The Magazine

Original Edith

The Sitwell with, arguably, the main claim to genius.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The author of these exultant lines, Edith Louisa Sitwell (1887-1964), was born in Scarborough, the oldest of three children of Sir George Sitwell, fourth baronet, genealogist, and antiquary, and his wife, Lady Ida Emily Augusta Denison, daughter of the first Earl of Londesborough. Edith’s eccentricity, not to mention that of her brothers and parents, may have come from the fact that the Sitwell family included among their ancestors not only kings of France and the English Plantagenets, but Robert the Bruce and the Macbeths. With this genealogical cocktail raging in the family’s blood, it is no wonder that Sir George became enamored of heraldry and Burke’s Peerage. Lady Ida, for her part, became so fond of gambling and drinking that she actually landed in prison after involving herself with criminal moneylenders.  

Unfortunately, neither parent was very fond of Edith. Her striking looks, which artists as different as C. R. W. Nevinson, Wyndham Lewis, and Cecil Beaton found fascinating, disconcerted them, and they were entirely incapable of entering into her delight in poetry and music. Sitwell was an original, and the utter incomprehension that she inspired in her parents, neither of whom was uncultivated, measured something of the boldness of her originality. Even Virginia Woolf, who liked to imagine her own originality peerless, recognized that Edith was distinctly different: “I do admire her work,” she admitted, “& that’s what I say of hardly anyone: She has an ear, & not a carpet broom; a satiric vein and some beauty in her.”

If Sir Osbert Sitwell’s great multi-volume autobiography showcases the obsessional hobbyhorses of the Sitwell patriarch, Richard Greene reveals more of the cruelty that he and his extravagant wife visited upon their neglected firstborn. Fans of the autobiography’s high comedy, however, will enjoy Greene’s own sense of the ridiculous, which is on display on nearly every page of this deeply funny book. After Osbert stood for his father’s Scarborough seat as an Asquithian Liberal—a foray into politics for which he had his sister’s full support—Edith remarked apropos the constituency itself: 

What a strange place—partly a clownish bright-coloured tragic hell, partly a flatness where streets crawl sluggishly, and one drop of rain (no more) drops on one’s face half way down the street, and there are no inhabitants, or so it seems, but boys so indistinguishable in their worm-white faces that they have to wear coloured caps with initials that one may be known from the other. Osbert didn’t “get in.” I suppose they found out he was a poet.

Greene’s comment on this is characteristically witty: “It can be assumed that on the hustings Edith Sitwell lacked the common touch.”

While Greene is sound enough not to overstate the merits of Sitwell’s most famous poem, “Still Falls the Rain,” which she composed during the Blitz, he does persuasively argue that rhythm is at the heart of the success of most of her best poetry. As Edwin Muir perceptively observed, she was “a cross between Meredith and the Queen of Spades.” If there is a careful attention to symbolism in her work, there is also an equally careful appreciation of the uses of the incantatory, which the poet must have had confirmed when she prayed. 

In addition to being a shrewd critic both of poetry and the psychology of poets, Greene is a deft chronicler of the historical backdrop against which Sitwell lived. He captures the despondent frivolity that followed the Great War, for example, with laconic precision: 

After an evening of pianola music and dancing, one of the party-goers, on his way home, tried to set fire to Nelson’s plinth. Going back to Aldershot, Sachie saw drunken women rolled like milk cans along the platform at Waterloo Station and stowed in the guard’s van. The reign of peace began the next morning with a hangover and some bruises.

Greene is also good on the precarious life that Sitwell lived in bohemian penury in Bayswater and Montparnasse with Helen Rootham, a failed fellow artist to whom Sitwell was staunchly loyal and who inspired one of her most eloquent jeremiads: “Invalids, poor things, don’t realise how constant their claims on one’s time become; they get immersed in a world of their own, and become (through no actual fault of their own) terribly selfish—exerting, quite unconsciously, a kind of moral blackmail.” Still, it was the unflagging caritas that Sitwell lavished on Helen that prepared her for her eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism.