It is gratifying to have a book reissued after 25 years. My A Hermit Disclosed was first published in 1960.At that time I was not allowed to mention the names of certain people who were then alive, or I felt it diplomatic not to do so. Therefore I used pseudonyms. Now I can say that a character I called Lady Kathleen V – was Edith Sitwell. She and I became friends eventually, but for a while I was in hot water.
It began with my discovery of the diary of Jimmy Mason, known as the Hermit of Great Canfield, in the loft of my parents’ house. I was 16 at the time, and any schoolboy would have been thrilled to read these opening words: ‘If I should be poisoned at last, and this book is found, it will explain everything. What bad fellows Tommy took up with, and encouraged him to poison his father and now trying to poison me.’ Tommy was Jimmy’s brother, and both he and Jimmy were still alive – Jimmy in a hut across the fields and barricaded behind corrugated iron. As the years went by, after Tommy and Jimmy had both died, the obsession I had developed about them turned into something other than the unravelling of a possible murder plot. I became fascinated by the little Essex community around the Masons in the 1890s when the diary was written, and by the ramifications of their own family, many of whom had drifted to the East End of London. Jimmy had been a paranoid schizophrenic, I had no doubt of that, but could I pick up any ideas about his personality from, say, descendants of an uncle, who had once been a publican but had ended up ‘in disgrace’ as a cowman?
I spent hours at Somerset House, and pored over piles of electoral rolls and census returns. The trail led me from Epping to Barking to Pooterland, and finally to Highgate, where I met a schoolmistress who had never heard of her first cousin twice removed, Jimmy Mason, and was not especially excited by the connection once it had been revealed to her. However, she was generous with information about her immediate relatives, volunteering something I seized upon at once: she had had an aunt, called Edith Woods, who she said had been a ‘companion’ to Lady Ida Sitwell, mother of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell.
This brought me to a completely different milieu, far from disgraced cowmen and barricaded huts. What sort of person was Edith Woods, I asked? Domineering and a ferocious snob. Her trump card had always been that she had had a broken engagement with a Harley Street doctor ...
I was a friend of Father Philip Caraman SJ, then editor of the Month and – as I knew – confessor of Edith Sitwell, who had recently become a Roman Catholic. He agreed that it would be perfectly in order for me to write to her about Edith Woods. To my delight, I received a long and brilliant if startling letter in reply, written from Montegufoni on Christmas Eve 1957.
I shall hope to have the pleasure of seeing you on my return from America – to which I am going shortly. But not in order to discuss the woman Woods. Having written this letter, I hope never to hear again of this most sordid and uninteresting person. (My brother Osbert, when I told him of your letter, said she was the only person with criminal instincts he had ever encountered who was utterly devoid of even the slightest interest.) She was never my mother’s companion, nor did she ever go with my mother to Italy. We are exceedingly displeased that her niece has started this canard which she will be well advised not to repeat. I cannot but regret that you have got in touch with her.
My mother had great, and very racé, beauty, great breeding, and elegance. And my grandmother, Lady Londesborough, was the daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, and was one of the two greatest London hostesses of the time – the other being Lady Derby.
It would never have entered my mother’s head to choose as a companion – (and, as my father was alive, why should she need a companion?) – a person who was utterly insortable, and whose baseness and low cunning was only equalled by her almost unbelievable commonness, her vulgarity of soul, heart, outlook and appearance.
She was, in later life, what could best be described as housekeeper-attendant to my aunt Florence Sitwell, who, as the result of a terrible operation performed forty years after it should have been performed, sank into a condition of idiocy. It is not particularly agreeable for me to have to remember and write of that!
The woman was known as Sister Edith, as she was a ‘lay deaconess’ – whatever that may mean. She was attired in a sort of fancy dress, based on the honoured habit of a nun, and wore an adaptation of a nurse’s bonnet, from which her face, described by my brother Osbert as resembling ‘a badly thumbed, over-ripe tomato’, bulged with a matey, malevolent jocosity at the world.
She was first employed by my grandmother Lady Sitwell as a kind of jailer in a ‘Home for Fallen Women’ which, for some inscrutable reason, my grandmother had founded and supported, in which the inmates were put to slave-labour in a laundry (the overseer being Sister Edith) – this enabling them, week by week, to decimate our linen. When my grandmother was dying, she employed this woman as some kind of attendant – I believe she also ran the household – and after my grandmother’s death she went in the same capacity to my aunt – when she renounced her fancy dress, appeared, instead, attired as a female dog-breeder, and settled down to a life of great luxury – being so lazy that, though sitting with her feet on the fender, she would not even get up to put coal on the fire, but, instead, would ring a bell which she always kept beside her, for a servant.
She was heard to say, several times, ‘Next year I shall have a box at the Opera’ – (she hated music).
She was a pathological and confirmed liar. After my aunt’s death, she actually had the impudence to tell her next employer that she was a cousin of ours! After my grandmother’s death she was caught downstairs in the middle of the night, reading private papers. After my aunt’s death, she hid in an outhouse several pieces of very valuable furniture, that she might steal it when she left – which she was about to do. (But my father found this out in time.) The widow of a cousin of my father’s, Mrs Hereward Wake, said she also stole furniture from her.
During the 1914-18 war, she wrote to my father asking him not to allow my brother Sacheverell (then a schoolboy) to come to London to see my brother Osbert (who was in the Grenadiers) when he came on leave from the front after one of the most appalling battles of the war. She was, however, unsuccessful in this.
At about the same time, she tried to get my father to reduce my allowance – I was then living as best I could in London under the chaperonage of my ex-governess, and was so poor that I was obliged to take a job earning £1 5s a week in order to eke out my allowance. (It had been impossible, through no fault of mine, for me to remain at home.) The woman made this attempt out of sheer malice and hatred, presenting, however, the plea that I did not deserve my allowance, as I was ‘undutiful’. Her sense of filial duty was so great that when her father – (who lived at some place in London called Snell Park – I think it was in London) – was dying, her family had to advertise in the agony column of the Times for her whereabouts, as they had received no communication from her for 15, or 20 years – I now forget which; but one or the other.
My father did not reduce my allowance, because my ex-governess terrified him out of doing so by saying she would make a scandal if he did. But Sister Edith was triumphant in the end, for she succeeded in getting my aunt, who should, according to an arrangement in the family, have left half of her fortune to me, to cut me out of her will with the exception of a sum that brings me in £24 a year. She thus deprived me of a third of my income.
I have nothing more to say of her, excepting that she was tireless in mischief-making, and that, shunned as much as was possible by her social superiors, she was loathed by her equals.
And now, please may I be allowed to forget her again. It is typical that, having come here to try to recover from what has been one of the most tragic years in my personal life, and in order, too, to finish a very difficult book – I am exceedingly overworked – I should suddenly, quite out of the blue, have this nightmare pantomime demon brought up out of the past, with all the dreadful memories evoked by it of my most wretched childhood and early youth.
You could not possibly know, and it is not in the least your fault. But I shall be grateful – so will my brothers – if you will tell this woman’s niece that she was never my mother’s companion, and that she had better not say she was ...
P.S. My brother has just told me to tell you that this femme fatale once nearly succeeded in killing 500 people. But oddly enough, this was not deliberate. She had been put in charge by my grandmother of a soup kitchen during a miners’ strike, and did not notice that the coppers in which the soup was made were defective in their copper linings, actually, nobody died. But they were one and all fearfully ill, and many nearly did die.
I now know, thanks to Victoria Glendinning’s biography, that the tragedies for Edith Sitwell in 1957 were the deaths of Roy Campbell and Pavel Tchelitchew. The book she was trying to finish would have been the one eventually published as The Queens and the Hive. She was worried about money at the time, so my mention of the other Edith had touched an especially sore spot.
Anyway, that was obviously that, for the time being, as far as Edith Sitwell was concerned, but I felt there would be no harm in tracking down Mrs Hereward Wake – which turned out to be quite easy. She confirmed that in the last years of her life ‘the woman Woods’ had boasted of having Sitwell blood in her. Later, I was able to find Edith Woods’s ex-landlady’s daughter, who told me she had found her behaviour insufferably grand, pernickety and exacting. It also used to be rumoured that Edith Woods had silver ‘worth at least £1000’ in the bank. And I discovered that on her death certificate she was described as a ‘spinster of independent means’.
I had said to Mrs Hereward Wake that it would be best not to tell Edith Sitwell we had been in touch. To my dismay, I soon received a furious letter from Edith Sitwell, more or less threatening me with the law if I dared mention any connection between the Sitwells and Edith Woods: ‘It would be most unfortunate for your debut as a writer, for we would deeply resent so unwarrantable an intrusion into our private life – which is no concern of any stranger.’ I could not bear not to use at least part of that marvellous letter in my book. So I appealed once more to Father Caraman, who dictated a brief, sufficiently humble apology.
A year passed, and I finished my book, daring to include extracts from the letter, though slightly altered. I changed the name of Edith Woods to Daisy Browne. A lawyer friend had advised me to flatter Edith Sitwell by ‘upgrading’ her in the book. So I called her Lady Kathleen V–. I went back to Father Caraman, who thought what I had written was perfectly unobjectionable. I asked him to help me again with an appropriately tactful – Jesuitical – letter, which he did. It was an alarming gamble, for he made me put myself at her mercy. I had to enclose part of my typescript, which I offered to withdraw if she did not approve. I told her that I was particularly interested in Edith Woods because both she and my Hermit had delusions: Edith Woods had a delusion of grandeur, Jimmy Mason a delusion of persecution. ‘If you will allow me to use this letter, you may well have suggestions to make about it ...’
Not only did I receive, to my utmost relief, a two-page telegram of enthusiastic approval, but an invitation to tea at the Sesame Club. This was followed by a letter in which she recommended that I call ‘la Woods’ Agatha instead of Daisy, which was ‘far too soft’:
She was indeed a spinster of independent means – my independent means. The woman was, as I said, a pathological liar. I do not believe, for a second, that she was ever engaged to a Harley Street doctor. I am as certain as one can be of anything in the world that she was not. A Harley Street doctor could never have met a woman of her social class (unless of course she was a patient of his for some mental disease). No man, of any class, could possibly have wanted to marry her. She was the most repulsive person physically that I have ever seen, and utterly without charm. Ugliness by no means precludes charm: repulsiveness does. She might indeed have been a coarse and stupid caricature of the Mona Lisa, swollen and shapeless, used as an advertisement for Somebody or Other’s Tinned Tomatoes. In spite of her laziness, she would take long walks in the country, whistling, and thrashing away at the beautiful unoffending vegetation.
I soon found myself being invited to several teas and lunches at the Sesame Club. I became, I suppose, part of Edith Sitwell’s ‘court’; and I learnt that she was really a very warm-hearted person. I did not take up all her suggested changes for my book, though I did change the name Daisy to Agatha, and included the bit about the Tinned Tomatoes. When it was published, I sent her a copy, and had another flattering letter, with a message from Osbert. ‘Osbert says that I am to tell you that our first intimations of la Woods’ future greatness was when we were told that we must no longer call her Sister Edith but Miss Woods. He is sending you a copy of Before the Bombardment, for the sake of pages 29, 30 and 31, which, although it is not a portrait of Sister Edith, tells the sad story of a very bad shock she received when in charge of the Home for Fallen Women.’
The bad shock turned out to be the fact that many of the Fallen Women had become unaccountably pregnant. Shortly afterwards it was revealed that one of Edith Woods’s charges was a man disguised as a washerwoman. The Home, I later found out, had been in Scarborough. After all this, the question was whether the character of Edith Woods had anything to do with my poor Jimmy. Not much, I suppose, but I had enjoyed myself. It seemed fairly clear that heredity had had little connection with his being a hermit. His father had been an Indian Army drill sergeant and a horrid old bully. The general verdict in Great Canfield had been that ‘it was the wicked ole father that done it,’ and maybe this was the truth. Edith Sitwell thought Tommy could never have murdered his father. ‘Poor old man,’ she wrote: ‘To have sacrificed his life completely for his brother, and then as a reward, for that brother to accuse him of murdering the father and attempting to murder him. Personally, I am quite sure he was absolutely innocent.’ She also suggested that, some day long after she was dead, I might say something about the ‘utter misery’ his cousin Edith Woods had caused her.