Written by Julie Balloo


Edith Sitwell, the eel among the goldfish

Julie Balloo has always dreamed of having her residence anointed with a Blue Plaque. While her hopes are fast diminishing, her fascination for the recipients remains. Today is the 50th anniversary of Edith Sitwell’s death; her plaque adorns Flat 42, Greenhill Road, Hampstead.

Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Edith Sitwell, 1962.

Remarkable poet Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell was an extraordinary woman of notable appearance, over six feet tall with beady eyes and a beaky nose, resembling a human bird of prey.

Picasso described her face as ‘a real collector’s piece’, while her figure was said to look like ‘a crane on a platform, ornithological or mechanical’. Cecil Beaton wrote that she was ‘a tall, graceful scarecrow with the white hands of a medieval saint’. Virginia Woolf found her ‘lonely, ghostlike and angular . . . all is very tapering and pointed the nose running on like a mole’: Artist, Lytton Strachey described her nose as longer than an anteater’s. Dame Edith herself said, ‘I have always found it has got in the way.’

She was the eldest of the three literary siblings and the only daughter; born in 1887, on September 7, the same date as her heroine Elizabeth I. Her pedigree was impressive, her father George, the 4th Baronet of Renishaw Hall, North Yorkshire was an expert on genealogy and landscaping, and she claimed to be a direct descendent of the Plantagenets, which, considering the malevolent carnage that seemed habitual for that family, one could hardly ask for a more ferocious bloodline.

Described as eccentric, she once remarked: “I am not eccentric. It’s just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish.”

Her two younger brothers Osbert and Sacheverell were well-known literary figures and long-term collaborators. But Edith had a dysfunctional relationship with her parents, who she considered strangers, and experienced a very unhappy childhood. When she was young, her father made her undertake a cure for her supposed spinal deformation which involved locking her into an iron frame. She was also forced to wear a nose-truss to improve her profile, hardly an upbringing designed to develop her self-esteem.

She was a morose and obstinate child and prone to announcing that she would one day grow up to become a genius. At the age of 16, her new governess Helen Rootham encouraged her to write poetry and an early work, Drowned Sons was published in the Daily Mirror in 1913. And so began her life-long affair with poetry.

But, in 1915, her wealthy father was to wield yet another cruel blow when, rather than settle his spendthrift wife’s debts to a corrupt moneylender, he allowed her to go to prison for three months in the hope of giving her a harsh lesson in domestic economy. This humiliation only served for the siblings to make a vow that they would live down his shame and leave a mark of some sort on the world, believing strongly that ‘poetry is the deification of reality’.

She was a morose and obstinate child and prone to announcing that she would one day grow up to become a genius.

Edith was fascinated by the distinction between poetry and music, which is explored in Facade (1922), a series of abstract poems the rhythms of which complimented those of the music. Facade was set to music and performed at the Aeolian Hall in London from behind a curtain with a hole in the mouth of a painted face and the words recited through the hole with the aid of a sengerphone – ‘an instrument made of compressed grasses which was meant to retain the clarity of magnified tone.’

The public were most bemused by this performance – some downright outraged. Dame Edith recalled: “I had to hide behind the curtain. An old lady was waiting to beat me with an umbrella.”

She may have dodged the old lady but not the wicked satire of Noel Coward who revelled in mocking the Sitwells. In his review London Calling, he lampooned the siblings, creating the absurd Whittlebot family. His suggestions for the costume of Hernia Whittlebot insisted “she must be effectively and charmingly dressed in undraped dyed sacking with a little clump of Bacchanalian fruit below each ear”. There was no mistaking where he took his inspiration.

Edith never married but in 1927 met the man she would declare her soul mate and kindred spirit. She happened upon the surrealist Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew at one of Gertrude Stein’s literary Paris salons. Although she was much older than him and he was homosexual, this was the beginning of a very deep and loving relationship, albeit not a physical one. Pavlik, as he was known, was obsessed by her extraordinary charisma and painted many portraits of her over the years.

Sanford H Roth’s portrait of Dame Edith in 1953

She became his muse and patron and often observed that she was one of those unhappy persons who inspire bores to the greatest flights of art. He, in turn, was pivotal to her increasingly bizarre fashion sense, insisting he design clothes to bring out her ‘Plantagenet look.’ She claimed if she wore modern clothes, people would eventually doubt the existence of the Almighty.

The outbreak of the Second World War meant a return to England and a separation from Pavlik. She moved back to Renishaw with her brother Osbert and his lover David Horner, where they lived in a ramshackle old house without electricity, often referred to as ‘Wuthering Heights’. She spent her time knitting for friends serving in the army and writing poetry. Among these was the much-lauded Still Falls the Rain, about the London Blitz, which was later set to music by Benjamin Britten.

In 1948, Tchelitichew came back into her life but the reunion ended in a humiliating public argument in a New York restaurant. He furiously accused her of being self-obsessed and corrupted by vulgar social figures who surrounded her concluding that she was betraying the poet. He referred to her time in Hollywood and dug the knife further by confiding the only part of her he had ever cherished was Edith the poet, cruelly vowing that everything between them was now over. Edith was devastated and sailed for England the next day.

In later years, she toured the US with her brothers, reciting poetry and giving readings of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, which made for a very odd theatrical event.

Another fixation was Queen Elizabeth I – aside from the shared birthday there were the angular features and the fact neither had wed. Edith wrote two books about the Queen, Fanfare for Elizabeth and the Queens and The Hive. They were very successful, as was another Royal biography, Victoria of England. Her memorable tome, English Eccentrics seems a very fitting legacy.

Sitwell enjoyed a great friendship with Dylan Thomas, who she thought was a genius and treated as the son she never had, and had a soft spot for the sweet Marilyn Monroe. She described her thus: “In repose, her face was at moments strangely, prophetically tragic, like the face of a beautiful ghost – a little spring-ghost, an innocent fertility daemon, the vegetation spirit that was Ophelia.”

She became a Dame in 1954 and was also the subject of This Is Your Life in 1962. Sadly her years at the flat in Hampstead were rather depressing as she was in ill health and suffered financial problems. The flat was small and, in her own peculiar way, she described it as ‘just big enough for ghosts’. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage at St Thomas’s Hospital on December 9, 1964, at the age of 77 and is buried in Northamptonshire.

The Blue Plaque was erected by English Heritage in 1998; maybe one very tall ghost, a crone like spectre in curious garb, forever ready for a Halloween party still resides within the walls today.

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Written by Julie Balloo

I am a former standup and now write stories and stage/radio scripts. My long- time collaborator is Jenny Eclair.