Edith Sitwell is one of the women poets who were relentlessly criticised when alive and ignored, as though deliberately, after death. Born in a privileged family in England, she counted as friends the likes of W B Yeats, T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein. Graham Greene was one of her ‘followers.’
A new biography on her, thirty years after the last one was published and 45 years after her death, Avant Garde Poet, English Genius Edith Sitwell by Richard Greene tries to do justice to her, her work and her life.
Edith had a unhappy childhood. While her mother was very young when she bore her and did not want her, Edith’s father put her in iron frame to cure her of an imagined spine deformity. She had two brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, both authors and writers in their right and Edith’s lifelong friends and collaborators.
“As a woman, she lacked confidence in her gifts, and took many years to pass through an apprenticeship, so she came to the party just as other guests were leaving” says Greene, who has edited Selected Letters of Edith Sitwell and Graham Greene: A Life in Letters.
Greene sounds almost angry on her behalf when he says, “Of the great poets of her generation, Sitwell was the easiest to knock-off the pedestal. She was a flamboyant, combative aristocrat and better still, she was a woman; therefore, she served as a critical soft target. Attacking her was a way of attacking the influence of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot without taking on their more fortified reputations.”
One of the most known poems of Edith is Still Falls the Rain about the London blitz. Her prose sold well and brought her name, though she insisted that she wrote prose only for money.
Edith, Richard Greene says was a “strange combination of kindness and cruelty, courage and duplicity, simplicity and artifice. She could be funny and generous, as well as sometimes pompous and mean-spirited. She nurtured any number of rising talents and slapped down others. She was by turns compassionate and cutting; she inspired devotion among most of those who knew her, but a few, legitimately, resented her.” Six-feet tall, she dressed in clothes that were seemingly ill-suited. Edith never married and was life-long in love with gay Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew.
She toured America along with her brothers for reading sessions. She appeared on TV shows. Late in her life she converted to Catholicism. She wrote poetry on god easy enough but said she could not pray.
Richard Greene has not hidden her blemishes. In fact, he is candid about them which adds not only to the authenticity of the biography but also gives a better understanding of Edith. Her critics were harsh on her and she was harder on them. Once she sent a cable to the editor of Spectator, following a review of her work, “Please have Anthony Hartley [the critic] stuffed and out in a glass case with mothballs at my expense. The finest of all your collections.”
Greene’s biography of Edith comes from his deep understanding of her and her work. And hence Edith comes alive in the pages full of emotions and passions. An interesting woman presented in an equally engrossing narration. Greene is professor of English at the University of Toronto.
(Little, Brown Books Group, 100 Victoria Embankment, London EC 4Y ODY