Page 5, 6th November 1981

6th November 1981
Page 5
Page 5, 6th November 1981 — POETRY OF CONVERSION

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profile of Edith EDITH SITWELL'S reception into the Church is probably best described by Evelyn Waugh, whom she had chosen to be godfather at her conditional Baptism.

Waugh arrived at the Jesuits' Farm Street church in Mayfair where: "A bald shy man introduced himself as the actor Alex Guinness. Presently Edith appeared swathed in black like a sixteenth-century infanta. I was aware of other people kneeling behind but there were no newspaper inen or photographers as I had half feared to lind.

"Edith recanted her errors in fine ringing tones and received conditional baptism. then was led in to the confessional while six of us collected in the sacristy — Guinness and I and Father D'Arey, an old lame deaf woman v.ith dyed red hair whose name I never learned. a little swarthy man who looked like a Jew but claimed to be Portuguese. and a blond youth who looked American but claimed to be English, "We drove two streets in a large hired limousine to Edith's club. the Sesame. I had heard gruesome stories of this place but Edith had ordered a banquet — cold consomme, lobster Newburg, steak. strawberry flan and great quantities of wine.

"The old woman suddenly said: The arresting Sitwell in youth (left) gave way "Did I hear the word whisky"? I said: "Do you want one'r "More than anything in the world." "I'll get you some." But the Portuguese nudged me and said: "It would be disastrous'."

All the elements of Edith's life are here: the presence of the famous. the friends in danger of' becoming encumbrances, the love of display, the insecurity of a club but no home and the enthusiastic embracing of a system of belief.

Verge of despair

Edith Sitwell was in a state of arid depression which verged on despair at the time of her conversion. Two of her greatest trials were the illness of her brother Osbert, then developing Parkinson's disease. and what she saw as his betrayal by his homosexual friend, David Horner. Both had a part in her conversion.

Indeed, GeolTrey Elborn in his new biography of Edith Sitwell* suggests the idea of her becoming a Catholic was Osbert's. He had never professed religious faith. but saw Catholicism could help Edith to come to terms with the frustrations that enraged her laid her low with sickness and were already leading her to drink. Mr

Elborn told me that she was also hoped that prayer might have an effect on Osbert's disease.

Surprisingly, David Horner himself was a Catholic convert. Edith often expressed a wish to murder him. It was not that he was a homosexual — a difficult wife would have been just as much of' a problem. The task of her instruction in the Faith had been given to Fr Philip Caraman. To him she opened her heart in a way she never could to her friends or those she loved. He had advised her to curb her anger at Homer and she thanked him for the discipline he proposed.

Fr Caraman knows more about Edith's complicated motives for becoming a Catholic than anyone alive. Edith Sitwell's biographers have missed an opportunity of filling in the picture given by family and friends. As Geoffre!, Elborn points out, Edith formed friendships with several artists who had turned to Catholicism — Roy Campbell, whose poetrs she championed fiercely against the prejudices of her let 1.acquaintances, Evelyn Waugh, who had stayed at Renishaw, Graham Greene and Alec Guinness.

Taste for ritual

Edith was not naturally pious. Her family background saw to that. Both parents had been suffocated by heavily ecclesiastical upbringings and reacted by adopting a life of frivolity on one side and intellectual scepticism on the other. When Edith went to stay with her relations at Scarborough who held family services, she would have to run from the room to avoid bursting into laughter at the false solemnity of it all.

But she was attracted by ritual and display. The extravagant dress and actions that got the Sitwells branded as part of the history of' publicity rather than poetry, reflected a deep seated appreciation of the kind of aesthetics shared by the Church's liturgy. At the same time, Edith was touched by the simple devotion of the Italian peasants she saw when she visited the rambling palace of Monteguloni, bought by Sir George, her pennypinching but unpredictable father. Osbert during an American tour.

Geoffrey Elborn feels that no ordinary parish priest would have done for Edith's instruction — she had asked the eminent Fr Martin D'Arcy SJ, but he was away in the United States, At one point the reception ceremony was planned for the chapel of the Jesuits' Mount St Mary's school, not far from Renishaw Hall. In the event it had to be Farm Street — more convenient for friends.

Though Edith Sitwell was not an intellectual, even in the way Evelyn Waugh might be said to be. she was soon lapping up the books Fr Caraman recommended and writing off enthusiastic letters in praise of St Thomas Aquinas.

Poetic sense

Her turn to Catholicism seems inevitable with the way her poetry was moving. But just as 'I' in a poem need not refer to Edith Sitwell. so 'Christ' does not necessarily answer to a personal belief in his power to save. Yet Gold Coast Customs or The Song of the Cold show a steady rejection of injustice and a hunger for an ultimate good. After a performance of Britten's setting of Still Falls the Rain. Edith admired the success with which it had conveyed the feeling that —each being was alone, with space and eternity and the terror of death, and then God,

No one has felt or conveyed more intensely horror. coldness, Hell and death than Edith Sitwell. God had to come in.

I asked Geoffrey Elborn if Edith's conversion had helped

her cope with her horror at the modern world and her personal anguish. "I do think it made her happier. But she always regarded it as very private. Sachie said she got bored with it in later life. but

she was distressed in other ways.

In the last years of her life, Edith Sitwell was exhausted and ill in body. There had been no permanent satisfaction from personal relationships. Money troubles were not solved. The help of her secretary, Elizabeth Salter kept her together. She spent most of her time in bed even when working (she was not always drunk and drugged like Dr Johnson's wife). It was no surprise she did not often make it to Mass.

In the chapel at Stonor, Lord Camoys's house, there is a memorial tablet incised in slate so that pilgrims can remember the benefactor. Edith Sitwell in their prayers. It faces the altar where the Blessed Sacrament has been reserved for 600 years.

* Edith Sitwell. published by Sheldon Press. £10.

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