The soul behind the facade

SELECTED LETTERS OF EDITH SITWELL ed Richard Greene Virago pounds

Elspeth Barker
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:07

At the age of 16 Edith Sitwell was sent out to pawn her mother's false teeth; the money went on whisky. "Mind you," she wrote many years later, "I couldn't sympathise more with the owner of the teeth as regards that. The life would have driven anyone to it."

Their terrible childhood bound Edith and her brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, in lifelong devotion and mutual support. As the unwanted only girl, and the eldest, Edith suffered most of all. She said that her nervous system was ruined by the time she was ten, and in late middle age she wrote: "The trail of what they have done is still all over everything." Osbert spoke for all three when he observed to Edith, "Our work is the true answer to such conduct." Embattled, eloquent and often preposterous, the Sitwells took up their position contra mundum.

This handsome volume charts Edith's flight to London and her own flat, her developing literary success and her friendships and feuds over 60 years. It does not make a significant contribution to the study of women's writing, but it does provide insight, surprising and moving, into a difficult, cantankerous woman who possessed also courage, wit and a great generosity of spirit. Mostly, she claimed, her life was absolute hell. Ill health, money troubles ("I am in the soup as usual"), a pervading fear that her parents might somehow recapture her ("Do not let the Gingers know I am here ...") compounded the brooding bleakness of her days.

Work, friendships and time spent with her brothers intermittently banished her natural melancholia. Her loyalty to her siblings led her to bizarre extravagances. Sacherverell was a genius "on the same scale as Milton". Osbert's failure to get into parliament was due solely to the crass philistinism of the "worm-faced" British public. Critics are dismissed with withering contempt, and astonishing energy is expended on the strategies of war. Her lifelong feud with Geoffrey Grigson ("our Griglet") escalated into full-scale hostilities with, among others, Edward Marsh, Roy Fuller, Julian Symons, J R Ackerley, everyone at the Listener, the Spectator, the Observer ... She claimed that Kathleen Raine had stolen her own imagery for her "lady's-maid poetry"; she planned to spread a rumour that Enid Blyton was a nom de plume of D H Lawrence.

But her friendships were of equal importance. Her tastes in literature were, as she said, "catholic" and she encouraged, supported and defended new writers; there are many unsolicited letters here of spontaneous warmth, expressing her immediate delight in work by Kingsley Amis, Denton Welch, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, L P Hartley. On other friends she lavished affection and practical assistance. She nursed Helen Rootham, her former governess and companion, through ten years of terminal cancer, and she provided for Helen's sister all her life. When Dorothy Wellesley had been too drunk to appear on stage before the Queen at a poetry reading organised by the Sitwells, it was Edith who "could not bear to think of her waking up in the night and realising that something dreadful had happened". She wrote her a long letter of extreme kindness and delicacy: "You had been (and still are) very ill with neuritis ... My dear, people do sometimes feel they can't go through a performance."

Snobbery she used as a weapon against her foes, abandoning it entirely for anyone she liked. Her other weapon was her wit, and the most enjoyable letters here fizz with her peculiar brand of laconic acid. "He showed me a sonnet the other day which began thus: 'Fatigue sits in your breast like a spring hare / Gnawing the gross red cabbage of your heart'. " There are dire glimpses of Edith's daily life: "Captain J kept on picking ticks off his retriever's coat at meal times and throwing them under the dining table, wrapped up in pieces of fur to keep them warm, with the result that I imagine my feet are being bitten the whole time." "I want a message of hope for my dewlaps," she announced to an apprehensive herbalist. Aspirant poets sometimes suffered too: "Dear Mr Faber has sent me his own poems and I have written to him praising their Integrity. That is my stock phrase now, and I think you might also find it useful. It saves a lot of trouble, and Integrity is a retriever-like, faithful quality that I find very trying. However nobody knows that." Unhappily, her sense of humour did not extend to her own public persona. She, and to a lesser extent her brothers, did attract a vast deal of opprobrium, and were satirised in novels and plays by Wyndham Lewis, Noel Coward, Peter Ustinov, D H Lawrence et al. When a naughty man used a drawing of her for the cover of a volume titled The Brighter Side of Birth Control, Edith reacted just as he might have hoped: "I have never heard of such a gross and filthy insult being offered to any decent woman. And the fact that I am a distinguished artist only makes it worse ..."

She viewed her artistry with profound solemnity. Her poetry she saw as "traditional, descended from Spenser, Milton, Marvell and Dryden ... It is descended too from Baudelaire."

This may be startling news for those who have tussled with her Collected Poems and perhaps turned to the introduction for assistance. Here she is, expounding on technique: "These 'a' (or 'ai') sounds are echoed, farther on more insistently and with a deeper emphasis, by ... 'In the / Corn, towers strain / Feathered tall as a crane, / And whistling down the feathered rain, old Noah goes again' - where these assonances, while they are slightly counterpointed, are yet nearly as important as the ground rhythm given by 'corn' and 'tall'." But then for Edith "everything is permissible as long as one succeeds in getting the effect one is out for." Comparatively few of these letters deal with her literary theory, and just as well.

This is a long book, and some of its material is uninteresting and repetitive. A substantial body of letters could not be included, being subject to an embargo; these include Edith's correspondence with Graham Greene and with the Russian painter Pavel Tchelichew. The footnotes are set in maddening obscurity at the far end of the book and they are not always helpful. Identifications err on the side of of economy and incidents are left unexplained. Most importantly, there is no biographical sketch.

None the less, the volume provides a welcome supplement to Victoria Glendinning's 1981 study, Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions. Here we have the glimmerings of the soul behind Cecil Beaton's disconcerting portraits of the lady: gallant, malign, absurd and splendid. In 1954 she became a Dame. She wrote to L P Hartley: "It will amuse you to know that as I advanced towards the Queen to get my decorations, the band played 'Annie, Get Your Gun'."

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