A High Altar on the Move
Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius
The odd lazy and spiteful review is to be expected in the lifetime of any major writer. As biographer Richard Greene observes, most authors would regard occasional vilification as an occupational hazard. Not so Miss Edith Sitwell. In 1940, when journalist Hamilton Fyfe claimed that the Sitwell family had earned recognition that exceeded their combined artistic merit, Edith Sitwell and her brothers simply sued for libel. Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell each walked away with £350 and renewed media notoriety while Fyfe’s interest in the high-profile brood miraculously subsided. Needless to say, one embarks on a review of one of the 20th century’s feistiest literary lives with a certain degree of residual apprehension. Fortunately, Greene’s biography of Sitwell leaves little to inspire libellous critique, instead offering readers an energetic account that does justice to the modernist poet’s deliciously eccentric life.
In his preface, Greene writes that part of his biographical project is to rescue Sitwell’s reputation from a chilly contemporary climate of critical neglect. In Greene’s projected fantasy, the name Edith Sitwell would sit instinctively alongside Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Woolf on any standard syllabus of modernist literature. In her lifetime (1887-1964), Sitwell enjoyed a reputation as one of Britain’s outstanding female poets, most famous for her vigorous, poignant meditation on the London Blitz, titled “Still Falls the Rain” (1940). Several critics, including C.S. Lewis, compared her work to Sappho’s, citing its “technical variety and imaginative depth”, a parallel that reveals something of Sitwell’s iconic status during the 20th century.
Sitwell’s career was a mixed bag of creative enterprise. Moments of pure poetic innovation were supplemented by prose projects that were necessary commercial drudgery. Despite growing up in a Derbyshire estate the size of a small county, peculiar family politics meant that Sitwell’s dynamic avant-garde lifestyle comprised debt as well as dactyls. Greene’s story of Sitwell depicts a woman both empowered and vulnerable, a woman who valued creativity and friendship above all while somehow retaining a snobbishness that rivals Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s.
Standing at over 6 feet tall and equipped with “aquiline”, jewel-encrusted hands, a homemade turban, and lashings of savage wit, Sitwell must have cut an extraordinary figure in salons across London and Europe. Elizabeth Bowen once described her as “a high altar on the move”. While many biographers scavenge archives for droll anecdotes and quips, it is clear that Sitwell’s papers (some only recently released) offered Greene a brimming file of ready-made amusement. The challenge of writing Sitwell’s biography was always going to be overcoming the seduction of pure quirkiness. Greene’s subject could have easily collapsed into an entertaining compilation of avant-garde conceits. Instead, he crafts a three-dimensional human being: a life story with depth as well as Sitwell’s often caricatured height.
Much of the biography’s success owes to Greene’s own authorial personality and the way he seems to converse with Sitwell, creating an intimate, tongue-in-cheek dynamic that errs toward charm rather than cheesiness. One imagines that Greene would have given Sitwell a run for her money over a few glasses of her (too) much-beloved champagne. While it may not be academically de rigueur to interact so informally with one’s biographical subject, the most discerning passages in the biography occur when Greene makes his own voice heard over the hubbub of literary tittle-tattle. He is like a dry, pragmatic avuncular figure, quietly shuffling Sitwell’s affairs into order and making shrewd observations without spoiling the fun. The biography’s humour treads a fine line between smirk-worthy wit and Dad jokes, but in all instances, it affords an endearing interlude in a genre that is so often prone to dryness. After narrating various accounts suggesting that the house that Sitwell was born in was haunted, Greene laments, “sadly, none of the ghosts has consented for an interview”.
Greene’s engagement with Sitwell’s biographical material does not confine itself to the odd ironic jibe. Since many of Sitwell’s nebulous anecdotes do not seem to match one another, Greene takes it upon himself to play detective and uncover the likeliest version of events. He quotes Sitwell’s story of how she met the painter Walter Sickert in 1904, when she was 17:
When Elsie took me to his studio, I was an unimaginably shy young girl. Elsie said to him, ‘This woman admires your La Vecchia’ (a picture being shown at that time in a London gallery). ‘Well, then, she must be a very intelligent woman, or else she is mad. Which one are you?’ ‘Mad’ I said. Enchanted by my answer, he gave me a drawing of the Bedford Music Hall.
After narrating Sitwell’s invariably elegant version of events, Greene offers his own refreshing scepticism. One gets the sense that with the wily Sitwell, conveniently clever episodes should never be swallowed without a pinch of scrutiny. In this instance, Greene points out that Sitwell’s dates do not correspond to Sickert’s sojourn in England. Greene quietly observes that a disproportionate number of Sitwell’s most charming stories happen when she is at the preferred age of 17. Furthermore, Greene notes that in later retellings, Sitwell “has Elsie say merely, ‘This woman admires your pictures’”, presumably having realised that La Vecchia was only exhibited in the summer of 1907. Greene’s precocious analytical sidesteps reveal Sitwell’s desire to manipulate her own public legacy, and perhaps more importantly, an anxiousness to remould her difficult childhood into something more enchanting than it really was. Greene appears to enjoy chasing Sitwell’s stories as if the biographer and his subject were playing one giant game of cat and mouse. And Sitwell is one frisky mouse.
Sitwell’s life story co-stars a host of 20th-century poetic powerhouses including Siegfried Sassoon and T.S. Eliot (or “Tom” as she casually calls him). Such a large and fascinating cast necessitates a biographical juggling act wherein each illustrious acquaintance must be accounted for from the moment they waltz into Sitwell’s pokey living room. Managing her crowded posse of literary upper-crusters is one of Greene’s strengths. He navigates the narrative of Sitwell’s rise to artistic infamy with finesse. It is the private Edith Sitwell who sometimes fades into the background: the eating, sleeping, letter-writing, turban-sewing, nail-filing Edith.
Despite arousing intrigue with the notion that Sitwell’s poetry was “choked by the circumstances of daily life”, Greene gives us very little about Sitwell’s quotidian habits and routines. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Gaskell treats us to a description of Brontë’s day-to-day domestic habits as they fit in with (or rather interrupted) her routine of writing.
…she would steal into the kitchen, and quietly carry off the bowl of vegetables…and breaking off in the full flow of interest and inspiration in her writing, carefully cut out the specks in the potatoes, and noiselessly carry them back to their place.
While Gaskell’s glowing account of Brontë’s domestic virtues may make a contemporary post-feminist reader grimace, she nevertheless provides an insightful and delightful glimpse into her subject’s lesser-known idiosyncrasies. One might suppose that Sitwell never used her ethereal hands to scrape a black eye off a potato, but she may well have contributed to her small, basic household in London. Even if a depiction of domestic minutiae struck Greene as superfluous or disrespectful, a detailed account of Sitwell’s writing process or daily schedule would have been a welcome aside. Although thorough research can only yield selective shards of a posthumous life, Greene’s apparent reluctance to inquire into Sitwell’s private tastes doubtless makes her a less accessible subject.
By the end of the biography it is easy to comprehend Greene’s enthusiasm for revivifying Sitwell’s legacy. Amid family dysfunction and industry fracases, Sitwell’s unapologetic intelligence shines through, as does her intense, thoughtful poetic voice and propensity for general mischief-making. Although receiving no formal education she ended her long life as “Dame Edith Sitwell D. Litt., D. Litt., D. Litt., D.Litt., D.Litt.” after earning five honorary doctorates, including one from Oxford in 1951. Never one to overrate humility, Sitwell gleefully brandished her new accolades at the “pipsqueakery”, as she derisively called her critics. With similar pride, Greene brandishes Sitwell’s genius at a new generation of readers. Whether or not Sitwell’s evocative rhythms and haunting imagery will ever regain popular lustre is uncertain, but if her work remains in the academic shadows, it will certainly be despite Greene’s animated biographical insights.
Kate Steinweg is reading for an MSt in English at Wolfson College, Oxford.