Does a biography bring any psychological insight to the portrayal of its subject? Does it place its subject in the context of his or her contemporaries? Does it have anything of critical substance to say about its subject? Is it well written? Is it entertaining? Is it animated by that sympathetic fellow-feeling without which biography too often is little more than prurient gossip?
No literary biography of recent years has met all these exacting criteria with anything close to the same élan as Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius. And what makes Richard Greene’s achievement all the more admirable is that he has found so many new and incisive things to say about a subject that has not been untilled. Victoria Glendinning wrote a life of the famous sister of Sir Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell that is still worth reading. Then again, in her own time, Sitwell had several redoubtable admirers: W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon, Roy Campbell, and W. H. Auden all praised her work. Yet, in his depiction of the life of this now unjustly neglected figure, Greene has transformed our view of the poet by looking behind her famous eccentricities and showing us the vulnerable, heroic woman who was capable not only of memorable verse but of great kindness, resilience, loyalty, and grace. And, being a poet himself, Greene offers his animadversions on Sitwell’s poetry with a certain practical authority.
In his latest collection, Boxing the Compass, Greene ends with a poetic travelogue of sorts, which includes these striking lines:
The streets of Georgetown are out of
one ancient house of blue granite on
was erected before tea and tax
turned colonies into musket-bearing
the oldest are stone and then came
houses built at the edge of pavements,
fashionable, then slum, now revived
In his own work of revival, Greene realizes that Sitwell’s reputation has suffered in a critical ethos hostile to her mystery-honoring aesthetics. After noting that many now ignore the work Sitwell did after Façade (1920), her musical collaboration with William Walton, he makes an incisive point: “That evasion happens because we do not yet have the nerve to say that the generation of Philip Larkin imposed as orthodoxy a painfully narrow, indeed incoherent account of where poetry comes from.” And this largely was a result of the baleful influence of logical positivism, which held (as Greene reminds readers) “that knowledge must be strictly empirical, and that metaphysics and theology are meaningless.” Now that an edition of Larkin’s complete poetry has been published (see “Philip the Great,” The Weekly Standard, June 25, 2012), it is a good time to reappraise his achievement in this rarely considered light.
As Greene shows, Sitwell refused to comply with the attenuated poetics exemplified by Larkin, insisting instead on seeing all glory hidden in small forms / The planetary system in the atom, the great suns / Hid in a speck of dusk. Indeed, in a poem she wrote in 1942 entitled “From An Old Woman,” Sitwell did not hesitate to take on themes that directly contradict the positivists’ fashionable nihilism:
For though the soundless wrinkles fall
On many a golden cheek, and creeds
And change,—man’s heart, that sun,
Outlives all terrors shaking the old
The world’s huge fevers burn and
shine, turn cold,
Yet the heavenly bodies and young
lovers burn and shine,
The golden lovers walk in the holy
Where the Abraham-bearded sun, the
father of all things
Is shouting of ripeness, and the whole
world of dews and splendours are
To the cradles of earth, of men, beasts,
In the peace of God’s heart. And I, the
That has known earth’s grief and
Seeing mankind’s dark seed-time, come
Forgive and bless all men like the holy
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.
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.