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. But was Lady Ida really in a position to cast aspersions? As Pearson says, her family, the Londesboroughs, were “relatively parvenu.” And then, in 1915, Lady Ida was to bring public shame on the Sitwells—Osbert, a young Guards officer at the time, was permanently jarred by the scandal—by going to jail for swindling. The fact that the cold-blooded Sir George could have saved his wife from this fate was a further reason for Osbert and Edith’s hatred of him.
How could the Sitwells regild the family escutcheon? While Lady Ida gave herself up to drink and cards and running up debts, Sir George planned baroque gardens on the grandest scale, or researched the history of the fork, or delved into assize rolls and local charters for a work of dubious scholarship on the medieval origins of his family. And then, in 1909, he indulged his folie de grandeur to the full by buying the enormous dilapidated castle, Montegufoni (“Hill of the Screech-owls”), between Florence and Volterra, and spending the rest of his life on its restoration. “I shall be known as the Italian Sir George,” he once told Osbert. Like father, like son. The next generation was even more obsessed with posterity. Osbert, Edith, and Sacheverell outstripped even Sir George in their determination to glorify the Sitwell name.
At the outset of his career, Osbert did not see himself as a writer so much as a noble patron of the arts—an impresario along the lines of Diaghilev. When this role would not wash, he tried to transform himself into a Cocteau-like Pied Piper who would conjure out of very thin air an English avant-garde headed, of course, by the Sitwells. Lastly he matured into the Gentleman-Artist, an Olympian chronicler of his life and times in the manner of Chateaubriand—at the same time a courtier who reveled in being the Queen Mother’s pet author. Although he had the perception to be an early admirer of Picasso, Stravinsky, and Eliot, Osbert was loyal not to the present, which he loathed, but to an idealized past, and although he always mocked Sir George for his genealogical interests, his autobiography reveals that he could not help inheriting these obsessions any more than he could the gout.
Edith’s aspirations were even more megalomaniac: she intended to be a genius, and from a very early age would announce this to any unsuspecting person foolish enough to ask “little E.” what she wanted to be. But then Edith had the additional challenge that her ghastly parents never forgave their eldest child for being a girl; they even forced their peculiar-looking daughter (six feet tall, deathly pale, lank-haired, with an anteater’s nose) to wear a heavy veil “like some leper daughter, just in case some villager should see how hideous she was.” Or was this another of Edith’s tall stories, like her tale that Sir George shuddered when he looked at her, or that Lady Ida used to send her out to pawn parental false teeth when the brandy needed replenishing?
The trials of her childhood hardened Edith’s resolve to escape from home. Every obstacle, including the withdrawal of her tiny allowance, was put in her way. But in 1913, at the age of twenty-six, she sold a diamond pendant and, accompanied by her governess and lifelong mentor, Helen Rootham, set off for London. There on £100 a year—“enough for soup and beans and buns”—she took a squalid Bayswater flat and applied herself with fanatical application to the discipline of becoming a poet. Already Rimbaud had replaced Swinburne as a formative influence, but she soon found her own voice—“a curious mélange of nursery rhyme and doggerel and country characters,” Pearson calls it. And by 1914 she was writing experimental poems which have the inimitable Sitwellian ring:
Houses red as cat’s meat, steam
Beautiful as in a dream.
Sacheverell, the youngest, had a far less miserable childhood: Why, he actually liked his father and mother. All the same, while still at Eton, Sacheverell decided not to follow in their footsteps but rather to commit himself, like his sister, “to the poet’s calling.” And he soon proved himself to be as gifted as his siblings. Sacheverell’s first book of poems, The People’s Palace, published when he was twenty-one, prompted Aldous Huxley, who should have known better, to hail him as “le Rimbaud de nos jours.” Much later, of course, Sacheverell took to prose, and it is primarily as a prose writer that he will be remembered. However, his work too often gives one an uneasy feeling that the prose writer would rather be versifying, and vice versa.
What with animosity and scandal poisoning the air at Renishaw, suppressio veri became a Sitwellian way of life. As a result Osbert’s and Edith’s accounts of their lives are both equally suspect. The more reason then for welcoming Pearson’s book, which is candid without being embarrassingly so, and most un-Sitwellian in other respects—unpretentious, to the point, even fair-minded. True, the author is no scholar, but he gets most things right, except when he tackles the world of art; virtually every reference to painting involves a howler. Nor does Pearson risk many literary judgments, wisely eschewing any but the most summary analysis of the trio’s works.
All the same, The Sitwells is enormously interesting and valuable in that it gives us for the first time the unvarnished truth. In this respect it replaces John Lehmann’s biographical study, A Nest of Tigers, with its mindless encomiums of the Sitwells’ works (“a book of sheer delight for anyone who enjoys armchair traveling”). Pearson has combed private and public archives, notably the gold mine of Sitwelliana in the Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas. He has also interviewed numerous friends and foes, and ferreted out a mass of extraordinary material, most of it unpublished, which he presents with lucidity, if not much style. I have only one general criticism, the reverse of de mortuis: Pearson always depicts the surviving brother, Sacheverell, and his wife, Georgia, in a becoming golden haze, while Osbert and Edith have to contend with the merciless glare of posterity. The trouble is the golden haze makes it all the more difficult to discern the true nature of Sacheverell’s achievements.
The numerous romans à clef about the Sitwells, not to speak of all those by Osbert, are a recurrent feature of Pearson’s book. It is no news that Wyndham Lewis, once such a friend of Edith’s, hit home with his grotesque Finnian Shaw family in The Apes of God. (Osbert never forgave the portrait of himself as “the vacillating and easily discomfited” Lord Osmund “dedicated to…Free Verse-cum-Soda-water.”) But who until Pearson came along had realized that Osbert was the origin of D.H. Lawrence’s cuckolded, castrated baronet, Sir Clifford Chatterley, in the third and final version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover? The merciless accuracy of Lawrence’s portrait of Sir Clifford/Osbert, based on a two-hour meeting, is partly explained by the fact that Lawrence grew up at Eastwood, a few miles from Renishaw. Clifford, Lawrence wrote,
had taken to writing stories; curious, very personal, stories about people he had known. Clever, rather spiteful, and yet, in some mysterious way, meaningless. The observation was extraordinary and peculiar. But there was no touch, no actual contact. It was as if the whole thing took place in a vacuum….
Clifford was almost morbidly sensitive about these stories. He wanted everyone to think them good, of the best, ne plus ultra. They appeared in the most modern magazines, and were praised and blamed as usual. But to Clifford the blame was torture, like knives goading him. It was as if the whole of his being were in his stories.
“Clever…spiteful…meaningless,” these stories are all that Lawrence said, for Osbert—originally known as a satirical poet and pamphleteer—only took up fiction out of a desire for literary revenge. His erstwhile friend, Aldous Huxley, had had the impudence to portray him as Lord Badgery (“Behind the heavy waxen mask of his face, ambushed behind the Hanoverian nose, the little lustreless pig’s eyes, the pale thick lips, there lurked a small devil of happy malice”) in “The Tillotson Banquet”; Osbert retaliated by casting Huxley as “Erasmus” in his first story, “The Machine Breaks Down.” Osbert’s second story, “Friendship’s Due,” pilloried Louis McQuilland, who had denounced what he called the Sitwells’ “Asylum School of Poetry,” while his third, “Triple Fugue,” was a pompous put-down of Edward Marsh, onetime editor of Georgian Poetry. Unlike the others, Marsh had never done the Sitwells any harm; he was simply a sitting target.
But, to believe Osbert, he was never the attacker, always the attacked. As he once explained with a grandiose contempt for grammar, “My heredity, coming as I do on all sides of stock that for centuries have had their own way, and have not been enured to suffer insolence passively, made it hard for me, and for my brother and sister, not to fight back.” However, The Sitwells makes it clear that this was not really the case. If Osbert and Edith spent much of the Twenties pursuing a succession of relentless feuds, it was partly out of malice, partly out of vanity, but always to keep themselves in the public eye. As Osbert’s closest friend, the composer William Walton, told Pearson, Osbert “was willing to do absolutely anything for publicity.”
Osbert’s first major battle was with the “Squirearchy,” a group of tweedy Georgian poets who rallied around J.C. Squire and The London Mercury, but he and Edith were ready to pick a fight with any members of the literary establishment (whom they dubbed “Pipsqueak Poets” or “The Jaeger School of Poetry”), of the frivolous upper classes (“The Fun Brigade” or “The Golden Horde”), of the press or the stage who failed to subscribe to the Sitwells’ cult of the Sitwells. Anything less than total allegiance was regarded as impertinence (pronounced “impartinence”) and punished with the kind of de haut en bas outrage that Margaret Dumont used on Groucho Marx. In addition the Sitwells were forever taking offense at imaginary or invented slights and detecting envy and malice in others when they were the culprits. The unfortunate C.K. Scott Moncrieff, for example. Asked why he refused to shake his hand, Osbert replied, “Because I have for a long time disliked you, and because you have been impertinent”; not that this stopped Osbert (an execrable linguist) from subsequently using Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust as a major source of stylistic inspiration for his autobiography.
With some justification Pearson suggests that Osbert suffered from paranoia—not surprising, given his history of sexual frustration and family strife. At an earlier period of his life, he had kept a supply of cheap crockery by him on which to vent his destructiveness. As Osbert grew older, however, people replaced plates as the target of his tantrums, and he would bully and bait rival writers with a vindictiveness that he was the first to condemn in his school fellows or brother officers. “Do not spare [your opponent’s] feelings,” he wrote in his Rules for Being Rude; “in this way the wound you have given him will fester and scar him for life.” Osbert also had a penchant—overlooked by Pearson—for practical jokes of a nasty Edwardian kind, or, since spite was the main ingredient of his sense of fun, for sending anonymous letters to friend and foe alike. A typical “joke” was to mail an insecure young writer a fake invitation to stay in a ducal house. And yet, believe it or not, Osbert could also project a considerable degree of avuncular charm. And after 1930, it is undeniable that the happiness of his private life tempered Osbert’s aggressiveness.
Edith’s malice, however, never slackened, even when she was worsted, as, for example, in her feud with F.R. Leavis, which lasted from the mid-Thirties until her death. The casus belli was a sentence in Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry attacking the Sitwells for belonging “to the history of publicity rather than poetry.” Given the justice of this accusation, it was most unwise of Edith to crib sections of her Aspects of Modern Poetry from the offending book. As David Garnett aptly commented, “Disliking Dr. Leavis does not seem to us a good reason for borrowing extensively from his work without acknowledgment.”
Central to any history of the Sitwells is the first public performance (June 1923) of Façade, a recital of some twenty of Edith’s poems to a deft orchestral accompaniment by the Sitwells’ discovery, William Walton. In fact the show was very much a combined operation: the program proclaimed that “Osbert Sitwell presents Miss Edith Sitwell”; Sacheverell was also involved, in that he came up with the outré device of concealing the speaker (Edith) and the orchestra behind a painted curtain. It was also his idea to equip Edith with a Sengerphone—a large papier-mâché megaphone that had been invented by a Swiss bass called Senger, “to enable him to sing the part of Fafner the dragon with great clarity and resonance.”
Pearson does his best to dispel the heroic legends and downright lies that Osbert subsequently spun about this entertainment—“the scandal of the century,” he had the nerve to call it, as if, like Sacre du printemps or Parade, it had been one of the historic confrontations between reactionaries and the avant-garde. Far from it, the 1923 production of Façade was so amateurish that it scarcely made a ripple. London’s Aeolian Hall was not very full; not a boo or catcall was heard; and as for the “old women with umbrellas raised to smite [Edith],” these were delusions.
The public would have soon forgotten the Façade show if Noël Coward had not taken Osbert up on a condescending invitation: “I hear you’re doing a review. What fun! Why don’t you come and see Façade? It might give you some ideas.” It did. Coward entitled the hit number of his new revue, London Calling!, “The Swiss Family Whittlebot,” in which a poetess, Hernia Whittlebot (played by the pop-eyed Maisie Gay), accompanied by her brothers Gob and Sago, recited some doggerel that was, in a favorite Twenties’ phrase, “madly bogus.” Osbert’s sense of humor embraced everyone but himself, his sister, and brother—in that order. While Edith took refuge in a nervous collapse, the family spokesman showed his true colors by firing off a letter to Coward: “Insulting my sister is a fine beginning for you…. Have you tried cheating at cards?” Pearson also includes a poem that Osbert was wise enough not to publish:
In one smug person, Coward sums
Up both the suburbs and the slums;
Before both, nightly boasts his race
By spitting in a lady’s face.
Façade’s next performance (April, 1926) was better rehearsed and, according to Ernest Newman, “the jolliest entertainment of the season,” but its success was ephemeral and local. Pearson fails to recount the last ironical episode. Façade did catch on—ten years later, when Frederick Ashton’s ballet, based on Walton’s score as opposed to Edith’s poems, became a staple of the Sadlers Wells repertory. Originally Edith had done what she could to discourage the project. But when she discovered that the entertaining choreography and amusing record of Façade (issued at about the same time) was bringing her own and by osmosis the other Sitwells’ work into favor with the younger generation, she changed her tune, and took credit for Ashton’s idea after all. Nor does Pearson give sufficient emphasis to the fact that Façade launched the Sitwell circus which, though somewhat dormant in the Thirties—the clowns were off, working up new acts—came into its own in the Forties and Fifties, not least in a succession of barnstorming public appearances in the US, which helped bring poetry recitals back into favor.
The anticlimax (pace Osbert) of the original production of Façade put paid to the Sitwells’ hopes of establishing themselves at the head of an English avant-garde, with Osbert as a cross between Marinetti, Cocteau, Breton, and Robert de Montesquiou. True, the trio’s panache and promotional stunts increasingly appealed to journalists hard up for a story, but compared to dedicated rebels like the Futurists, Dadaists, or Surrealists, the Sitwells appeared to be splashing around in the shallow end of a very small pool. And in any case Osbert’s and Edith’s ideas were too deeply rooted in the Nineties for their modernist attitudes to be taken seriously by anyone but their bogeys, “the Philistines.” Sitwellism was furthermore doomed to failure by British apathy and the lack of suitable troops. Anyone with any talent had rallied to Bloomsbury—alien, if not actually enemy, territory to the Sitwells. (When asked by the doyen of Peking’s Imperial College of Eunuchs whether an equivalent institution existed in England, Osbert had replied, “Yes,…we call it Bloomsbury.”) Camp followers like Harold Acton, Cecil Beaton, Tom Driberg, and Brian Howard constituted a Sitwellian fan club, certainly not a modern movement.
Thus Façade represented a high-tide, mark for the Sitwells. From now on, rather than flirt with the vanguard, they would bring up the rear. Sacheverell, who had recently published his Southern Baroque Art, led the retreat back from modernism, and in something of a pet Osbert followed suit. Instead of advocating the School of Paris as they had up to now, the Sitwells launched the cult of the baroque. Sacheverell—the only one of the trio with an original eye—had already adopted that freaky figure, the then virtually unknown baroque master Magnasco, as “almost a personal possession,” and had founded an exhibiting society around him. And it is a measure of the Sitwells’ influence that they soon managed to make the baroque—the very antithesis of the modernism they had so recently espoused—into a fashionable new fad, which ultimately burgeoned, in more scholarly hands, into a serious reappraisal.
In falling back, the Sitwells also fell asunder. Although the trio continued to be thought of as a tightly knit admiration society which was only to be dissolved by death, they were nothing of the sort. Deep disapproval combined with jealousy of one another’s lovers—often masquerading as friendship—made for constant trouble. Not surprisingly, Sacheverell, who sometimes seemed embarrassed by the eye-catching escapades of his brother and sister, was the first to defect. This occurred in the spring of 1924, when Sacheverell fell in love with the beautiful Georgia Doble. Pearson skirts around the enormous trouble caused by this romance with a girl who, far from being “very, very highbrow,” as she now claims, was more of a candidate for Osbert’s “fun brigade.” Worse, from the Sitwell’s point of view, she was Canadian. Disapproval united the family for the first and last time but strengthened the lovers in their resolve; a year later they were quietly married in Paris. By all accounts the marriage has been an exceedingly happy one, but even the fact that Georgia has become in some respects more Sitwellian than the Sitwells never totally healed the wound caused by Sacheverell’s desertion.
One other point: Pearson refers throughout to Sacheverell as a great scholar—something he has wisely never aimed to be. In his regurgitations of aesthetic experience Sacheverell is very cavalier about facts and attributions. Half the charm of his books about the more picturesque shores of art, architecture, music, and ballet, not to speak of murder, lies in their freedom from any of history’s dust.
One of the side effects of Sacheverell’s marriage was his brother’s cautious, crablike emergence from the closet. Hitherto Osbert’s homosexuality had tended to consist of brief encounters, which the backlash of the Wilde case obliged to be furtive. But in the course of 1925 Osbert surprised his friends by going off to Amalfi with a handsome young art historian. That this was the young Adrian Stokes is one of Pearson’s more startling revelations. The formidably brilliant, happily married Stokes of later years, whose insights into the nature of great art make Sitwellian perceptions look fashionably thin, is hard to envisage in the role of Osbert’s éphèbe. However, this relationship goes some way to explain Stokes’s subsequent breakdown and salvation at the hands of Melanie Klein, also a certain residual dandyism.
The next affair was more lasting. David Horner, whom Osbert had first met in 1921, was a young man of decent lineage—he was a cousin by marriage of the Asquiths and other prominent liberal families—and good-looking to the extent that he bore a remarkable resemblance to Queen Alexandra. For some years unresponsive to Osbert’s overtures, Horner finally went to live with his besotted admirer in 1930. The arrangement lasted for over thirty years, but—trust Osbert!—there is no mention of the love of his life in his autobiography. “I leave the skeletons in their cupboards,” he announced in his preamble to Left Hand, Right Hand!, and foisted the reader off with talk of a very unconvincing girlfriend. Pearson makes up for this lacuna by publishing extracts from Osbert’s love letters and poems to Horner, which are nauseatingly coy (“May every wish you have come true / in 1935 / May Pussy’s eyes become more blue, / His tail still more alive”), and he chronicles the grisly, gothic end of the affair with more relish than compassion.
Trouble broke out in 1950, when Osbert was stricken with Parkinson’s disease. Horner started to stray, and at one point set up house in the US with a young painter. Always quick to identify with Osbert in rejection, Edith became so incensed with Horner that she was driven to find relief in Catholicism. Perhaps choosing the apoplectic Evelyn Waugh as her godfather was tempting fate; at all events not even the church could appease the violence of Edith’s feelings when, to her horror and Osbert’s delight, Horner returned. Henceforth there would be grim summers à trois at Renishaw, grimmer winters at Montegufoni. Everyone drank, especially Edith, who took to describing herself as a “worn-out electric hare.” From time to time there would be a crash as one of them measured his or her length on the over-waxed floors. Horner grew ill and crochety. A climax came in 1962, when Horner suffered an almost fatal fall—he claims he was pushed—down a precipitous back staircase at Montegufoni. Brain damage aggravated Horner’s resentment, which in turn fueled Osbert’s guilt. Forty-four years after they first met, Osbert threw Horner out with characteristic callousness. “You unspeakable swine,” Mrs. Philip Frere exploded, “only the most unutterable cad will hit a man who is broken in mind and body…. May God’s curse be upon you.”
Meanwhile Osbert found a new companion—a middle-aged Maltese nurse, called Frank Magro—with whom he retired to Montegufoni and there spent the few years left to him rattling his will at his relations. Just as Sir George had the last laugh on Osbert, disinheriting him on the fatuous grounds that he had joined the Labour Party (“a fearful lie,” Osbert fumed), now it was the next generation’s turn to have some posthumous fun. Neatly contriving to dissatisfy every member of his family, Osbert left Montegufoni—the apple of Sacheverell’s eye, as well he knew—to Sacheverell’s son Reresby, and the considerable fortune upon which the upkeep of the castle depended to Sacheverell, who, true to Sitwellian tradition, was on the worst terms with his son and daughter-in-law.
Only the Maltese, Magro, got his wish: the rococo wing of Montegufoni for his lifetime, which naturally complicated any future sale of this white elephant. Sacheverell felt so betrayed that he was unable to work for eighteen months, but then he turned his feelings of loss and rejection to excellent account by writing the only book which gives us any glimpse of his private emotions. Inevitably For Want of the Golden City is a melancholy volume: the unattainable Montegufoni “becomes a symbol for the golden city of earthly happiness which he had been seeking from his earliest childhood.”
Edith’s love life was more tormented than Osbert’s. Although unjustly accused of lesbian tendencies (“I write in the rhythms of Sappho, though I do not share the lady’s unfortunate disposition”), Edith shared Osbert’s penchant for good-looking young men. If they were homosexual, so much the better: she had no intention of relinquishing her virgin status. The love of her life was the Russian émigré artist Pavel Tchelitchew, whose egotism, malice, and passion for cats were a match for her own. They were also excellently matched in other significant ways. Both were convinced they were supreme geniuses of twentieth-century art. Both thought that newfangled gimmicks could camouflage old-fashioned indulgence in technical virtuosity for its own sake. Both prided themselves on having an intensely tragic view of the world, but Edith, like Tchelitchew, expressed this in such hollow theatrical terms that serious critics were hard put to take it seriously. And yet, despite all they had in common, they made each other unutterably miserable. Indeed Edith’s virtual eclipse as a poet in the Thirties was a reaction to her “beloved Boyar’s” alternately neglecting, exploiting, torturing, and only very occasionally worshipping his “Sitvouka,” his “Dame Blanche.”
To be near Tchelitchew, Edith left a hideous little flat in London for an even more hideous little flat in Paris. And there she remained until war broke out, with only her dying ex-governess, Helen Rootham, and Helen Rootham’s odious sister for company. In the face of misery, poverty, and the Boyar’s callousness, Edith behaved nobly, but she could not resist stirring up trouble by playing off Tchelitchew’s successive boyfriends, Allen Tanner and Charles Henri Ford, one against the other. Too bad that her vast correspondence with Tchelitchew—Edith could be a hilarious letter writer when she came off her high horse—will not be made available until the year 2000.
Some of Pearson’s most interesting pages recount Edith’s relationship with her fellow writers. Women, even those she personally liked, got short shrift. “Women’s poetry,” she wrote, “with the exception of Sappho and…Goblin Market and a few deep but fearfully incompetent poems of Emily Dickinson, are simply awful…floppy, whining, arch, trivial, self-pitying…ghastly wallowing.” The only female she feared was Gertrude Stein, who dropped Edith quicker than you could say “genius” for having the temerity to trespass on Stein’s Parisian turf. Another dear old friend, Virginia Woolf, was less immune to attack: Edith dismissed her as “a beautiful little knitter,” and Victoria Sackville-West’s lengthy eclogue, The Land, as “conceivably of use to farmers as a help to counting ticks on sheep.” At other times Edith could sound frighteningly like her Edwardian mother, as when she accused the worthy Kathleen Raine of “writing lady’s maid poetry—underbred, undervitalized, undertechniqued, messy and déplaisant.”
Edith’s feelings where male writers were concerned were also totally subjective. They were either fan or foe, but her loves and hates were liable to abrupt changes. Auden, for instance: for years she inveighed against him as “the leader of those left-wing boy-scouts who had stolen all her thunder in the Thirties,” and she would delightedly quote Tchelitchew’s appraisal of Auden’s verse (“counting mackintoshes in large warehouse”) and appearance (“large disaster, badly carved Roquefort cheese”). And yet after the war she became Auden’s passionate supporter. Likewise her relationships with Louis MacNeice or Roy Campbell, the pugilistic South African poet. From dismissing Campbell as “a typhoon in a beer bottle,” Edith hailed him as “one of the very great poets of our time,” for no better reason than that he had supposedly slapped one of her enemies in the BBC canteen.
And then the myths that Edith spun about Dylan Thomas: “how she had discovered, helped and championed his lonely genius”! With her, “he was like a son with his mother,” she later claimed. Pearson sets the record straight: far from discovering Thomas—this had already been done by her archenemy, Geoffrey Grigson—Edith did not at first react at all favorably to his work; and although they became close friends, Thomas frequently fled from his possessive patroness. There was a period of eight years when they did not speak. With the exception of Thomas and the ill-fated Denton Welch, Edith had little time for young English writers. She sentenced John Wain “to be skinned alive. It would be a nasty messy job, but I am not sure I shan’t do it.” Likewise Thom Gunn: “I am going to make of him the mincemeat (or thick soup) that I made of Mr. Alvarez.”
T.S. Eliot, on the other hand, was a hero to the Sitwells; he could also be a thorn in their side, as we learn from unpublished accounts of “the ups and downs of [their] relations…details of which were in Osbert’s papers at his death.” These cast an eerie light on the Sitwells’ equivocal feelings for the poet and on Eliot’s private life, the peculiar pattern of which is only now emerging. The story starts toward the end of the 1914 war, when Osbert and Edith first befriended the young American bank-clerk and his wife, Vivienne, who was already physically and mentally sick. The Sitwells formed the habit of treating the Eliots to muffins in a “dank Oxford Street tea-shop.” But try as they might—and the teas soon became weekly dinners in a Piccadilly restaurant—the Sitwells never succeeded in persuading Eliot to contribute to the magazines and anthologies which they edited.
Thanks to mischief-making on the part of the mad Vivienne, a certain coldness gradually developed between the Eliots and the Sitwells. So it was with some glee that Osbert recorded how Vivienne’s eccentricity was rubbing off on her husband, not least in his insistence on being addressed as “the Captain.” Here is Osbert’s description of a dinner given by Eliot in 1922, in a small flat he had taken so as to be able to work in peace away from his wife:
Noticing how tired my host looked, I regarded him more closely, and was amazed to notice on his cheeks a dusting of green powder—pale but distinctly green, the color of a forced lily-of-the-valley. I was all the more amazed at this discovery, because any deliberate dramatization of his appearance was so plainly out of keeping with his character, and with his desire never to call attention to himself…. I should probably have come myself to disbelieve in what I had seen, had I not gone to tea with Virginia Woolf a few days later. She asked me…whether I had observed the green powder on [Eliot’s] face—so there was corroboration!…. Neither of us could find any way of explaining this extraordinary and fantastical pretense; except on the one basis that the great poet wished to stress his look of strain and that this must express a craving for sympathy in his unhappiness.
Still odder was another dinner, this time in 1927, given by both the Eliots to celebrate Vivienne’s emergence from a mental home. It was attended by the publisher Geoffrey Faber and his wife, the James Joyces, and Osbert:
Our hostess was in high spirits, but not in a good mood…. [Eliot] was being very difficult, she averred; only one human being seemed now to interest him, an ex-policeman of about seventy years of age, who acted as odd-job man and was an habitual drunkard…. After dinner…while Joyce was talking to us of Italian opera, which he so greatly loved, and was even singing passages to us of his favorite works, a door in the further wall of the passage suddenly swung back, and out stepped the figure of an elderly man in a dark suit with white hair and moustache, blinking as if he had suddenly emerged from darkness into a strong light, and—rather singularly inside a house—crowned with a bowler hat….
I had at once identified this rather tortoise-like individual as the ex-policeman of whom Vivienne had spoken. Silence now fell on the company. The newcomer stopped in the doorway opposite us for a moment, and made to each of the three of us—Joyce, Faber and me—a sweeping bow with his hat, saying as he did so, “Goo’ night, Mr. Eliot!” “Goo’ night, Mr. Eliot!” “Goo’ night, Mr. Eliot!” and then…went on his way humming to himself.
Finally an epilogue to the Sitwells’ friendship with Eliot in the form of a letter (January, 1957) from Edith to John Lehmann describing her reactions to the news that Eliot had walked out on his crippled roommate, John Hayward, in order to get remarried:
Oh, what a beast Tom is!!!…You wait! I’ll take it out of that young woman! I’ll frighten her out of her wits before I’ve done. As for Tom—he will, of course, be punished. He will never write anything worthwhile again. And indeed hasn’t for a very long time now. The Four Quartets are, to my mind, infinitely inferior to his earlier work, completely bloodless and spiritless. It makes me quite sick to think of the pain John [Hayward] has endured…to be told that his greatest friend, on whom he depended in his unspeakable physical helplessness and humiliation, had done him this sly, crawling, lethal cruelty. I feel I never want to see Tom again!
The explanation of this demonic denunciation is of course that Edith equated the “betrayed” Hayward with the “betrayed” Osbert.
If the Sitwells now suffer from a measure of the oblivion which they were forever wishing on others, they have only themselves to blame. All that self-adulation has done them in. Now that Osbert and Edith are no longer around to blow their own and each other’s Sengerphones, it is self-evident that Osbert had no merit as a poet and little distinction as a novelist. His 600,000 word-long autobiography—intended, so Osbert said, to be “gothic, complicated in surface and crowned with turrets and pinnacles”—which was so popular when it came out at the end of the war, is seldom read, and no wonder. Apart from the characterizations of his father and his father’s servant, Henry Moat—memorable comic creations—it is intolerably puffed up and pretentious: gout-stool stuff. The splendors, such as they are, lie without, seldom within.
A similar hollowness is to be found at the heart of Edith’s work, but her commedia dell’arte act was more entertaining than Osbert’s, and compared to his tin ear, hers was pure silver, so long as we overlook most of Edith’s prose works, which were written either as pot-boilers or for reasons of catharsis. For instance, the only point to her feeble life of Pope is the extent to which Edith falsifies the facts in order to turn the crippled poet into an extension of her own twisted self. Likewise her bizarre novel, I Live under a Black Sun, purports to recount the love life of Jonathan Swift against a background of the First World War, but is in fact all about Edith’s relationship with Tchelitchew. And her interminable study of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, The Queens and the Hive, is yet another overindulgent advertisement for herself.
Edith’s verse is another matter. Inevitably the colossal claims that the poetess and her reverential coterie advanced for it—another Rimbaud, indeed!—have not helped its reputation. But give Edith her due, the early experimental poems, especially Bucolic Comedies and Façade, stand up remarkably well, and her macabre “masterpiece,” Gold Coast Customs (1929), might justify Yeats’s high praise of it, if only it did not strain so. One has the same feeling that Edith is exceeding her powers in the famous war poems, which seemed so moving (“craggy, mysterious, philosophic,” according to Kenneth Clark) in the thick of the London blitz. But forty years later, how they creak!
There was great lightning
In flashes coming to us over the floor:
The Whiteness of the Bread
The Whiteness of the Dead
The Whiteness of the Claw—
All this coming to us in flashes through the open door.
What on earth did we see in this windy rhetoric? Much of the effect depended, I am sure, on the formidable sybil-like presence of Edith in recital. For, thanks to drama lessons she had taken from a retired Comédie Française actress, Edith knew just how to hoodwink her public into accepting as jewels of the first water not just the huge semi-precious baubles that adorned her Byzantine bosom and Gothic hands, but the semiprecious verses that she declaimed with such overweening authority. Also one should not leave out of account the extent to which the Honorary Doctor of Letters and the Dame of the British Empire took over from “Little E.”
Earlier on, I commented on parallels between Edith’s poetry and Tchelitchew’s painting. By the same token Sacheverell’s work has a visual equivalent: the vast compositions of the decorative artist José Maria Sert—now so unfashionable but all the rage when the Sitwells were young. Like Sert, who was constantly ransacking the baroque and rococo for ever more extravagant ideas, Sacheverell cannibalized the art of the past and sought inspiration in offbeat periods, people, places—false messiahs from seventeenth-century Smyrna, castrati singers from eighteenth-century Naples, forgotten cities like Noto and Lecce, the Black Death, the Djemaa el Fna—that lent themselves to picturesque interpretation, and if possible panoramic treatment. And, as with Sert, there was apt to be something anachronistic about Sacheverell’s conception as well as his execution. Aside from his achievements as a writer, Sacheverell’s influence on the history of taste should not be overlooked. Through the years his forays into the past have come up with some very odd geese; it is our gain that most have proved to be swans.
But why this obsession with the past? If they had not turned their backs so adamantly on the present, the Sitwells might have helped extricate British art from its provincial torpor. They did not, and in this respect their importance is primarily a negative one. The Sitwells’ magazine, Wheels, was self-serving; they perversely discouraged young poets who were good and actively encouraged others who were bad. As for artists, they nearly acquired the contents of Modigliani’s studio for £100; they nearly purchased the dealer Zborowski’s stock of great modern paintings for c£1000; they nearly persuaded Picasso to fresco the great hall at Montegufoni. In the end, who got the seal of Osbert’s approval? England’s tame romantic, John Piper. Piper’s tasteful watercolors of Renishaw and Montegufoni are all too accurate a measure of the patron who commissioned them.
The final word should be left to Wyndham Lewis, whose assessment of the Sitwell/Finnian Shaw family in The Apes of God is right on target. For them “everything—art, friendship, even enmity—was all part of an enormous game.” They were, Lewis wrote, “a sort of ill-acted Commedia dell’Arte…. Their theater was always with them. Their enemies—Pantalones, comic servants, detestable opponents (whose perfidy disrespect malice or cabal they would signally frustrate—unmask them, knaves and coxcombs to a man!) always this shadowy cast was present.”
April 19, 1979