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Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius

Deborah Longworth looks behind the Facade at the private life of a writer whose words mattered

She was Cecil Beaton's muse. She was Wyndham Lewis' favourite enemy, immortalised in what is perhaps his greatest portrait. Morrissey performed in front of a 40ft image of her on his Kill Uncle tour. A.A. Gill counts her among his pantheon of English beauties. Sheathed in brocade, the long tapering hands about which she was so vain (and which Lewis pointedly left unfinished) adorned with enormous turquoise rings, her forehead epitomising what it means to be "highbrow", there is no doubt that Edith Sitwell cultivated the appearance of genius.

That she was a poet of genius, however, has long been doubted by many. Richard Greene's new biography challenges all those who regard Sitwell as little more than a pseudo-artist and aristocratic snob whose fame far outweighed her talent. "Sitwell is a writer who matters - enormously," he states, declaring that his book "would be pointless if the reader came away without some understanding of how to read her poetry".

Edith Sitwell was born in 1887 in Scarborough, the eldest child of Sir George Reresby Sitwell, the eccentric baronet of Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, and his beautiful, spoilt wife Ida Denison. Sitwell was a disappointment to her parents because she was a girl, and she remembered her childhood as one of unhappiness and suffering. "There is no more important fact in Edith Sitwell's early life than that her mother did not want her," Greene asserts.

Careful to sift the reality (where possible) from Sitwell's mythologised accounts of her childhood, he yet acknowledges that Sitwell quickly became, as she claimed herself, "a little outside of life". She could feel no sympathy with the philistine values of her parents' Edwardian social set, and when her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell were away at school she sought relief in the enchantment of poetry and her surroundings. The ghostly corridors and atmospheric wilderness of Renishaw, the shifting sands of the bay of Scarborough and the servants who populated her day-to-day life would become the imaginative landscapes and weird, wonderful caricatures of much of her early writing.

Her first published poem appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1913. Sitwell was 25 years old, and her parents had given up on finding an eligible suitor for their eccentric daughter. By now, moreover, Lady Ida was entangled in the financial dealings that would lead to her being sentenced to three months in Holloway Prison in 1915 for fraud, and neither she nor Sir George put up much resistance to Edith's decision, instigated by her governess-turned-friend Helen Rootham, to move to lodgings in London. Greene is sensitive to the way that the scandal of her mother's affairs and the strength of Rootham's support effected a watershed in Sitwell's life, at once freeing her from Renishaw's noxious atmosphere and yet tying her forever in emotional and financial debt to her loyal yet increasingly needy friend.

Sitwell's major intervention in London's literary scene came as the editor of Wheels, a series of verse anthologies in which she challenged the jingoistic sentiment and formal conservatism that dominated contemporary poetry in the first two decades of the 20th century. It was Wheels that introduced Wilfred Owen to the reading public, seven of his poems appearing posthumously in the 1919 issue, to immediate acclaim.

This was also a period in which, as a female poet, Sitwell fought against the gendered double standards of the critical establishment. "They grumble because they say women will try to write like men and can't," she complained, "then if a woman tries to invent a female poetry, and uses every feminine characteristic for the making of it, she is called trivial. It has made me furious, not because it is myself, but because it is unjust."

The experimental verse she would go on to develop was as far from feminine sentimentality as she could possibly make it; virtuoso in technique, artificial in imagery and witty in tone. This was the poetry of Façade, the teasing "verse and music entertainment" piece that, stage-managed by Osbert and Sachie, combined a series of Sitwell's poems with musical accompaniment by William Walton. When first performed to a public audience in June 1923, Edith sat out of sight behind a curtain commissioned from the artist Frank Dobson, reciting through an instrument resembling a papier mâché megaphone.

The response of the audience, listening with incredulity to what appeared to be nursery rhymes and nonsense verse, reportedly ranged from aggression to indifference. Façade may not have outraged London society in quite the way that the Sitwells always claimed it did, but it secured their notoriety, helped by the popular success of Noël Coward's skilful spoof of the would-be sibling enfants terribles as the "Swiss Family Whittlebot" in his wildly successful musical revue London Calling! As Greene notes: "The Whittlebots were briefly more famous than the Sitwells."

Coward would remain persona non grata for decades, until a chance meeting and a hint from Osbert, and a subsequent letter to Edith complimenting her on her latest book, brought him a gracious invitation to tea. "How strange that a forty-year feud should end so gracefully and so suddenly," he reflected in his diary afterwards, noting that he had found her "completely charming, very amusing and rather touching". But, he added: "I am fairly unrepentant about her poetry. I really think that three-quarters of it is gibberish."

Edith and Osbert turned the Façade affair into something of a cause celebre in their battle against the hostility of the philistine bourgeois public, and the years that followed witnessed the high point of the Sitwells' cultish status among a younger, post-war generation. Despite his subtitle, Greene accords relatively little space to Sitwell's position within the avant-garde milieu of London in the late 1910s and 1920s, the years when, on Saturday afternoons in Sitwell's meagre Bayswater flat, the latest social-climbing Oxford undergraduate with a talent for verse might find himself consuming a frugal repast of tea and buns with W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf.

Greene's interest is more in Sitwell the "English genius", and his greatest claims are not for the anti-pastoral verse of Wheels, the pyrotechnics of Façade, or the fantasy worlds created in her collections of the mid-1920s, but rather for her later, more visionary verse in which he finds the foreshadowing of her conversion to the Catholic Church; the despairing Lullaby, for example, written at the start of the Second World War, and Still Falls the Rain, her mystic response to the 1940 bombing raids. While his passionate advocacy for the importance of this work certainly persuades that Sitwell is a writer who matters, the second part of Greene's objective, that his reader should come away with some understanding of how to read her poetry, remains only partially realised.

It is 30 years since Victoria Glendinning's sympathetic Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and since then much new material has become available, notably Sitwell's extensive correspondence with the great unrequited passion of her life, the Russian Surrealist artist Pavel Tchelitchew. Brilliant and utterly self-regarding, Tchelitchew was the kind of man who could make Wyndham Lewis seem chivalrous by comparison. Reading his cruelly selfish letters to Sitwell, and her loyal, devoted replies, is one of the most poignant aspects of Greene's book. Greene takes pains to show us the private Sitwell, her loyalty and sympathy, her gentleness and generosity, her loneliness and vulnerability.

The Author

Since he was 14, literature has been an addiction for Richard Greene, poet and professor of English at the University of Toronto. He was briefly a Jesuit novice at the age of 18: it was, he says, "a beautiful life, but I could not bear the solitude". Today, he says, he enjoys a relatively quiet life and engages "in long conversations with a cat who has strong opinions on Modernist poetry".

His own poetry has been very well received. His 2009 collection Boxing the Compass won the Governor General's Award for English-language poetry, one of Canada's highest literary honours. Greene recalls feeling "as if someone on a beach had opened a bottle and pulled out my scrap of paper. Some people say they write poems for themselves. They are lying...We like singing in the shower, but would much rather go to Carnegie Hall."

Greene grew up in Newfoundland, on Canada's Atlantic coast, a place he compares to "a ship's fo'c'sle in a Patrick O'Brian novel". In 1984, he completed a bachelor's degree in English literature at Memorial University in St John's, Newfoundland, then spent six years at the University of Oxford as a Rothermere Fellow, gaining a DPhil.

When he is not writing or lecturing, he enjoys camping in the woods. "We have black bears here; they are quite inoffensive if you observe the courtesies."

Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius

By Richard Greene

Virago, 544pp, £25.00

ISBN 9781860499678

Published 3 March 2011

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