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Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius

It’s not uncommon for a literary biographer to follow his or her biography with an edition of the subject’s letters. Richard Greene of the University of Toronto has done the reverse. His Selected Letters of Edith Sitwell was published in 1997. Now he’s written the first biography of Sitwell in a generation. It is exhaustive and at times fascinating.

Sitwell (1887–1964) was a British poet whose work has few forebears and few mimickers. For Greene, whose collection Boxing the Compass (Véhicule Press) won the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry, this is her main appeal. But she was also an accomplished woman of letters, a wonderful prose stylist (when she needed money), and a celebrity.

Literature was the family business: Edith was the elder sister of Osbert Sitwell, poet and unceasing autobiographer, and Sacheverell Sitwell, poet and art historian. In 1932, the critic F.R. Leavis wrote, “the Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than poetry.” Most readers who admire Edith Sitwell today do so for her non-fiction – for example, her study of Alexander Pope (whom, Greene says, she viewed “as a persecuted genius, not unlike herself”) or the classic volume English Eccentrics (a subject she knew from the inside out, having a wacky baronet for a father and a mother who was imprisoned for fraud).

Greene’s strenuously sympathetic book posits that Sitwell’s “particular kind of modernism – her refusal to be trapped by ancestral memory and her desire to overturn conventional ideas of the self – was rooted in the desolation of her family life.” Her passage through life was marked by “a strange combination of kindness and cruelty, courage and duplicity.... She could be funny and generous, as well as sometimes pompous and mean-spirited. She nurtured any number of rising talents, and slapped down others.” Among those she championed were Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and, in the generation that followed, Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene.

Sitwell was born into privilege, but didn’t take it seriously. For her, in her biographer’s phrase, “entering society was a bit like learning German: she memorised a few declensions and then accepted defeat.” She was a most unusual-looking woman (“she made a stand against conventional standards of beauty”) and was thus sought after by many important painters and photographers. That fact, like her quick wit, certainly added to the celebrity that Leavis derided, as did her constant search for income, which drove her to lecture in America and attempt Hollywood screenplays. Sitwell may very well have been the only person who knew both W.B. Yeats and Marilyn Monroe.

Greene’s finely detailed book is clearly a labour of love, with a simply amazing dramatis personae.

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