The Magazine

Original Edith

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

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The terrible thing about Greene’s biography is that it reveals the extent to which Osbert not only withheld but actually stole portions of his sister’s inheritance, a piece of blackguardly selfishness which only accentuates Edith’s own selflessness when it came to caring for and protecting those she loved, including her brothers. Fans of Osbert’s autobiography will find these disclosures of malfeasance sad reading.   

Despite the unkindness, and indeed abuse, that she suffered at the hands of family and friends, Sitwell was a warmhearted woman whose generosity was of a piece with the celebratory exuberance of her poetry. This quality also comes out in her letters. In one, she recommends that a friend look at Michelangelo’s drawings in the Uffizi, which she characterizes as “superb with the kind of proud magnificent beauty that my mother had, more than any woman I’ve ever seen—staring at her image in old age,—equally beautiful in its own way, but with the immortality of the bone, not with the pride of summer.”

If Lady Ida ever paid her daughter’s beauty any comparable mind, no record of it survives.

Then, again, Greene vividly captures the sorrow that always threatened to cast out the glee that otherwise animated Sitwell’s joyous sense of the richness of life, a sorrow compounded by her long, troubled attachment to the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew. “I’ve been feeling terribly unhappy lately,” she admits to one correspondent in the 1930s. “I’ve seen people behaving in such a dreadful ugly way. .  .  . And I never can get used to it.”  By the same token, she was always prepared to take even her gloom and turn it into fodder for her wonderful jokes: “I had such a terrible dream last night,” she tells another correspondent; “I dreamt I was in a low shallow grave, that I had to dig with my own nails, and that I couldn’t lie down because there were still a few drops of blood left in my heart, and so I wasn’t allowed to be dead.”  

In an entry for the old Dictionary of National Biography, John Lehmann nicely summed up Edith Sitwell when he remarked how “her capacity for icy, lightning-swift repartee to bores, who were fatally attracted to her, concealed a great sense of fun and also a deep sense of compassion that could immediately be aroused by a genuine tale of misfortune.” This biography is a tribute to both the sense of fun and the sense of compassion of a subject who here lives in all her sardonic gaiety.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries and the forthcoming Newman and His Family.