Like buoys in a treacherous estuary, guiding or warning the traffic, a succession of literary reputations still scatters light on the crowded lanes of the twentieth century. Some of them have dimmed, just as some of the lanes are now silted up. Nobody steers by Wells or Bennett, once so illustrious. Nobody troubles to run down the Georgians. Explorers get tired of being blown off course just as they are getting closer to Ford Madox Ford or William Gerhardie. Even the great lighthouses, Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Auden, have gathered with the years a certain amount of guano to mess up their pristine white paint. It no longer seems profitable to look into remoter waters guided by Proust and Mann and Kafka and Valéry.
But some of the smaller lights are still in full use. And among them the Sitwells shine, at any rate for those old enough to have experienced them as a living force. Will they remain? John Pearson, John Lehmann, Elizabeth Salter, and now Victoria Glendinning and Geoffrey Elborn are confident. Or will they be British versions of Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol, and the like: a compound of talent, outrage, the right friends, good luck, and evanescence?
It is likely that time will accord the youngest of the three, Sacheverell, the highest natural gift, even if the most substantial family achievement is his brother’s immense autobiography. But it is also likely that Edith will be judged worthy of an equal tribute, now brought up to date by two stoutish volumes covering, inevitably, exactly the same ground—one by an already acclaimed biographer of Elizabeth Bowen, and the other by a young man who has also worked, we are told, “with the full cooperation of the Sitwell family,” and at Sacheverell’s suggestion.
The question both authors face is implied in F. R. Leavis’s famous statement that “the Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than of poetry.” The statement was made in 1932, when Façade and the furor it aroused were still in the public eye and when the Sitwells were better known for their teases than for their art. It is, of course, an unfair judgment, aimed principally at Edith, who had been publishing poetry since 1915. But it brings into play a number of questions which have bedevilled critical appraisals of the Sitwell family ever since.
They insisted on their devotion to one another. But was that really true? They insisted on their total devotion to art as Gautier had defined it:
Les dieux eux-mêmes meurent
Mais les vers souverains Demeurent.
But were they not sometimes deflected from their devotion by jokes, polemics, social vanities? They insisted on a certain royal stance, acutely sensitive to lèse-majesté. Did they, at heart, feel so invulnerable?
Ms. Glendinning helps clear up some of these questions, and, in doing so, she makes more human a family which can do with a little humanizing. It is not that she has revelations to make—the factual grounds have already been well mapped. But she is fair, affectionate, and unflinching. And in the Sitwell legend there are things to flinch from.
To begin with, their parents Sir George and Lady Ida. Osbert Sitwell has turned his father into a great comic character, but this must have been done as a means of exorcising a father who was in many ways a monster. How can a child forgive the husband who allows his wife, her mother, to be jailed for debt when it was well within his power to save her? Then, how can a child forgive a mother of such foolish amiability toward worthless people—at the expense, in every sense, of her own family—that she lets herself be trapped in a web of debts and lies? Ms. Glendinning writes of “the perpetual duality of the Sitwells’ family life—the contrast between the graceful appearance and the black terror that lay beneath.”
No wonder that Edith, the eldest child, and a daughter, moreover, who had been treated from birth with a singular lack of affection or understanding, banished all sympathy from her heart. The year of disaster was 1915. Edith, now twenty-eight, had fled her family for the safety of a ramshackle London flatlet. Osbert, the elder brother, was a subaltern in an army at war. Sacheverell was at the end of his schooltime at Eton. The effect of their mother’s downfall on three reflective and unhappy young grown-ups in that post-Edwardian society cannot be exaggerated.
Yet the matter is not to be painted entirely in black and white. Sir George had his monstrous side. He was insensitive to others, but not stupid. Indeed, although his elder son expended much ink on showing how reliably his children fooled him in later years he was more often a step ahead of them than they supposed. He held maniacal views on their extravagance, and kept them always short of money. But he left England with his wife in 1925, to live in Italy for the major part of the year. He withdrew from them, in other words, almost totally, for the last twenty years of his life.
Lady Ida, if foolish to a degree, had both looks and charm. When she died, in 1937, her obituary in the London Times was subheaded “A Great Lady of Yorkshire.” Sacheverell understood her better than her other children had, and loved her more. To a casual younger acquaintance like myself she appeared no more than delightfully scatty; her famous rages were reserved for her family; and if she drank a little—well, was that, in the circumstances, surprising?
Edith, however, remained adamant. She could do her duty by them, but she never forgave her parents. And with time, and the hardening of hereditary traits in herself, she fantasized about them, just as Osbert did in his memoirs whenever he came to write of his father.
The turning point in her life was her escape to London with Helen Rootham, who had first come to her as a governess when Edith was sixteen. To begin with, Helen Rootham was what Ms. Glendinning calls “a lifeline.” She fostered Edith’s considerable musical abilities, she brought her in touch with the work of writers unknown to Derbyshire—Edith, it must be remembered, had almost no formal education—and finally she helped her charge, by now in her middle twenties, flee to London. Later, she became a burden, not only through illness but through temperament. Worse still, she left a dire inheritance in the shape of her sister Evelyn, whom Edith’s surviving friends still remember with a shudder. But for years she played an essential part through intelligent sympathy in Edith’s development as a poet.
That she became a very good poet there can be, I think, little question. Her critical acceptance was only established many years later, during the Second World War. After that honors were heaped on her: university doctorates, the title of Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, literary prizes, the respect of the young. But it is possible to think that, fine as are the poems of her maturity, those she wrote in youth are more enduring still. The technical fireworks set to music in Façade, her Bucolic Comedies, “Elegy on Dead Fashion,” “Gold Coast Customs,” are wholly original and still enchant with their alternations of high spirits and corrosive satire.
All three Sitwells were hard workers, and Edith worked hard for her mastery. She had much to contend with: poverty, bad health, bad temper, melancholy doubts, an extreme reaction to slights, real or imagined. Then, although the siblings put up a united face to the world, there were ugly fissures in their family structure. Osbert had a lifelong friend, David Horner, whom Edith came to hate; Sacheverell committed the grave sin (in the Sitwell book) of a happy marriage—although Edith was extremely fond of her sister-in-law most of the time. Osbert, who did not share this fondness, inherited his father’s paternalism. He did very little for his brother and sister, although he had the financial ability to do so. And it would have been inhuman for Sacheverell, knowing the validity of his own gifts, not to feel overshadowed by his showier sister and brother, as well as pressed by the need to sacrifice his talent to the quest for money which accompanies a wife and children, so that he wrote too much and too quickly, after the dazzling start of Southern Baroque Art and All Summer in a Day.
Then there was Edith’s appearance, which affected most powerfully her private life. At the best, it elicited the kind of comment quoted by Ms. Glendinning from Mrs. Patrick Campbell, “You’ll never have your mother’s beauty—poor child.” Later, she cultivated a sybilline eccentricity; Ms. Glendinning sums up the pose she devised for herself as “an act of defiance against her upbringing and an act of faith in herself.”
She looked, in the strict sense, extraordinary. Of herself she asked, “If one is a greyhound, why try to look like a Pekingese?” Her huge aquamarines, her priestess robe, the great Aztec-inspired gold necklace given by Mrs. Vincent Astor were offset by fur capes, smelling strongly of mothballs on hot summer days, and bandeaux which would have confounded Mrs. Vanderbilt. A most reluctant debutante, she immediately shrank from the physical pleasures of the young, and especially from any sexual commitment. Her thirty-year-long devotion to the painter Tchelitchew, a homosexual, was safe if stormy. It might have been wiser had she practiced the caution of Madame von Meck toward Tchaikovsky, and confined her virginal love to pen and ink. But then she needed storms, she needed a vivid flow of adrenalin.
It was this need that prompted the endless series of boring squabbles which even Ms. Glendinning cannot make rewarding reading. For Edith often showed in herself a streak of Angela Brazil, the English writer of girls’ school stories, when what she was reaching for were the decisive combative weapons of Dean Swift.
Not that her resources always failed her. I recall a luncheon party at the Sesame Club. She had telephoned to me the day before, in some agitation, to say that Roy Campbell, one of the poets she admired, was to be there, and to warn me that he knew me to be a friend of Stephen Spender, of whom he disapproved, to the verge of fisticuffs, as a left-wing, war-shirking intellectual. I might have trouble, Edith said. I suggested coming another day. Not at all. I was to be there, but I was not to be surprised by what she might say.
We came together, a number of us, in a rather frowsty room inhabited by glaring old ladies who seemed to think that Edith was running a kind of zoo. It is here important to know that Roy Campbell was proud of his military service in the ranks during the Second World War. He therefore had an exaggerated sense of military hierarchy.
“Roy,” said Edith, sweeping her robes forward, “I don’t know if you have met Colonel Pryce-Jones,” thus reviving for us both a forgotten moment of panache. Campbell, who had been preparing to spring, turned his pounce into a jump to attention. During the rest of the meal she kept interjecting, “The Colonel was only now remarking…,” or “Will you pass me the salt, Colonel.” And the effect was magical, punctuated by what was almost a pull of the forelock.
Ms. Glendinning is perceptive about Edith’s virtues: her generosity, even when she could ill afford it, her kindliness to the young writers whom she liked and admired, like Dylan Thomas and Denton Welch, her consideration for servants, who always loved her, the inner humility which lay beneath a nervous aggressiveness. To writers of my generation—twenty years younger than she—her presence, and that of her brothers, was inspiring. The 1920s in London were a decade of foolish emancipations; of the Black Bottom, the cocktail, the Embassy Club, the rivalries between Lady Cunard and Lady Colefax, the Prince of Wales’s Fair Isle sweaters and baggy plus fours. But there, before us, stood a trio of witty and probing writers adjuring us not to make asses of ourselves—witness the most accurate comment on London society at that time, Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies—but (to quote Gautier again)
Sculpte, lime, cisèle.
Besides, their presence, when all was well, brought fun. There was a Renishaw house party several times repeated, which consisted of Osbert, Edith, David Horner, the painter Rex Whistler, and Lady Aberconway, Osbert’s most devoted woman friend, a wit herself and a beauty. Edith never appeared until late, Osbert worked all the morning. We knew we should be given a delicious luncheon, washed down by a house specialty, old champagne, a little orange in color, a trifle flat. For the guest there was not much to do, except to skim the oil deposited by neighboring coal mines from a bedroom pitcher, play from the piano score of some forgotten opera, like Hermann Bemberg’s Elaine—he was a French-Argentine composer suitably old, rich, and sociable for Lady Ida to admire—listen to Christabel Aberconway’s story of her encounter with last night’s ghost, and wait for the long lamplit evening of Sitwellian talk.
In earlier days Sir George was sometimes present, and the visit might fill with rococo events, such as the time recorded, I think, by Osbert when Arthur Waley and I went out for a morning walk and met Sir George coming toward us by the lake. Without saying good morning he simply stated, “A pity we’re going round opposite ways,” and strode on. The process was repeated half an hour later as we continued our planetary round.
My only real friction with Edith came about when I consented to review one of her collections of poetry in the Times Literary Supplement, of which I was editor at the time, and gave her much pleasure by comparing her to Watteau’s Grand Gilles—a juxtaposition of clown and tragic victim. Not long after, the book appeared in the United States, and she asked me to repeat my effort. When I wrote at much shorter length, and without speaking of le Grand Gilles, she was greatly vexed, and when the same poems came up in volume form for the third time and I did not feel able to review them at all I was sent into a limbo from which it took many months to emerge.
Nevertheless, she did not bear a grudge forever: for a long time—in Noel Coward’s case forty years—but not forever. And at last I was forgiven. In her long book Ms. Glendinning covers many such ups-and-downs, but also deep and durable friendships: with Geoffrey Gorer, John Sparrow (Warden of All Souls), Maurice Bowra (Vice-Chancellor of Oxford), Bryher Ellerman, a rich and generous benefactor, among them.
One constant distress in Edith’s life was lack of money. Her father, when he died, cut her bequest to £60 a year; and as he favored his grandchildren financially above his two sons there was little they could do to help, although with the passage of time Osbert became very much better off than he had anticipated. She was thoughtless rather than extravagant, having denied herself when a young woman as the penniless member of a rich family. She was also hospitable, loving to give large and rather daunting luncheon parties in her Grosvenor Street club. Ms. Glendinning mercifully does not stress the fact that with time she drank too much—copying another of her mother’s faults.
A strange event in her old age was her conversion to Catholicism. David Horner had taken the same step eleven years earlier, before her dislike of him became pathological. Even so, it seems a curious pretext for the step she took that, as she was later in the habit of saying to friends, “If I had not been a Catholic, I would have murdered him.” David’s fault in her eyes was that, when Osbert became crippled with Parkinson’s disease, he showed a selfish disregard for its ravages. At the time, Christabel Aberconway did her best to smooth things over. She pointed out that David needed moments of absence and rest in order to fulfill his very trying duties with a difficult invalid; she stressed Osbert’s understanding of this need. But Edith was implacable, and the years which preceded David’s near-fatal accident at Montegufoni and the subsequent cruel breach which a very sick Osbert engineered were a nightmare for all three.
At the very end of her life Edith was preparing an autobiography, Taken Care Of. Ms. Glendinning is properly severe about this. It is only the torso of what was planned as a kind of commination service, finally put together by her secretary. It offers a very misleading self-portrait of a unique poet, a brave woman, a fascinating companion, an anxious relation, a tortured spirit—for her conversion had very little effect on her view either of this world or the next. When a priest came to her room, expecting to hear her last confession, she said to the friends at her bedside, “I routed him.” She died in the hope, but not the conviction, that she had done the same by her worldly persecutors, most of whom were not, by intention, persecutors at all.
She dreaded colds in the head and she dreaded bores. A constant complaint was that someone had sneezed at her. “Edith,” Ms. Glendinning writes, “would trace back each carrier of the dreaded cold germs with a rage more applicable to those guilty of criminal assault.” With bores she could be amusing. At one time she told me she was constantly the victim of bores from India, writing for advice on such subjects as the art of the sonnet. She thought of them generically as Mr. Ghosh, and her technique was to write a letter to each, signed “T. Crump, secretary,” pointing out that Miss Sitwell was not at all well but that Mr. Ghosh should address himself to a sympathetic source, Dr. F. R. Leavis of 6 Chesterton Hall Terrace, Cambridge. Mr. Ghosh should not write, but go there direct, and unannounced. He should not ring the bell, to save Mrs. Leavis trouble, but enter the house and proceed to the second door on the left, where he might expect to find the doctor ready to answer his questions. It gave her much satisfaction to picture her enemy looking up from his work to find yet another Mr. Ghosh silently waiting beside him.
It is not easy to understand why the Sitwell family, who are warmly thanked in a foreword for their cooperation, also encouraged Mr. Geoffrey Elborn to make a book out of exactly the same material at exactly the same time. The acknowledgement of the two authors to a host of sources overlap. This is bad luck on Mr. Elborn, whose book is perfectly competent. It has not the confidence of Ms. Glendinning’s manner, and Mr. Elborn sometimes slips on small matters of fact, but he deserves a better welcome on the Sitwell scene than he is likely to get.
December 17, 1981