Sitwell, Edith (1887–1964)
Sitwell, Edith (1887–1964)
Major 20th-century British poet, awarded the title of "Dame" in recognition of her literary achievements, who was co-creator, with Sir William Walton, of the groundbreaking music and poetry "entertainment" entitled Facade. Pronunciation: SIT-well. Born Edith Louisa Sitwell on September 7, 1887, in Scarborough, England; died on December 9, 1964, in Keat's Grove, Hampstead, England; first and only daughter of Sir George Reresby Sitwell (a British aristocrat) and Lady Ida (Denison) Sitwell (daughter of a wealthy father and aristocratic mother); had two brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell; never married; no children.
Educated by nurses, tutors, and governesses, including Helen Rootham who became her governess (1904); with Rootham, left her family home to live in London (1913); published her first collection of poems, The Mother and Other Poems (1915); was introduced to Bloomsbury circle members (1916); served as editor of Wheels (1916–21); participated in failed first performance of Fanfare at home of brother Osbert (1922); published Bucolic Comedies (1923); began annual trips to Paris (1923); scored success with public performance of Fanfare (1926); met Pavel Tchelitchew in Paris (1927); published I Live Under a Black Sun (1937); published Street Song (1942); published The Shadow of Cain, generally considered her best work of poetry (1947); visited New York and Hollywood (1948); participated in unsuccessful project to produce motion-picture script from her Fanfare for Elizabeth (1948); named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1948); published Collected Poems (1954); converted to the Roman Catholic Church (1955); read her poetry at London "memorial concert" in observance of 75th birthday (1962).
Facade (1922); Bucolic Comedies (1923); The Sleeping Beauty (1924); Rustic Elegies (1927); Street Songs (1942); The Shadow of Cain (1947).
Aspects of Modern Poetry (1934); Victoria of England (1936); I Live Under a Black Sun (1937); Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946); The Queen and the Hive (1962); Taken Care Of (published posthumously, 1965).
"I was unpopular with my parents from the moment of my birth," Dame Edith Sitwell wrote in her memoirs. "I was in disgrace for being female, and worse, as I grew older, it was obvious that I was not going to conform to my father's standard of beauty."
Raised in a household where she never received tenderness "from either parent," Sitwell experienced, throughout her early years, what she described as "the incipient anguish of the poet I was to become." Despite a childhood that she believed was an "unqualified hell," Sitwell used her memories to fashion a successful, and ultimately eminent, career as a poet.
Although convinced that she was "peculiar looking," she forced herself into the public eye, eventually becoming a major figure in 20th-century British poetry. Her achievements were given special recognition in 1948, when Queen Elizabeth II awarded her the title of "Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire."
Despite her dark memories, Sitwell had been born into privilege; her family was proud of its aristocratic roots. Her father's family could trace its aristocratic lineage back to the time of the Plantagenet kings, when the family had been awarded a baronetcy as a reward for a special reception held for the Prince of Wales. The family's large estate near Chesterfield, England, named Renishaw, is thought to be the model for the mansion portrayed in D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Sitwell's father, who ascended to the baronetcy at age two, was often described as eccentric. Introverted and scholarly, he spent much of his time at his hobbies of history and landscaping. Sitwell's mother Lady Ida Sitwell was unhappy in the marriage. Only 17 years old when her marriage was arranged by parents, she attempted to run away within days of the ceremony. Her parents promptly forced her to return to the Sitwell estate. Sitwell remembered that her mother's physical beauty was greater than any portrait revealed, but she also remembered that her mother was bored from long stays at the country homes owned by the family. She often stayed in bed all day, reading and, eventually, drinking heavily. Sitwell also recalled that her mother believed she had married beneath her—her family line had been earls—and sometimes told Sitwell, "I am better born than you."
Sitwell later wrote that both parents were "strangers" who knew nothing of what was "in my heart." They favored her two younger brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell. As adults, her brothers recalled that their mother constantly criticized Edith in public. Sitwell later realized that, as the first-born child, she had been conceived before her unhappy mother was ready for motherhood. "No wonder," she later wrote, that "my mother hated me throughout my childhood and youth." In her memoirs, published posthumously, she wrote, "I now feel only pity for my mother, a poor young creature, married against her will into a kind of slave-bondage."
But she also realized that her parents would have preferred that their first-born be a boy. When her brother Osbert was born, Sitwell attempted to run away from home. "When I was born," she later reminisced, "my mother would have liked to have turned me into a doll. It was a great disappointment to them that I was not a boy. If I had been Chinese I should have been exposed on the mountain with my feet bound."
Sitwell's tense relationship with her parents was made worse by their constant concern over her "unconventional" appearance. They were not worried by Sitwell's increasingly "elongated" face, since that had been a Sitwell family trait for many generations. But they were convinced that she suffered from curvature of the spine and that her nose had a "crooked bridge." A specialist who was consulted about the first problem decided that Sitwell should be strapped between two iron frames when she went to sleep.
Although they were told that nothing could be done to change her nose, her parents often called attention to the "defective nose" in public. When the family sat for a joint portrait done by the painter John Singer Sargent, Sitwell recalled being "white with fury" that on this occasion her father uncharacteristically tried to hold her "tenderly." She was just as angry when her father mentioned the crookedness of her nose to the painter. Her pain over such treatment lingered into her adult life: as an adult, she was amused to realize that Sargent had painted her with a "normal" nose and had given a crooked, "aquiline" nose to her father.
A precocious child, Edith Sitwell found creative ways to rebel. When the four-year-old was asked by a family friend what she wanted to become when she grew up, she replied, "a genius." At that age, she was already able to read the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Told that she must memorize the poem "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck," she instead scandalized her parents by memorizing parts of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock.
No other poet of our time has written so many lines which delight the imagination and give us a sense of magical freedom.
She sought to escape her parents' judgments by seeking solace in nature and spending time with her grandmothers, Lady Londesborough and Lady Sitwell , who considered her a "dear child" and had much more favorable attitudes toward her than her parents. She also was given personal attention by a Londesborough aunt who worried over the "fits of fright" that Sitwell exhibited. While staying with Lady Londesborough, she was even allowed to visit the grave of Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose poems fascinated her but were anathema to her parents.
When she spent time at Renishaw and at Woods End, the smaller, "dark" house near Scarborough that the family often occupied, the young Edith was fascinated by the surrounding areas and gardens. The grounds were a source of inspiration for her later poems, particularly the gardens at Renishaw, which she remembered as "huge and dreamlike." The Yorkshire coast also impressed her for its "tides, the wild rush of waves, that sweep inward, so that it seemed the sound of one's own blood."
Her education was sporadic. Nurses and governesses sometimes found her to be as exasperating as her parents believed her to be. For a while, she was sent to classes in art or given special tutors in art. When Helen Rootham became her governess in 1904, Helen discovered that Sitwell had special interests in music and poetry. Rootham encouraged her to study the poetry of Alexander Pope and Swinburne, and she arranged for a music tutor to teach Sitwell the music of Chopin. Sitwell gave to Rootham much of the credit for the fact that she became a poet.
It was the beginning of a lifelong, if sometimes tense, friendship between the two, in which Helen would often function as "protector" for the inexperienced and vulnerable Edith. But Rootham, who urged Sitwell to attend more parties in order to improve her social skills, often tried to take advantage of Sitwell's social connections. An aspiring singer, Rootham would often introduce Sitwell at parties as "Miss Sitwell, who is to play for me." Sitwell would be banished to wait in the servants' quarters by unknowing hostesses or hosts.
Yet Sitwell's independence and feistiness, which led her mother to call her a "very violent child," would not let her keep silent in such situations. On one occasion, she overheard a hostess expressing the wish to be invited to the lavish parties of Lady Londesborough. As Sitwell left the party with Rootham, she told the hostess, with malicious satisfaction, "I must see that my aunt invites you."
Sitwell later concluded that the motivation for much of her poetry was her own, inner rebellion against the lifestyles of her parents. She became a poet, she wrote, despite her background, and not because of it. "I was subjected," she wrote, "to a devoted, loving, peering, inquisitive, interfering, stultifying, middle-class suffocation." It left her determined that she would not "become like everyone else." When she was told by left-wing writers that she had not had enough "proletarian experiences" to produce good poetry, she replied that her unhappy childhood had given her a special sympathy for the dispossessed. She disliked the snobbish attitudes of many of her parents' friends, and she had particular sympathy for her parents' servants who reached retirement age and then seemed, like her, to be unwanted and lonely.
In 1913, when Sitwell was 25, she was allowed to move to London with Rootham. Although Sitwell had a much smaller trust fund than her brothers, Rootham was able to find an affordable, if small, apartment in the Bayswater section. Edith supplemented her income by working at the Chelsea Pension Office. When asked at parties why she lived where she did, she usually replied, "Because I have not much money." When she had extra money, she often spent it on fashionable clothes, saying that she was going to "dress as stylishly as possible" to cover a "lack of beauty."
The year after she moved to London, Sitwell's mother became involved in a financial scandal. It was the first time Sitwell felt sympathy for her mother. Lady Ida had become embroiled in debt far beyond her means to pay, and while Sitwell's father agreed to pay off many of the debts, he refused to recognize debts Lady Ida had incurred through an American, Julian Osgood Field. Field had agreed to give money to Lady Ida in return for social introductions to prominent British families. Instead, he obtained money for her by borrowing, in her name. In 1915, when Sitwell's father was in France on military duty, her mother was found liable for the debt and sentenced to a "period of detention" in a British prison.
As Sitwell became acquainted with many of the literary luminaries of Britain, her apartment in Bayswater was visited by a variety of individuals who were prominent in the arts or literature, such as the photographer Cecil Beaton and members of the Bloomsbury circle of literary writers, including the writers Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf . Sitwell, who did not like competition from other women "in the same line of work," made a poor initial impression on Woolf. Woolf described Sitwell as being a very tall young woman who wore a "perpetually puzzled expression" and "a high silk headdress covering her hair, so that it is not known if she has any."
During her early years at Bayswater, Sitwell was able to have her first poems accepted for publication. One of them had been published in a British newspaper in 1913, but her emergence as a poet really dates from 1915 when her first book of poetry, The Mother and Other Poems, was published.
From 1916 through 1921, Sitwell was editor of the literary annual Wheels, and she used the magazine to recognize new talent. For much of her adult life, she would "adopt" talented younger writers as her protégés. Wheels was the first publication to give major recognition to the British poet Wilfred Owen, killed in action in 1918, whose wartime poems later became the inspiration for the composer Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.
Most of the contributors to Wheels, including Sitwell herself, opposed the prevailing school
of "Georgian poets," led by Edwin Marsh and Sir John Squire. Sitwell believed that the "Georgian poets" had overdone the trend, dating from the time of the 18th-century poet William Wordsworth, of attempting to bring the "language of ordinary speech into poetry." Their rhymes, and their subject matter, seemed too conventional and predictable to her. Starting with her book of poems entitled Bucolic Comedies (1923), Sitwell tried to portray the world as "one image of wonder mirrored by another image of wonder." She emphasized that the world is viewed through our senses, in a process she termed "sense transfusion." She experimented with language and rhythm in poetry, using first the "language" of one of the human senses, and then the "language" of another one of the human senses. Often, the images she used were drawn from fairy tales, mythology, history, and even nursery rhymes.
One of the contributors to Wheels, the Chilean poet and painter Alvaro Guevara, became a personal friend, frequently escorting Sitwell to concerts and exhibitions. While Sitwell apparently hoped for more than friendship, the bisexual Guevara preferred another contributor to Wheels, Nancy Cunard . Sitwell's relationship with Guevara set a pattern for many of the men in her life, a number of them homosexual or bisexual. Finding herself unattractive to men who interested her, she apparently made a virtue out of necessity when she declared, "Artists should not marry."
Sitwell's relationship with the Russian émigré painter Pavel Tchelitchew, who lived in Paris, followed a similar pattern. In 1923, Sitwell and Rootham began to make annual visits to Paris; in 1932, they settled there, partly to be closer to Rootham's sister and partly because Sitwell believed that there would be fewer distractions to her work. In Paris, Sitwell became a regular guest at parties given by the Americans Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas . At these functions, Stein generally sat with the male guests, while Toklas entertained the women. Paying Sitwell what she considered the ultimate compliment—that she had "the mind of a man"—Stein invited Sitwell to sit next to her at these parties. She was the only other woman so honored. In turn, Sitwell secured invitations for Stein to speak at Oxford and Cambridge.
Stein told a friend, "I have an English-woman for Pavel to paint." But she did not vouch for Tchelitchew's character. Introducing the two of them, Stein commented, "If I have presented Pavel to you, it is your responsibility. His character is not my affair." Tchelitchew had already noticed Sitwell at a party, where he had been fascinated by her looks and had declared that she had the "most beautiful nose that any woman ever had." He produced several paintings of her over the course of their friendship.
Sitwell became Tchelitchew's patron, introducing him to prominent and wealthy families who might buy his art. She found him "the most generous man I have ever known," while Tchelitchew responded, "I have no real friend but you." For many years, they conducted a voluminous correspondence. Sitwell may have been in love with Tchelitchew, and, since she had grown up in protected surroundings and was living with another woman who was her protector, she did not give a second thought to the succession of men who lived with him. She preferred not to talk about the possibility that Tchelitchew was homosexual—a topic she called "squiggly things."
But her friendship with Tchelitchew ended only when he showed her one of his paintings at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1948. Not knowing what to say, she remained silent, a response he took to be a great insult. When Tchelitchew later explained his alienation from Sitwell by commenting that she was "not feminine enough," a friend noted that he really meant "not passive enough."
The early 1920s brought all three Sitwells to the attention of the British literary establishment, although not all of the publicity was favorable. The cause of the attention was Facade, a musical and poetic "entertainment" that Edith Sitwell and her two brothers presented in 1922. Facade combined the music of the composer and friend William Walton with poems written by Edith Sitwell. She admitted that she did it as "kind of a dare. Willie gave me certain rhythms and said, 'There you are, Edith. See what you can do with that.'" The first production, presented in the home of her brother Osbert, was a disaster. While Sitwell intended her poems to be witty "gaiety"—the audience was "meant to laugh," she wrote—the production totally confused the audience. Sitwell read her poems while sitting behind a painted curtain, speaking through a kind of megaphone called a "Segerphone." Often, her voice could not be heard above the music.
In terms of Sitwell's development as a poet, Facade was a bold experiment, allowing her to deemphasize the "end rhymes" of poetry and to emphasize, instead, the "assonant" and "dissonant" sounds of the English language in a sophisticated way. It would take three performances of Facade until audiences would begin to appreciate the work's merits, however. A more polished performance, given at the Aeolian Theater in 1923, was no more successful than the first. "Brickbats are flying," said Sitwell, using her favorite phrase to describe times of trouble. Virginia Woolf wrote that she had heard that the "Sitwells are reciting what seems to be shear nonsense through a megaphone." One critic summarized Facade as "the drivel they paid to hear."
A strong enmity developed between all three Sitwells and the writer and playwright Noel Coward, who parodied Facade and the Sitwell family in a sketch entitled "The Swiss Family Whittlebot." In an obvious reference to Edith Sitwell, he wrote that "Hernia (Whittlebot) is preparing for the publication of her new book, 'Gilded Sluts and Garbage.'"
By the time of the third performance of Facade, in 1926, the merits of the work were being recognized, although it would be some time before the work reached its current status as a landmark in poetry and music. Basking in their new fame, Edith Sitwell and her brothers assumed the role, during the 1920s, of the enfants terrible of British literary circles. They placed an advertisement in a London newspaper announcing that "Miss Edith Sitwell and Mr. Osbert Sitwell have much pleasure in announcing a general amnesty [for all those who had offended them]. This does not apply to habitual offenders." When a reviewer implied that they had reached literary prominence through energy and self-assurance rather than because of any literary talent, all three Sitwells successfully sued the writer for libel.
During the 1930s, Edith Sitwell's reputation as a poet continued to grow. Virginia Woolf now found her "magestical" and "monumental." Fellow poet William Butler Yeats became a champion of her poetry, and it was partly because of his advocacy for her work that she was awarded the Royal Society for Literature Medal for Poetry.
Although Sitwell still seemed shy and vulnerable, the feistiness she had displayed as a child would not let her remain silent in the face of attack. She used one of her prose works, Aspects of Modern Poetry (1934), to attack her critics, including Wyndham Lewis, a former friend. The book's misuse of quotations, however, left her open to charges of distorting her opponents' words.
Increasingly, she turned to prose writing to supplement her income. Her book Bath, published in 1932, was a history of the city of Bath. She published a variety of historical books, in which she placed more emphasis on helping her reader to "live" the period than in attempting to create objective historical scholarship. These works included Alexander Pope in 1930 and Victoria of England in 1936. Her book I Live Under a Black Sun, which appeared in 1937, concerned the life of Jonathan Swift, while her Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946) dealt with the life of Queen Elizabeth I .
Rootham, who was diagnosed with cancer in 1930, died in 1938. After World War II began in 1939, Sitwell left Paris and returned to live with her two brothers at Renishaw while their parents were living elsewhere. Sitwell found the quiet atmosphere of the large estate ideal for her work, and during the next ten years her productivity matched the prolific writing pace she had achieved during the 1920s.
By the time of the 1940s, Sitwell had gained the reputation of being the major woman poet in Britain in the first half of the century. During the war years, the adjective "woman" was dropped, and she came to be considered one of the major British poets of the century. Her book of poems entitled Street Songs (1942) was about people who endured against impossible hardships—a topic appropriate for wartime Britain. At the war's end, she had been horrified by the atomic bomb. Her book of poems entitled The Shadow of Cain (1947) described a division of matter in the universe into warring particles, a not-soveiled reference to the bomb.
Increasingly, she was asked to give public readings of her poetry, to audiences which included Queen Elizabeth (Bowes-Lyon) and the princesses Elizabeth (II) and Margaret Rose . Her wartime readings became legendary. During one poetry reading in 1944, air raid sirens began to sound, but she refused to move, and gave special emphasis to a line from one of her poems which described "rain falling in a field of blood." The audience, transfixed, remained motionless as well. One observer called it "a magnificent performance worthy of a British admiral … dictating orders from the bridge in the middle of a naval engagement."
In 1948, her stature in British literature was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II, who bestowed on her the title of "Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire." Asked by a bystander at one of her lectures why she called herself "Dame," Sitwell replied, with typically caustic wit, "I don't. The Queen of England does." Four universities in Britain awarded her honorary degrees: Oxford, Durham, Leeds, and Sheffield.
In 1948, Sitwell crossed the Atlantic. The trip was primarily a U.S. lecture tour, and she used it as an opportunity to attack her critics from foreign soil. "No one," she noted, "realizes what a tough old demon they've got to deal with." She was charmed by her reception. "How much I do like Americans—anyone who doesn't must be mad," she wrote a friend. In New York City, she was honored at a book party which included playwright Tennessee Williams, writer Gore Vidal, American poet Marianne Moore , and British poets W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Yet she found New York City to be overwhelming. "Everyone appeared to be young," she marveled. "It was not possible to imagine that a people so alive could be old." When a listener at one of her lectures told her, "I have read one of your books," she replied, with playful sarcasm, "Don't spoil me."
The purpose of a trip to Hollywood was to work on a screenplay for a motion-picture version of her Fanfare for Elizabeth. "It would be nice," she declared, "to have some money for once." The script was never completed. The reason, she told friends, was that Hollywood screenwriters wanted the motion picture to open with a pillow fight, followed by the first appearance of Anne Boleyn —clothed only in a towel.
Because she met a number of stars she admired, Sitwell did not consider her Hollywood stay to be a waste of time. "I must say," she wrote, "that I couldn't have enjoyed Hollywood more." Among those she met were Mary Pickford , Ethel Barrymore , Harpo Marx, Marilyn Monroe , and the director George Cukor. Sitwell took a strong dislike only to the columnist Hedda Hopper . When Hopper, in one of her newspaper columns, referred to Sitwell as a "little old lady," Sitwell retaliated by telling almost everyone she met that there was a rabies epidemic in Hollywood, caused, she added, by the fact that Hopper had bitten a local dog.
The next few years were a time of sadness. The poet Dylan Thomas, whose work she had championed, died in 1953. Her brother Osbert was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Religious references had always been part of her poetry, and in the post-World-War-II years her poems often reasserted the goodness of God against the background of the horrors of a violent world. When a listener at one of her poetry readings criticized her for not dealing with the "dignity of man" in her poetry, she replied that she thought themes such as the dignity of Christ were more important. It did not surprise friends that in 1955 she converted from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic faith. The priest who received her into the Church seemed to indicate, however, that she did not seem completely orthodox in her beliefs: he called her a "very eccentric Catholic."
Sitwell remained in demand for poetry readings throughout the 1950s, including an appearance at the Edinburgh Festival of 1959. She had become more assertive in dealing with audiences. When members of one audience complained they could not hear, she replied, "Get a hearing aid." On another occasion, she responded with, "I am not going to ruin my voice to please you." Asked to lower the papers in her hand so that audience members could see her better, she quipped, "You won't like what you see."
Her last work of poetry was The Outcasts (1962). Her last prose publication was The Queen and the Hive, which also appeared in 1962. The same year, she was lionized at a special "celebration concert" in London to mark her 75th birthday; the program combined music with her poetry, some of which she read. A short time before, her old enemy Noel Coward had visited her, and they had reconciled.
Sitwell's last 18 months were filled with illness, but she resolved that she would go on an around-the-world tour by ship in 1964. By the time the ship reached Bermuda, she had to be taken off by stretcher and flown back to London. Her remaining months were spent in a small cottage not far from where the poet John Keats had lived. She died on December 9, 1964.
Her gravestone is engraved with lines from one of her poems:
The past and present are one—
Accordant and discordant, youth and age
And death and birth. For out of one came all—
From all comes one.
Bradford, Sarah, Honor Clerk, Jonathan Fryer, Robin Gibson, and John Pearson. The Sitwells and the Arts of the 1920s and 1930s. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996.
Glendinning, Victoria. Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn among Lions. NY: Alfred Knopf, 1981.
Lehmann, John. A Nest of Tigers: The Sitwells in Their Times. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1968.
Salter, Elizabeth. Edith Sitwell. London: Oresko Books, 1979.
Sitwell, Edith. Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell. NY: Atheneum, 1965.
Salter, Elizabeth. The Last Years of a Rebel: A Memoir of Edith Sitwell. London: Hutchinson, 1967.
Villa, Jose Garcia, ed. A Celebration for Edith Sitwell. NY: New Directions, 1948.
Many of Sitwell's papers, including correspondence and notebooks, were purchased by, and are housed in, the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Other letters are held by the libraries of the University of Sussex and of the University of Durham, England. Her letters to Pavel Tchelitchew, held at Yale University, were made available in the year 2000.
Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois