|Dame Edith Sitwell|
Portrait of Sitwell by Roger Fry
7 September 1887|
Scarborough, North Yorkshire,
|Died||9 December 1964
Like her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, Edith reacted badly to her eccentric, unloving parents, and lived for much of her life with her governess. She never married, but became passionately attached to the homosexual Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, and her home was always open to London's poetic circle, to whom she was unfailingly generous and helpful.
Sitwell published poetry continuously from 1913, some of it abstract and set to music. With her dramatic style and exotic costumes, she was sometimes labelled a poseur, but her work was also praised for its solid technique and painstaking craftsmanship.
Edith Sitwell was born in Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire, the oldest child and only daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall; he was an expert on genealogy and landscaping. Her mother was the former Lady Ida Emily Augusta Denison, a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort. She claimed a descent through female lines from the Plantagenets.
Sitwell had two younger brothers, Osbert (1892–1969) and Sacheverell Sitwell (1897–1988) both distinguished authors, well-known literary figures in their own right, and long-term collaborators. Sacheverell married a Canadian woman, Georgia Doble, in 1925 and moved to Weston Hall in Northamptonshire.
Her relationship with her parents was stormy at best, not least because her father made her undertake a "cure" for her supposed spinal deformation, involving locking her into an iron frame. In her autobiography she said that her parents had always been strangers to her.
Sitwell spent her life unmarried, but in 1927 she allegedly fell in love with the homosexual Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew. The relationship lasted until 1928, the same year that Rootham underwent operations for cancer (though she eventually became an invalid). In 1932, Rootham and Sitwell moved to Paris, where they lived with Rootham's younger sister, Evelyn Wiel. Rootham died of spinal cancer in 1938.
Sitwell's mother died in 1937. Sitwell did not attend the funeral because of her displeasure with her parents during her childhood.
During the Second World War Sitwell returned from France and retired to Renishaw with her brother Osbert and his lover David Horner. She wrote under the light of oil lamps as the house had no electricity. She knitted clothes for their friends who served in the army. One of the beneficiaries was Alec Guinness, who received a pair of seaboot stockings.
The poems she wrote during the war brought her back before the public. They include Street Songs (1942), The Song of the Cold (1945) and The Shadow of Cain (1947), all of which were much praised. "Still Falls the Rain", about the London blitz, remains perhaps her best-known poem; it was set to music by Benjamin Britten as Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain.
In 1943, her father died in Switzerland, his wealth depleted. In 1948, a reunion with Tchelitchew, whom she had not seen since before the war, went badly.
In 1948 Sitwell toured the United States with her brothers, reciting her poetry and, notoriously, giving a reading of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene. Her poetry recitals were always occasions; she made recordings of her poems, including two recordings of Façade, the first with Constant Lambert as co-narrator, and the second with Peter Pears.
Tchelitchew died in July 1957. Her brother Osbert died in 1969, of Parkinson's disease, diagnosed in 1950. Sitwell became a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1954. In August 1955 she converted to Roman Catholicism and asked author Evelyn Waugh to serve as her godfather.
Sitwell wrote two books about Queen Elizabeth I of England: Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946) and The Queens and the Hive (1962). She always claimed that she wrote prose simply for money and both these books were extremely successful, as were her English Eccentrics (1933) and Victoria of England (1936).
Around 1957 she began using a wheelchair, after battling with Marfan syndrome throughout her life. Her last poetry reading was in 1962. She died of cerebral haemorrhage at St Thomas' Hospital on 9 December 1964 at the age of 77. She is buried in the churchyard of Weedon Lois in Northamptonshire.
Sitwell published her first poem The Drowned Suns in the Daily Mirror in 1913 and between 1916 and 1921 she edited Wheels, an annual poetic anthology compiled with her brothers—a literary collaboration generally called "the Sitwells".
In 1929 she published Gold Coast Customs, a poem about the artificiality of human behaviour and the barbarism that lies beneath the surface. The poem was written in the rhythms of the tom-tom and of jazz, and shows considerable technical skill. Her early work reflects the strong influence of the French symbolists.
She became a proponent and supporter of innovative trends in English poetry and opposed what she considered the conventionality of many contemporary backward-looking poets. Her flat became a meeting place for young writers whom she wished to befriend and help: these later included Dylan Thomas and Denton Welch. She also helped to publish the poetry of Wilfred Owen after his death.
Her only novel, I Live under a Black Sun, based on the life of Jonathan Swift, was published in 1937.
Publicity and controversy
Sitwell had angular features resembling Queen Elizabeth I (they also shared the same birthday) and stood six feet (183 cm) tall, but often dressed in an unusual manner with gowns of brocade or velvet with gold turbans and a plethora of rings – her jewellery may be seen in the jewellery galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her unusual appearance provoked critics almost as much as her verse, and throughout her life she was the subject of more or less virulent personal attacks from Geoffrey Grigson, F. R. Leavis and others, which she returned with vigour. As she lay dying, the critic Julian Symons published the last of these attacks in The London Magazine of November 1964, accusing her of 'wearing other people's bleeding hearts on her own safe sleeve.' Her 'enemies' were treated with scorn; after Noël Coward wrote a skit on Sitwell and her two brothers as "The Swiss Family Whittlebot" for his 1923 revue London Calling! she refused to speak to him until they were reconciled after her triumphant 70th birthday party at London's Royal Festival Hall. To her friends she showed great sweetness and invariable kindness.
Sitwell participated in the ongoing UGH.... correspondence featured in the Times Literary Supplement in 1963, an ongoing debate on the value of the work of William S. Burroughs and the nature of literary criticism, initiated by critic John Willard. Sitwell stated she was delighted by Willard's wholly negative review of Burroughs' work, despite claiming to not know know who Burroughs was. In the same letter she described Lady Chatterley's Lover as an "insignificant, dirty little book", and rounded out her letter with the statement that she preferred Chanel Number 5 to having her nose "nailed to other people's lavatories".
Sitwell was most interested by the distinction between poetry and music, a matter explored in Façade (1922), a series of abstract poems the rhythms of which counterparted those of music, and which was set to music by William Walton. Façade was performed behind a curtain with a hole in the mouth of a painted face (the painting was by John Piper) and the words were recited through the hole with the aid of a Sengerphone. The public received the first performance with bemusement, but there were many positive reactions.
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Sitwell's poetry collections are:
- Clowns' Houses (1918)
- Mother and Other Poems (1918)
- The Wooden Pegasus (1920)
- Façade (1922)
- Bucolic Comedies (1923)
- The Sleeping Beauty (1924)
- Troy Park (1925)
- Rustic Elegies (1927)
- Gold Coast Customs (1929)
- Collected Poems (1930)
- Five Variations on a Theme (1933)
- Street Songs (1942)
- Green Song and Other Poems (1944)
- The Song of the Cold (1945)
- The Shadow of Cain (1947)
- The Canticle of the Rose: Selected Poems 1920–1947 (1949)
- Façade, and Other Poems 1920–1935 (1950)
- Gardeners and Astronomers: New Poems (1953)
- Collected Poems (1954)
- The Outcasts (1962)
- Alexander Pope (1930)
- Bath (1932), a profile of the city under Beau Nash
- The English Eccentrics (1933)
- Aspects of Modern Poetry (1934)
- Victoria of England (1936)
- I Live under a Black Sun (1937)
- A Poet's Notebook (1943)
- Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946), a biography of Elizabeth I
- The Queens and the Hive (1962), a biography of Elizabeth I
- Taken Care Of (1964), autobiography
- English Woman
- Eccentric patriarch with slender grip on reality, Tim Harris, The Age, January 2003, accessed March 2010
- "Edith Sitwell blue plaque". openplaques.org. Retrieved 4 May 2013.
- "Edith Sitwell – Find a Grave". findagrave.com. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
- William S. Burroughs At The Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989, ed. by Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg.
- A History of Twentieth-Century British Women's Poetry (Dowson and Entwistle 341)
- R. Greene, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius (2011)
- S. Bradford [et al.], The Sitwells and the Arts of the 1920s and 1930s [exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London] (1994)
- Geoffrey Elborn, 'Edith Sitwell, A Life' (1981)
- Victoria Glendinning, Edith Sitwell, A Unicorn Among Lions (1981)
- John Malcolm Brinnin, 'The Sitwells in Situ', in Sextet: T. S. Eliot, Truman Capote and Others (1981)
- J. Pearson, Facades, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell (1978)
- R. Fifoot, A Bibliography of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell (1971)
- James D. Brophy, Edith Sitwell: The Symbolist Order (1968)
- J. Lehmann, A Nest of Tigers, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell in their Times (1968)
- E. Salter, The Last Years of a Rebel, A Memoir of Edith Sitwell (1967)
- Desmond Seward, Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells (2015)
- E. Sitwell, Taken Care Of (1965)
- O. Sitwell, Laughter in the Next Room (1949)
- O. Sitwell, Great Morning (1948)
- O. Sitwell, Left Hand Right Hand (1945)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Edith Sitwell.|
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Edith Sitwell|
- Dame Edith Sitwell Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
- Brief biography at CatholicAuthors
- Sitwell at the Lied and Art Songs Text Page
- Archival material relating to Edith Sitwell listed at the UK National Archives
- Letters sent to Walter Greenwood held at the University of Salford
- Works by or about Edith Sitwell at Internet Archive
- Works by Edith Sitwell at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Wheels: An Anthology of Verse (1916–1921), edited by Sitwell, at The Modernist Journals Project
- Edith Sitwell's appearance on This Is Your Life