EDITH SITWELL: A Unicorn Among Lions by Victoria Glendinning
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EDITH SITWELL: A Unicorn Among Lions

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In an introduction, Glendinning (Elizabeth Bowen) suggests that her book's primary thrust will be its reassessment of Sitwell-the-poet--an answer to the Leavis-school critics who have dismissed Sitwell's ""empty"" modernism and dubbed her a publicity-hound. In fact, however, the poetry receives pretty much the general-consensus evaluation here (a few great things, the rest middling), with only a few fresh insights; and this biography's strengths are to be found, rather, in Glendinning's compassionate examination of Edith's tragic, pent-up personality. ""She was always a child and always an old woman. In between, there was only desperation."" Oldest child of mismatched blue-bloods--scholar-despot father, society-loving mother--starkly plain, hugely tall Edith was an unwanted ""changeling"" from the start; and Glendinning, shrewdly balancing the Sitwell-childhood versions (Edith hated mother, Osbert hated father, Sacheverell was happy), makes clear why Edith came to live so much in her imagination. Nonetheless, after a ""protracted, indecisive adolescence,"" this insecure, totally virginal outsider boldly moved to a London flat with her ex-governess. . . and quickly, ambitiously, became the center of the reaction against the Georgian poets--via modernist journals and, above all, the symbolist-influenced pyrotechnics of Facade. With her best 1920s work, however, Edith had used up her childhood themes and, without new adult-life experience to draw on, she hardly grew as a poet. Her energy went instead into: feuds (sometimes paranoiac) with Wyndham Lewis, Noel Coward, the 1930s-left, the 1950s ""Movement""; propagandizing for G. Stein, D. Thomas, and less worthy talents; ""icon""-like public appearances (especially in the US); prose ""potboilers"" (like Fanfare for Elizabeth). And, most painfully, there was her tortured brooding on two impossible (homosexual) loves: artist Pavel Tchelitchew; and brother Osbert--whose exploitative lover drove Edith to silent, murderous rages. . . and Catholicism. With psychological savvy (but no ungainly jargon), Glendinning speculates convincingly on Edith's sexuality, on her (non-lesbian) chastity--the result of ""a mixture of circumstance, infantile regression, death wish, pride, habit. . . ."" She wisely sees Edith as ""a closet feminist"" at most. And the later years--illness, drinking, loneliness--are affectingly sketched. This may not be the critical blast Glendinning intended, then (though the WW II poems are eloquently defended). But it's a shrewdly selective montage of a half-lived life: less brightly anecdotal--and more touching--than you'd expect.

Pub Date: May 22nd, 1981
Publisher: Knopf