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A Unicorn Among the Lions. Edith Sitwell

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Glendinning, Victoria. Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions

Edith Sitwell today is something of a back-number, rather remotely off-Bloomsbury. Victoria Glendinning, however, brings Edith back to life in this crowded biography, insisting on her place in the field of Twentieth Century Letters, on one who was not merely an imperious figure who carefully selected her starlets for praise or punishment, but as a warm and insightful critic of the majority of poets and novelists she met in person or corresponded with in their absence.
This is a tightly packed account of the life of the ‘unwanted child’ who was born into aristocratic circles in 1887 and lived until December 9, 1964. She seems to have known, read or read about every living English writer of her generation, and it is as a member of the literati rather than as a poet that she is celebrated in this book.

The Sitwells as a family, especially the trio of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, are today seen as minor writers, dated and even effete, concealed in the shadows of Bloomsbury by such as TS Eliot and EM Forster, Edith being the brightest star by virtue of her social and entrepreneurial initiatives. She is a less powerful and exclusive Gertrude Stein, one always on the look-out for talent (Denton Welch), and who collects and nurtures genius (DylanThomas).

Glendinning makes short work of the love affairs of her subject, which to be honest are mainly one-way streets, although her subject’s poetry is suffused with unattainable longings suitably disguised. Some of Edith’s more waspish comments, found in her letters, are reserved for other women poets who are almost without exception ‘incompetent, floppy, whining, arch, trivial [and] self-pitying.’ She shows less asperity to the novelists although Virginia Woolf is given the brush-off. As for the left-wing radicals: ‘What a bore Master Auden is. And as for Master Spender … he is just a heightened and refined version of Mr W.J. Turner.’
Edith Sitwell is remembered today mostly for a handful of exquisite poems but mainly as a drama queen who wore outrageous clothes and was wont to burst forth in invective directed at poets she loathed. Neverthless she was genially disposed to any promising novice needing help. Hence her support for the Filipino José Garcia Villa who spun ‘sharp flame-like poems out of himself. Of course some of them are bad …’ but seven appeared in Horizon in May 1949.

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