Edith Sitwell and the English Eccentrics
Tuesday April 26, 2011 / http://thedabbler.co.uk/2011/04/edith-sitwell-and-the-english-eccentrics/
Our friends at Slightly Foxed (the real readers’ quarterly – buy a subscription now!) have once again kindly allowed The Dabbler to dip into its rich archives. We have handpicked this gem for you — originally entitled A Splendid Attitude to Death – from the Spring 2010 edition, in which author Christopher Robbins looks at Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics.
‘Eccentricity’, wrote Edith Sitwell, ‘exists particularly in the English, and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.’ Ah, those were the days. And just in case this unfashionable declaration of tribal perfection fails to establish Dame Edith’s unabashed élitism, she adds: ‘Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.’
The non-English and the dull, and those of us who lack noble blood or whose genius is yet to be acknowledged, might feel inclined to give Miss Sitwell’s book English Eccentrics (1933) a miss. That would be a pity. This strange holdall of human curiosities is as eccentric in style and form as its theme, and is not at all restricted to arrogant aristos and dotty men of genius. Quite a number of the eccentrics are not even English.
No writer could ever have been more suited to her subject. Edith Sitwell was certainly aristocratic, but born of such unloving parents that from an early age extreme eccentricity became a refuge. Her mother was self-obsessed, a spendthrift and a hysteric. Her father was a miser who cared only for his sons. When his daughter had gained an international reputation as a poet he still maintained that ‘Edith made a great mistake in not going in for lawn tennis.’
In defence, Dame Edith developed a regal and intimidating presence, touchy and grand, but behind the formidable pose was an unloved child with an inferiority complex. Far from being indifferent to the opinion of others, she was hypersensitive to criticism of both her poetry and her looks, and lived in terror of revealing her vulnerable and shy nature. Most of the eccentrics in her book are similarly damaged human goods, retreating into modes of behaviour designed to hold the world at bay.
Edith took eccentricity seriously. She saw it not as a flamboyant display of personality or idiosyncrasy of mind but rather as an instinctive rebellion against the quotidian coupled with an inability to adapt to the world’s norms: ‘Some rigid, and even splendid attitude to Death, some exaggeration of the attitudes common to Life’.
English Eccentrics is laced with sadness and there is a chill to the wit. The elaborate prose is hung with cobwebs, the structure formless and even repetitive, as the author meanders among the strange and often tragic lives of her characters. A modern reader might wish for a severe editor to prune the more tangential ruminations, but such an oddity of a book would crumble and collapse without its antique charm.
The author’s own eccentricity was first of all visual. Dame Edith was an eyeful. Picasso described her face as ‘a real collector’s piece’, while her figure was said to resemble ‘a crane on a platform, ornithological or mechanical’. Cecil Beaton wrote that she was ‘a tall, graceful scarecrow, with the white hands of a medieval saint’. Virginia Woolf found her ‘lonely, ghostlike and angular . . . all is very tapering and pointed, the nose running on like a mole’. There was no getting around the nose: Lytton Strachey described it as longer than an anteater’s. Dame Edith herself said, ‘I have always found it has got in the way.’
And then there were the clothes. Edith dressed in black velvet and bought rich upholstery material for her dresses – a favourite was one of earth-coloured brocade embroidered with gold lions and unicorns. Over time the outfits grew more and more extreme: plush velvets and black satins, exotic silk turbans, heavy gold ornaments and a collection of aquamarine rings the size of ice cubes. Friends wondered how she managed to lift her powder-white porcelain hands from her lap. There were other aspects to Sitwell’s eccentricity. A lifelong hypochondriac, she opened letters with gloves, fearing infection. She also played the role of the Bohemian poet beyond the point of parody. In the stage performance Façade (1922) she declaimed a series of abstract poems through a megaphone protruding from a huge head painted on a curtain that concealed both the author and a seven-piece jazz band. As a saxophone wailed a modernistic syncopation by William Walton, the cut-glass tones of Dame Edith’s voice could be heard reciting ‘Lily O’Grady, /Silly and shady’.
All types are represented in the eccentrics she chose for her book. There are scholars – like the learned professor of Greek at Cambridge who settled intellectual debate with a poker, and once carried a young woman around his rooms in his teeth. There are pious pirates – such as the captain who captured a clergyman and demanded only that he conduct religious services for his crew and make rum punch. And then there are those displaying the ‘splendid attitude to Death’.
One of these was a wealthy tanner named Jemmy Hirst. In his youth, he had invested in his own coffin which he used as a drinks cabinet throughout his long life. When he died aged 90, Jemmy’s corpse finally replaced the bottles of liquor, and eight widows were paid half a crown each to act as pall-bearers (the will called for old maids, but a sufficiency could not be found).
One protest against Death is simply to live on and on, like Old Tom Parr, who died in 1635 at the purported age of 152. He seems to have passed an uneventful life until the age of 80 when he first married, after which he became something of a rake. He was obliged at 105 to do public penance for philandering, wrapped in a white sheet at the church door. He remarried at 120 and in due course his wife presented him with a child.
In the eighteenth century a fashion developed among members of the land-owning class to acquire ornamental hermits for their parks. ‘Nothing, it was felt, could give such delight to the eye, as the spectacle of an aged person with a long grey beard, and a goatish rough robe, doddering among the disadvantages and pleasures of Nature.’ The most celebrated hermit of all, Lord Rokeby – born in 1712 – was not only ornamental but also amphibious. After a visit to a French spa he became addicted to bathing. In time his lordship rarely left his bath. He erected a small hut on the sands at Hythe for easy access to the sea, where he would remain among the waves until he fainted. He died in 1800 at the age of 88, wrinkled like a prune from a lifetime of submersion.
Squire Jack Mytton, born in 1796, was addicted to stronger stuff. Left rich but fatherless when he was 2, he was said by the age of 10 to be ‘A Pickle of the first order’. As a young man he was soon drinking eight bottles of port a day, and graduated over time to almost as many of brandy. He rode as hard and fast as he drank and took terrible falls from his horses, and all manner of spills in the vehicles they drew. When a passenger unwisely remarked that he had never been upset in a gig, the squire turned on him in outrage: ‘What, never upset in a gig?’ And promptly overturned the gig they were riding in to give his friend the experience.
Once, when suffering from hiccups, Mytton decided to frighten himself out of the attack by setting fire to his nightshirt. He was immediately enveloped in flames. After the servants had put him out, the singed squire reeled triumphantly into bed, exclaiming, ‘The hiccup is gone, by God!’
My own favourite among Sitwell’s eccentrics is the celebrated Amateur of the Drama, Robert Coates – variously known as Curricle, Diamond or Romeo Coates. He became famous in his day as a theatrical phenomenon – the world’s worst actor. The name ‘Curricle’ was given to him on account of the magnificent chariot in which he drove around London. This wondrous conveyance was shaped as a scallop shell, painted a deep blue, luxuriously upholstered, and drawn by two superb white horses. The owner’s heraldic device, a life-size cockerel with outspread wings, was attached to the front bearing the motto, ‘While I live, I’ll crow.’
Born in Antigua in 1772, Coates came from a wealthy family that owned slave plantations. He was in his late thirties when he gave his first performance in England, at Bath, in Romeo and Juliet, a play he modestly suggested he had greatly improved. He appeared before his audience dressed in a spangled cloak of sky-blue silk, crimson pantaloons, and white hat trimmed with feathers and adorned with diamonds, which also sparkled on his knees and shoe buckles. As Sitwell writes, ‘In his hands tragedy lost all her gloom.’ Indeed in Richmond, Romeo’s death scene caused a group of young men to laugh so hard they had to be carried into the open air to receive medical attention.
When Coates’ fame reached its zenith more than a thousand people were turned away from the box office at the Haymarket Theatre, in London’s West End, and fans besieged the stage door in their hundreds. The audiences at these productions were lively bordering on violent, and behaved as if they were in a bear-baiting pit. There was constant whistling, shouting and catcalls, as well as full-throated barnyard sounds of ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ in homage to the actor’s crest. Death scenes were particularly popular and the Gifted Amateur was often obliged to perform encores in which he died again and again.
Although Dame Edith has great sympathy for most of her eccentrics, she has nothing but contempt for the misers: ‘Unpleasant forms of vegetation, so sapless, so untouched by the sun’. Like ‘Lady Lewson’ of Clerkenwell, who never washed for fear of disease and smeared herself with hog’s lard against the cold rather than light a fire. ‘This strange unique trumpery, at the age of 87, cut two new teeth, which were a source of pride to her.’ Many of the misers lived to a great age, possibly because they could not distinguish between life and death. ‘Skeletons they were since youth; skeletons they remained.’
In time Dame Edith’s own eccentricity overwhelmed her reputation as a poet, and fear of being treated as a circus act even made her cancel a lecture tour to America. ‘They’ll want me to deliver my lecture like a trick cyclist, cycling round and round the platform balanced on my nose with my feet in the air.’ Her lifelong inferiority complex combined with ever-increasing megalomania led inevitably to paranoia. She came to believe that her face made her the most hated woman in England. It was not all paranoia, for she had been attacked by a coterie of powerful critics all her life, was forever locked in feuds with fellow artists, and received numerous malicious and abusive letters from the general public.
In old age, Dame Edith grew fat from drink and misery. Virginia Woolf described her as resembling an ivory elephant: ‘Majestic, monumental . . . an old empress’. She began to identify with Elizabeth I, and grew convinced that she was the queen’s reincarnation, although the figure she most resembled was that of a remote and virginal abbess. She died according to the code of her class, not wanting to make a fuss – her own splendid attitude to Death. Her last words were, ‘I’m afraid I’m being an awful nuisance.’
If Edith Sitwell was a pioneering modernist genius, as this definitive new biography suggests, her gift was not so much for poetry as for an outsider life well lived
The Observer, Sunday 27 February 2011 / http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/27/edith-sitwell-english-genius-richard-greene-review
A woman who is born with a nose so beaky she may use it to spear cocktail olives, and a brow so high it surely could not house anything other than a scarily massive brain, must make a sartorial decision early on in life and stick to it. The choice is as follows. Either she can dress meekly in twin sets and beige stockings and attempt to disappear. Or she can embrace her oddities and rush headlong towards the door marked Fancy Dress Department.
Edith Sitwell took the second approach. A human scythe bedecked with yards of brocade, elaborate turbans and unlikely jewellery, she made an extraordinary sight: "a high altar on the move", according to Elizabeth Bowen. Once seen – in the newspaper, on television, or glimpsed for real in the sepulchral corridors of her haunted ancestral home, Renishaw Hall – she was never forgotten. Today, long after most of us ceased reading her poetry, a small crowd is regularly to be found standing before her image at the National Portrait Gallery (she was painted by Wyndham Lewis and Roger Fry, and photographed by Cecil Beaton), and at the V&A people still stare, dumbfounded, at her rings: aquamarines the size of puddles, hunks of amber as big as a cottage loaves.
Richard Greene, Sitwell's latest biographer, makes relatively little of her striking appearance. He wants us to take her seriously as a poet, and so provides no hint of a shopping trip, no whiff of the contents of her dressing table. This is a pity, for her costumes speak volumes about life as a 20th-century female poet: the sheer courage involved. Contemporary critics accused her of overambition; might she not, they wondered, be better off limiting herself to a smaller canvas? Sitwell, though, was convinced that modesty was death for the woman poet. "There was no one to point the way," she told Stephen Spender in 1946, at the peak of her success. "I had to learn everything – learn, amongst other things, not to be timid." Her clothes, then, were a weapon in the war against timidity – and in this sense are as much a part of Sitwell's brand of modernism as her fondness for reciting poetry through an upturned traffic cone. (I'm joking: the piece of equipment in question, used to such effect in Facade, a cycle of poems set to music by William Walton, was in fact a Sengerphone, made of compressed grass.)
Then again, Sitwell was in need of armour long before she knew she wanted to be a writer. A neglected child and, by modern standards, an abused one, her parents, Sir George and Lady Ida (George was the fourth baronet Sitwell), were distant and, in the case of Ida, feckless (in 1915, when Edith was in her 20s, Lady Ida stood trial for fraud and, having been convicted, served a short prison sentence). Their daughter was a mystery to them and, possibly, a shock, being curved of spine and crooked of nose (Ida was famously beautiful). Their cruelty began with their refusal formally to educate their daughter (Sir George read Tennyson's "The Princess" and promptly decided that university made girls "unwomanly"), and ended with their decision to straighten both her spine and nose with the aid of metal braces ("my Bastille", Edith called her back brace). Later, during her coming out, Edith asked a man at dinner whether he preferred Brahms or Mozart, and was hastily withdrawn from the circuit. When she left home – she lived for many years with her old governess, Helen Rootham, though they were not lovers – George paid her rent, but meagrely. He seemed not to mind that while he languished in fine houses in Yorkshire (Renishaw is near Sheffield) and Italy, his daughter inhabited shabby rooms in grubby parts of London and Paris. No wonder Sitwell was so close to her writer brothers, Sacheverell and, in particular, the repulsively selfish Osbert.
Her writing life began around 1912, when she was 25. Poetry slipped into the space previously occupied by music, though another spur seems to have been other people. The extent of Sitwell's acquaintance is astonishing: her address book, if ever she was in possession of such a bourgeois item, would read now like a roll call of early 20th-century artistic life. Sickert, Walton, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Woolf: she knew them all. With her Saturday-night salons, and her editorship of the journal Wheels, Sitwell established herself as an enemy of the old (specifically of the Georgian poets) and a cheerleader of the new; her own work, especially Facade, first performed in 1923, reinforced this impression. It wasn't long before her peers were swooning at her feet. She had her enemies, among them FR Leavis, and Noël Coward, who lampooned the Sitwells as the Swiss Family Whittlebot and considered her poetry to be "gibberish". But Yeats gave her 18 pages in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse; and on the publication of her Collected Poems in 1957, Cyril Connolly suggested that her work would one day be deemed to outclass that of Eliot and Auden.
Yet who, now, reads her? Sitwell died in 1964, a paranoid alcoholic, albeit one who had lived long enough to appear on This Is Your Life. Greene, as you would expect, makes great claims for her poetry, blaming its neglect on her class (the upper-class woman as dilettante), her gender (he is sensitive to the misogyny of critics such as Geoffrey Grigson), and the austerity of a new generation of poets (Larkin, Kingsley Amis) allergic both to symbolism and complexity.
But is he right to do so? No. Her best poems – those inspired by the Blitz – are marvellously rhythmic, and you see why Yeats likened her to John Webster, though perhaps in this instance her indelible visage worked on him rather more strongly than her verse (TS Eliot's line about "the skull beneath the skin" could as easily have been written for Sitwell, as for Webster). But for most readers, including this one, Sitwell has all the opacity of Eliot without any of his chilling immediacy and power.
This is not to say that I think Greene has wasted his time. Sitwell is important: a modernist pioneer; a glorious example of the outsider life well led; a passionate champion of other writers (she was Wilfred Owen's first editor); a chastening example of the way literary fame can vanish almost overnight. His book contains so much that is new – Greene has had access to Sitwell's vast correspondence with the painter Pavel Tchelitchew, with whom she had an unreciprocated, non-physical love affair – and will no doubt be considered definitive.
But still, there is a want of feeling in the biographer for his subject. For a better sense of Sitwell's place in the peculiar tapestry of British avant-garde life – and for an account of Renishaw's importance in that unlikely spurt of creativity – try instead the tremendous Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris. As for poor old Edith, I still wonder about her shoes, her lipstick. Couldn't someone at BBC4 turn her life into a film? Oh, to hear the swish and clank of the approach of that remarkable dame in all her finery.
Edith Sitwell, 1959. An extraordinary sight, she was described by Elizabeth Bowen as ‘a high altar on the move’. Photograph: Jane Bown for the Observer.
Edith Sitwell, eccentric genius
A new biography of the avant garde poet Edith Sitwell is applauded by her great-nephew William Sitwell
By William Sitwell9:00AM GMT 11 Mar 2011 / The Telegraph / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/biographyandmemoirreviews/8373893/Edith-Sitwell-eccentric-genius.html
It was a wet, wintry night on London’s South Bank that I first got to know my great-aunt Edith properly.
She had died in 1964, some years before I was born. But then, waiting in the wings of the Purcell Room, I breathed in deeply before taking to the stage to recite her Façade series of poems.
Set to music by William Walton, the poems are said, not sung, in precise time to the music. Some of the lines must be proclaimed at breakneck speed, and as I worked my way through the colourful, exotic language, the assonances and dissonances, I could almost feel her spirit conjuring up the figures of Sir Beelzebub and Black Mrs Behemoth, not to mention the satyrs, nymphs and others who appear.
She wrote this early white rap in the 1920s, finessing it over the next 40 years, and it demonstrates her extraordinary, dextrous touch with the English language, and her musical abilities.
More used to the comforts of an office, or better still a table in a restaurant – I work as a magazine editor and food critic – learning Façade had taken me on a year-long journey into the mind and life of Edith Sitwell. I had met some of her last surviving contemporaries, critics and champions of her work.
Now an even fuller picture of her emerges in the detailed, moving and often hilarious new book about her by the Canadian professor of English Richard Greene. The first biography of her for 30 years, using a wealth of previously unseen letters, it paints an extraordinary picture of childhood suffering, courageous writing and unrequited love. Greene makes an impassioned plea that 'It is time to look again at Edith Sitwell.’
She was born in 1887 to parents who could not have had less in common. Her mother, Lady Ida – daughter of the Earl of Londesborough; beautiful, gregarious and pleasure-loving – contrasted with her father, Sir George, in turn austere and solitary.
'The poor creature,’ Edith later wrote of her barely educated, then 17-year-old mother, 'married against her will into a kind of slave-bondage.’
Winters and spring were spent in Scarborough, where the family had a house near the seafront. The characters she saw there – minstrels, pierrots, contortionists – echo in her Façade poems, as do the elegant, empty-headed people who wandered at the seaside. Her poem Valse begins:
'Daisy and Lily,
Lazy and silly,
Walk by the shore of the wan grassy sea…’
The family then decamped for summer and autumn to Renishaw Hall, a gothic house on the edge of Chesterfield built by the Sitwells in the early 17th century when they had made a fortune as the world’s largest producers of nails (now lived in by my first cousin Alexandra Hayward and her family).
It was another location that shaped Edith’s poetry and she recalled it as 'dark and forgotten… like an unopened 17th-century first edition in a library’. There, Lady Ida would start her day, as the biographer Sarah Bradford describes, '[lying] late in bed in a bedroom heavy with the scent of discarded gardenias and tuberoses, reading French novels, newspapers or letters, or playing patience on a flat-folding leather card-tray.’
Meanwhile Sir George would be cooped up in his study, smoking strong Egyptian cigarettes and pondering on his writing and thoughts. His literary output ranged between the eclectic and the bizarre: The Introduction of the Peacock into Western Gardens, Rotherham Under Cromwell, Modern Modifications on Leaden Jewellery in the Middle Ages and his seminal A Short History of the Fork – an epic tome that competes for brilliance with the results of his analysis for curing insomnia entitled The Twenty-Seven Postures of Sir George R Sitwell.
He installed a notice at Renishaw that read: 'I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.’
Sir George’s approach to procreation was equally eccentric. In order to achieve the finest result he would read a worthy tome before declaring, 'Ida, I am ready.’ He saw his sons as being a vital extension of his personality, events to enhance the Sitwell line, and it never occurred to him that his first-born might be a girl. Thus, as Edith recalled, 'I was unpopular with my parents from the moment of my birth.’
Her arrival deepened the rift between her parents; when her brothers, Osbert and then Sacheverell, were born, with much fanfare, she was relegated to a back place in the nursery and was put, as she wrote, 'in disgrace for being a female’.
She had more affection for her maternal grandfather, although he died in 1900 after contracting pneumonia from a parrot. And while she was entertained by her mother’s relations, who had a penchant for practical jokes – tethering hens under people’s beds and hiding live lobsters between the sheets – she was repulsed by their obsession with shooting. Memories of gamekeepers releasing rabbits from sacks to be shot or beaten with sticks made her a life-long campaigner against blood sports.
The remoteness and eccentric behaviour of her father and the increasingly sick and drunken rages of her mother stayed with Edith for the rest of her life. Years later she wrote to Osbert of her 'terrible childhood and… appalling home. I don’t believe there is another family in England who have had parents like ours.’
In my search to speak to surviving contemporaries I came across Lady Natasha Spender (who died last October aged 91), the widow of the writer Stephen, who in the study of her north London home revealed the extraordinary extent of Edith’s suffering.
'She was frightened of her parents, who were so belligerent and remote,’ she recalled. 'They gave her absolute hell and would punish her. She would go out for a walk and come in quietly through a side door, and the butler would lock her in the silver pantry until he thought it safe for her to emerge. It was like benign protective custody.’
The children bonded instead with the servants, in particular with Henry Moat, 'an enormous purple man like a benevolent hippopotamus,’ Edith wrote. Born to a family of whalers in Whitby, he had 18 brothers, one sister and a tame seal. He worked for the family for 43 years, although he was sacked and then cajoled back frequently, and as butler became almost inseparable from Sir George.
Described by Richard Greene as the 'Sancho Panza to Sir George’s Don Quixote’, he would explode his master’s more outlandish schemes.
'Henry,’ Sir George once called to his butler, 'I’ve a new idea. Knife handles should always be made of condensed milk.’
'Yes, Sir George,’ Moat replied, 'but what if the cat gets at them?’
Edith continued into her teens, hiding from governesses and, by her account, reading and learning poetry in secret while her father, worried about her posture, engaged an orthopaedic manufacturer who designed a torturous – albeit laced – iron spinal apparatus. This she was forced to wear along with a terrifying nose-truss to improve her profile.
So obsessed was Sir George with her nose that when he commissioned the artist John Singer Sargent to paint the family in 1900 he made a point of asking the painter to portray its deviations in correct detail.
Sargent was so appalled at this request that if you look closely at the painting you can see he painted Edith’s nose as a fine, straight specimen while adding a distinct crook to that of her father. Indeed the painting portrays Edith as more assertive and confident than she actually was. Dressed in scarlet, she commands attention from the canvas.
It was at a point in her life when 'finishing’ was the norm, or 'finishing off’ as Edith put it. She was taught what she described as 'the heavy art of light conversation’. The lessons came to nothing and, aged 17, seated next to a politician and huntsman, she asked him if he preferred Bach to Mozart and was, she recalled, hastily 'withdrawn from circulation’.
Undeterred, she was attracted to the arts and spent hours transcribing poetry before being encouraged to write by a cousin, Joan Wake. With the outbreak of war and the shelling by German warships of the Sitwells’ house in Scarborough, Edith moved to London, her mind set on a life as a writer, renting a flat in a poor but lively spot in Bayswater.
But if she thought she could escape her family, she was wrong, as they were suddenly engulfed in scandal. Having got into tremendous debt about which she was afraid to tell her husband, Lady Ida became tangled up with unscrupulous moneylenders. Sir George, determined to do the 'right’ thing and see the culprits get their comeuppance, refused to deal with the matter out of court and the affair was resolved in the Old Bailey. The shocking end to the story being that in 1915 Lady Ida found herself convicted of fraud and sent to Holloway prison for three months.
'How did it feel when your mother went to prison?’ Stephen Spender once asked Edith.
'Not altogether pleasant,’ she replied. 'Because, you see, in those days one did not go to prison.’
The sentence was such a shock that no one remembered to tell Sacheverell, my grandfather. And so one weekend while studying at Eton, he saw on the front page of the Sunday Express that his mother had been jailed.
Perhaps the events galvanised Edith. Shortly after, her first poem – written on notepaper from Courtenhall, the family home of Joan Wake – was published in the Daily Mirror. Soon she had paid to have five poems published, and although a slight volume at only 10 pages, it was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement in glowing terms: 'Sitwell does not describe, she lives in her verse.’
Her name spread and before long she started hosting literary salons, something that was to last for many decades. She published a regular anthology of poetry called Wheels, in which she promoted the talents of the likes of Aldous Huxley and Wilfred Owen. And she fell in love.
This first unconsummated affair was with a Chilean artist, Alvaro de Guevara, whose brother, Richard Greene notes, had gone mad, stabbed himself and then leapt to his death from a house in South Kensington, clutching an umbrella as a parachute. Edith claimed they been engaged until she was warned that he suffered from a serious venereal disease.
It’s an idea that the writer Harold Acton dismissed, saying rather cruelly that Edith was a 'sex-starved spinster all her life. She desperately needed someone to take her to bed, but I’m sure that no one ever did. Certainly if it did happen, which I doubt, he was an extremely courageous gentleman… dear Edith wasn’t exactly what you might call cuddly.’
Aged 70, she wept to her secretary Elizabeth Salter that she had never had a passionate relationship, but it is impossible, unnecessary even, to know. Or as one biographer put it: 'Edith was returned unopened.’
While her reputation as a poet gained in stature, she embarked on the more controversial and avant garde project of Façade. Osbert had suggested that a friend of Sacheverell’s from Oxford called William Walton, an as-yet-unknown organ scholar from Oldham, set some of her poems to music. (He may also have given her some rhythms to work with.) With a small orchestra of some seven musicians, the first public performance at the Aeolian Hall in London, with Edith reciting through a Sengerphone (an early megaphone), was, as she recalled in her autobiography, 'anything but peaceful. Never, I should think, was a larger and more imposing shower of brickbats hurled at any new work.’
The critics were savage. 'Drivel they paid to hear’ was one headline. Another paper remarked, 'Last night at the Aeolian Hall, through a megaphone we heard Edith bawl.’ As Osbert later commented, 'For several weeks subsequently we were obliged to go about London feeling as if we had committed a murder.’
Noël Coward, who had ostentatiously walked out during the performance, now parodied the Sitwells in a West End show called London Calling that featured the 'Swiss Family Whittlebot’. Edith was furious, almost relishing the rage she felt.
Coward apologised many years later and gave Edith a large sofa, the comfort of which I can attest to, having snoozed peacefully on it on many Sunday afternoons at the family home, Weston Hall in Northamptonshire, where my mother, Susanna, still lives.
Similarly, the Sitwells never forgave DH Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterley’s Lover, they were convinced, was drawn on them. Fiction-writing Clifford Chatterley’s estate resembled Renishaw, his aunt was like Lady Ida, a sister Emma like Edith, and the crippled and unsexed Clifford a portrait of Osbert.
Acutely sensitive to criticism, Edith devoured reviews of her work and then attempted to devour anyone who had the temerity to criticise her.
'All the Pipsqueakery are after me in full squeak,’ she said of hostile reviewers. While ensconced in the uncharacteristic surroundings of Hollywood in the 1950s writing a screenplay for Columbia, she was teased by the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. On hearing of an outbreak of rabies in Los Angeles Edith said, 'I was told on good authority that this was due to the fact that Miss Hedda Hopper had pursued the dogs and succeeded in biting them.’
When Anthony Hartley criticised her in The Spectator she cabled the editor: 'Please have Anthony Hartley stuffed and put in a glass case at my expense.’
In the 1950s, to guard against cranks and unwanted company, Osbert and Edith compiled a form that would judge the lunacy of prospective visitors. Among other questions, it requested the 'Age, sex and weight of your wife’ and asked, 'Has any relative of yours ever been confined in a mental home?’ (With the supplementary question, 'If not, why not?’)
As Edith approached middle age so each publication saw more success. Of her Collected Poems one reviewer wrote, 'There are human chords, which remain and echo in the memory when other sounds have ebbed away.’ Fanfare for Elizabeth, her account of Elizabeth I, with whom she felt she shared many characteristics as well as a birthday, sold 19,000 in the first three weeks of publication.
Yet a melancholy pervades most of her work. She never gained real happiness, and the many letters – published in Greene’s book for the first time – to the other love of her life, the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, are almost mournful in tone. Yet they also reveal her rare talent for language. Writing, for example, to Tchelitchew, with no anticipation of a wider audience, she talks of the peace she had found on the coast of Catalonia: 'The sea is just opposite my window, and makes a noise like the sound of a Bible being opened, and quantities of pages being turned over all at once.’ In spite of her success she remained poor and in old age had to sell her manuscripts to clear her overdraft.
Looking through cupboards and wardrobes at Weston Hall, I come across examples of her clothes. Long flowing robes, gowns, turbans and other headgear, and huge colourful rings that adorned her long fingers. She was, as the writer Elizabeth Bowen once commented, 'like an altar on the move’. In an interview on the celebrated BBC Face to Face series of interviews, she sits in haughty splendour, doubtless terrifying the meek interviewer John Freeman and secretly – I suspect – loving every minute of it, speaking of her dress sense. 'I can’t wear fashionable clothes,’ she opines. 'If I walked round in coats and skirts people would doubt the existence of the Almighty.’
Having inherited her collection of books from a dark attic at Weston Hall, I now have them on shelves in our library at home. I peruse the titles that inspired her: anthologies of poetry, travel guides, detective fiction and much more, not to mention her own works. There is the bravely anti-war and haunting Still Falls the Rain that dwells magnificently on the tragedy of air raids during the Blitz, literary works on the likes of Alexander Pope, her novel I Live Under a Black Sun, and her popular cornucopia English Eccentrics.
And in a collection of poems by the Welsh poet Brenda Chamberlain, I spot Edith’s own scrawl. 'God almighty,’ she writes on one page, her voice almost coming to life in my hands, 'what platitudinous pretentious rubbish.’
She is buried in the next village, the headstone adorned with the hands of a mother and child by Henry Moore. Behind her grave the countryside sweeps away peacefully into the distance. Engraved are the words from The Wind of Early Spring:
'The past and present are as one –
Accordant and discordant,
Youth and age,
And death and birth.
For out of one came all –
From all comes one.’
It’s surely time to look again at Edith Sitwell.