Poetic rise to fame for ‘child genius’

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WHEN Edith Sitwell was just five years old, her mother’s friend asked what she was going to be when she grew up.

Her reply was simple.

Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius

Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius

“A genius,” she said.

It was an answer which caused some embarrassment for her modest, though aristocratic, 19th century family and the tot was swept off to bed.

But it was Edith who would have the last laugh.

For when this most unusual of Sheffield eccentrics died in 1964 she was indeed considered one of the great literary geniuses of her age - a writer of outstanding ability, a poet who, more than any other, defined the miseries of the Blitz, and a Wildean wit who counted among her friends Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward and Marilyn Monroe.

Edith Sitwell and Marilyn Monroe

Edith Sitwell and Marilyn Monroe

Her extraordinary life saw her become a prominent member of literary circles in London, Paris and Berlin, complete a sell-out poetry tour of America and attract endless controversy for her unerring belief that “good taste is the worst vice ever invented”.

“She was quite simply an incredible woman,” says Richard Greene, the Canadian author who, next month, will publish the first biography on Sitwell for more than 30 years.

“She was the only poet of her age whose writing was good enough to sum up the momentous miseries of the Blitz. She stood head and shoulders above almost any other writer of her age.”

Edith Sitwell’s life might have been one of international glamour but it was inextricably interwoven with Sheffield.

Edith Sitwell with brothers Osbert and Sacheverell

Edith Sitwell with brothers Osbert and Sacheverell

Much of her childhood and young adulthood was spent here at the family home, Renishaw Hall, and so too was a significant proportion of her later years. Indeed, it was while living at the family home during the Sheffield Blitz that she was inspired to write her defining poem, Still Falls The Rain.

“The place was extremely important to her,” says Richard, who has spent more than 15 years researching his book, Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius.

“Many of the most important periods of her life were spent there – and her childhood, although it was by her own admission miserable, was profoundly influential on the writer she would become.”

That childhood, then?

Richard Greene, author of Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet English Genius

Richard Greene, author of Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet English Genius

Edith was born in 1887, the eldest child of Sir George Sitwell and Lady Ida.

She had two bothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, but her early life was not a happy one.

“Her relationship with her mother and father was dysfunctional to say the least,” says Richard, 49, a lecturer at the University of Toronto, who first stumbled on Sitwell’s work while studying at Oxford in the early 1990s.

“It was said she didn’t go to her mother’s funeral although in fact she did. But the fact the rumour started is evidence of their abnormal relationship.”

In particular Sitwell had despised a metal back brace she was made to wear as a 12-year-old to cure a stoop. She described it as a “prison of iron” which caused her agony throughout the day and night.

But it was her mother’s alcoholic tempers which really caused the youngster to despise her parents.

Edith Sitwell with Pavel Tchelitchew

Edith Sitwell with Pavel Tchelitchew

Mental cruelty was not uncommon with Osbert later remarking Edith’s very existence seemed to annoy their mother.

Edith would later dismiss both her parents: “They were a handful to me,” she said bitterly.

She escaped the family home while still in her teens, living in a series of shabby flats in London, Paris and Berlin – all paid for by her father, it should be noted – and it was while in these cities she started to experiment with poetry.

Her first published work, The Drowned Suns, was printed in the Daily Mirror in 1913. Soon after she became editor of Wheels, an annual poetic anthology, which ran until 1921, and in the decade that followed she released three collections of her own work.

Her private life meanwhile was never anything less than complicated.

On one hand there were rumours she was in a lesbian relationship with her former governess Helen Rootham.

At the other extreme, some said she had an affair with the gay Russian painter and self-confessed sex addict Pavel Tchelitchew.

“The truth is there is no evidence to suggest she ever had sexual relations with anyone,” says Richard.

Frustrated by her lack of wider poetic success, in the 1930s Sitwell produced a number of prose books including her only novel, I Live Under A Black Sun, based on the life of Jonathan Swift, and two biographies of Queen Elizabeth.

All were critically acclaimed but it was poetry Sitwell was passionate about.

Still frustrated, she left her home in France at the outset of World War Two and moved back to Renishaw Hall with her brother Osbert and his gay lover.

“It was there, while the bombs were dropping on England and Sheffield, she was inspired to write the poetry which would eventually make her name,” says Richard.

“Poems like Still Falls The Rain define the period. There’s a misery to them but also a musicality that is reminiscent of Beethoven.

“There’s genius there.

“Sitwell was a full person - fun and angry and sad, and somehow that all comes out in these poems,” he said.

Indeed it was these which brought Sitwell the level of fame – and infamy – which one suspects she always desired.

While many fell in love with what she was doing, some critics dismissed her work as fake and retrogressive. She, in turn, labelled such critics pipsqueaks and declared: “It’s just I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel sat in a pond of goldfish.”

Certainly Marilyn Monroe agreed with the summation.

The pair were famously brought together by Time Magazine in 1953. Editors hoped Sitwell would rip into what they saw as Monroe’s fake life.

Instead the pair became firm friends, meeting many times after that first coming together “She had the face of a beautiful ghost,” Sitwell remarked.

Not long after the meeting she was made a Dame but ill health would soon take over.

She started using a wheelchair in 1957 while fighting the genetic disorder Marfan Syndrome. Her last poetry reading was 1962, while her last book - fittingly her autobiography - was published in 1964 just months before, aged 77, she passed away.

At her funeral, she was described as a literary giant and – just as she’d predicted – a genius.

Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius by Richard Greene is published by Virago, March 3.

Edith Sitwell in her own words

Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.

Good taste is the worst vice ever invented.

I have always been in bad taste - and glory in it. Good taste, I think, belongs to the world of advertisements - Persil etc, and fussing about what the neighbours think.

My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence.

The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth.

I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty... But I am too busy thinking about myself.

Why is it that every man who possesses genius in his head and love in his heart, every man who can think and dares speak against abuses, everybody who pleads the cause of mercy and who champions the unfortunate, is called a crank by all the half-wits of his time?