The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | The Many Façades of Edith Sitwell

The Many Façades of Edith Sitwell.  Edited by Allan Pero and Gyllian Phillips.  University Press of Florida, 2017.  vii + 189 pp.  $74.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Cyrena Pondrom, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Edith Sitwell is a figure who seems designed to meet the interests of The Space Between in interdisciplinary scholarship on understudied writers and issues, including responses to the two world wars of the period.  This volume contributes significantly to a scholarly case that Edith Sitwell should not be among modernism’s lesser-known English writers. Her work ranges from the celebrated performance of the poems of Façade in 1923 with music by William Walton and a curtain recalling the avant-garde eccentricities of the Satie-Picasso-Cocteau Parade in 1917, to the sober, religious, and less experimental work of Three Poems of the Atomic Age written in response to Hiroshima.  Her entire life was a series of performances of self on a stage of publicity that require interdisciplinary skills to interpret and to link to her literary presentations.  These essayists bring those skills to the task.

The volume consists of eight essays and an introduction by the editors, who each also contribute an essay.  The essays focus, respectively, on the Sitwells’ attraction to ornament, whether in literature or life; the difficulties of writing biography for a subject whose life is a collection of performances; the artifice generated by Cecil Beaton’s portraits of the Sitwells, individually and together; theoretical examination of the melancholy at the heart of Edith’s and Sacheverell’s camp and clowns; the presence of race and empire in Edith’s work; Sitwell’s “female poetry” (122);  Edith’s carefully cultivated persona as an academic and critic; Sitwell’s Gothic novel about women’s work; and an introduction that argues for Sitwell as representing a different thread of modernism—a topic to which I shall return.  As this very rough overview suggests, the focus of this book as a whole is strongly upon the various ways Sitwell seeks to construct her identity through performance—in other words her façades, as the title says—and not upon an assessment of individual poems or volumes or of her specific influence upon literary culture in England.   What the title, The Many Façades of Edith Sitwell, does not convey is that three of the eight essays in fact consider one or both of Sitwell’s brothers, as well as Edith.  The “Introduction” acknowledges this emphasis and defends it with the argument that “Edith Sitwell and her brothers...are crucial contributors to British modernism and cannot realistically be considered entirely separately” (10). There is truth to that, though I suspect that the proposal that Sitwell deserves substantially greater attention would be empirically strengthened if she did not share the focus with her ever-present brothers.

All of the essays contribute to our understanding of Sitwell, but when I step back from the volume as a whole, several especially lucid or original ideas from five different chapters stay with me.  The first is the phrase “ornamental modernism” itself, used by the editors in the “Introduction” and described as Sitwell practiced it by Deborah Longworth in Chapter One.  Being presented with a phrase for a movement brings to my mind the other kinds of parallel experiments by writers in the United Kingdom, including the rococo excesses of Ronald Firbank, some of the poems of surrealism, and the later unfettered writings of Dylan Thomas, whom Sitwell strenuously supported.  (That would be an interesting essay for a subsequent volume.)

The second is the sophisticated demonstration by Allan Pero that Sitwell’s practice may be illuminated by the insights of half a dozen Twentieth Century theorists, from Benjamin to Deleuze.  He uses Benjamin’s understanding of allegory and the concept of excess to particularly good advantage, as well as Bachelard’s explication of the topos of the house and of the spiral.  In the process he offers illuminating reading of key images in some of Sitwell’s poems, especially in Clowns’ Houses.  He also demonstrates the use Sitwell makes of her wide reading, especially in Shakespeare, French Symbolism, and the Bible.

Marsha Bryant in Chapter Six follows, to very good effect, her own astute recommendation that critics use the performance text of Façade.  For example, characters whose appearance in the performance are accompanied by similar music, as in the “discordant flute sounds” which she finds appear with both Mrs. Behemoth and Myrhina (113), should be inspected to locate similarities, and so far as I know Bryant is the first critic to do this.  Though I may differ about some readings she uses as evidence for her arguments, she makes a very good case for the presence of both race and empire in Sitwell’s poetry, and for the recognition that not all of Sitwell’s views are feminist.

In “Edith Sitwell’s Critical Self-Doubling,” Laura Richardson writes cogently about the way Sitwell’s many critical writings, both on self and others, contribute to her elaborate self-fashioning.  Quoting Bakhtin, she argues, “The author who writes as a critic about her own works forges an arbitrary division between Sitwell the purportedly empirical critic and Sitwell the poet-philosopher.  This doubling is structurally parodic, ‘double-voiced discourse’” (141).  Richardson also notes perceptively that the empirical and evidence-based criticism of  F. R. Leavis and I.A. Richards, and the growing New Criticism, were virtually the antithesis of  Edith’s criticism, in which she quite deliberately writes criticism as an author.  This forges her as doubly an outsider; she is an impressionist critic who does not write as an academic scholar.  

The last essay, and the final one I wish to discuss, argues that Sitwell’s little-studied novel, I Live Under a Black Sun (1937), should be read as Gothic fiction.  Sitwell revises “tropes from ‘female Gothic’ fiction” (163), Emily McCann writes, in order to reject England’s “national and literary dependence on women’s exploitation as reproductive, rather than productive, laborers (164).

I want now to return to the “Introduction.”  The editors recognize that the turn toward cultural studies has made this a propitious moment to explore the relationship between an aggressive courting of publicity and literary value—notwithstanding Leavis’ earlier contemptuous separation of the two.  They also situate these studies as part of considerable contemporary interest in the self-fashioning of the author, whether flagrant or concealed.  

They do, however, construct a straw man whom it may be useful to put aside.  The editors mischaracterize “masculinist modern experiment” (8) as demonstrating an “impersonal minimalist aesthetic” (10), as if male writers had been frozen in the Imagism of 1912–15, and seem to advance Anthony Thwaite’s forty-year-old view that Sitwell, not Eliot, was the leader of the British avant-garde (6).  What the editors should say, I think, is that Sitwell’s avant-garde experiments, in her Façade period, were more extreme than Eliot’s—not that she influenced more subsequent poets or writers.  Although a minimalist aesthetic might be associated with early theoretical descriptions of Imagism, it seems less useful in any understanding of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), and both the early Imagist poems and Eliot’s “Prufrock” are now understood to be highly personal.  Both branches of British modernism were part of the avant-garde and Eliot proved to be highly influential.  The difference between Eliot and Sitwell theoretically may be most swiftly established by appeal to Roman Jakobsen’s powerful description of acts of combination and acts of selection, concepts originally applied to linguistics and subsequently used to describe many human structures, including narrative and the organization of shapes in painting.  Eliot disrupted the combinatory quality of continuous narrative (most famously in The Waste Land in 1922), but usually not the structure of the sentence, nor the selection of individual words.  Sitwell disrupted both the normal combinative expectations of narrative and sentences, and most startlingly, the selection of words in the sentence. For example, Sitwell’s reasonably well known “Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone” begins, “Long steel grass--- / The white soldiers pass --- / The light is braying like an ass.”  Compare this with Eliot’s memorable opening to “Prufrock”:  “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table.”  His images are startling, but immediately intelligible; in contrast, Sitwell’s images construct a world uninterpretable from the perspective of ordinary reality because of her disruption of the expectations for selection of individual words.  Sitwell, particularly during her early period, shared this characteristic with her friend Gertrude Stein, whom she importantly helped to promote in England. Sitwell, because of the resistance of many of her early poems to close reading, sometimes could be seen as “more” experimental than Eliot, but the important reality is that both could typify parallel, sometimes contending, threads within modernism.  It is to the credit of the editors of this volume that they have brought forward Sitwell as a name and face of this important experimental thread and given a new generation of readers reason to pick up Edith Sitwell’s work for study again.


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