The Sitwells

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

This biography, entitled Façades in its English edition, treads a thin line between serious study of a highly controversial trio of two brothers and a sister who made themselves into something of an institution of British culture in the 1920’s and a compendium of literary gossip. It is filled with wit, outrageous behavior, titillating revelations of who said what to whom, some genuine artistic and critical achievement, and much pettiness and sheer bitchery. If this work at times seems overlong, one must remember that Osbert Sitwell produced an autobiography in five volumes in which he still managed to omit many of the salient facts of his life. Façades was not a bad title, and it certainly describes well much of the career of the Sitwells. The present volume may have as its main claim to importance the fact that it does peer behind the façade and in doing so humanizes its subjects, gives them stature by letting us see their problems and their pain, and thus elicits our sympathy for what were at times some rather unsympathetic people.

The Sitwells, who are not as well-known in America as they are in Britain, occupied a remarkable position in the literary and artistic life of England throughout this century, identifying themselves with the avant-garde, the unconventional, and the out-of-favor. Utterly scornful of anyone who crossed them or who disagreed with them, they were patrons and propagandizers and were on intimate, or at least close, social terms with many of the leading figures in the artistic life of the times—Diaghilev, Kenneth Clark, T. S. Eliot, Yeats, William Walton, Jean Cocteau; the list is a veritable compendium of the important figures of this century, at least in the early years. They were tireless in advertising their own talents, and convinced not a few; Aldous Huxley called Sacheverell Sitwell “the Rimbaud of our times.” Edith Sitwell did in fact achieve some recognition for her collection of poetry, Façade, performed to the music of William Walton. Few today would accord the Sitwells as writers or poets a significant place in twentieth century literature, but as a focal point for new developments, as advertisers and publicizers, they did constitute an important force.

Given their penchant for publicity, memoirs, and gossip, there is a wealth of material available, and Pearson has mined it well. Especially important is his use of new material, including the Sitwell collection at the Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas, along with interviews and much that has been previously unpublished. In doing so, he has fleshed out the family background of the trio, explaining much of their peculiar behavior, and has shed new light on the last years of Edith and Osbert. Sacheverell, who is still alive, fades out of the story except for brief appearances after his marriage in 1925. Pearson expressly notes that Sacheverell, in contrast to Edith and Osbert, is a private person, and this book respects his desire for privacy, while noting that a full treatment of Sacheverell’s work is forthcoming from another author. But even covering the careers of two of the three siblings with such thoroughness is a considerable challenge, and Pearson meets it well, providing engaging anecdotes at every turn, and yet keeping the main thread of development clear.

The Sitwells claimed descent from the Plantagenet kings and could trace their ancestry in Derbyshire back to 1301 and one Simon Cytewel. Over the centuries they had prospered in commerce and industry and acquired a considerable fortune. A decline set in, however, and by the time of Sir George Sitwell, father of the trio, things had come to a serious pass, with the ancestral home, Renishaw Hall, stripped of furniture and art works to pay the family’s debts. Then, as by a miracle, the fortune was restored when rich coal deposits were discovered on the estate. Sir George became the beneficiary of this wealth and was able to indulge his fancy, buying a dilapidated Italian castle and setting about restoring it, and planning immense gardens for Renishaw Hall. A family portrait, an opulent tableau expressing the family’s wealth and status, was painted by John Singer Sargent.

In spite of his wealth and extravagance, however, Sir George had a streak of parsimony that made itself felt throughout his children’s lives as he kept them on a very tight budget; this was combined with a puritanism that resulted in a family scandal when his wife was forced to spend three months in jail because he would not pay some debts she had incurred as the result of a swindle. The shame of this experience was a major experience of the childhood of the trio, and it was revolt against their family, a considerable hatred of their father, and a sense of the need to band together against a hostile world that created the strong sense of identity and extreme sensitivity to criticism that characterized the group up through...

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