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This review is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.

DEVILS AND MANDARINS RICHARD GREENE, Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius (Virago) £25

What would Edith Sitwell have made of the response to Richard Greene's new account of her life? It's not hard to guess. She would have pulled herself up to her full, regal height, looked down her aquiline nose and pronounced 'all the Pipsqueakery are after me in full squeak'. She might have had a point.

Sitwell and Greene have been unfortunate in their reviewers. In the Guardian, journalist Rachel Cooke - whose recent work includes pieces on the royal wedding cake and Cornish pasties - argues that Sitwell's 'gift was not so much for poetry as for an outsider life well lived'. Her verse 'has all the opacity of Eliot without any of his chilling immediacy and power'. Her shoes, on the other hand, were brilliant. Sitwell's striking appearance led her to 'rush headlong towards the door marked Fancy Dress Department'; her importance lies not in her work but in her trailblazing, 'outsider' life.

Over at the Independent, Richard Canning condemns the Sitwells to a 'footnote in English literary history'. Edith was 'a curiosity' with her 'gothic-maiden look, quintessential vulnerability, cultivated hauteur and predilection for the endless pursuit of men'. Her later verse is 'both eccentric and banal'. It's a similar story elsewhere.

So, there you have posterity's judgement on Edith Sitwell: nice shoes, shame about the verse. It's unfair on both counts. Her poetry has a subtlety that few now discern; the judgements of her peers were nearer the mark. Conversely, her ...


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