Virago, £25, 532pp. #163;22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius, By Richard Greene

Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), like her younger brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, will certainly always be a footnote in English literary history, though it may be for what her supporters would consider all the wrong reasons: scandal, not literary skill. Victoria Glendinning's able life, A Unicorn among Lions, made the case 30 years ago for Sitwell as author, poet - even feminist trailblazer. Now Richard Greene, a Canadian academic, has furnished us with a new account, drawing on previously unseen letters, and written in light of recent biographies of her siblings.

The problem is that Greene's primary aim – to resurrect her poetry as among the high achievements of modernism – simply doesn't come off. Sitwell's later verse never completely fell off. But it succumbed to a sort of spiritual "set-piece-ism", both eccentric and banal. Greene selects for particular appreciation a post-Hiroshima poem entitled "The Shadow of Cain" – which is fine, until you read it: "We did not heed the Cloud in the Heavens shaped like the hand/ Of Man. But there came a roar as if the Sun and Earth had come together".

In her day, Sitwell was – even when favoured – essentially a curiosity: with her perverse, gothic-maiden look, quintessential vulnerability, cultivated hauteur and predilection for the endless pursuit of men. These fell into three kinds: hostile critics (always numerous); deceitful, manipulative family members (all of them) and unavailable, yet attractive homosexuals (Siegfried Sassoon, Pavel Tchelitchew).

The unconvinced lampooned her. All three Sitwells featured in Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God (1930); certain of their traits – particularly Osbert's – crept into DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). But it was FR Leavis's stony 1932 verdict that did for Edith and her brothers: "the Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than of poetry". Wicked as it is to note, the Wikipedia entry for "Publicity and Controversy" under her name dwarves its discussion of her verse. At the time, it may not have seemed eccentric of Yeats to accommodate Sitwell across 18 pages of his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936). Today it does.

In their tendency to defend one another's writings, the Sitwells may have drawn not just on familial loyalty, but genuine artistic like-mindedness. Sometimes, though, perception is all. When Osbert reached around the curtain shielding him and his megaphone-bearing sister during their recitation of Façade - a poetry suite Edith had worked on with William Walton – he meant to explain the dense verse to the masses. Instead he provoked Noel Coward into one of his sharpest spoofs: the Sitwells as "the Swiss Family Whittlebot" in London Calling (1923). For 40 years Edith "very simply hated" Coward for his "Hernia Whittlebot".

She made misjudgments, resorting readily to libel proceedings against critics. Even Sitwell's modest success in silencing her opponents and winning damages struck others as presumptuous and inappropriate in a land which valued free speech, and found itself at war defending it.

All three Sitwells had a fatal facility for writing. Sachie could pen a second-rate travel book every few weeks, skipping across continents and cultures. Osbert's portentous, five-volume autobiography Left Hand, Right Hand now strikes the reader as almost as long as the century it traverses. Still, Edith had one excuse her brothers lacked: the near destitution in which she was abandoned - first by father Sir George; later by the connivance of Osbert, his heir. She was effectively compelled to write ephemeral books to stay afloat. Few can fail to be moved by her anger on learning how little she had been left on Sir George's death: "He has tried to murder my poetry."

She was capable of exceptional kindness. Despite her poverty, she accommodated her former governess in her lodgings in unfashionable Bayswater for decades. Sitwell put on modest literary salons, only to find her generosity ridiculed by those for whom money was no object. Her record on anti-Semitism proves impeccable, in stark contrast, say, to Virginia Woolf. She was capable of independent-minded judgments, effectively ushering Dylan Thomas, Denton Welch and American novelist James Purdy into print.

Greene's account is exhaustive, though somewhat marred by those biographer's curses, hindsight and generalisation. Sometimes expression itself feels awkward, as in the unfortunately comical claim that "Joseph Goebbels was the right opponent for Edith Sitwell". Still, this life is sincere enough. If Sitwell's life and career were hardly emblematic of the times in which she lived, but progressively marooned by them, they were deeply suggestive of their age. Façade I still think fun. If that is to be Sitwell's footnote on 20th-century culture, she might have done much worse.

Richard Canning's edition of Ronald Firbank's 'Vainglory' is forthcoming from Penguin Classics

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices