Edith Sitwell

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Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Edith Louisa Sitwell, daughter of Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell and sister of the two writers Osbert and Sacheverell, was born at Scarborough, England, in 1887. Though she was reared in an atmosphere of wealth and culture, her early years, as her brother Osbert wrote in his Left Hand, Right Hand (1944), were emotionally trying. An unwanted child, she suffered considerable physical and nervous anguish in being reared by a tyrannical father, who, among other things, made his only daughter wear a painful device to improve the shape of her aquiline nose. At an early age, she announced her intention of becoming a genius, and soon after she learned to write, she tried her hand at poetry. Physically, she grew to be a tall, pale, distinguished-looking young woman with heavy-lidded eyes and a Plantagenet presence.

Early in the 1920’s, Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell emerged as a literary cult of three. Their circle was graced by such figures as Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, and Eliot. The most prolific of the three Sitwells, Edith produced volume after volume of poetry, and she took to reading her work to literary groups. Wheels, an iconoclastic annual publication that she founded and edited, outraged many. Critics and philistines not appreciative of her efforts often felt the sting of her tongue.

Between 1914 and 1929, in what might be called her initial period, she reacted strongly against the “banal bucolics” of the Georgian poets and wrote a great deal of nonrepresentational verse, which to some extent parallels the paintings of Pablo Picasso and the cubists. During her middle period, which extended from 1930 to 1940, she abandoned her dream world of sensuous mood and tonal patterns, her “pure poetry,” to write poems that, like Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) denounced the barbarism, the hypocrisy, the misdirection of modern society. At the time, she regarded poetry as akin to moral wisdom, and she delighted to play the role of a Sibyl or Cassandra. To accentuate her six-foot frame, she dressed in long flowing gowns, sometimes of startling Chinese red, sometimes of intricate brocade, and she swathed her head with tall turbans. To make herself even more notoriously recognizable, she wore heavy jewelry and gold amulets. She painted her long nails with bright silver polish and adorned her thin fingers with marble-sized rings. All this was done, she said, as a gesture of defiance of her upbringing and as an act of faith in herself. For the sake of variety, however, she would often dress simply and entirely in black. One day, when asked for whom she was mourning, she responded: “For the entire world.”

An eccentric but fascinating woman, Sitwell attracted the attention of many major celebrities and moved among them. Her famous friends and foes were legion. She was especially fond of such diverse personalities as Pavel Tchelitchew, Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Jacob Epstein, Alec Guinness, and Marilyn Monroe. She had little use for D. H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, H. G. Wells, George Moore, and John Galsworthy. It took her almost forty years to forgive Noël Coward for a devastating spoof, London Calling (1923), of her and her brothers. Friendships, rivalries, and public spats made her life interesting, but the central theme of her life remained poetry.

In 1941, she entered her final period and turned, like Eliot, to traditional values, spiritual matters, and orthodox Christianity. Thirteen years later, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The following year, Dame Edith Sitwell was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Evelyn Waugh, who served as her godfather, cautioned her at the time that all too many Catholics were bores and prigs, crooks and cads, and that he himself was really pretty awful; but he added, mainly for Dame Edith’s edification, how much worse he should be without the faith. She took Waugh’s words to heart, and shortly after her reception, when questioned what meant most to...

(The entire section is 1,263 words.)