Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions
Edith Sitwell: A Biography
Like buoys in a treacherous estuary, guiding or warning the traffic, a succession of literary reputations still scatters light on the crowded lanes of the twentieth century. Some of them have dimmed, just as some of the lanes are now silted up. Nobody steers by Wells or Bennett, once so illustrious. Nobody troubles to run down the Georgians. Explorers get tired of being blown off course just as they are getting closer to Ford Madox Ford or William Gerhardie. Even the great lighthouses, Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Auden, have gathered with the years a certain amount of guano to mess up their pristine white paint. It no longer seems profitable to look into remoter waters guided by Proust and Mann and Kafka and Valéry.
But some of the smaller lights are still in full use. And among them the Sitwells shine, at any rate for those old enough to have experienced them as a living force. Will they remain? John Pearson, John Lehmann, Elizabeth Salter, and now Victoria Glendinning and Geoffrey Elborn are confident. Or will they be British versions of Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol, and the like: a compound of talent, outrage, the right friends, good luck, and evanescence?
It is likely that time will accord the youngest of the three, Sacheverell, the highest natural gift, even if the most substantial family achievement is his brother’s immense autobiography. But it is also likely that Edith will be judged worthy of an equal tribute, now brought up to date by two stoutish volumes covering, inevitably, exactly the same ground—one by an already acclaimed biographer of Elizabeth Bowen, and the other by a young man who has also worked, we are told, “with the full cooperation of the Sitwell family,” and at Sacheverell’s suggestion.
The question both authors face is implied in F. R. Leavis’s famous statement that “the Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than of poetry.” The statement was made in 1932, when Façade and the furor it aroused were still in the public eye and when the Sitwells were better known for their teases than for their art. It is, of course, an unfair judgment, aimed principally at Edith, who had been publishing poetry since 1915. But it brings into play a number of questions which have bedevilled critical appraisals of the Sitwell family ever since.
They insisted on their devotion to one another. But was that really true? They insisted on their total devotion to art as Gautier had defined it:
Les dieux eux-mêmes meurent
Mais les vers souverains Demeurent.
But were they not sometimes deflected from their devotion by jokes, polemics, social vanities? They insisted on a certain royal stance, acutely sensitive to lèse-majesté. Did they, at heart, feel so invulnerable?
Ms. Glendinning helps clear up some of these questions, and, in doing so, she makes more human a family which can do with a little humanizing. It is not that she has revelations to make …