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’.

Still, in the early to mid-Thirties, the Sitwells were reckoned to be central: they were there to be tangled with, one way or the other. By 1940, the time of the Reynolds News ‘attack’, there was a mounting impulse to forget them. In left-wing circles, not remembering the Sitwells was almost a political requirement. The ‘revolutionary’ pranksterism which had got the trio going in the first place was disdained as puerile pastiche of the authentic Modernist endeavour. How could anyone have fallen for Façade, or have thought that Wheels (the Sitwells’ annual anthology, 1916-21) was devilishly witty? Had it really been possible to be beguiled by Edith’s ‘sound-poems’, by her megaphoned verse-readings, her zany Elizabethan hats? And Osbert’s recent enthusiasm for Oswald Mosley didn’t help. Were there in-the-blood links between the show-off aestheticism of the Twenties and the vainglorious posturings of Mussolini – another Osbert hero of the day? Was Sitwellian art-worship brutal or just silly? Was anything just silly? Nobody who knew the Sitwells could really think of them as dangerous. But then again, in 1940, was anything not dangerous?

There were of course complicated and guilt-inducing tie-ups between Thirties proleishness and Twenties posh, and the Sitwells, whatever their literary standing, continued to be posh. Many of their most successfully bourgeois-baiting literary projects had been hatched during weekend house-parties at the family pile in Derbyshire or at Osbert’s Carlyle Square townhouse. To those who got onto the guest-lists, the Sitwells were good fun. But they were more than that, some of their fans would say. During the Twenties, they were Bloomsbury without the piety; avant-gardism played for laughs. Admirers could also point to one or two substantial Sitwell triumphs: Osbert’s Sassoonish but pre-Sassoon squibs against the war, the publication in Wheels of Wilfred Owen’s poems, the 1919 Exhibition of Modern French Art. Their snooty irreverence had made postwar England feel young again, so D.H. Lawrence is said to have said (although in making Osbert the model for Lord Chatterley, Lawrence may have been seeking to modify his celebration). In the social climate of the late Thirties, it was convenient to forget them, but they had done some things that were worth remembering.

Thus, with the Reynolds News affair, the wish to set the Sitwells to one side was not at all straightforward. In one way, it was wise to forget them: in another, it was fun to have them back, if only as chat fodder in the salons. In 1940, their libel case was for several months, says Philip Ziegler, ‘the chief pleasure of literary London’. Most sensible people believed that the lawsuit should never have been brought. Desmond MacCarthy, asked to appear as a pro-Sitwell witness, responded with a telegram: ‘Even fools have right to say good writers’ day over. If quoted phrase peak of offence, anxiously recommend ignoring attack.’ And yet MacCarthy must have known that for Osbert the attack had been more of an opening than a setback. If you ignore your attackers, they will soon enough ignore you in return. Osbert ignored nothing. And he made sure that Edith was kept on the boil. She was never low on indignation but Osbert always knew how and where to put her furies on display. Touchy himself, he took a managerial interest in his sister’s more incandescent touchiness. Thunderous disdain was the aimed-for effect. Looked back on now, the Sitwellian scorn does not resound as grandly as Osbert might have wished. Indeed, some of Edith’s meatier ripostes lead one to question, if one dares, her ear. But the essential principle was sound. In the literary world, it is rarely a disadvantage to be thought of as short-fused.

Osbert it was, then, who ran the Sitwell show. This much is made plain by Philip Ziegler’s genially deadpan biography. During the Reynolds News affair, each of the three siblings clicked into what had become his or her customary role: Edith was explosively and regally outraged, Sacheverell timidly lagged behind but put up no resistance, Osbert was heavily in charge of the stage-management. And this, as Ziegler tells it, was always pretty much the way of things. Although Osbert presented himself as super-arty and regularly waxed tremulous on the matter of his exquisitely febrile nervous system, he also liked to be regarded as a worldly sort of chap: a near-fulltime country gent and thoroughly good value London clubman. He was the artist’s aristo, but he was also the aristo’s artist. He liked hobnobbing with the royals, and they in turn were pleased to find his verses rather tickling. At the time of the Abdication, Osbert wrote a feeble satirical poem, called ‘Rat Week’, in which he attacked the court sycophants who had encouraged Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Simpson. Invitations to Windsor and Balmoral followed, and he was overjoyed. Ziegler, as biographer of Edward VIII, takes a detailed interest in this side of Osbert’s life, recording its highs and lows with scarcely a flicker of compassion:

One of the pleasures of intimacy with the royal family was the jealousy it aroused among less favoured acquaintances. At a ball at Londonderry House the Queen sent for Osbert and was ‘too charming for words ... I saw one or two people I don’t like looking very cross.’ At the Duchess of Sutherland’s he was less fortunate but he was solaced by a short chat with Queen Mary. Her secretary later told Osbert that he had made ‘a great hit’ with her. Next day Osbert dictated a letter to David Horner reporting this event. His secretary omitted the word ‘great’; Osbert proudly wrote it in.

It may be thought that there should have been something of a clash between Osbert’s social snobbery and his attachment to the avant-garde, his weakness for new literary fads and fashions. In fact, as Ziegler repeatedly makes clear, the two sides of him fitted together rather well. Each was kept going by Osbert’s steady appetite for public recognition. Quite simply, he could not bear the idea of being left behind, left out. Thus, although he cultivated his status as a rarefied minority author, he was at the same time constantly checking the sales figures of his books. And several of the books themselves – picture-books, travel jottings, collections of newspaper columns – had a desperate, pot-boiling look to them. It was not, as his enemies would note, that he ever really needed to make money from his writings. What he did need, though, was always to have something ‘coming out’: next spring, or in the autumn, or ‘quite soon’. None of his novels and hardly any of his verses won much critical applause but he kept plugging away, kept putting on the airs. And then, in the late Forties, he finally got lucky. His autobiography, Left Hand, Right Hand, became a huge bestseller, and Osbert was beside himself with glee. The rabble had finally rallied to the toff. About time too.

The pompously stylish prose of Left Hand, Right Hand is difficult to cope with these days and much of the book’s success must surely be put down to postwar class nostalgia. Sir Osbert was a proper gent and wrote like one, in sentences which seemed to have no end. He was grandly sonorous; he was snootily benign. He took his privileges for granted and wrote at his own leisurely gent’s pace. No wonder the postwar readership reached for its neglected forelock. By the end of the Forties, and in spite of Reynolds News, Osbert was once again a star, and on a bigger stage this time. As Ziegler writes, ‘the autobiography was to be found in virtually every English home which bought books with any regularity: matching in popularity ... the histories of Arthur Bryant and the novels of Evelyn Waugh.’

Around the same time, Edith too was hitting the jackpot with her full-hearted Fanfare for Elizabeth. And when Cyril Connolly – himself a somewhat Osbertish phenomenon, without the wealth – devoted a 1947 number of Horizon to persuading the world, and himself, that the Sitwells had ‘since 1938 grown enormously in stature’, Osbert’s pleasure was complete. As the praise and the royalties rolled in, he confessed himself ‘enchanted ... rather ill as a consequence of the excitement’. The stage was set for Amis and Larkin to dream up their annual ‘Osbert’.

At the peak of his late Forties triumph, Osbert was earning what would now be around £200,000 a year from his writings and could indulge his snobbishness with new authority: he had inherited a fortune but he also knew how to earn a living. In 1949, he published Demos the Emperor, a ‘secular oratorio’ in which his contempt for ordinary people, his new fans, was greedily indulged. In the poem, the Emperor Demos is pitted against a sort of Stalin/Hitler autocrat whom Osbert seemed on balance to prefer. ‘A black and bilious production’, Ziegler calls it, but the book’s attitudes are in line with what we have learned of Osbert’s politics. In 1949, though, with sales figures riding high, the thing seemed a touch ungrateful:

The Emperor Demos!
Sired by Caliban,
Demos the Emperor
Uprises from his couch of bluebells,
Mosaicked with cigarette ends
And bits of oily papers, newspaper and cartons.

Thus does he love to lie,
With cigarette stub clamped to loose lips of blubber

There was certainly a nasty streak in Osbert Sitwell, and although Ziegler’s instinct is to look the other way, he cannot bring himself to hide the evidence. The larger part of his biography is to do with Osbert’s complicated finances – his disputes with his eccentric father over Renishaw, the family seat, and over the Tuscan villa that would pass to Osbert when his father died, his various tax dodges, his cat-and-mouse money dealings with his brother and sister, his financial mood swings, which could take him from wild excess to equally wild stinginess. Although Osbert liked to seem extravagant and was often generous to writers he believed in (Dylan Thomas and George Barker received welcome gifts from time to time), he usually looked for a return on his investments. He needed always to control his beneficiaries and when crossed in finance he could turn vindictive. (In this he resembled his father, mad Sir George, who is savagely caricatured in Left Hand, Right Hand.) Sacheverell, the younger son, spent most of his life worrying about money and Osbert – who, from early on, had charge of the family purse-strings – rather liked to see his brother squirm. Or, rather, he liked to see his brother’s wife squirm. When they were boys, at Renishaw and later on at Eton, Sacheverell had worshipped Osbert. As young grownups they lived together for a time in London – like brother and brother, one might say, except that Osbert took it for granted that Sachie had eyes only for him. And then the young bounder went off and got married. Worse still, he got married to a shrew: a wife, that is, who believed that her weak aesthete of a husband was getting a raw deal from the Sitwell estate. For nearly forty years, Osbert waged war against this wife and Sachie was the one to suffer. After a lifetime of handouts, he – and the wife – were written out of Osbert’s will.

It was not that Osbert disliked women. There were many titled ladies he was very fond of. It did, though, take him most of his young adulthood to realise that he was homosexual. During the most saucy Sitwell years he was, it seems, near-celibate (i.e. Nancy Cunard may or may not have assaulted him). And when he did condescend to take notice of his sexuality he was, we are told here, in his late thirties – and, alas, much too surprised by joy. Ziegler strains hard to be fair-minded about the egregious David Horner, Osbert’s love partner for some forty years, but at the same time he makes sure that we don’t warm to the good-looking cad. A mischief-making parasite, Horner knew how to pull the Osbert strings – the malice, the vanity, the snobbery, the terror of neglect – and often seems to have pulled them just for fun: for Osbert-humbling fun, much of the time. Ziegler concludes of the relationship that ‘if Osbert thought he was getting value for money ... there is no reason why a biographer should be more censorious.’ This seems an oddly numbed approach to biography but happily Ziegler does not really mean it. A page further on, he is telling us that Horner ‘tried to weaken Osbert’s links with the outside world ... he reinforced Osbert’s baser prejudices ... He was a snob ... He was a racist ... an anti-semite of a virulence which made Osbert’s previous tendencies seem almost benevolent ... the tinge of malice which suffused Osbert’s anecdotes was altogether more lurid when Horner was in play.’ And so on. Yet the end-of-chapter verdict is as follows: ‘If Osbert had fallen in love with an amiable, kindly, patient, gentle man his development in the second half of his life might have been very different; but any such speculation is singularly unfruitful. If he had fallen in love with an amiable, kindly, patient, gentle man, he would not have been Osbert.’

Oh well, there you go. And this is typical of Ziegler’s far-be-it-from-me style of character assessment. Sometimes the approach is attractive. He lets the facts, which he assembles expertly, speak for themselves. Sometimes we yearn for a burst of evaluative intervention. Ziegler does not rate Osbert Sitwell at all highly as a writer and does not admire him as a man. ‘Is Osbert Sitwell therefore worth a book?’ he asks – after four hundred pages of painstaking exposition. The answer he comes up with is a bit too close to the answer Osbert himself would surely have, well, half-approved:

at the end, I am satisfied that Osbert is worth a book; not so much for what he did as for what he was. Osbert was an odd man out in many worlds: an aesthete among philistines, an aristocrat among bohemians ... In all he played an active and conspicuous role: it was possible to dislike Osbert Sitwell, to mock him, even to despise him, but it was very difficult to ignore him.