Nothing Like a Dame

Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell

by Edith Sitwell
Atheneum, 239 pp., $5.95

Edith Sitwell
Edith Sitwell; drawing by David Levine

How are we to explain or explain away (since it is going to need some explaining away for our posterity) the eminence or the acceptance or the at times reverential praise of the poems of the late Edith Sitwell? The poems will fall apart. They strike me, when I look at them again, as a tumble of imitation reliquaries. Of her early poems—the reliquaries are the later ones—some had the tinkliness of a broken music-box, some exhibited the arch simple-mindedness, not always pleasant-mindedness, of a neo-Victorian bouquet of wax and silk under the jags of a dome. Then the war, the bombs, the Great Bomb, and the reliquaries, inside of which there might—or might not—be the scraps of some body of holiness.

I was skeptical when these earnest poems began to appear and to be praised. The psalm sounded—O praise Miss Sitwell in the holiness of her pity and imaginative insight—and swelled; and even old skeptics were converted. But not this skeptic, who looked inside, and found precisely the nothing he expected to find, on past form. It was—I shall vary the exposition and call upon St. Adelbert of Prague and the luminescent fish once caught in the Danube—a fishy to-do. When that saint had been dismembered, it happened that his little finger fell or was thrown into the river: the fish swallowed the finger, the finger shone through the fish. But out of these Sitwellian reliquaries there shone, at any rate to my critical sense, no interior light even of that coldest luminescent kind. Crosses were inscribed or carved on the lid, inside there was not even the little finger of St. Adelbert.

As before, as so often in the Middle Ages, the best thing about these reliquary poems—“golden” having been Miss Sitwell’s key word—was their externality of gold leaf, or tinsel. All the light, all the sparkle came from outside, and reflected from the gilt, had its source in simpletons, sophisticated and unsophisticated, English and American, who were still in need of relics to worship; which is part of the explanation of Miss Sitwell. And another part, confirmed by this miserable autobiography, is that Miss Sitwell was one of her own most servile adulators.

She relates, to begin with, that she had a most unhappy childhood; which is no doubt true. If she is to be believed, her father and her mother alike were true scions of English aristocracy at its most vacuous, ignorant, insolent, and vulgar, which—such has been our aristocracy’s frequent eminence in these faults—is not saying a little. England’s aristocrats have scarcely been the makers or safekeepers of English civilization. “My parents were strangers to me from the moment of my birth.” Just as well, from the way she describes them. She needed to be straightened in an iron frame. She was ugly. She was bullied, she was violent, and she was lonely. “Au matin j’avais le…

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