Book review / Behind the facade

Selected Letters of Edith Sitwell edited by Richard Greene, Virago, pounds 20; Edith Sitwell's literary archive reveals a generous, eccentric life, writes Diana Souhami
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The Independent Culture
When she was 17, Edith Sitwell was sent to pawn her mother's false teeth. She got 10/5d for them. Whisky (it was 1904) was 12/6d a bottle. Her mother, Lady Ida Sitwell, had a drink habit and uncertain morals and in 1915 spent three months in Holloway for fraud. Sir George Reresby Sitwell, MP, historian, tyrant and Edith's father, owned 6,000 acres and the family estate Renishaw, near Chesterfield, where Edith and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell endured childhood.

"I don't believe there is another family in England who have had parents like ours," Edith wrote to Osbert. "Please see to it that I am cremated. The other thing would be too like living with father." They called him Ginger, the Red Death, the old beast and the old horror. Edith said he spent his life dodging the taxman. She and her brothers suspected he was finally murdered by a banker called Woog who embezzled their inheritance.

She said her "nervous system was ruined for life" before she was ten. Such comfort as there was came from her governess Helen Rootham, and as adults they lived together in a London flat. She resisted visiting Renishaw "in case they get a grip on me again". When Helen got cancer, Edith's letters to and about her were full of despair and generosity.

In 1970 the previous editor of Edith Sitwell's letters, John Lehmann, was not permitted to include any to her mother, father or brothers. It was a fatal omission. Her formidable parents and her love of her brothers - their shared horror of "the Gingers", their praise for one another and their mutual protectiveness - were at the root of her identity as a woman and poet. They are all dead now and their executor, Francis Sitwell, Sacheverell's son, has given permission for her letters to family to be published.

Most letters in this volume are at the Harry Ransom Research Centre in Texas. Mr Ransom's oil money has purchased swathes of Britain's literary heritage. Documents are kept in sub-zero conditions to prolong life. Visiting readers are vetted; special gloves supplied.

No corresponding discipline has been given to packaging this volume. A rogue quotation mark in the first paragraph points to hard work for the reader. The editor, Richard Greene, a Canadian academic, was an archivist for Edith Sitwell's literary estate. He has sifted thousands of letters. His choice is informed and wide ranging. Dramas are buried here, but effort is needed to unearth them.

Concepts and events - generosity, naivety, love, money, fame, sickness - have to be mined. Notes are crammed as end pages and I got tired of rifling back and forth. Companion volumes are needed to make contextual sense: Osbert Sitwell's memoir, Left Hand, Right Hand! and Victoria Glendinning's biography, A Unicorn Among Lions.

It is a pity that there are no pictures. Edith's Elizabethan stature, with beringed hands and turbaned head, matched the grandness of Renishaw and belied her vulnerability. Cecil Beaton's photographs captured her. There are letters to him of praise and affection. The Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, with whom she fell in love, did a portrait which made her look like a dismal doge. Most of his letters are omitted. They met at a lunch given by Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas in 1927. Edith was 40; Tchelitchew, 29. Their correspondence is sealed at the Yale University Library until 2000. Alice B Toklas said "Edith will go over for the breaking of the seals".

A few letters have escaped this embargo. They show Edith's naivety and hurt. She admired his paintings, gave him money, encouraged others to buy his work. But Tchelitchew - in love with a pianist, Alan Tanner - attacked her as an artist, told her he wanted to slap her face, have her kneel at his feet. "Russians only really like idiots, prostitutes and dressmakers," she wrote.

Edith thought herself the doyenne of modernism. Her audience she called "small and discerning" and she was hurt by criticism. Not all tolerated her incantatory style. A diary entry of Una Troubridge, Radclyffe Hall's partner, in 1924 was of "a bedlam afternoon with Edith Sitwell shouting down a megaphone" at the Poetry Society. At a hostile reception, Edith felt like a vast bird that had blundered into a room, hitting its head on the ceiling. She called critics of Gertrude Stein's "hermetic" writing "vulgar little clothes moths". Her letters to Stein are full of praise.

She was effusive to women writers whose work she enjoyed. On reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, she wrote to Carson McCullers: "What a great poet's mind and eye and senses you have." About a poem by HD (Hilda Doolittle) she wrote, "Yours is the supreme apple tree, the flowering apple". And she was warm with gratitude to HD's wealthy lover, Bryher (Winifred Ellerman).

She sent letters about whatever was on her mind. To the editor of the Daily Mail she railed at the "unceasing barking of dogs" at night. To Stanley Kauffman, editor of Ballantine Books, she gave convoluted apology for cutting him off when he phoned; she thought he was a journalist hounding her about giving a lunch party for Marilyn Monroe. And days before she died, the Times Literary Supplement published her outburst about cruelty to ponies in Belgian slaughter houses. These letters range wide, pointers to a creative, eccentric, generous life.