The Middle Sitwell Gets a Book

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Middle Sitwell Gets a Book


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Osbert Sitwell, born Dec. 6, 1892, was middle child of the three Sitwell siblings - Edith and Sacheverell being the other two - whose poetry and dramatic social presence made such an impression on English life and letters in the years after World War I. The children's father, Sir George, was an eccentric and colorful baronet, and the turn-of-the-century artistocratic milieu in which they came alive to the world seemed unassailable. But by the time Osbert died in 1969, that world largely was gone, and he had spent much of his life's work as poet, novelist, playwright, essayist and, most prominently, memoirist, documenting its loss.

Philip Ziegler, who has well received biographies of Earl Mountbatten, King Edward VIII, Lord Melbourne and others to his credit, begins this first book devoted to Osbert alone (rather than as part of the Sitwell group) as if expecting the worst. He dedicates it to a former agent and former editor, both of whom "kept the flag of civilized values flying in a world increasingly falling prey to the barbarian." He ends wondering whether he has been writing for just a "handful of kindred spirits" and "only the smallest possible chorus of indolent reviewers [who] would cursorily scan" his book.

At the same time, Mr. Ziegler knows that the project was worth every minute to him. He had the grandest time recalling the Sitwells and their circle, their friends and enemies (the latter including, implacably, Noel Coward). From Sir George and his retainer of many years Henry Moat, to Osbert's woman confidante, Christabel, Lady Aberconway, the composer William Walton who was his protege, his companion of 40-odd years David Horner, and Frank Magro who took care of him in his declining years in Italy, they were an altogether a larger-than-life, often jealous and sometimes cruel cast of characters swept up in interesting times.

It was always easy to make fun of Osbert's aristocratic pretensions, for a baronetcy is a very low rank in the order of nobility - and he always left out his family's manufacturing connections. But he had the most disarming way of turning his foibles to advantage. Somewhere in the five volumes of memoirs which were the main focus of his work during the decade of the 1940s, Osbert harked back to an ancestor, the Duchess of Beaufort and how, as Mr. Ziegler tells the story:

"Every afternoon the duchess would be taken for a drive around the New Forest. In theory a different route was followed each day; in practice, since she was too blind to see where she was going, the coachman never left the grounds of her house. For company she took her parrot. The bird had died and been stuffed some years before, but she firmly believed it to be alive and anjoying the outing as much as she did."

Osbert liked to claim that he had got his education during the holidays at home from Eton, but one benefit he did bring away from his school days was the discovery that he could make people laugh. For a shy, large and ungainly pear-shaped youth this was no small asset. Satire, what's more, would be a favorite weapon in navigating both life and an initially not very remunerative writing career.

Though the three Sitwells came to expect and demand recognition individually for their poetry and other writing - Sacheverell is known for his books on art - it still is hard to think of them apart. Edith was born first in 1887, with Osobert coming five years later and Sacheverell (Sachie to the family) another five years after that. A famous early glimpse of them is found in John Singer Sargent's painting of the family, when Sir George, trying to tell the artist his business, told him to be sure to catch his daughter's slightly crooked nose. In his picture, Sargent gave Edith a straight nose and assigned the bent one to her father.

The three children grew up combining arrogance and shyness, inhabiting "a remote half-world of their own" as the family divided its time between Sir George's country estate, Renishaw, and a house in Scarborough. …

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