VISIT | The Literary Minds of Sitwell and Purdy at Weedon Lois | Northamptonshire
A Final Goodbye to Literary Giants
Discover the grave of Edith Sitwell - literary eccentric and provocateur
Inspiration and Coach, Mentor and Editor
Take note of her final companion James Purdy, American writer and fellow provocateur
"...the last hurrah of a literary genuis or two..."
“I am not eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people.
I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish.”
Edith Sitwell variously known as eccentric, poser, larger than life character, aristocrat, publicity fiend, publicity shy and provocateur. But the truth was probably somewhat simpler – writer and poet.
She was born in Scarborough on 7th September 1887 and died in London on the 9th December 1964 having amassed a great deal of life in her 77 years of living. It is true that she came from an aristocratic background and became one part of a well-known literary family which included her two younger brothers Sacheverell and Osbert with whom she often collaborated.
Edith made a striking figure. She was passionate in her likes and dislikes. She never married not that it matters but affected strong relationships with others. She was great friends with the poet Siegfried Sassoon after the end of the First World War in 1918 onwards. She was considered a Modernist and Avant-Guard.
In 1934 Edith was awarded the Benson Medal by the Royal Society of Literature for her contributions to literature, joining an illustrious list including E.M Forster, J.R.R. Tolkien, Phillip Larkin and Anthony Burgess.
Her most well-known poetry was written in Britain during the Second World War with her most famous and often quoted poem perhaps being ‘Still Falls the Rain’ about the London Blitz.
She liked to develop and promote talent. She was a mentor to composer William Walton and poet Dylan Thomas. Edith was also Editor of ‘Wheels' literary magazine published between 1916-21, most notable for being a literary vehicle for the Sitwell’s family and friends to publish their poetry; but importantly did publish Wilfred Owen, a year after his death in 1919.
It is little wonder then that she became that universal list of poet, author, editor, icon, controversial celebrity, theatrical eccentric and the rest… In her latter years she even become more well-known through the medium of British television.
But Edith Sitwell was without a doubt a significant member of the British literary and artistic scene for over fifty years, from the First World War until her death in 1964.
But Edith did polarise opinion in the artistic world. She was revered by many as an artistic innovator and genius; but also despised by some as a poseur and fake. And interestingly or not, also converted to Catholicism in 1955.
But maybe that is the delight of Edith Sitwell – that she lived her own life in the way she wanted. Maybe she had no expectation of praise or censure; maybe she just didn’t care. Some could argue that actually her legacy is perhaps in the churchyard extension at Weedon Lois in the Northamptonshire countryside where Edith is buried.
On her gravestone is a bronze plaque by the impressive sculptor Henry Moore depicting a child's hand in an old man's representing the relationship between youth and age. Engraved below it are the words from ‘The Wind of Early Spring':
The past and the present
are as one –
accordant and discordant
youth and age
and death and birth
for out of one came all –
from all comes one
And that perhaps the fact that she was actually re-buried there the following year after ‘mistakenly’ being buried approximate to her mother – her brother rectified this.
But these incidentals are perhaps made more whole when you introduce a third party to this story – his name James Otis Purdy. And you ask a pertinent question: Why is there a headstone to the American writer James Otis Purdy next to Edith Sitwell’s grave?
In 1956 Edith Sitwell sent a letter to James Purdy. She exclaimed the wonder of his book, poked criticism and delight of his writing. She even pointed her editor at him.
Fast forward to the end of James Purdy in 2009. And here you find him in this Northamptonshire village of Lois Weedon so far from his America. Buried near to Edith with a remembrance stone inscribed with these words:
we who are under the ground
indians and voyagers and wilderness men
still breathe the bloom of plants in air
and think of the running sun
The lines come from Purdy’s poem ‘The Running Sun’ published in 1971. But this man has no association with this village save one. He was born in Ohio USA in July 1914 and he died in New Jersey USA in March 2009 aged 94 years. He was an American writer, poet, novelist, playwright who was perhaps little known and little read in America but very respected within the literary community both in his home country and across the world. But Purdy always attributed his success and recognition to the practical support he received from Edith Sitwell back in the 1950s.
So at the end of Purdy’s life, through a rare combination of personal actions, Purdy’s ashes made its way from the US, through airports and baggage overhead lockers, from Denmark to Britain, through academics’ hands and friendly acquaintances to fulfil a quiet demand he made. He wishes to be buried near to Edith Sitwell. Inspiration? Benefactor? Literary great? Eccentric wish? Who really knows. But here they both are – Edith Sitwell and James Purdy. Sleeping amid the sheep grazing turfs of Northamptonshire.
Directions and Map |
Find the village of Weedon Lois west of Towcester in rural Northamptonshire