Book Review / Behind the Facade
Souhami, Diana, The Independent (London, England)
When she was 17, Edith Sitwell was sent to pawn her mother's false teeth. She got 10/5d for them. Whisky (it was 1904) was 12/6d a bottle. Her mother, Lady Ida Sitwell, had a drink habit and uncertain morals and in 1915 spent three months in Holloway for fraud. Sir George Reresby Sitwell, MP, historian, tyrant and Edith's father, owned 6,000 acres and the family estate Renishaw, near Chesterfield, where Edith and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell endured childhood.
"I don't believe there is another family in England who have had parents like ours," Edith wrote to Osbert. "Please see to it that I am cremated. The other thing would be too like living with father." They called him Ginger, the Red Death, the old beast and the old horror. Edith said he spent his life dodging the taxman. She and her brothers suspected he was finally murdered by a banker called Woog who embezzled their inheritance.
She said her "nervous system was ruined for life" before she was ten. Such comfort as there was came from her governess Helen Rootham, and as adults they lived together in a London flat. She resisted visiting Renishaw "in case they get a grip on me again". When Helen got cancer, Edith's letters to and about her were full of despair and generosity. In 1970 the previous editor of Edith Sitwell's letters, John Lehmann, was not permitted to include any to her mother, father or brothers. It was a fatal omission. Her formidable parents and her love of her brothers - their shared horror of "the Gingers", their praise for one another and their mutual protectiveness - were at the root of her identity as a woman and poet. They are all dead now and their executor, Francis Sitwell, Sacheverell's son, has given permission for her letters to family to be published. Most letters in this volume are at the Harry Ransom Research Centre in Texas. Mr Ransom's oil money has purchased swathes of Britain's literary heritage. Documents are kept in sub-zero conditions to prolong life. Visiting readers are vetted; special gloves supplied. No corresponding discipline has been given to packaging this volume. A rogue quotation mark in the first paragraph points to hard work for the reader. The editor, Richard Greene, a Canadian academic, was an archivist for Edith Sitwell's literary estate. He has sifted thousands of letters. His choice is informed and wide ranging. Dramas are buried here, but effort is needed to unearth them. Concepts and events - generosity, naivety, love, money, fame, sickness - have to be mined. Notes are crammed as end pages and I got tired of rifling back and forth. Companion volumes are needed to make contextual sense: Osbert Sitwell's memoir, Left Hand, Right Hand! …