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Sitwell, Edith, Dame (1887-1964)
by Price, Emily


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Dame Edith Sitwell 1887-1964

Edith Sitwell was born in 1886, into the waiting hands of the eccentric, aristocratic George Sitwell and his eighteen-year-old bride, the former Lady Ida Denison. The newly-wed and newly-pregnant couple-who traced their family heritage through generations of self-made Sitwells on one side and back to Plantagenets (by way of Londesboroughs) on the other-anticipated the birth of this, their first child, as the fulfillment of a weighty family legacy and as a symbolic unifier for their marriage: a young Platagenet Sitwell would, it was expected, act as a happy legitimizer for their hasty and as yet uncomfortable union. But Edith Sitwell was born, much to her parents' surprise and dismay, as a girl. Though marked with distinctive Platagenet features-Sitwell would later jump to claim the legacy herself, despite the extreme distance of the connection-Edith's inability to serve as either male heir or sentimental bond left her disappointed parents with a distinct lack of affection for their first born. An unwanted daughter with an ancient and unattractive aspect, Edith grew into a sharp, defensive wit and a steady, solitary nature. She nursed throughout her childhood a growing interest in verse, remaining distant from the parents who, even after the later birth of Sitwell heir Osbert and the younger Sacheverell, found traditional family relations rather challenging. In a rare attempt to connect with the daughter who would later hold her own among the most popular artists of the day, Sir George approached the budding poet on her twelfth birthday with the astute advice, “Nothin' a young man likes so much as a girl who's good at parallel bars.”

Edith's poetic nature blossomed into a poetic career in 1913, amidst increased familial distress and public humiliation for her financially-troubled mother and father. As Lady Ida Sitwell fell into long-overdue scandal over a history of debt and fiscal dishonesties, her 26-year-old daughter left the family estate of Renishaw, rejecting proper society to live on thin soup and little more than £100 a year in the company of her governess, Helen Rootham. Rootham, whose practical but appreciative approach to life and to art had already greatly impacted and facilitated Sitwell's transition into both publication and independence, proved essential to this period in Sitwell's career, helping to structure the trying economic and social limbo into which liberation had cast them. An artist herself, Rootham-whose translation of Rimbaud's “Les Illuminations,” published at Edith's urgings, would later be set to music by Benjamin Britten-operated as much more than servant in the Sitwell-Rootham household. She continued to translate poetry and to publish her translations during her time with Sitwell in London, even serving as the music critic for The New Age and drawing connections for Edith from within the intellectual and artistic circles in which she moved. In stark contrast to the stiff, aristocratic parental figures who now floundered critically in the public eye as they ventured in and out of London courtrooms, Helen Rootham appeared to Edith as a kind of kindred authority figure, an honest (if sometimes demanding) source of artistic as well as emotional support. Sitwell's first long work, a twenty-five-page collection entitled Mother, described an ideal version of its title figure that undoubtedly included Lady Ida and Rootham both, drawing a portrait of the truly loving and apologetic maternal figure which Edith could only ever wish to know.

In her early years of independence Edith Sitwell also formed what would prove to be the most influential and enduring collaborative bond of her career, solidifying a “closed corporation” with her own younger brothers - Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell. Disillusioned with the parents whom they had once respected or even revered, Osbert and Sacheverell took to the art of poetry under their sister's enthusiastic eye, drawing apart from their parents as they came closer together as colleagues and as siblings. Though their relationships to one another as artists had truly begun much earlier in their lives-while all three still resided primarily at Renishaw under the influence of Lady Ida and Sir George-the public and private turmoil of financial and legal trouble and the near-collapse of their family structure threw the Sitwell children together in the early part of the 20th Century, driving them to reject the traditional aristocratic values of their parents as they worked together to redefine the name of Sitwell through art. Osbert's earliest works, inspired through his short stint in battle during the beginning of the Great War, were denunciations of the vice and hypocrisy of his father's generation. Sacheverell, more sensitive and perhaps less outraged by life than his brother or sister, published his first book of poetry in 1918, following quietly in step with the louder ambitions of his siblings. In 1916 the Sitwell corporation organized and edited Wheels: An Anthology of Verse, a compilation of Sitwell writing and that of their close friends and political allies, which formed, in part, an acknowledged response to the established and popular Georgian Poetry. Writers like Nancy Cunard, Iris Tree, and Helen Rootham contributed to the anthology beside the Sitwell triumvirate, propelling the short-lived publication through six “cycles” in three years. Political and artistic networking, accomplished most effectively by Osbert but pursued by older Edith as well, brought reputable writers (Aldous Huxley touted his involvement with the anthology in the 1920's) and young unknowns alike to the ranks of Wheels contributors before the publication's eventual end.

Lady Ida Sitwell died in July 1937, at home in England. Dame Edith, who skipped the funeral service (though she did return briefly to Renishaw, interrupting the completion of a novel), wrote of her mother's death in a letter, saying only, “Elle est morte il y a deux jours.” Though they had experienced a slight reconciliation after Lady Ida's brief imprisonment in 1915, the two Sitwell women had hardly achieved a meaningful relationship at any point in Ida's lifetime. Sir George, whom Edith listened to crying “etc” during her trip to Renishaw in 1937, remained distant from his oldest as well; his will, uncovered at his death in 1947, left Edith a meager £60 a year. When Edith herself died in 1964, she left a literary and a social legacy marked by a painful family history. Collections of her poetry include Clowns' Houses (1918), Rustic Elegies (1927), Gold Coast Customs (1929), The Song of the Cold (1948), and Façade, and Other Poems 1920-1935 (1950). Among her works of prose are a novel about Jonathan Swift and multiple biographies of Queen Elizabeth I. Her Collected Poems was printed in 1954, and an autobiography, Taken Care Of, appeared posthumously in 1965.

—Emily Price

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