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literature

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Sitwell, Edith (1887-1964)  

Throughout her life, poet and novelist Edith Sitwell surrounded herself with gay men, some of whom became her artistic collaborators. Although it is not clear that she ever experienced a sustained sexual relationship with anyone of either sex, her closest emotional bond was with another woman.

Sitwell was born on September 7, 1887, the daughter of Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell. Like most young women of her class, she was educated at home. In 1903, Helen Rootham, an aspiring poet who translated the works of Arthur Rimbaud into English, was engaged as her governess. Under Rootham's tutelage, Sitwell was introduced to the French symbolist poets whose influence is evident in her work, and, in 1913, the two women left the Sitwell family home and set up lodgings in London.

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Freed from parental restrictions, Sitwell embarked on a literary career and published her first volume of poetry, The Mother and Other Poems, in 1915. The following year, as the center of a literary circle that included Rootham and her brothers Osbert (1892-1969) and Satcheverell Sitwell (1897-1988), she initiated Wheels, an avant-garde literary anthology issued in yearly "cycles" until 1921.

Sitwell disdained what she deemed the traditional "weakness" of female-authored poetry, believing that Sappho, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson were the only women poets worthy of emulation.

Her own growing fame and notoriety as an experimental artist culminated in 1923 with the first public performance of Façade, an "entertainment" in which she recited her cycle of poems from behind a screen and through a megaphone to the accompaniment of music composed and conducted by William Walton.

The poems comprising Façade emphasize the sounds of individual words and employ eccentric diction, all placed in the rhythms of contemporary popular dance music (for example, waltz and fox-trot). In overall effect, this pioneering work of performance art deflates entrenched Victorian mores.

Although her artistic activities drew much critical derision, they also propelled Sitwell to the forefront of Modernism; she became friends with Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, the latter of whom she introduced to the British public.

The 1930s, by contrast, brought Sitwell personal and professional sorrow as well as severe financial exigency. She moved to Paris in 1932 with the terminally ill Rootham and remained there until her companion's death in 1938.

During this sojourn, she concentrated on prose works, including her fantastic historical novel I Live Under a Black Sun, and participated in various literary salons that included Stein, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, and Adrienne Monnier. She also formed a close friendship with Bryher Ellerman, the wealthy lesbian author who served as a generous benefactress for the rest of Sitwell's life.

Her growing cultural pessimism, which became evident in her ambitious narrative poem Gold Coast Customs (1929), was deepened by World War II. "Still Falls the Rain" (1942), later set to music by Benjamin Britten and originally performed by Britten's lover Peter Pears, juxtaposes the bombing of London with the crucifixion of Christ and indicates Sitwell's desire for personal and cosmic spiritual healing.

Her post-war poetry is almost entirely concerned with human suffering on a global scale. The fear of nuclear annihilation produced by the Cold War and the infirmities of age led to her conversion to Catholicism in 1955, with Evelyn Waugh serving as her sponsor.

Both personally and professionally, Sitwell surrounded herself throughout her life with gay men, including her brother Osbert. She was emotionally attached for many years to the painter Pavel Tchelitchew. Additionally, she formed artistic collaborations and friendships with Ronald Firbank, Wilfred Owen, Cecil Beaton, Alvaro Guevara, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, and James Purdy. Her last poem, "The Outcasts" (1962), was a gesture of support for the reform of British antihomosexuality laws.

Edith Sitwell was named Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1954. She died December 11, 1964. Her autobiography, Taken Care Of, was published the following year.

Patricia Juliana Smith

     

 
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A portrait of Edith Sitwell by Wyndham Lewis.
  
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   Related Entries
  
literature >> Overview:  Modernism

Despite the widespread homophobia in the Modernist movement, several of its practitioners were homosexual; some of them wrote openly about homosexuality, and the groundwork was laid for the gay liberation movement.

literature >> Auden, W. H.

One of the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden found that his gayness led him to new insights into the universal impulse to love and enlarged his understanding of all kinds of relationships.

literature >> Barney, Natalie Clifford

In addition to being the muse and inspiration of other writers, American expatriate Natalie Barney, known as the Amazon, was a poet, memoirist, and epigrammatist in her own right.

literature >> Beach, Sylvia

Through her Parisian bookshop and her editorial work, American expatriate and lesbian Sylvia Beach did much to influence the course of modern literature.

arts >> Beaton, Sir Cecil

The celebrated British photographer Cecil Beaton described himself as a "terrible, terrible homosexualist," but may be best known for his relationship with Greta Garbo.

arts >> Britten, Benjamin

The most acclaimed British composer of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten created many works that were inspired by his long-time personal and professional relationship with his lover, Peter Pears.

literature >> Dickinson, Emily

Emily Dickinson's poems and letters to her sister-in-law Susan are both passionate and elusive in their homoeroticism.

literature >> Firbank, Ronald

Ronald Firbank's witty, campy novels mock the dominant homophobic, materialistic culture of early twentieth-century England.

literature >> Owen, Wilfred

English war poet Wilfred Owen combined the homoeroticism latent in the elegy tradition with precise observation of the horror of trench warfare.

arts >> Pears, Peter

Highly respected British tenor Sir Peter Pears was the life partner of composer Benjamin Britten, who wrote leading roles in many of his operas for him.

literature >> Purdy, James

James Purdy's novels often describe obsessive love between men for whom homosexuality is unthinkable and whose fate is inevitably bleak.

literature >> Rimbaud, Arthur

Because his writing stresses liberation, the French "boy-poet" Arthur Rimbaud, whose art is based solely on his individual creativity, is a progenitor of modern gay poetics.

literature >> Roditi, Edouard

Poet, translator, literary and art critic, and short story writer, Edouard Roditi was associated with most of the twentieth-century's avant-garde literary movements from Surrealism to post-modernism.

literature >> Rossetti, Christina

Her sexuality repressed by religion, Christina Rossetti wrote poetry that included highly-charged erotic female-to-female affection.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

literature >> Spender, Sir Stephen

In his poetry and his autobiography, Stephen Spender wrote about his homosexual experiences in his early life.

literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

arts >> Tchelitchew, Pavel

Russian-born painter, sculptor, and set designer Pavel Tchelitchew created a number of works that illustrate homoerotic desire.

literature >> Waugh, Evelyn

Evelyn Waugh, who had homosexual affairs while at Oxford but later led a heterosexual life, treated homosexuals both nostalgically and contemptuously in his novels.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.


    Bibliography
   

Elborn, Geoffrey. Edith Sitwell: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.

Glendinning, Victoria. Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Lehmann, John. A Nest of Tigers: The Sitwells in Their Times. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Pearson, John. The Sitwells: A Family's Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

Salter, Elizabeth and Allanah Harper. Edith Sitwell: Fire of the Mind. London: Michael Joseph, 1976.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Sitwell, Edith  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 8, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/sitwell_e.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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