Hobnobbing

Ian Hamilton

  • Osbert Sitwell by Philip Ziegler
    Chatto, 461 pp, £25.00, May 1998, ISBN 1 85619 646 1

In February 1940, a Reynolds News reviewer wrote of the three Sitwells, Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell: ‘Now oblivion has claimed them, and they are remembered with a kindly if slightly cynical smile.’ And this, I suppose, is more or less how they are thought of now. Edith’s dark vowels still find their way into anthologies. Osbert’s plush and ponderous five-volume autobiography is always likely to be named in surveys of books that are unjustly out of print. And Sacheverell still holds his surprise niche in Michael Roberts’s classic Faber Book of Modern Verse. Sachie is also valued as the prince of self-help publishing: according to the Oxford Companion to English Verse, between 1972 and 1978 he ‘privately printed’ no fewer than 43 collections of his verse.

All in all, nobody is nowadays likely to complain much if we speak of the Sitwells as curious antiques, literary-historical exotics, to be treasured less for their work than for the memorable put-downs they engendered: Geoffrey Grigson’s ‘Old Jane’ assaults in New Verse; F.R. Leavis’s crack about the Sitwells belonging to ‘the history of publicity’; Larkin-Amis’s prize ‘for the book of the year combining the greatest pretension and the least talent: it is called The Osbert’ (Larkin’s spoof award echoed one of Osbert’s own Twenties jests – he had plans then to set up a prize for the year’s ‘dullest book’).

Today we can thus burble on about the Sitwells and hope to get away with it. In 1940, it was not so easy. The three of them were very much alive: middle-aged but still full of energetic self-importance, and not in the least ready to settle for the oblivion proposed by Reynolds News. Led by Osbert, the trio sued the paper and, remarkably, the case was won. To say that a writer has been forgotten is, or was, like ‘saying an actor is too old to act, a very grave professional libel’. This, at any rate, was Osbert’s plea. After a lengthy trial, he got the damages to prove it.

The damages were tiny but Osbert was not in this for the cash. Fame was the spur – or call it posterity, although for him posterity was worth pursuing only if it happened to be present-tense. Osbert was deeply present-tense. Throughout the Twenties and for much of the Thirties, the Sitwells had successfully worked up a Sitwell legend. For a time, they were compelling headline news. In the ‘bourgeois’ papers they despised, they represented a scary new type of modern artist: incomprehensible, aggressively flamboyant, utterly contemptuous of ‘established values’. People talked less about their writings than they did about the way they looked, the things they did, but Osbert didn’t mind. For him to be thought of as forgotten was far worse than to be thought of as no good.

Not that he lacked literary vanity. He monitored the little magazines as fiercely as he checked out the mass-market press. And he was forever getting into literary quarrels, taking offence, taking revenge. He fought with the exiting Georgians; he fought with the incoming highbrow avant-garde. Osbert wanted – and wanted Edith – to be ranked importantly as Modernists and revolutionaries and it irked him when his Sitwellist promotions were taken to signify lightweightness. Leavis’s ‘history of publicity’ jibe was published in New Bearings in English Poetry, a sound guide to advanced taste in the late Twenties. Writing of the postwar years, Leavis had said: ‘The opposition to the Georgians was already at the time in question (just after the war) Sitwellism. But the Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than of poetry.’ This Osbert hated. His anti-Georgian blasts, his own ‘let us be witty’ satiric verses, Edith’s experiments with ‘image-patterns based, like nursery rhymes, on the compelling force of dreams’: why couldn’t he be friends with T.S. Eliot? (Happily, he never knew that Eliot called him Shitwell and said of the whole Sitwell enterprise that it bore ‘a little the air of smattering’.) Soon after New Bearings, Osbert would publish a riposte called ‘Prigs’, a laboured piece but he considered it as deadly as could be: he pretended to think that the Leavises – F.R. and Q.D. – were spinster sisters whose priggishness ‘lacks all the qualities of natural reaction to thought’.

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