Partner Helen Rootham
Woodend, The Crescent, Scarborough YO11 2PW, Regno Unito
25 Chesham Pl, Belgravia, London SW1X 8HG, Regno Unito
Pembridge Mansion, 18-92 Moscow Rd, London W2, Regno Unito
The Sesame Club, 49 Grosvenor St, Mayfair, London W1K 3HP, Regno Unito
Greenhill, Hampstead High St, London NW3, Regno Unito
Bryher House, 20 Keats Grove, Hampstead, London NW3 2RS, Regno Unito
St Mary and St Peter, Weedon Lois, Towcester NN12 8PP, Regno Unito
Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell DBE (7 September 1887 – 9 December 1964) was a British poet and critic and the eldest of the three literary Sitwells.
Like her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, Edith reacted badly to her eccentric, unloving parents, and lived for much of her life with her governess. She never married, but became passionately attached to the gay Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, and her home was always open to London's poetic circle, to whom she was unfailingly generous and helpful.
Sitwell published poetry continuously from 1913, some of it abstract and set to music. With her dramatic style and exotic costumes, she was sometimes labelled a poseur, but her work was praised for its solid technique and painstaking craftsmanship.
Edith Louisa Sitwell was born in Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire, the oldest child and only daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall; he was an expert on genealogy and landscaping. Her mother was Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort. She claimed a descent through female lines from the Plantagenets.
Sitwell had two younger brothers, Osbert (1892–1969) and Sacheverell Sitwell (1897–1988) both distinguished authors, well-known literary figures in their own right, and long-term collaborators. Her relationship with her parents was stormy at best, not least because her father made her undertake a "cure" for her supposed spinal deformation, involving locking her into an iron frame. She wrote in her autobiography that her parents had always been strangers to her.
In 1914, 26-year-old Sitwell moved to a small, shabby flat in Pembridge Mansions, Bayswater, which she shared with Helen Rootham (1875–1938), her governess since 1903.
Sitwell never married, but in 1927 she allegedly fell in love with the gay Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew. The relationship lasted until 1928, the same year that Rootham underwent operations for cancer (eventually becoming an invalid). In 1932, Helen Rootham and Sitwell moved to Paris, where they lived with Rootham's younger sister, Evelyn Wiel.
Sitwell's mother died in 1937. Sitwell did not attend the funeral because of her displeasure with her parents during her childhood. Helen Rootham died of spinal cancer in 1938. During the Second World War Sitwell returned from France and retired to Renishaw with her brother Osbert and his lover, David Horner. She wrote under the light of oil lamps as the house had no electricity. She knitted clothes for their friends who served in the army. One of the beneficiaries was Alec Guinness, who received a pair of seaboot stockings.
The poems she wrote during the war brought her back before the public. They include Street Songs (1942), The Song of the Cold (1945), and The Shadow of Cain (1947), all of which were much praised. "Still Falls the Rain" about the London Blitz, remains perhaps her best-known poem; it was set to music by Benjamin Britten as Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain. Her poem The Bee-Keeper was set to music by Priaulx Rainier, as The Bee Oracles (1970), a setting for tenor, flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord. It was premiered by Peter Pears in 1970. Poems from The Canticle of the Rose were set by composer Joseph Phibbs in a song-cycle for high soprano with string quartet premiered in 2005.
In 1943, her father died in Switzerland, his wealth depleted. In 1948, a reunion with Tchelitchew, whom she had not seen since before the war, went badly. In 1948 Sitwell toured the United States with her brothers, reciting her poetry and, notoriously, giving a reading of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene. Her poetry recitals always were occasions; she made recordings of her poems, including two recordings of Façade, the first with Constant Lambert as co-narrator, and the second with Peter Pears.
Tchelitchew died in July 1957. Her brother Osbert died in 1969, of Parkinson's disease, diagnosed in 1950. Sitwell became a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1954. In August 1955 she converted to Roman Catholicism and asked author Evelyn Waugh to serve as her godfather.
Sitwell wrote two books about Queen Elizabeth I of England: Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946) and The Queens and the Hive (1962). She always claimed that she wrote prose simply for money and both these books were extremely successful, as were her English Eccentrics (1933) and Victoria of England (1936).
Sitwell was the subject of This Is Your Life in November 1962 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews on the stage of the BBC Television Theatre in London.
Sitwell lived from 1961 until her death in a flat in Hampstead in London, which is now marked with an English Heritage blue plaque.
About 1957 she began using a wheelchair, after battling with Marfan syndrome throughout her life. Her last poetry reading was in 1962. She died of cerebral haemorrhage at St Thomas' Hospital on 9 December 1964 at the age of 77. She is buried in the churchyard of Weedon Lois in Northamptonshire.
Sitwell's papers are held at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin.
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