I couldn’t very well let the day pass without at least a brief mention of English poet and author Edith Sitwell, who was born on this day in 1887. Sitwell did, after all, write the book on eccentricity.
In 1933’s English Eccentrics, Sitwell consciously placed herself in the same tradition as her subjects, a motley congregation of daft squires, befuddled scholars and other oddballs including our old friend, Regency actor Robert Coates. “Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness,” proclaimed Sitwell. “It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.”
Yes, this is a somewhat self-serving observation for someone of Sitwell’s aristocratic background who, from the earliest age, gave her desired profession as “genius”. “I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty,” ran one of her sub-Wildean bon-mots. “But I am too busy thinking about myself.” With Sitwell, as with Coates, eccentricity and narcissism were two sides of the same coin and she was well aware of her effect on others. As assiduously as she collected her English Eccentrics, so too did she (along with her younger brothers Sacheverell and Osbert) cultivate a circle of accomplices, including the likes of Cecil Beaton, Brian Howard and Stephen Tennant.
Had she never put pen to paper Sitwell would still register as an extraordinary presence, with a countenance so singular that in group photographs she always looked as though she had been drawn on after the fact. Rather than attempting to disappear into the background, she emphasised her charged, baroque otherness with turbans, brocade gowns and extravagant rings. She stood out, as she put it “like an electric eel in a pool of catfish”; Tennant described her as “a huge old baby vulture”. And he was a friend.
The Sitwells annointed themselves as the vanguard of English Modernism, and many took them at their word. They became the centre of a privileged, insular, dilettantish, non-threatening English avant-garde, lacking New World vigour or the daring and rigour of their continental contemporaries. Art historian John Richardson, who as a callow youth had been a fan of the Sitwells, gleefully demolishes the siblings’ brittle self-importance and relentless self-mythologizing in his book Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters.
In any case, all three eventually threw off their Modernist ambitions and retreated into the past and so today the Sitwells are not remembered as taste-makers but rather as human curios. Of the trio, Edith has probably enjoyed the greatest gains in the bourse of renown, particularly for her poetry, for which even Richardson found grudging words of praise.
Sitwell described her verse as “hymns of praise to the glory of life”, but her best-known poem, “Still Falls the Rain”, is an incantatory elegy which addresses the London Blitz (which – incidentally – began 70 years ago today), comparing the suffering of the capital to the Passion of Christ. You can read the text and hear Sitwell herself reciting it here.