Edith Sitwell and the play bringing her story to life

Edith Sitwell was a major celebrity of her day, yet few now remember her work. Stephanie Smith talks to the actor bringing her words and personality back to life.

Edith Sitwell was a popular poet and a big celebrity in her day.

SHE was considered eccentric, forbidding, even dangerous by some, but she was also admired and revered, her poetry well known and much quoted.

Instantly recognisable, with her period costume clothes and almost comically serious visage, poet and critic Dame Edith Sitwell was one of a kind, a renowned wit and writer, and a major celebrity for much of the 20th century, until her death aged 77 in 1964.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Yet, 50 years on, she has drifted out of the general consciousness, her distinctive looks, personality and poems almost forgotten by the wider public. Almost… because this Scarborough-born woman of words still has her champions.

Yorkshire actor and writer Jules Craig has long felt a connection with Dame Edith. “When I was a teenager, my mum sent me a postcard of her and said, ‘Edith reminds me of you, you have a look about her’. I think she was referring to my profile and my lofty appearance,” she says.

“But it wasn’t just that. She dressed in this extraordinary way. She wore amazing jewellery and she dressed, interestingly, almost like a Plantagenet – she described it that way. She said she couldn’t wear fashionable clothes, because she looked too extraordinary.”

Inspired also by Richard Greene’s 2011 biography of Edith Sitwell, Avant Garde Poet, English Genius, Jules began working on a play about her heroine, or rather, about trying to tell her story. The result is Edith, Elizabeth and I, a one-woman play with three characters, which comes to Harrogate Theatre for its Yorkshire debut on April 25.

“Edith wrote two books about Elizabeth and also had this connection. In some of her writing, she kind of connects herself with Elizabeth, particularly through look, like her exquisite hands, and she describes her face, her ‘ugly face, full of fire’.

The “I” is Juliet, described by Jules as a “heightened version” of herself. “There’s a kind of cyclical theme going on, because I’m the teller of Edith’s tale, and Edith is the teller of Elizabeth’s tale.”

It’s a play about identity, role models and women’s role in society.

Jules says, “Edith said about being a female poet that, ‘There was no one to point the way... I had to learn everything, learn amongst other things not to be timid.’”

In interviews Sitwell described feeling a disappointment to her parents, who she felt would have preferred a boy. Born in 1887 in the Sitwells’ Scarborough home, Woodend, she was the eldest child and only daughter of Sir George Sitwell, Fourth Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, North Derbyshire.

She was devoted to her younger brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, both also distinguished writers. She claimed descent from the Plantagenets and also, in a TV interview given in 1959, from an errand boy who walked from Leeds to London to build his fortune. “I am extremely proud of his having walked barefoot from Leeds. I think it’s magnificent,” she declared, with her characteristic magnificence.

“She wasn’t treated very well because she was tall and not conventionally beautiful, whereas her mother was. She was never going to be that kind of debutante. She had a curvature of the spine so they put her in a brace, but they also put her in a nose brace.”

Sitwell talked about her early life in interviews but she could be hard to read, says Jules. “As well as being upfront, she did have a public mask. There was a lot going on under the surface, but she said she forgave her family for treating her that way. She was always close to her brothers.”

Renishaw Hall is still owned by Sitwell family, while Woodend is now a gallery and creative exhibition and meeting centre. Last year, a festival celebrating Sitwell and her work was staged in Scarborough for the 50th anniversary of her death, and Jules points out that the seaside town influenced her poetry, especially Facade, a collection set to music by William Walton and first performed in public in 1923.

Some critics described it as nonsense, but it was imbued with a sense of the sea and those who walked, lived, relaxed and worked along the promenades of Britain’s first holiday resort. Consider her poem Waltz, in which “Daisy and Lily, Lazy and Silly, Walk by the shore of the wan grassy sea”.

Reflecting on the air raids of 1940, she wrote “Still falls the Rain… Dark as the world of man, black as our loss”. Jules says: “People were interested in her poetry because she was very much about form and rhythm and structure.

“Both she and her brothers were so famous. One of the lines in the play is, ‘I had so many presents on my 75th birthday, I had to put a thank you note in The Times.’

“For some reason they just suddenly got lost. It’s really odd that within that very, very small amount of time, they’re not there any more.”

“She was a real character, but she wasn’t just celebrity for celebrity’s sake,” says Jules, pointing out that Sitwell was a champion of many other poets and writers, including Dylan Thomas and Wilfred Owen.

Now living in Brighton Jules, 49, works as a voice teacher as well as an actor. She grew up between Harrogate and Knaresborough (her parents still live near Knaresborough) and went to Harrogate Granby, now Harrogate High School. She knew she wanted to be an actor “from about the age of eight and joined the Knaresborough Players for a time.

Sitwell’s Yorkshire roots, she believes, may well lie behind her trademark dry, understated wit, often stating her forthright opinions deadpan, but with eyes twinkling. “I think that’s why people found her quite shocking, because she was quite upfront and outspoken.

“Although she was aristocratic, she mixed with everyone and anyone. She knew the people where she lived, from all walks of life.”

Sitwell was a one-off, and she continues to inspire. “I think she saw herself as a bit of an outsider.

“She was very much an individual who forged her own path and that’s part of what I am celebrating in the piece – being your own person, even if you are living outside of society slightly.

“She was a woman with no kids, never married, but she had this vocation of writing poems which she did at all costs.

That was her passion,” Jules says. “Telling someone else’s tale will 
always come with the responsibility of trying to do them justice, and inevitably, by looking at other people’s lives, you will get to know more about yourself.

“I do feel very protective about her. You never get to know someone completely, and it’s through my own filter, but I feel that I have a better understanding of the woman behind the facade.”

Edith, Elizabeth and I, directed by Sian Webber, will be at Harrogate Theatre on April 25. For tickets call 01423 502116 or visit www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk.

Jules Craig’s website is www.edithwho.org.uk.