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Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius, by Richard Greene

Edith Sitwell in 1945

Courtesy the Sitwell Collection

The lives of the Sitwells have been richly recorded. In addition to memoirs by Edith, Osbert (in five volumes) and Sacheverell, there have been three biographies of the holy trinity, three of Edith and one each of Oz and Sachie. The existence of two Sitwells seemed like carelessness, three was surely excessive. This biography by Richard Greene, professor of English at the University of Toronto, could be improved with fewer minor details and a more dramatic narrative thrust. But he synthesizes the bountiful material in a clear and intelligent fashion, and gives the best and most partisan account of Edith.

The daughter of a wealthy Midlands coal magnate, Sitwell had a harsh but privileged childhood in the forlorn grandeur of Renishaw Hall, near Sheffield. She was forced to wear a painful orthopedic brace, which failed to cure the curvature of her spine, was denied a university education and lost her rightful inheritance. Notoriously unreliable about the events of her life, she created a defensive persona and myth. Extravagant in dress and manner - like Mark Twain, Marianne Moore and Truman Capote - she copied the artificiality and affectation of Oscar Wilde. She was six feet tall and had heavy-lidded eyes, an anteater's nose and a permanently startled expression.

She wore elaborate gowns, Spanish capes, medieval wimples, Turkish turbans, barbaric necklaces, clanging bracelets and lumps of turquoise and amber on her spidery fingers, all of which accentuated her weird appearance.

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Sitwell was arrogant and vain, and paradoxically vulnerable yet aggressive, kind yet cruel, sensitive to suffering yet eager to inflict pain. Jealous of rival poets, she bore "like the Turk no rival near the throne." Anyone who dared to criticize her became an enemy, and she carried on protracted guerrilla warfare with Arnold Bennett, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Noël Coward and Stephen Spender, as well as with Wyndham Lewis. He painted the brilliant portrait, now in the Tate Gallery. Though he found her repulsive, he tried to seduce her to see what the formidable virgin would be like in bed.

Sitwell fell in love with bisexuals - Siegfried Sassoon and Pavel Tchelitchew - who would neither sleep with nor marry her. She conducted a long and eventually tedious correspondence with Tchelitchew, a parasitic and revolting egomaniac who claimed he couldn't work in Paris on account of his brother-in-law's glittering pince-nez. Sitwell was also corrosively jealous of women who lured away her current infatuations: the bohemian heiress Nancy Cunard and the exceptionally beautiful Argentine painter Leonor Fini, whom she called "a horrible looking woman."

In addition to the subtitle English Genius, Richard Greene repeats at least a dozen times (as if trying to convince himself as well as his readers) that Sitwell was the leading, outstanding, best and greatest woman poet of her time. And he absurdly calls her mediocre 1937 novel I Live Under a Black Sun (which I've read) "a masterpiece, one of the great novels of its time." But he does not provide convincing evidence for these assertions. Though America had gifted poets such as Elinor Wylie, H.D., Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker and Louise Bogan, Sitwell had no competition, apart from the feline Charlotte Mew, in England.

Sitwell's verse is vague and abstract, mannered and pretentious, fantastical, macabre and jangling. She loved sonorous words simply for their own sake. Her famous lines, "Jane, Jane/ Tall as a crane/ The morning light creaks down again!" has baby talk and sound effects, but no real content. Other ambulatory lines (appreciatively quoted by Greene) are painfully banal: "The golden lovers walk in the holy fields," and, in her religious phase, "But He who walked the wave now walks once more."

George Orwell, in a passage not quoted by Greene, condemned Sitwell's "completely frivolous emphasis on technique, treating literature as a sort of embroidery, almost as though words did not have meanings." Lines such as "Beelzebub called for his syllabub in the hotel in Hell" ran counter to Hemingway's modern statement that poetry "is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over."

By comparing Edith Sitwell to her close contemporary, Russian Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), one clearly sees the difference between a truly great poet, courageous character and noble spirit, and a malicious, self-adulating but still interesting versifier of the second rank.

Jeffrey Meyers, the biographer of Wyndham Lewis, corresponded with Sacheverell Sitwell. He will publish John Huston: Courage and Art in September.

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