For those who haven't seen it in today's Scarborough Evening News, my review of the latest biography of Edith Sitwell:
‘Edith Sitwell, Avant Garde Poet, English Genius’. Richard Greene’s title says it all. Rightly, in my opinion, he argues that Sitwell’s brilliance has been much misunderstood, ignored and, ultimately, forgotten. She did not, of course, help her own cause, making enemies of many a reviewer, labelling them the ‘Pipsqueakery’. And the ethereal nature of her work was out of step with the kitchen sink realism of the 1950s and ‘60s. Even so, Greene suggests, Sitwell’s almost complete rubbing out from the literary annals after her death in 1964, is deplorable. It is fitting then, that this new biography, thirty years after Victoria Glendinning’s, should be published to right this wrong.
Greene, in his 444 pages of narrative and 64 further pages of notes and references, does an admirable job of re-establishing Sitwell’s reputation. He also places Scarborough at the centre of her influences; not only her childhood experiences here, but the place itself. ‘Scratch the surface of Edith Sitwell’s poetry and you will find Scarborough and its contradictions. … In this seaport, fashion and frivolity formed a thin façade beyond which lay grief and catastrophe.’ However, it is not just, as Greene says, in terms of content, that Scarborough pulses through her poetry, it is in its very rhythms, echoing the sea’s which, as Sitwell herself wrote, came to beat within her veins.
Greene had access to documents that have only just become available, and his extensive volume comprehensively charts her life from unhappy childhood to the respected writer whose biography of Elizabeth I was once optioned by Hollywood. It details her torturous relationships, with her parents, her former governess and the artist Pavel Tcheltichew, as well as the more nourishing ones, especially with her brothers and fellow creatives such as Siegfried Sassoon and Stephen Spender.
Though Greene’s account is robustly written, for me it lacks the warmth of Glendinning’s. He appears to be very concerned with rooting out what ‘actually happened’. He seems to forget that, for a poet, honesty is not about facts, it is about a much more complex and compelling emotional truth.
'Edith Sitwell, Avant Garde Poet, English Genius' by Richard Greene was published in hardback by Virago on 3rd March 2011, £25