Edith Sitwell has usually been grouped with her equally eccentric brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, but Victoria Glendinning focuses on Edith, taking her measure as a woman and an artist. It is only in the Preface that the author offers her own judgment of Edith Sitwell’s poetry. The kind of poetry she wrote and how she came to do so is the thrust of the book. There is a rich documentation of the details of her life with an excellent index.
Sitwell’s early years were crucial to her development and her family is described fully. Edith was the eldest of the three children of Lady Ida Denison and Sir George Sitwell. Her mother, a noted beauty, was married at seventeen to Sir George and after a few days of marriage ran home to her parents. She was sent back at once and Edith was born the next year. Edith always thought she was an unwanted child and she felt her parents’ resentment because being the first born she was not a boy and because she had inherited none of her mother’s beauty. Her father and mother had a stormy marriage and Lady Ida, silly and uneducated, ran up tremendous debts and eventually landed in prison for three months.
In later years Edith wrote a great deal about her vastly unhappy childhood. When Osbert, the first of her two brothers, was born, she was five years old; he was an immediate success with her parents. Edith ran away but did not get very far because she kept stumbling over her bootlaces which she had not yet learned to tie herself. Five years after Osbert’s birth Sacheverell was born. In spite of her parents’ favoritism for the two boys, Edith was devoted to them both and the trio remained close all their lives.
Her father considered her hopelessly ugly and forced her to wear a leather and metal brace at night to correct her crooked nose. When John Singer Sargent was commissioned to paint the Sitwell family group, he took pity on the six-foot teenage Edith and painted her sympathetically, giving the long, crooked nose to Sir George. This portrait is shown in this book along with thirty-three photographs.
Although her father was continually displeased with her, it was her mother who upset Edith the most. Her mother’s indifference, rages, weary scorn, and hurtful words in public kept Edith miserable for years. She never forgave her mother and referred to this treatment in her poems and in letters to friends. She wrote to John Lehmann in 1951 that if she had been a slum child she would have been taken away from her mother and that she wondered what her poetry would have been like if she had had a normal childhood. She wrote to Stephen Spender in 1945 that her life as a child had been a squalid hell.
Her brother Osbert was more hurt by his father’s neglect and wrote in his autobiography a monument to his father’s eccentricities, mannerisms, irrationality, and despotism. The boys were sent off to school but Edith was taught at home and had a succession of governesses. Her father’s insistent nagging and her mother’s rages resulted in Edith’s identifying herself with the sad, the lonely, the scared, the outsider, the mistreated, whether human or animal.
The years between eighteen and twenty-five were for Edith cloistered and uneventful except for her twenty-first birthday. Her father decided to celebrate this and the Doncaster Races at the same time. It was a disastrous experience for all concerned. Edith continued to read and began to write poetry. Almost no one in the neighborhood shared her musical and literary interests. She was close only to her brothers and to Helen Rootham, her former governess.
In 1913, she struck out on her own and went to London and took up residence in a Bayswater boardinghouse. She was twenty-five. Finally, in 1914, she set up housekeeping in a flat with Helen Rootham, sharing expenses. Her father had not opposed his daughter’s departure although she was never easy about money. Osbert was in the Grenadier Guards and Sacheverell at Eton.
Edith’s first published poem, “Drowned Suns,” appeared in the Daily Mirror in March, 1913, and her poems continued to be accepted by this newspaper for the next two years. Edith had all the temperament and talent necessary to become an active participant in the literary scene, and her rapid rise was phenomenal. Her inexperience stood her in good stead; as a complete outsider to the London literary world she could cut through the undergrowth without perceiving it. The author notes that “she was simultaneously extremely unworldly and extremely ambitious, as only those who have led lonely, pent-up lives can be.”
Osbert was meanwhile blooming in London away from his father and made many...
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