health declined by degrees through a series of agonising operations for cancer until she died, very slowly and in appalling pain. On her deathbed she asked Sitwell to promise that she would support her sister Evelyn for the rest of her life. It was a promise that was faithfully kept and the cost, financial and emotional, as well as the lingering trauma of the last horrifying weeks of Rootham’s illness, cast a shadow over the rest of Sitwell’s life. She suffered from depression and began to drink heavily, but she never abandoned the sometimes difficult and demanding Evelyn.

Among her more justified reactions to criticism was her impatience with the younger generation of critics such as Julian Symons, who came up in the 1940s and for whom she was an established figure. They attacked her as an ‘aristo’ who knew nothing of ‘real life’. It was a bad mistake, if understandably common. After 1945, when she had become well known in America, Sitwell spent some time in Hollywood working on a project to adapt her book Fanfare for Elizabeth as a film. It never came to anything, but while she was in California Life magazine thought it would be funny to get her to interview Marilyn Monroe, anticipating a snubbing piece from an English grande dame. In fact the two women got on very well, and Life rejected Sitwell’s perceptive account of Monroe’s vulnerable charm. After Renishaw it took a lot in the way of temperamental behaviour to disconcert her. While the floundering script of Elizabeth was lost in ‘development hell’ she was amused to watch the goings-on on the set of A Star Is Born, where, she told a friend, Judy Garland ‘screams and cries and hits people with her shoe all the time’.

The complicated mixture of love, gratitude, guilt and resentment that characterised her friendship with Helen Rootham was also present, in a different but equally unhappy compound, in the other central relationship Sitwell sustained outside her family. This was with the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew. It was, on her side at least, a romance and she promoted Tchelitchew’s work with all the funds and all the friends she could muster. He in return took what he could get and resented her. The novelist Glenway Wescott, who knew him for 30 years, described him to an earlier Sitwell biographer, John Pearson, as a ‘really terrible person’ and ‘psychopathological’. Greene, who has had access to the Sitwell-Tchelitchew correspondence, embargoed when Pearson was writing, has found nothing to contradict this verdict or his own summary of Tchelitchew’s character as ‘extravagant, visionary, superstitious, mad and selfish’. He was also predominantly homosexual and made no secret of his horror of Sitwell physically or any attempt to conceal his jealousy of her success. His demands on her for support were blatant and she claimed that he had threatened her with violence once when she was sitting for him. Yet she never entirely gave up on him and died with his pastel portrait of her opposite her bed.

It is hard not to conclude that the self-dislike and fear of people so early instilled in her did not allow her to expect anything better from a lover. To what extent the relationship was sexual at the beginning, or to what extent she wanted it to be is unclear. To contemporaries Sitwell’s artfully constructed image seemed to preclude physicality. Many of her critics used the misogynistic vocabulary of frigidity against both her and her work, Geoffrey Grigson being particularly obnoxious in attacking the imagery in her poems as such as ‘could only have been contrived by a poet who had never experienced pregnancy’. To Harold Acton she was ‘the essential hysterical intellectual spinster’ and however unpleasant his tone it is impossible to disagree with his conclusion that ‘dear Edith wasn’t exactly what you might call cuddly.’

As so often it is Sitwell herself who provides the best guide to her feelings, if in a characteristically oblique way. Writing in The English Eccentrics (1933), supposedly on the subject of Margaret Fuller, the 19th-century feminist, she is surely talking about herself in the guise of this ‘chaste, passionate and high-principled woman, at once splendid and ridiculous’ who conceived a doomed passion for the ‘work-shy and superior’ James Nathan, a darkly glamorous ne’er-do-well some years her junior who exploited her feelings ruthlessly. What Fuller said of herself might be applied with remarkable precision to Sitwell’s own shy yet outspoken self and its somewhat ambiguous expression: ‘The woman in me kneels and weeps in tender rapture, the man in me rushes forth, but only to be baffled.’

Victoria Glendinning, in her more perceptive life of Sitwell, A Unicorn among Lions, published in 1981, pointed out the connection between Nathan and Tchelitchew but Greene does not comment on it. Nor does he discuss the book’s definition of ‘eccentric’, a question that ought to interest any Sitwell biographer. Fuller, though a controversial figure, would not be considered by most standards an eccentric any more than H.G. Wells, who is included in the chapter on ‘Eccentricity’ in Sitwell’s late memoir Taken Care Of, ‘not because of any remarkable habits or predilections, but rather because of his intense and eloquent ordinariness … and [his] very large and carefully arranged brain.’ As with Fuller, Sitwell’s play on the idea of eccentricity, the question of who is to decide where the centre is and what counts as off it, is more subtle than Greene allows. Indeed, despite his sincere desire to increase her critical standing, his account of her work is cursory and not always quite accurate. On the lines

Beelzebub called for his syllabub in the hotel in Hell
Where Proserpine first fell,
Blue as the gendarmerie were the waves of the sea

Greene comments that ‘this glimpse of hell in a hotel and Beelzebub in a baronet … adds a comical slap at Georgian poets.’ But a hotel in Hell is a different thing from hell in a hotel, and much more unusual.

What his biography adds to the perception of his subject is largely due to the passage of time. As the Sitwells have faded from living memory they have come in some ways to seem less remarkable, more like period pieces, art deco personalities. But as her image is absorbed into history, the reality of Sitwell’s life and character becomes easier to see. She emerges as perhaps the most original of the three siblings and certainly the most appealing, with a vulnerability that never eclipsed her emotional generosity. The hope for reciprocated affection endured into a physically painful and often depressed old age. In 1962, two years before her death, one of her oldest enemies, Noël Coward, endeavoured a rapprochement. They had not been on speaking terms since 1923, when Coward had very publicly walked out of the first performance of Façade. He now wrote her a letter congratulating her on her latest book, the instant bestseller The Queens and the Hive. She replied at once by telegram: ‘Delighted Stop Friendship never too late.’

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