Victoria Glendinning

Black swan

At a time when publishers seem chary of commissioning literary biographies, the conditions for writing them have never been better.

Black swan
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Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius

Richard Greene

Virago, pp. 532, £

At a time when publishers seem chary of commissioning literary biographies, the conditions for writing them have never been better. Major authors born in the 1890s and early 1900s were written about pretty comprehensively in the so-called golden age of biography, stretching from the last quarter of the past century into the first few years of the present one. Now they are up for reassessment. ‘It is time to look again at Edith Sitwell,’ as Richard Greene puts it.

The advantage for the new wave is that more material has become available. In the case of Edith Sitwell, biographies of her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell have filled some gaps. Letters that were stuffed in drawers at Renishaw are now put in order. The embargo has been lifted on her correspondence with the man she loved in vain, the artist Pavel Tchelitchew. The research notes of earlier biographers have found their way into university libraries.

The temptation, into which Greene sometimes falls, is to include new material simply because it is there — weak anecdotes, inconsequential reminiscences. There is too much information, though some of it is fun — like the irrelevant story of the plantsman Reginald Farrer, who loaded a shotgun with seeds gathered on his travels, and standing in a boat blasted them on to a cliff-face, so that Alpine flowers bloomed there. Such a good idea.

Though some of Edith’s brave love-notes to Tchelitchew are touching, their immense correspondence does not bear much quotation. Greene characterises Tchelitchew as ‘extravagant, visionary, superstitious, mad and selfish’. Like Sitwell herself, Greene has an invigorating lack of inhibition about passing judgment on those who failed to appreciate her. ‘Poisonous’ is a favourite adjective. Wyndham Lewis’s novel The Apes of God, which satirised the Sitwells, is ‘lumbering, rancid and self-congratulatory’.

Greene is a true believer in Edith’s genius. She is ‘Britain’s outstanding woman poet of the 20th century’. Her novel I Live Under a Black Sun is ‘one of the great novels of its time’, and she was ‘one of the century’s great letter writers’ — he has published a selection of them.

Since the Sitwells have been written about almost as much as the Mitfords, the story is familiar, starting with the unhappy childhood, the eccentric father, the spoilt and ‘deranged’ mother. Edith had an unusual appearance, which she exploited to theatrical advantage. She was dedicated to her poetry, aggressive to her critics, and wilfully eccentric. Her greatest success came with her poems of the second world war — followed by the ‘kind of tragic serenity’ of her late work, her damehood, and the descent into ‘physical pain, depression and heavy drinking’. Her brother Osbert emerges as the villain of the piece, depriving Edith of family money which he could and should have passed to her. He even charged rent when she stayed in one of his houses.

The private Edith emerges here as a simpler person that her public persona would suggest, sexually naive, lonely in her personal life while surrounded by flocks of friends and cronies. Her fingers may have been loaded with aquamarines, but she was miserably poor, as Osbert knew perfectly well. Letters from bank managers and the Inland Revenue pursued her like furies.

One of Greene’s strongest themes is Edith’s tenderness towards her ageing former governess Helen Rootham, and Helen’s sister Evelyn. They were even poorer than she, and often ill. They were millstones round her neck, and although she complained about them she never let them down, sharing her pittance with them. She never forgot that Helen Rootham had been her saviour and mentor when she was a girl.

Rootham had provided whatever education Edith had, and her influence, as Greene persuasively argues, was permanent. (So perhaps if Edith had had a different governess, she would have written different poetry?) Rootham was intensely musical and mystical. Greene explains the poetry by demonstrating its origins in her early immersion in music, so that the sound of the words in relation to each other took precedence over surface meaning, evoking meanings that were not in the sense.

He finds nevertheless that there are structures of thought and feeling in her poetry that are ‘original, serious and unified’. The ‘unified’ aspect has a downside. One of the difficulties for her readers is her repetition of words and images — the clowns and harlequins of her earlier work, the bone and gold and cold suns of her later work. Another difficulty is the flagrant echoing of other poets — Eliot and Yeats, but also Whitman, Coleridge, Swinburne, Blake and Donne. Greene sees this as ‘making gestures towards’ these poets. Is that good enough? She was not interested in sequential arguments, nor in the poetry of close observation which characterised the work of the post-war Movement poets. Her kind of poetry went out of fashion.

This is a passionately partisan biography, with only a couple of unimportant errors, and some missing twigs in the family tree. It was famously said that the Sitwells were part of the history of publicity, not of poetry. Edith Sitwell is also part of the history of the image, in that Cecil Beaton made his name with his photographs of her. In his compositions she is striking, but definitely weird. Photographers and portrait-painters liked to emphasise her gothic features and long bony nose. But the end-papers of this book show a photograph of her by Maurice Beck in which she is as beautiful as Greta Garbo. You would never call Edith Sitwell an ugly duckling because ‘duckling’ is not a word that could be applied to her. But through the right lens, this strange bird is a swan.