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A Glorious Contradiction

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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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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 the fourth volume, Laughter in the Next Room, missing out the intervening two and the final volume (Noble Essences, a series of essays about writers and artists Osbert knew – ‘great fellow egoists’, as V. S. Pritchett characterized them). The first four volumes are largely sequential – though there is a lot of revisiting and serpentine diversions and digressions within each – and follow Osbert’s passage through life, with long asides on his semi-distinguished forebears. He notes of the Second World War, the period in which he was writing these volumes, that ‘there are no signposts to tell you where you are’: there are not many in his memoirs either. Laughter in the Next Room ends in 1948 with Sitwell, ‘an Englishman who saw the world’s greatest darkness gathering . . . strain[ing] toward the dawn of a new age’, having evoked in loving detail ‘what it was like to be alive before the world fell into the pit’. Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell (he succeeded to the baronetcy when his father died in 1943) was born on 6 December 1892 in a house that backed on to the Ritz Hotel, into a family that was wealthy on both sides and very grand through the maternal line. His mother, Ida, was the beautiful, if not over-bright, daughter of the first Earl of Londesborough; his father was Sir George Reresby Sitwell, a genealogist and antiquary and a very odd fish indeed. Edith was five years older than he; his brother Sacheverell, five years younger. Osbert was very proud of his lineage which he liked to think could be traced back in a direct line to the Plantagenets (though his friend Evelyn Waugh once pointed out that an awful lot of people could do that too if they were prepared to put in the hours). He was also close to his siblings (until Sacheverell married out and a chill entered the relationship): indeed the three formed almost a corporation since all became aesthetes, poets and writers, with varying degrees of success. Their most famous outing was their joint performance of Façade, in which the troika experimented with speaking words to the rhythm of dance measures while Edith recited poems through a sort of megaphone from behind a painted curtain with a hole cut in it, accompanied by music composed by William Walton. This occasioned much fluttering when it was first performed in Lady Colefax’s drawing-room in 1922, and derision at its first public performance the following year. (Noël Coward wrote a revue sketch about the Sitwells, whom he named the Whittlebots, which offended them greatly.) Osbert devotes an entire chapter in Laughter in the Next Room to the production and evolution of Façade and notes that when it was performed twenty years later, during the Blitz, even the firemen were enthusiastic. Though the Sitwells had been landowners for 700 years, the family coffers had been hugely swelled by industry. In the seventeenth century they built an iron works which became the world’s pre eminent manufacturer of nails, enabling the building of the family seat, Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire. More than 200 years later Osbert’s grandmother exploited the discovery of a rich seam of coal in the grounds, and his father cannily invested in South African mining shares – which was just as well. The Sitwells were profligate – one might say incontinent – spenders, stuffing Renishaw, their houses in Scarborough and London, and a crumbling palazzo in Italy with fine furniture, paintings, sculpture and valuable objets. The garden at Renishaw was a particular delight to Osbert: indeed he opens his memoir with a eulogy to its architecture

of green walls and box . . . the formal arrangement of beds and statues and yew hedges beyond [which] lies the Wilderness, part of a wild garden surviving from the 18th century, with dark, mysterious cut glades . . . here in the spring, when the trees are burgeoning, the ground is covered for three weeks at a time with the azure snow of bluebells and later, in the summer, you find the tall, overweighted spires of wild Canterbury bells, no doubt descended from flowers escaped long ago from older enclosed gardens of monasteries and manors.

We first meet Osbert’s father in the gardens that both fulfill and characterize him in his son’s mind, a man for whom ‘the Middle Ages are a model for all life to follow’. All day long he can be found . . . surveying his work which will never be finished, his head full of new projects of sun and shade, but never of flowers, measuring the various views with a stick to his eye or a pair of binoculars. Sometimes he is planning a boat of stone upon the lake, or a dragon in lead, writhing for a quarter of a mile through its level waters, or a colonnaded pavilion upon another island, or a Roman aqueduct in counterfeit to frame the prospect with its elongated arches, or a cascade to fall down a stone channel for a hundred and fifty feet, from the water to the garden below: and, for projects such as these, though most of them never materialized, he would cause wooden towers, built up of planks and joists and beams – like an early machine for siege warfare or a drawing by Piranesi – to be erected here and there at the right points of vantage. Osbert was sent away from Renishaw to Eton, which he liked ‘except . . . for work, and games, boys and masters’. He then joined the Hussars but was miserable since he claimed to prefer giraffes to horses. So, as he describes in Great Morning, he transferred to the Grenadier Guards, where his obligations seem to have comprised a few hours’ duty at the Tower of London, which allowed him plenty of time to indulge his interest in the theatre, music and art. On the outbreak of the First World War, Osbert was sent to the Front and he took part as a temporary captain in the battle of Loos. But soon a poisoned finger served as a Blighty and he was back in London, where he became a feature on the metropolitan scene. Osbert simply knew ‘everyone’ – Evelyn Waugh, Gertrude Stein, Arnold Bennett, Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot. He made illustrious enemies too, including Winston Churchill and the Leavises. Osbert Sitwell was, it must be said, a snob – he had absolutely no interest in the middle classes whom he seemed to think intervened in the natural order of things, coming between the landed classes and their servants. He was an anti-Semite. He could be malicious. And, as is often the case with waspish souls, he took offence easily. He was particularly scornful of his father, who, admittedly, was easy to ridicule, with his inventions of a singing toothbrush and an ‘egg’ for use in polar regions or the desert. This latter consisted of meat surrounded by rice, encased in lime, a wheeze that, at the suggestion of the mischievous Osbert, he took straight to Gordon Selfridge, who showed him the door. But his father was in fact no fool, probably cleverer than Osbert and certainly nicer, and the amount of space Sir George takes up in his son’s autobiographies (which were not published until after his father’s death) suggests how profoundly enmeshing their relationship was. In parts the memoirs sing with vitality, enthusiasm, prolix detail and wonderfully telling observations. On the whole they skate over life’s little difficulties, including Osbert’s relationship with his even more snobbish long-term companion and lover David Horner. In other parts the prose becomes clotted, excessive and self-regarding. If Vita Sackville-West wrote with a brass nib, as Virginia Woolf observed, it could be said that Osbert sometimes dipped his in violet-scented honey. Even so, the books are peerless as a portrait of a very strange English family, epitomized in John Singer Sargent’s group portrait commissioned by Sir George in 1900. Sargent was apparently chosen because Sir George had heard that he was the best, and he packed up furniture from Renishaw to transport to London for the sittings – though he forgot to include any ornaments and had to borrow a selection from the wealthy connoisseur Sir Joseph Duveen. Sir George himself posed in brown leather riding boots (though he never rode), his hand resting on Edith’s shoulder like a puppet master. (Sargent declined to redesign the maligned aquiline nose of Edith.) Lady Ida wore a large hat with a ball gown and was portrayed arranging flowers (which of course she never did at home, given the retinue of servants), while Osbert and Sachie can be seen in the corner feeding a biscuit to their pug. Each member of the family stares straight out of the canvas, remote from one another. However, Osbert’s memoirs reflect more than his strange family life. He was never in any doubt as to his relevance to the world, and his engagement with it was in every sense unconventional. He took the General Strike in 1926 very hard – ‘never have I been more disturbed, save by the two declarations of World War’. He sympathized with the plight of the miners because he’d seen their hard and hazardous lives in his own family’s mines (though a visitor to Renishaw, catching sight of a black-faced gang coming off shift, mistook them for chimney sweeps). So when the strike started he declined to join his upper-class mates in their ‘holiday romp’ of driving buses or working on the railways, and instead sat, as he put it in Laughter in the Next Room, ‘the very picture of a drone in an armchair [in his house in Chelsea] . . . in a room full of complicated and brittle decoration . . . wondering what could be done’. Eventually, invited to suggest ‘a cry suitable for the hoardings in this emergency’ since he was reckoned to be good with words, Osbert came up with the puzzlingly enigmatic slogan – ‘Think Less and Eat More’, which he subsequently changed to ‘Eat Less and Think More’ (unsurprisingly neither appears to have been adopted). He also decided to use his influence via a lunch with Lady Wimborne – since ‘we were distantly related’ through the Duke of Wellington. As the taxicabs were on strike, Osbert had to walk from Chelsea to Piccadilly where, revived by a dry Martini, he urged Alice Wimborne to encourage her husband to invite the trades union leaders to Wimborne House to effect a settlement. It turned out that Lord Wimborne had already put this in train. Yet Osbert returned home well satisfied that he had played a part in ‘introducing a true vision’ of reconciliation. If all this sounds like society tittle-tattle about serious matters, in a way it is, but it does give one an intimate glimpse of the workings of a section of English society now long gone. Osbert’s inconsequential observations – bananas, for example, were regarded as very ‘common’ fruit, not to be consumed in the Sitwell nursery – are intermingled with idiosyncratic asides about his own circle, and public figures of the day. These include the observation that, as a freshwater fisherman, Chamberlain was not the best person to be in charge of the nation’s foreign policy when war threatened – ‘I doubt if Lord Palmerston was a fisherman.’ One of the last generation to be brought up by candlelight, Osbert Sitwell was a glorious contradiction: a moderate voice among the philistine and the bellicose, an aristocratic snob for whom the artist was the only true superior being, a rococo figure who energetically promoted modernism, a promising meteor that all too quickly fizzled out.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 © Juliet Gardiner 2012


About the contributor

Juliet Gardiner’s last book was about the 1930s and she now very much wants to know more about the preceding decades – and write about them.

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