|Cecil Beaton, Portrait of Dame Edith Sitwell,1962|
A woman who is born with a nose so beaky she may use it to spear cocktail olives, and a brow so high it surely could not house anything other than a scarily massive brain, must make a sartorial decision early on in life and stick to it. The choice is as follows. Either she can dress meekly in twin sets and beige stockings and attempt to disappear. Or she can embrace her oddities and rush headlong towards the door marked Fancy Dress Department.
Edith Sitwell took the second approach. A human scythe bedecked with yards of brocade, elaborate turbans and unlikely jewellery, she made an extraordinary sight: "a high altar on the move", according to Elizabeth Bowen. Once seen – in the newspaper, on television, or glimpsed for real in the sepulchral corridors of her haunted ancestral home, Renishaw Hall – she was never forgotten. Today, long after most of us ceased reading her poetry, a small crowd is regularly to be found standing before her image at the National Portrait Gallery (she was painted by Wyndham Lewis and Roger Fry, and photographed by Cecil Beaton), and at the V&A people still stare, dumbfounded, at her rings: aquamarines the size of puddles, hunks of amber as big as a cottage loaves.
Richard Greene, Sitwell's latest biographer, makes relatively little of her striking appearance. He wants us to take her seriously as a poet, and so provides no hint of a shopping trip, no whiff of the contents of her dressing table. This is a pity, for her costumes speak volumes about life as a 20th-century female poet: the sheer courage involved. Contemporary critics accused her of overambition; might she not, they wondered, be better off limiting herself to a smaller canvas? Sitwell, though, was convinced that modesty was death for the woman poet. "There was no one to point the way," she told Stephen Spender in 1946, at the peak of her success. "I had to learn everything – learn, amongst other things, not to be timid." Her clothes, then, were a weapon in the war against timidity – and in this sense are as much a part of Sitwell's brand of modernism as her fondness for reciting poetry through an upturned traffic cone. (I'm joking: the piece of equipment in question, used to such effect in Facade, a cycle of poems set to music by William Walton, was in fact a Sengerphone, made of compressed grass.)
Then again, Sitwell was in need of armour long before she knew she wanted to be a writer. A neglected child and, by modern standards, an abused one, her parents, Sir George and Lady Ida (George was the fourth baronet Sitwell), were distant and, in the case of Ida, feckless (in 1915, when Edith was in her 20s, Lady Ida stood trial for fraud and, having been convicted, served a short prison sentence). Their daughter was a mystery to them and, possibly, a shock, being curved of spine and crooked of nose (Ida was famously beautiful). Their cruelty began with their refusal formally to educate their daughter (Sir George read Tennyson's "The Princess" and promptly decided that university made girls "unwomanly"), and ended with their decision to straighten both her spine and nose with the aid of metal braces ("my Bastille", Edith called her back brace). Later, during her coming out, Edith asked a man at dinner whether he preferred Brahms or Mozart, and was hastily withdrawn from the circuit. When she left home – she lived for many years with her old governess, Helen Rootham, though they were not lovers – George paid her rent, but meagrely. He seemed not to mind that while he languished in fine houses in Yorkshire (Renishaw is near Sheffield) and Italy, his daughter inhabited shabby rooms in grubby parts of London and Paris. No wonder Sitwell was so close to her writer brothers, Sacheverell and, in particular, the repulsively selfish Osbert.
Her writing life began around 1912, when she was 25. Poetry slipped into the space previously occupied by music, though another spur seems to have been other people. The extent of Sitwell's acquaintance is astonishing: her address book, if ever she was in possession of such a bourgeois item, would read now like a roll call of early 20th-century artistic life. Sickert, Walton, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Woolf: she knew them all. With her Saturday-night salons, and her editorship of the journal Wheels, Sitwell established herself as an enemy of the old (specifically of the Georgian poets) and a cheerleader of the new; her own work, especially Facade, first performed in 1923, reinforced this impression. It wasn't long before her peers were swooning at her feet. She had her enemies, among them FR Leavis, and Noël Coward, who lampooned the Sitwells as the Swiss Family Whittlebot and considered her poetry to be "gibberish". But Yeats gave her 18 pages in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse; and on the publication of her Collected Poems in 1957, Cyril Connolly suggested that her work would one day be deemed to outclass that of Eliot and Auden.
Yet who, now, reads her? Sitwell died in 1964, a paranoid alcoholic, albeit one who had lived long enough to appear on This Is Your Life. Greene, as you would expect, makes great claims for her poetry, blaming its neglect on her class (the upper-class woman as dilettante), her gender (he is sensitive to the misogyny of critics such as Geoffrey Grigson), and the austerity of a new generation of poets (Larkin, Kingsley Amis) allergic both to symbolism and complexity.
But is he right to do so? No. Her best poems – those inspired by the Blitz – are marvellously rhythmic, and you see why Yeats likened her to John Webster, though perhaps in this instance her indelible visage worked on him rather more strongly than her verse (TS Eliot's line about "the skull beneath the skin" could as easily have been written for Sitwell, as for Webster). But for most readers, including this one, Sitwell has all the opacity of Eliot without any of his chilling immediacy and power.
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