Edith Sitwell tells about her life and friendships
TAKEN CARE OF: An Autobiography, by Edith Sitwell (Hutchison, 30s.)
Review by PHILIP CARAMAN, S.J.
WITHOUT question this is Edith Sitwell's most revealing and rewarding work in prose. It was written almost entirely during her long last illness and completed only a few months before her death on December 9 last year.
She never saw the proofs, but the book is none the worse for that. It shows no mark of decline either in perceptiveness or the power of expression. Her prose is as arresting as ever and full of brilliant images.
But for a full appreciation of the author's mind it should be read alongside The Outcasts, a small volume of last poems published in 1962. In fact, it is a commentary on the final phrases of a great poem of this period printed in the American, but not in the English, edition of this book:
The highest notes from heaven descend And in the ground notes rise The small and great complete each other. and the end Leads to the beginning, and the beginning to the end.
The "beginning" is described in Taken Care Of: the lonely misunderstood childhood of a precocious girl in disgrace for being a girl and. worse. for not conforming to her parents' conventional standards of feminine beauty; the father a self-centred gentleman who acted as though the world had been created principally to prove his theories. seeking immortality in portraiture and posing, at one time. with a cricket bat in hand (although he never played cricket) and. at another, in riding breeches (although he never rode).
"Now life is warm, but when I was a child it was ineffably cold and lonely", at least until her brothers, five and ten years younger than herself, became her life-long companions and gave her in abundant and increasing measure the understanding that her parents failed to give.
As a study of childhood Taken Care Of: is an invaluable book and will provide much guidance to practitioners of infant and adolescent psychoanalysis. But there is so much more to it than that : live, original and intimate portraits of the men and women who made up the society of Bloomsbury, described to the author by Gertrude Stein as the "Young Men's Christian Society, with Christ left out"-Roger Fry.
Nina Hammet, Virginia Woolf.
Walter Siekert, Lytton Strachey.
"a man cut out of very thin cardboard," and many others.
All the reminiscences are strictly of the past. None of her vast group of living friends is even mentioned. though some living antagonists are, notably, Dr. Leavis, D. J. Enright and Robert Conquest.
She writes of Leavis: "He has a transcendental gift, even when he is writing sense, of making it appear to be nonsense"; and, then, of others, each of whose poems "resemble a glass of tepid
lemonade in which a couple of
teaspoonfuls of Matthew Arnold
have been dissolved".
However, she is absolutely correct in her statement that in these short sections of her book she has "attacked no one unless they had first attacked me".
it was part of Edith Sitwell's essential humility (to many it appeared a failing) that she was unaware how unassailable was the position she had made for herself in English literature. Particularly in the last weeks of her life she might have spared herself intense pain if she had been less humble, yet she would not have been the same lovable person.
She could have grown another skin, as it were, to protect herself from her critics. but she would have lost something of her exquisite sensitiveness and her sympathy for suffering creation. animal as well as human, that made her a great poet.
Many who did not know her in life will alter their view of her when they read this book. The range of her friendships, that had no regard for profession, class or country, and also of her experiences, will come as a surprise. She was perhaps the first woman of note to recognise the intellectual cravings of Marilyn Monroe.
During the first war, partly out of patriotism. partly because she needed the money, she worked at the Pensions Office in Chelsea for 25s. a week. She valued the qualities of fidelity and truthfulness wherever she found them. and she hated vulgarity in all its forms. She sums up her reflections on this subject thus:
Vulgarity is often, in a sense,
nothing but fear in disguise. a fear that afiects the rich. For vulgarity is nut a quality of the Very poor. There is nothing vulgar about the crowds on a
Bank Holiday riding donkeys on the sands or whirling about in a merry-go-round, shrimping, paddling or eating winkles. Vulgarity has never yet worn a simple dress.
It is in her poetry, not in her reminiscences, that her gradual progress to full Christian belief is to be found-her first recoil from the impact of a harsh world and its horrors, her later instinctive deduction that there had been a "primeval disaster in the heart of man." and the final comfort she found in the Cross and expressed in her great war poems.
But here, in Taken Care Of is a settled calm, a preparedness for death and a prayerful acceptance of bereavement, a truly Christian spirit. It is the story of a completed life.
Among her last poems is one dedicated to her friend.
Benjamin Britten, entitled "Praise we Great Men". It is a modern Canticle. It concludes:
Into the night of Death. Praise we with our last breath These earthly God.c who bring Ali sounds, all faiths. delights. and splendours lost Beneath the winter's frost Back to the hearts, the hearths and homes of inen. Fires on the hearth, fires in the skies, fires in the human heart, Praise we great men!
The discriminating but most generous praise she gave whenever she sincerely could brought warmth into many lives.