Edith Sitwell

Dame Edith Sitwell

Portrait of Sitwell by Roger Fry, 1915
Born (1887-09-07)7 September 1887
Scarborough, North Yorkshire,
United Kingdom
Died 9 December 1964(1964-12-09) (aged 77)
United Kingdom
Occupation Poet
Nationality United Kingdom
Relatives George Sitwell (father)
Osbert Sitwell and Sacheverell Sitwell (brothers)

Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell DBE (7 September 1887 – 9 December 1964) was a British poet and critic and the eldest of the three literary Sitwells.

Like her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, Edith reacted badly to her eccentric, unloving parents, and lived for much of her life with her governess. She never married, but became passionately attached to the gay Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, and her home was always open to London's poetic circle, to whom she was unfailingly generous and helpful.

Sitwell published poetry continuously from 1913, some of it abstract and set to music. With her dramatic style and exotic costumes, she was sometimes labelled a poseur, but her work was praised for its solid technique and painstaking craftsmanship.


Edith Louisa Sitwell was born in Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire, the oldest child and only daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall; he was an expert on genealogy and landscaping.[1] Her mother was Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort. She claimed a descent through female lines from the Plantagenets.

Sitwell had two younger brothers, Osbert (1892–1969) and Sacheverell Sitwell (1897–1988) both distinguished authors, well-known literary figures in their own right, and long-term collaborators. Her relationship with her parents was stormy at best, not least because her father made her undertake a "cure" for her supposed spinal deformation, involving locking her into an iron frame. She wrote in her autobiography that her parents had always been strangers to her.

In 1914, 26-year-old Sitwell moved to a small, shabby flat in Pembridge Mansions, Bayswater, which she shared with Helen Rootham (1875–1938), her governess since 1903.

Portrait of Edith Sitwell, by Roger Fry, 1918

Sitwell never married, but in 1927 she allegedly fell in love with the homosexual Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew. The relationship lasted until 1928, the same year that Rootham underwent operations for cancer (eventually becoming an invalid). In 1932, Helen Rootham and Sitwell moved to Paris, where they lived with Rootham's younger sister, Evelyn Wiel.

Sitwell's mother died in 1937. Sitwell did not attend the funeral because of her displeasure with her parents during her childhood. Helen Rootham died of spinal cancer in 1938. During the Second World War Sitwell returned from France and retired to Renishaw with her brother Osbert and his lover, David Horner. She wrote under the light of oil lamps as the house had no electricity. She knitted clothes for their friends who served in the army. One of the beneficiaries was Alec Guinness, who received a pair of seaboot stockings.

The poems she wrote during the war brought her back before the public. They include Street Songs (1942), The Song of the Cold (1945), and The Shadow of Cain (1947), all of which were much praised. "Still Falls the Rain" about the London Blitz, remains perhaps her best-known poem; it was set to music by Benjamin Britten as Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain. Her poem The Bee-Keeper was set to music by Priaulx Rainier, as The Bee Oracles (1970), a setting for tenor, flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord. It was premiered by Peter Pears in 1970.

In 1943, her father died in Switzerland, his wealth depleted. In 1948, a reunion with Tchelitchew, whom she had not seen since before the war, went badly. In 1948 Sitwell toured the United States with her brothers, reciting her poetry and, notoriously, giving a reading of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene. Her poetry recitals always were occasions; she made recordings of her poems, including two recordings of Façade, the first with Constant Lambert as co-narrator, and the second with Peter Pears.

Tchelitchew died in July 1957. Her brother Osbert died in 1969, of Parkinson's disease, diagnosed in 1950. Sitwell became a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1954. In August 1955 she converted to Roman Catholicism and asked author Evelyn Waugh to serve as her godfather.

Sitwell wrote two books about Queen Elizabeth I of England: Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946) and The Queens and the Hive (1962). She always claimed that she wrote prose simply for money and both these books were extremely successful, as were her English Eccentrics (1933) and Victoria of England (1936).

Sitwell was the subject of This Is Your Life in November 1962 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews on the stage of the BBC Television Theatre in London.

Sitwell lived from 1961 until her death in a flat in Hampstead in London, which is now marked with an English Heritage blue plaque.[2]

Last years and death

About 1957 she began using a wheelchair, after battling with Marfan syndrome throughout her life. Her last poetry reading was in 1962. She died of cerebral haemorrhage at St Thomas' Hospital on 9 December 1964 at the age of 77. She is buried in the churchyard of Weedon Lois in Northamptonshire.[3]

Sitwell's papers are held at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin.


Sitwell published her first poem The Drowned Suns in the Daily Mirror in 1913 and between 1916 and 1921 she edited Wheels, an annual poetic anthology compiled with her brothers—a literary collaboration generally called "the Sitwells".

In 1929 she published Gold Coast Customs, a poem about the artificiality of human behaviour and the barbarism that lies beneath the surface. The poem was written in the rhythms of the tom-tom and of jazz, and shows considerable technical skill. Her early work reflects the strong influence of the French symbolists.

She became a proponent and supporter of innovative trends in English poetry and opposed what she considered the conventionality of many contemporary backward-looking poets. Her flat became a meeting place for young writers whom she wished to befriend and help: these later included Dylan Thomas and Denton Welch. She also helped to publish the poetry of Wilfred Owen after his death. Her only novel, I Live Under a Black Sun, based on the life of Jonathan Swift, was published in 1937.

Publicity and controversy

Sitwell had angular features resembling Queen Elizabeth I (they also had the same birthday) and stood six feet (183 cm) tall, but often dressed in an unusual manner with gowns of brocade or velvet, with gold turbans, and a plethora of rings – her jewellery may be seen in the jewellery galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her unusual appearance provoked critics almost as much as her verse, and throughout her life she was the subject of more or less virulent personal attacks from Geoffrey Grigson, F. R. Leavis, and others, which she returned with vigour.

Her 'enemies' were treated with scorn; after Noël Coward wrote a skit on Sitwell and her two brothers as "The Swiss Family Whittlebot" for his 1923 revue London Calling!, she refused to speak to him until they were reconciled after her triumphant 70th birthday party at London's Royal Festival Hall. To her friends she showed great sweetness and invariable kindness.

Sitwell participated in the ongoing UGH.... correspondence featured in the Times Literary Supplement in 1963, an ongoing debate on the value of the work of William S. Burroughs and the nature of literary criticism, initiated by critic John Willard. Sitwell stated she was delighted by Willard's wholly negative review of Burroughs' work, despite claiming to not know who Burroughs was. In the same letter she described Lady Chatterley's Lover as an "insignificant, dirty little book", and rounded out her letter with the statement that she preferred Chanel Number 5 to having her nose "nailed to other people's lavatories".[4]

Sitwell was most interested by the distinction between poetry and music, a matter explored in Façade (1922), a series of abstract poems the rhythms of which counterparted those of music, and which was set to music by William Walton. Façade was performed behind a curtain with a hole in the mouth of a painted face (the painting was by John Piper) and the words were recited through the hole with the aid of a Sengerphone. The public received the first performance with bemusement, but there were many positive reactions.

As she lay dying, the critic Julian Symons published the last of these attacks in The London Magazine of November 1964, accusing her of "wearing other people's bleeding hearts on her own safe sleeve." [5]

Poetry collections

Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Edith Sitwell

Sitwell's poetry collections are:[6]

  • Clowns' Houses (1918)
  • Mother and Other Poems (1918)
  • The Wooden Pegasus (1920)
  • Façade (1922)
  • Bucolic Comedies (1923)
  • The Sleeping Beauty (1924)
  • Troy Park (1925)
  • Rustic Elegies (1927)
  • Gold Coast Customs (1929)
  • Collected Poems (1930)
  • Five Variations on a Theme (1933)
  • Street Songs (1942)
  • Green Song and Other Poems (1944)
  • The Song of the Cold (1945)
  • The Shadow of Cain (1947)
  • The Canticle of the Rose: Selected Poems 1920–1947 (1949)
  • Façade, and Other Poems 1920–1935 (1950)
  • Gardeners and Astronomers: New Poems (1953)
  • Collected Poems (1954)
  • The Outcasts (1962)

Other books

  • Alexander Pope (1930)
  • Bath (1932), a profile of the city under Beau Nash
  • The English Eccentrics (1933)
  • Aspects of Modern Poetry (1934)
  • Victoria of England (1936)
  • I Live Under a Black Sun (1937)
  • English Women (1942)
  • A Poet's Notebook (1943)
  • Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946), a biography of Elizabeth I
  • The Queens and the Hive (1962), a biography of Elizabeth I
  • Taken Care Of (1965), autobiography


  1. Tim Harris,Eccentric patriarch with slender grip on reality, The Age, January 2003; accessed March 2010.
  2. "Edith Sitwell blue plaque". openplaques.org. Retrieved 4 May 2013.
  3. "Edith Sitwell – Find a Grave". findagrave.com. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
  4. William S. Burroughs At The Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989 (eds. Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg).
  5. "The London Magazine". The London Magazine. 4 (8). 1964. ASIN B0034RS9EK.
  6. A History of Twentieth-Century British Women's Poetry (Dowson and Entwistle 341)

Further reading

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