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Review: Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius by Richard Greene


TWO DAMES: Edith Sitwell pictured with Marilyn Monroe in LA in 1953. Photo: George Silk

TWO DAMES: Edith Sitwell pictured with Marilyn Monroe in LA in 1953. Photo: George Silk

TWO DAMES: Edith Sitwell pictured with Marilyn Monroe in LA in 1953. Photo: George Silk

There's a major problem with Richard Greene's biography of Edith Sitwell, and it starts with the title. It's all very well for a biographer to be committed to the cause of his subject, even to the point of hagiography -- which doesn't necessarily preclude informative objectivity. But to claim genius for Sitwell instantly sets up a question.

An important modernist, certainly; a major figure on the literary scene of her time, undoubtedly. An eccentric of magnificent proportions, obviously. But when the life becomes part of the literary legend, the word "poseur" lurks uneasily in the background, at the very least casting a dancing shadow over the accolade of genius.

Then there's Greene's claim that she was "Britain's outstanding woman poet of the 20th Century". How would Sitwell herself have reacted to that? Somerset Maugham said of himself that he was the best of the second-rate. Sitwell might have preferred to be claimed as an outstanding British poet of the 20th Century -- as she undoubtedly was, despite the severe drop from fashion her work suffered after the emergence of the writers loosely classified as the Angries, with their absolute rejection of all forms of the symbolism in which Sitwell specialised -- rather than being classified by means of her gender.

Admittedly, she did once tell her friend, Stephen Spender, that she had had to "learn not to be timid" because there had been nobody to point the way; but that must have had quite a lot to do with her own dismissal (in turn) of earlier poets in her championing of modernism, which began with her editorship of the journal Wheels. Rather than being the positive champion of the new, she defended it fiercely in terms of denigrating earlier schools of thought and writing, a kind of negativity that paradoxically may have made her seem more defensively timid than she claimed ... or appeared.

Because sadly for the work that Greene admires so extravagantly, it's Edith's appearance and almost rackety Bohemianism that she is remembered for nowadays. To choose to become a writer at any time of history is brave. Sitwell's most recent biographer implies that it was even more courageous for her simply because of her privileged, if dysfunctional, background.

She had a ghastly childhood as the unloved, awkward daughter of Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell. Sir George spent most of her childhood at a geographic as well as emotional distance from his family -- it was his protective cover against his beautiful, neurotic and ruinously extravagant wife. Lady Ida even got herself involved in a complex financial scam during the First World War, which resulted in her serving a jail sentence.

Edith was then in her late 20s and living in London on a fairly meagre allowance from her father. Her only concern seems to have been for the effect the scandal might have on her brother's Army career. Her parents may have been unnecessarily cold, even by the upper-class standards of the day, but Edith returned the favour in spades.

And for all her devotion to the freedom of the individual, and the creative life of the artist as fulfilment, it does not seem to have occurred to her that the allowance, which she considered so penurious, would have been considered a fortune by artists of less-privileged background.

She was also fond of recalling in later life the trials of cleaning out her own fire; in fact, as her brother pointed out (again spitefully -- the Sitwells, particularly Osbert, majored in spite), she was never without a servant and would have been unlikely to have had to turn her hand to any menial task.

In her childhood, Edith had been subjected to hideously painful "therapy" for a crooked back and even for her defining feature, the famous nose. It involved wearing painful and cumbersome braces on both, and in later years she recalled the procedures with understandable horror, which Greene echoes on her behalf. But he does not acknowledge (or did Edith herself) that these brutalities, as they seem to us, were the recognised procedures of the day, prescribed by the leading (and highly paid) members of the medical profession.

But even at her best, Edith did not fit the conventional mould. As a debutante, she asked a dinner companion whether he preferred Brahms or Mozart, a solecism of intelligence and artistic awareness which caused her parents to remove her swiftly from the "marriage circuit", as the debutante season was known.

Her love life never prospered. Devoted to her old governess Helen Rootham, with whom she lived for many years in poetic poverty on mainland Europe and in London, it has never been definitively clear as to whether or not they were lovers, even briefly. Greene comes down on the negative side.

In later years, Sitwell fell hopelessly in love with the personally unpleasant, sexually voracious (and spiteful ... again) painter Pavel Tchelitchew. Their voluminous correspondence has only recently come to light, and Greene uses it liberally. Tchelitchew rejected Edith's physical advances, not surprisingly, since he was homosexual, but an undeniable bond emerges.

The famous Wyndham Lewis portrait of Edith, which shows her with eyes demurely lowered in contemplation, has no hands -- the sittings came to an abrupt end when he made a pass at the sitter. In a caricature of knee-jerk maleness, he later portrayed her as a lesbian in his 1930 novel The Apes of God.

She was a favourite subject for Cecil Beaton, and his camera found an unearthly beauty in the long face, huge nose and receding chin. Edith's father had been obsessed with his gardens at the family home, Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, to which his daughter returned during the Second World War; it could almost be said that she inherited her father's genius for design in a bizarre way -- her body, with its gaunt figure and extraordinary face became her canvas, and throughout her life she made her appearance an extraordinary work of art, with an almost Gothic form of dress bedecked with huge, clanking jewellery.

Co-incidentally, it is generally accepted that by far her finest poetry was written at Renishaw during the war years, when she lived in extreme austerity with the echoing cold and frugal food which were imposed by wartime restrictions.

But she was already sinking into alcoholism, and the paranoia which had always hovered over her life was becoming more pronounced. She lived until 1964, and her last years were beset by pain and illness.

She had flirted with, then become obsessed by, Roman Catholicism, telling Graham Greene (himself a convert who shared his mistress with an Irish Catholic priest) that his novel The Heart of the Matter had prevented her committing suicide. In 1955, she converted, but conspicuously failed to find peace.

She regarded Yeats as the greatest of all modern poets, greater even than Eliot, but justifiably regarded his spiritualist obsession with suspicion. Perhaps she hoped to find a "third way", but she failed. Just as, unfortunately, Richard Greene fails to prove his claim for her as a genius, which is sad, because in striving to make his claim with a huge torrent of often unnecessary and trivial detail, he obfuscates the very real quality and heritage of a genuinely fine and ground-breaking modernist poet.

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