Splendours and Miseries

Sacherverell Sitwell (“Sachie” to his friends) was born into a distinguished aristocratic family. Sarah Bradford describes his father, Sir George, as a “romantic snob” who married his wife, Ida Denison (the daughter of the second Lord Londesborough), for her royal connections and her straight Grecian nose, which he considered ideal. Her extravagant spending habits and crazy scheme to recoup her fortune soon drove him deeply into debt. She also produced for him a daughter, Edith, who had anything but a perfect, straight Grecian nose.

Neither parent seems to have paid much attention to Edith, who had the strength of character to pursue a significant career as a poet—as did her brother Osbert. Sachie was fortunate in having older siblings, especially Edith, who encouraged his talent and protected him from his eccentric parents. At the same time, Sachie was indulged by Edith into regarding himself as a genius and a major poet, which he decidedly was not.

All of the Sitwells were masters of self-promotion. Their ostentatious preening was satirized by Aldous Huxley, Noel Coward, and others. But Bradford makes a good case for the family’s changing the taste of the upper classes and endowing British culture with a sophistication it might not otherwise have developed. Sachie showed some strength of character in marrying an American wife and writing books about Italian art that established his own modest niche in British literary history. Some of his poetry is beautiful, but very little of it is profound, and it is marked by the dilettante’s predilection for fine-sounding but virtually meaningless phrases.

Bradford tells a good story and keeps a nice balance between accounts of Sachie, his family, and their friends. This biography is an excellent guide to what sometimes must have seemed like the Age of the Sitwells to their contemporaries.