THE SIMULTANEOUS publication of two biographies of Edith Sitwell is bad luck on both authors, but in combination they form a posthumous tribute by which she would have been delighted. They give her a more dignified place in English life and letters than her reputation for spikiness and conceit has generally allowed her. Both authors admire her, Victoria Glendinning primarily as a poet, Geoffrey Elborn primarily as a person. There is more reflection in Glendinning's book, more anecdote in Elborn's. Because they have drawn on the same documents and the memories of people still alive, and share the same attitude towards her, the two books inevitably repeat each other, and rarely contradict, in fact or interpretation. Marginally I award the prize to Glendinning, because there is more thought in it and a finer style. Elborn's is richer in humor, but he is unclear about Edith's poetry and scarcely mentions her prose. But no book about any Sitwell can be dull. They lived and recorded their lives with such gusto that there is material for another six.
Edith did not make life easier by her vanity and vicious pen and tongue. She constantly broke the rules. She described herself, publicly, as a genius. She could write to a critic, "It is far less dangerous to stir up a black mamba in the mating season, than it is to irritate." As a child, she fainted with rage because another train passed her own. As a woman, she could be vitriolically jealous of another woman poet, and set out to destroy her. Elborn explains it charitably: "Unable to face up to the reality of her personal unhappy life, Edith developed her 'queenly' manner, using it with no holds barred in numerous vendettas."
One trouble was that there was not one Sitwell, but three, and their joint forays against the literary establishment, while admirable in one person, began to seem ludicrous when conducted by a troika of a filly and two stallions. In fact the Sitwells did not write the same sort of book, nor remain all that close as a family. Legend linked them as it has not linked other siblings, because from time to time they would reunite to stage an audacious performance like Facades (Edith's poems set to music by William Walton) or sue a newspaper for a libel on all three of them, like a journalist's comment in 1941 that "now oblivion has claimed them, they are remembered with a kindly if slightly cynical smile." Astonishingly they won the case and were awarded 350 pounds each in damages. No wonder that the press treated Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell like "an aggregate Indian god" (Edith's own phrase), with three sets of legs and arms, but otherwise indivisible. It cheapened everything, she complained with justice. The reaction was summed up in F. R. Leavis's famous phrase, "The Sitwells belong to the history of publicity, rather than to that of poetry," for which Edith never forgave him.
Her public persona was constantly at variance with her private. If proof is needed that the whole truth about an artist is often kinder than legend, it is found in these two books. Edith could be brutal and she could be mean, but she was capable of remarkable generosity, as many people, like James Purdy, testified. This generosity was not the product of inherited wealth. It was assumed that because she was the daughter of rich parents, and became famous young, she must be rich too. In fact, her exuberant hospitality was given on an overdraft. She was almost always in debt. Financial troubles, concealed from her guests, are a constant theme of both of these books. She supported a dull woman throughout her life, long after Edith had outgrown her, when Edith herself was bust. Her patronage of young writers, like Dylan Thomas or artists like Pavel (Pavlik) Tchelitchew, was vigorous to the point of embarrassing them.
She never won a man's love. Like Queen Elizabeth I, whom she resembled in appearance and character, she remained a virgin (according to Glendinning, but Elborn does not venture a guess), not from frigidity, for she loved Pavlik deeply, but because her austere beauty and her challenging manner deterred men, and Pavlik was homosexual. She kept her sorrow secret. Victoria Glendinning puts it well:
"A woman has two images. There is the magical person seen or remembered by those who love her, her finest qualities of flesh and spirit illuminated. She herself knows this ideal self, she projects it, if she is confident; or she daydreams her ideal self; or she recognizes it with gratitude in the admiring eyes of others. There is at the same time a second image: a woman as seen by those who dislike or fear her. This cruel picture has an all-too-powerful mirror in her own negative side of herself. She sees with fear her own damaging impulses, and, most painful of all, a graceless, freakish, unlovable physical self . . . Her life, and her poetry, constituted a flight from the second one."
This illustrates the difference between the two biographies. Elborn could not have written that.
Because Edith was so volatile, her life was shapeless, and this makes her biography a difficult one to write. There were acts and scenes, but they do not fuse into a play. Except in speech and gesture, she lacked animation. There were long periods when she did nothing, wrote little, harboring love or grievances which undermined her energy. She was not careful with her reputation, publishing too much indifferent work, repeating ideas and whole passages from book to book, and when she wrote prose potboilers she took too little trouble (as with her book on Bath, which she visited only once when writing it), and could be guilty of plagiarism, inaccuracy and nonsense. But "if the world of literary criticism knew nothing but, say, her twelve finest poems," says Glendinning, "she would have an unquestioned, uncategorized place on anyone's Parnassus."
This is true. Edith Sitwell's poetry veered from sublimity to bathos because her character veered that way too. "The virginal, hampered side of her personality bred a healthy craving for its opposite -- glitter and sensation," Glendinning writes. Healthy? The word makes me pause. Was it not febrile?