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Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among the Lions Paperback – 2 Dec 1999
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Best known for her eccentricity and gothic appearance, this biography lays bare Edith Sitwell¿s true identity
About the Author
Victoria Glendinning is a freelance writer, well-known for her successful biographies and novels. She has won many prizes including the Whitbread Prize for Biography twice, the Duff Cooper Prize and the James Tait Black Prize. She is also President of English PEN and a Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in London, but travels widely, particularly to Provence and south-west Ireland.
Top customer reviews
I did skip some of the lit crit and most of the extracts from the poems. Dr Sitwell's poetry I do not like though I can see why others do.
But her life was fascinating considering that it was relatively devoid of incident. She disliked travel though in her later years toured the USA on three (?) occasions. She frequently visited her brother's huge villa in Italy, where she was bored, and lived a good while in Paris which again, as a place, did not appeal. Renishaw was cold. She had a house in Bath but never lived in it. She lived for a long time in a dreary Bayswater flat and grew very attached to it. Hotels had to meet her exacting standards. It was her all-female London club she'll found most congenial.
Her love life was interesting from a psychological viewpoint, but it was a frustrated (and from to the reader a frustrating) one. She undoubtedly loved a man, a homosexual. She died a virgin and probably never experienced sexual intimacy of any kind.
What were fascinating and ran as themes through the book were
* Dr Sitwell's relationship with her mother, who was beautiful, silly, and a spendthrift. Edith disliked her intensely;
* the sheer bitchiness of the literary world. No one was immune to it. Edith herself complained about every poor review of her work and 'dropped' those who persisted. Long reviews were expected. Bad reviews wounded. Pressure was brought to bear on editors to employ sympathetic reviewers. And the scurrilous tittle-tattle has to be read to be believed;
* what she felt was her entitlement as an aristocrat. I remember that sort of thing from my rural childhood;
* the author's attempts to get under Edith's skin and give the reader an honest female perspective into her psyche. A male author could not have done this;
* the British literary world from 1920 to the 1960s. Here were many persons I'd heard of but sometimes not read about in any sort of context. Leavis, Elliot, Pound, Coward, Dylan Thomas and two score of others are all here;
* and finally, Edith Sitwell and religion. It is clear that she was a religious woman who resisted seeing herself as one. Then, late in life, she became a Roman Catholic. Closure, one could say.
Born in 1887 into a titled family, Edith was an unwanted child and, partly due to her unusual appearance and her "freakishly tall" height, she felt herself to be rejected by both her parents, but particularly by her mother. Instead, Edith formed close alliances with her brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell and, in 1914, with an allowance of one hundred pounds a year, she left Renishaw Hall, the family seat, and set herself up in a shabby London flat with a close friend. Edith's stark 'Plantagenet' looks, which she accentuated by wearing long, richly textured robes, unusual headgear and ornate jewellery, soon began to attract attention, as did her poems which were published firstly in newspapers and then by publishing houses (initially at Edith's own expense); in addition, her rising fame and the parties she and her brother Osbert gave, brought her into the company of Arnold Bennett; Walter Sickert; Harold Acton; T.S.Eliot; Aldous Huxley; Leonide Massine; Nancy Cunard; Nina Hamnett; Roger Fry; Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf; and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, amongst many others. Edith was photographed by Cecil Beaton and had her unusual looks captured in portraits painted by Roger Fry, Wyndham Lewis, Alvaro Guevara and Pavel Tchelitchew.
In this well-researched and enjoyable to read biography (which was first published in 1981 and which won both the Duff Cooper Prize and the James Tait Memorial Prize for Biography) the reader learns of Edith Sitwell's rise to fame through her poetry writing and through self-promotion; of her collaboration with her brothers and the composer William Walton for her 'Facade' series of poems; her editorship of 'Wheels' magazine; of her periods of success when Yeats hailed her as a major poet, and her more fallow periods. We also read of her relationships with those who surrounded her, of her feud with Wyndham Lewis; her (unrequited) love for Pavel Tchelitchew; her championing of 'new' talent such as that exhibited by Denton Welch and Dylan Thomas; and a whole lot more. As commented in my opening paragraph, this is a sympathetic, yet well-balanced account of an exceptional woman, who although courted fame and publicity and could be difficult with those whom she felt didn't appreciate or understand her poetry, beneath her startling outward appearance was an insecure and overly-sensitive individual who lived very much in her imagination, and one who was generous and very loyal to those she loved. In this biography Ms Glendinning has brought Edith Sitwell and her work to life, which is just what a good biography should do and, as such, is one I find easy to recommend.
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