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Obviously not, as claimed, ""the first full-length biography""; Victoria Glendinning (Edith Sitwell, p. 477) is out ahead of Elborn. . .in more ways than one. But though Elborn's book has none of the psychological force or shapeliness of Glendinning's--and though he does no better at making a case for the greatness of Sitwell's poetry--he does offer a fairly neutral, nearly documentary study of some complementary utility. Drawing extensively on family letters (so extensively as to rule out much narrative pace), Elborn emphasizes family matters, literary friendships, and Edith's sense of humor more than does the Glendinning portrait; there are more anecdotes here, fewer interpretations; the chapters on Edith's old age, relying heavily on Elizabeth Salter's The Last Years of a Rebel, are more detailed--often tediously so. But only on one major point does Elborn's largely non-committal approach differ (unpersuasively) from Glendinning's: he sees the financial needs of beloved leech Pavel Tchelitchew as the primary reason for the decrease in Edith's poetic output (prose paid better). For the rest, it's the same basic story--from wretched childhood (Elborn is more skeptical of Edith's version than is Glendinning); to poetic rebellion (Glendinning sketches in the Georgian literary world far better); to London feuds and notoriety; to the tormented non-affair with homosexual Tchelitchew (Elborn's Edith has less sexual potential than Glendinning's); to decline, comeback, US tours, misery over brother Osbert's homosexuality (leading to her Catholic conversion); to the final years of drink and loneliness. Elborn's limitations as a biographer are compounded, unfortunately, by his loyalty to the surviving Sitwell, Sacheverell; this seems to color much of the family material. But there is so much of Edith in her own words here (plus the letters of others) that serious students may want to use this as a check against the far more focused, selective, and readable Glendinning book.

Pub Date: June 26th, 1981
Publisher: Doubleday