The Sitwell Show

The Sitwells

by John Pearson
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 534 pp., $15.00

Sacheverell Sitwell
Sacheverell Sitwell; drawing by David Levine

What does the Sitwell family have in common with Ian Fleming, the Kray Twins, and Biggles?* The same biographer. And, come to think of it, why not? All he had learned about ballyhoo, buggery, and bravado must have stood John Pearson in good stead when he came to assess the public splendors and private miseries of the Sitwells, not to speak of their lifelong feuds. Likewise Pearson’s exposure to the personality cult of this aristocratic literary trinity—Osbert, the urbane father figure, Sacheverell, the mercurial younger brother, and Edith, the poetic spirit—will certainly be of help in his next task, a biography of the world’s richest, most prolific novelist: that ancient Queen of Hokum, Barbara Cartland.

The Sitwells’ quirks—doomed to age as badly as Evelyn Waugh’s—can best be understood in the context of English snobbery. For like so many people who brag about their antecedents, the Sitwells were not as well born as they would have liked. On the strength of his heavy Hanoverian features, Osbert used to hint with absolutely no justification at illegitimate descent from George IV, and once wrote of his more remote ancestors: “In the distance can just be discerned Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, Wallace the Patriot, the gleaming golden armour of [the] kings of England and of…France.” Edith meanwhile would invoke John of Gaunt and fatuously proclaim, “I…I am a Plantagenet.”

“We all have the remote air of a legend”: this line from her autobiographical poem “Colonel Fantock” was nearer the mark than Edith intended, for they would not have been Sitwells at all if the founder of the family fortunes had not changed his name from Hurt to Sitwell, when he was after a baronetcy, causing his son Sitwell to become Sitwell Sitwell. (Why didn’t the oversensitive Osbert revert to the old family name and call himself Hurt Hurt? Evelyn Waugh once suggested.) As for the family seat, the fabled Renishaw, this grimy “Gothick” pile, on the outskirts of Sheffield, is too close to the ancestral iron mines and coalpits for comfort or charm, let alone the romantic beauty vaunted by Osbert.

The Sitwells—Osbert and Edith that is—squeezed even more mileage out of parental hatred than they did out of ancestral pride. Readers of Osbert’s autobiography, Left Hand, Right Hand!, will remember how the author inflated the character of his father, Sir George, the fourth baronet, into a comic monster of inhumanity, whom he nicknamed “Ginger.” Osbert had less fun at his mother’s expense; for one reason the beautiful Lady Ida, though every bit as vacuous and heartless as her husband, and far worse tempered, was better connected. That she was the daughter of an earl and the grand-daughter of a duke is something her children were never allowed to forget, not that they ever wanted to. “A baronet is the lowest thing on God’s earth,” the young Sitwells learned at their mother’s knee.…

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