Writing one’s autobiography involves a certain audacity: the presumption that one has a story to tell, that one can tell it engagingly, that there will be publishers willing to publish, readers eager to read and, in the dark reaches of the night, benign reviewers. But a life told in five volumes when the subject is but ‘nearing fifty and the grey hairs are beginning to show’, and is generally regarded as a second-rate author? Step forward Sir Osbert Sitwell, to enthusiastic applause.
I came across Sitwell’s autobiography years ago in a second-hand bookshop and I see that I paid £9.50 for all five volumes. I was attracted by the jackets, featuring baroque architectural details in rose and sepia that looked as if they had been drawn by John Piper, whose rather gothic pen-and-ink illustrations do indeed pepper the text, but were in fact the work of H. Crudwell.
I was also attracted by the endpapers of smudgy palm prints which echo the title of the first volume, Left Hand, Right Hand, and the theme of all five. Osbert was interested in chiromancy (and in the paranormal too) and was convinced of the palmists’ belief that ‘the lines of the left hand are incised unalterably at birth, while those of the right hand are modified by our actions, environment and the life we lead’. Having read only one of Osbert’s novels, Before the Bombardment (1926), generally regarded as his best, and having just finished Victoria Glendinning’s scintillating but sad biography of Osbert’s poet sister Edith, I was ripe for the experience of his memoirs – memoirs that proved a phenomenal publishing success, particularly in America where they found an audience avid to have their view of the eccentricities of the English aristocracy confirmed.
I read the five volumes – a total of 1,500 pages – with rising, then falling, then reviving enchantment. If time is short, however, I’d advise reading Left Hand, Right Hand and
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