Sacred Monster

Graham Hough

  • Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn among Lions by Victoria Glendinning
    Weidenfeld, 391 pp, £9.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 297 77801 3

For readers who are more interested in literature than in literary society those sacred monsters who live in anecdote and legend rather than in their work are always something of an embarrassment.

Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil
Nor in the glistering foil
Set off to th’world, nor in broad rumour lies

– or at least it ought not to be; and how is the perfect witness of all-judging Jove to manifest itself if the object under inspection is perpetually obscured by a cloud of gossip, role-playing and myth-mongering? Writers of indubitable greatness have been distorted by their legend, like Dr Johnson and Byron. Those of less certain status, like Oscar Wilde, have been left by it in a sort of limbo, where we never know what it is we are being asked to admire, their life-style or their art. Edith Sitwell comes in this class, and Victoria Glendinning’s biography brings these dubieties to the surface again. She is much aware of them herself, and she begins her book by asking – or almost asking – the unforgivable, inescapable preliminary question: is Edith Sitwell’s poetry any good at all? She gives some illustrations of the total uncertainty about her subject’s importance as a poet, and comes to the rather helpless conclusion that nobody knows, it is all a matter of taste, and not even literary taste. She quotes John Press: ‘the divergences over Edith Sitwell are inseparable from the personal, cultural, social and educational principles and prejudices which have inspired them.’

It is not really as bad as that. A rational argument about Edith’s Sitwell’s poetry is perfectly possible, with as much chance of reaching agreement as any other literary argument. But this book does not attempt it. It is not a critical biography, and says little about the Sitwell oeuvre beyond describing the reactions it evoked. But that does not solve all difficulties. Victoria Glendinning has set herself the sufficiently difficult task of giving a full-scale portrait of an extraordinary woman, whose life was without the incidents of most women’s history – husbands or lovers or children; a lonely life, yet because she acquired immense celebrity which she deliberately exploited, a life lived largely in public. Most of the evidence for it is of a public kind too. The bulk of Edith Sitwell’s letters are for one reason or another inaccessible: so that source of understanding is missing. Her personal writings have more the nature of declarations and manifestos than self-communings. We have no idea, for example, of the process of reflection or recollection that led her to the Catholic Church; her confirmation seems to have been a sort of jamboree. Her friends, who were numerous, were met chiefly at enormous tea-parties or luncheon parties, at exhibitions, poetry-readings and so forth; and none of them has anything to say about her inner life. Perhaps she had no inner life. Perhaps she was one of those characters, rare but occasionally met with, whose life is complex and developed but wholly externalised. And perhaps that is why Leavis’s oft-quoted comment that she ‘belongs to the history of publicity rather than poetry’ was genuinely wounding. Another difficulty to be faced by her chronicler is that the early years with the family, so important for her development and full of interest in themselves, have been pre-empted from a different point of view by Osbert Sitwell’s brilliant autobiographical writings.

Victoria Glendinning’s achievement is to transmit what she ultimately comes to feel, a great respect for this remarkable figure, and a sympathy for her loneliness, her warm heart, her abundant store of affection that never found the right channels to flow in. This note is struck at the start, and it is right that it should be, for the story as it unfolds arouses decidedly conflicting feelings, of which sympathy is only one – it has to fight its way through strong detachments of irritation and distaste. The magnificent Edith of later years, rebuking those impertinent enough to criticise her poetry, irresistibly recalls another Edith – Edith Evans playing Lady Bracknell. But there is always the possibility that the richly comic side of these scenes was not wholly unintended, that the affronted dignity was deliberately pushed to the edge of the absurd. And then a very different picture comes to mind – the pathos of her upholstered, unhappy childhood at Renishaw, the nagging and bullying of an unwanted daughter by her appalling parents, the cruel harping on her awkwardness and lack of conventional charms. This not only explains, it goes far to excuse, the peacocking and posturing of later years. And then again, all sympathetic leanings are swept away by the sordid literary rows, the abusive criticism that shocks less by its offensiveness than by its silliness, the frenetic self-assertion that creates exactly the opposite effect from the calm majesty intended. But finally, after all these conflicting reactions, we are left with the impression that this book wisely contrives to establish from the beginning: the sense beneath all the distortions and absurdities of an Edith Sitwell who was fundamentally generous and loving, seen in her many kindnesses to young writers, her intermittent but often exquisite courtesy and consideration for the sufferings of others, and her passionate loyalty to her friends.

Contradictions abound. Edith was the poor member of a rich family, and the alternation between absurdly lavish expense and rather dismal circumstances went on throughout her life. There was a real affection and alliance between Edith and her two brothers, but that did not prevent estrangements, jealousies, and rows about money matters. From all this Edith comes out well – unworldly and a peace-maker. Unflaggingly devoted to her friends and protégés, she was not a good judge of people, and was apt to expend her affection where it was neither returned nor adequately appreciated. Yet anyone who edged away from her sometimes rather overwhelming attentions was apt to be stigmatised as a traitor.

It is not easy to fuse all this diverse and highly-coloured material into an integrated whole, and Victoria Glendinning handles it with skill and discretion. She steers an untroubled course between the schwärmerei and snobbism, on the one hand, and the resentful hostility, on the other, that have always beset Edith Sitwell’s career. What is more, she presents her as a comprehensible, even an admirable personality. For all that, the question of why we should be interested in her at all is not really faced. That would require an estimate of the value of her work, and only a very faint gesture in that direction is made here. The question seems to be deliberately left open. A sketch of Victoria Glendinning’s personal estimate is given in the foreword. In her view, Edith Sitwell ‘published too much of what she wrote, especially as her obsessional emblems made her increasingly repetitive’; if the world knew nothing but, say, her 12 finest poems ‘she would have an unquestioned, uncategorised place on anyone’s Parnassus’. This seems right to me – especially the ‘uncategorised’. The small tally of Edith Sitwell’s best poems has suffered from the attempt to put them into the accepted pigeon-holes of modern poetry – slots into which they do not fit. When you react against the Georgians you are supposed to turn into T.S. Eliot, and it is a misfortune to be one of the awkward squad who turn into something else. Victoria Glendinning also suggests that Edith Sitwell’s best work comes in the Twenties – in The Sleeping Beauty, ‘Colonel Fantock’ and the Troy Park poems. And on looking into my heart I find that these are indeed the poems I have always valued. But it is not enough just to say these things: such judgments need a little argument.

I would suggest that the poems mentioned above are more successful than the rest largely because they are in traditional forms and have a clear narrative or pictorial content. The sustained meditative rhythm of ‘Colonel Fantock’, slipping dreamily from blank verse to couplets and back again, the finished lyrical delicacy of parts of The Sleeping Beauty, are effects which she hardly ever achieved elsewhere. ‘Colonel Fantock’ indeed seems to me her best poem: apart from its musical charm, she contrives to get into it something she rarely allowed into her poetry – the element of character and circumstance, a real reference to an individual human situation. She was not a successful technical innovator, as was often supposed. She was quite unfitted by temperament and experience to be the laureate of the jazz age, its gaieties and its squalors, as she herself at one time aspired to be. Most of Façade is empty jingle; Gold Coast Customs is jabbering incoherence. She is not a seer or a prophet; and the attempt to fill this role in her later years obscures her genuine grief and compassion in a repetitive keening chant, incapable of articulating anything but the most generalised moods.

One would like to know more about her intellectual formation. It appears that she was educated almost entirely by her lifelong friend and mentor Helen Rootham; and private schooling of this kind has no annals. But what did Helen Rootham actually teach her? What did she read? Her often-mentioned discipleship to the French Symbolists – what did it mean? What had she really read of them, and what did she make of it? If there are no answers to such questions in Victoria Glendinning’s book, it is doubtless because the answers are nowhere to be found. It is a puzzle, for in her criticism and miscellaneous writing there is a strange mixture of sporadic insight, a general air of knowledgeable sophistication, with a blank unawareness of the elementary intellectual proprieties. Her garbled quotations and flagrant copyings from other writers became notorious. Yet her mind had qualities of edge and precision that were left largely undeveloped. She was a shrewd observer and a wit, as can be seen in her few published letters, and in her editorial contributions to the scrapbook English Eccentrics. Victoria Glendinning singles out one of these – her description of Margaret Fuller’s relation with her ‘spiritual’ lover – both for its insight and for its rueful acknowledgment of a parallel in her own life. In such places we see glimpses of a prose Edith Sitwell whose unused talents we may well regret.

But perhaps we are on the wrong track. Perhaps the attempt to reduce Edith Sitwell to her works is a mistake. Perhaps the sacred monsters, the creatures of myth and legend should be simply recognised as such. Both Yeats and Gide, in seeking to analyse the fascination that Wilde had held for them, came to the conclusion that most of his works were leaden buoys, sinking him all the more surely. What kept him afloat was a combination of creativity and character, art and personal style, to which the legend contributed as much as the work. It is indeed part of the work. We may surmise that this is true of Edith Sitwell too; and Victoria Glendinning’s biography will add a substantial element of ballast to the legend.