TOP 50 REVIEWERon 13 June 2017
In the 'Foreword' to her excellent biography of the poet Edith Sitwell, Victoria Glendinning tells of an interesting conversation she had at a party in London just after she began working on her book. She writes that after mentioning she was working on a biography of Edith Sitwell, one of the party guests stated what a dreadful poet Ms Sitwell was, and another guest disagreed entirely. The first speaker was a professor of English and a professional literary critic and the second was an academic also, but twenty years younger. This conversational exchange, Ms Glendinning comments, represents one of the difficulties in assessing the poetry of Edith Sitwell. Difficult maybe, but Victoria Glendinning, who refers to her subject as: "a poet of dream and vision, a musical wordmonger" has written an informative, sympathetic and well-balanced account of the poet, her life and her work.
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.