Edith Sitwell was a myth-maker par excellence. Seizing on a family connection to the Beauforts and John of Gaunt, she presented herself as a medieval tomb sculpture, emphasising her long face, nose and hands with flowing robes, extraordinary jewellery, and headdresses. She could have been the classic spinster in straitened circumstances, enduring a dull life in cold rooms with her cats. Instead she became a literary celebrity, famed almost as much for her Gothic looks and public spats as for her poetry. She was made a dame and showered with honorary doctorates, was interviewed by John Freeman on Face to Face, and mixed with stars like Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo. Yet since her death in 1964 her reputation as a poet has been in freefall. Now Richard Greene, editor of her selected letters, has made a convincing case for her peculiar genius.
Born in Scarborough, the Yorkshire fishing port and seaside resort, she was the daughter of two eccentric aristocrats who had hoped for a boy and found themselves instead with a tall, plain, determined girl. ‘They weren’t parents I would recommend to anybody,’ she later said. In self-defence she