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The Art of Being a Sitwell

ISSUE:  Summer 1980
If you are two brothers and a sister and you all write poetry, it is extremely hard not to be lumped together as a group.
Sir Sacheverell Sitwell, as quoted in John Pearson’s The Sitwells: a Family’s Biography

In the early months of 1915, British newspaper readers were enthralled and scandalized by the case of a titled woman, granddaughter of a duke, whose husband had allowed her to go to prison for three months rather than settle her longstanding debts to a crooked moneylender. While the public probably understood that the husband, Sir George Sitwell of Renishaw Hall near Sheffield, was giving his bubbleheaded wife a sharp lesson in domestic economy, it was felt that the teacher was going a bit far, especially as Sir George enjoyed substantial revenues from coal and his estate. The couple’s three children, Osbert, a Guards officer, Edith, a temporary civil servant in London, and Sacheverell, still a school-boy at Eton, shared this opinion. The shock of seeing their beautiful, feckless mother sent to Holloway Prison produced such a reaction that, in the words of their latest biographer, John Pearson, they were freed at a stroke from the ties of their class and the authority of their father. United against a world grown menacing, the three made a vow that they would live down the shame and “leave a mark of some sort of kind.” They would do this in order to show the world that “henceforth the name Sitwell had nothing to do with Sir George and Lady Ida.”

They were to make their mark in the field of the arts, and this was no accident. At the time of the trial Edith had already published a handful of poems and was encouraging the precocious Sacheverell to do likewise. As for Osbert, he had had his revelation in 1912 when he saw Karsavina dance the Firebird; he had understood for the first time “the power of art to supersede reality, and to create a world of fantasy and joy.” The singlemindedness with which the Sitwells pursued their vision through the years of the war and the period immediately afterwards may be gauged by the fact that only eight years after Lady Sitwell’s catastrophe a London newspaper could say of the trio, “They are all poets. But they are more than that. They are a cult.”

Pearson makes much of the trial and imprisonment of Lady Sitwell and sees in it a key to the later development of the three, especially Osbert and Edith, the real subjects of his book. In fact, rather like an analyst, he has perhaps made everything fit in with this theory so that there are times when The Sitwells reads like a case history, the notes of a prolonged hysterical tantrum in public, or, even, an arraignment. The charge seems to be that Osbert and Edith were two of the most accomplished literary hustlers of all time and if the English title of Pearson’s book, Facades, suggests that he is dealing with a couple of phonies, the text itself falls a little short of so direct a statement. It thus escapes by a hair’s breadth being a hatchet job, but it does its work more subtly: there is a fairness that kills, a drift and an intention that are unbalanced. As it stands, setting the Sitwells in the life of their period without a detailed examination of their works (although there are many shrewd and illuminating insights), it is essentially a book about a couple of enterprising self-publicists who also happened to write and—surprise, surprise—sometimes produced excellent things that were admired by some of the most perceptive minds of their time.

It could be argued that this is precisely the treatment the Sitwells have always received from a large section of the public, an attitude that reached its perfect form in Leavis’ comment that they belonged more to the history of publicity than poetry. This would be unfair to Pearson, who also provides us with a great deal of information about the Sitwells that we had not known before and, in effect, fills in the gaps in the autobiographies of Osbert and Edith. He has received the active help of the Sitwell family, including the survivor of the trio, Sir Sacheverell, and everyone concerned has shown an admirable dispassion in revealing family secrets. The curious might be piqued toward the end by some vagueness about the Sitwell fortune, but in time, no doubt, even these details will be filled in. Pearson stresses that this is not an “official” biography, whatever that is, and the book is not, as its publishers claim, really a “family biography” at all. Sir Sacheverell remains very much in the background, and Pearson excuses this by stating that “Sir Osbert and Dame Edith loved the limelight and wrote interminable letters. Sir Sacherevell loved privacy and wrote books. I have respected his desire for privacy as much as possible and left a fuller assessment of his considerable literary achievement to Denys Sutton, who will be dealing with it in a forthcoming book.”

The reader is not obliged to accept this. I daresay the reason Pearson deals so fully with Osbert and Edith is that they are dead (Edith in 1964; Osbert in 1969), and most of their private papers and notebooks have been sold or given to public collections. Sir Sacheverell is still alive and well and living elegantly in Northamptonshire.

In the course of his book, Pearson quotes a lampoon which Robert Nichols, a onetime friend, wrote about Osbert:

Today a poet is not read—he’s seen
And when unseen (too sick, say, to go out),
He is not read—Lord, no—he’s read about.

That was the situation in 1934; today the freedom to discuss people (and not read them) is even greater. The Sitwells are out of favor, but they happen to have been the last of the Victorians, quite prudish about themselves in spite of their command of Madison Avenue techniques, and the cache of material Pearson has found is of extraordinary human interest. Some of the letters are the kind of material earlier generations would have burned or set aside in Reserve Rooms. It is the biographer’s good fortune to live in a time when the dying away of the concept of shame has created a whole new class of readers avid for details about the lives of the once great. This audience, grown brutal on sweat, tears, and intimacies, is presumably the same audience that must in time learn to read the Sitwell works. Whether this will happen is an open question for the simple reason that the Sitwells wrote for a small, cultivated readership and loathed the platitudinous multitude above all. But there is no harm in trying to throw the net wide; and Pearson makes a bid to warm the heart of this desensitized, semiliterate mass by stressing the Sitwells’ competitiveness and their obsession with power and success, and he fills out every detail of the literary excitements and quarrels in which they were involved, including: the brouhaha over Façade, the theory that D. H. Lawrence used Osbert as a model for Sir Clifford Chatterley, Edith’s feud with Wyndham Lewis and Geoffrey Grigson, their lawsuits, and their public appearances. Anyone with an eye for human character will enjoy all this greatly, and it is to Pearson’s credit that he can make something quite fresh of material that has been turned into a kind of aesthete’s folklore.


* Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $15



Less folklorique and much more astonishing is the material Pearson has assembled on the two friendships that dominated the lives of Edith and Osbert. In the case of Edith, this material helps to place the mood of some of her poems, but it does not entirely explain the note of tragedy that runs through her work almost from the beginning. The full story will not be known until the year 2000, when the letters between Edith and her great love, the Russian émigré painter, Pavel Tchelitchew, are made available to the public by Yale University Library, but what we know is strange enough.

Tchelitchew was introduced to Edith by Gertrude Stein. From the first, he was captivated by Edith’s extraordinary presence and later painted her portrait several times. He offered her friendship on uncomfortable terms (for an ordinary mortal, that is), and Edith accepted; over many years she served him as muse, mother, and impresario. Edith loved him and believed him to be one of the greatest painters of his generation. Pearson thinks she understood that Tchelitchew was homosexual. At all events, she made friends with the young men who shared his life. During the 1930’s, Edith spent much time in Paris (a period that Pearson is not able to fill out as well as he might) in order to be near him, but the 1939 war separated them. It was not until Edith went to New York after the war that the friendship faltered, and then it was the result of a wild scene that Tchelitchew made in a New York restaurant. According to Pearson, Tchelitchew, “white-faced with anger,” denounced Edith for being “self-obsessed” and for letting herself be corrupted by the “vulgar social figures who surrounded her.” He accused her of betraying the poet in her, the part he cherished, and “crudest of all, he coldly told her that everything that had ever been between them now was over.” Edith left for home the next day and spent the Atlantic crossing in bed. It was possible for her to forgive him, and there was a reconciliation of a kind. Pearson, in one of his few attempts to open up the works, argues plausibly that this unsatisfactory passion is the real subject of Edith’s only novel I Live under a Black Sun, published in 1937. This does not redeem the final impression of waste and cruelty, for which Tchelitchew must take most of the blame. There is some waste and cruelty, too, in Osbert’s friendship with David Horner, a younger man who shared his house and his travels for about 30 years. Their relationship was on a far more rational basis than that of Edith and Tchelitchew: it even permitted Horner to keep his own friends and travel apart when he needed to. Trouble began later on, about the time that Osbert was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and was confined to a wheelchair. Horner was not the man to turn sick attendant, and he made no effort to do so. Osbert was obliged to hire male nurses. All were unsatisfactory until the arrival of Frank Magro, a British subject of Maltese origin. Magro proved to be the ideal attendant and in time became Osbert’s confidant and traveling companion. Magro genuinely admired Osbert, and it was unfortunate that Horner resented this. On the evidence produced by Pearson, Horner behaved badly, a dog in the manger, and Osbert was at last obliged to order him out of the flat they both shared in London. He also cut him out of his will. This was a blow to Horner, himself a sick man, and we have to assume that he solaced himself by making Osbert’s letters and notes to him available to the University of Texas. Through these letters we get the main details of Osbert’s courtship—no other term fits—and the extent of Osbert’s dependence on him. Very few items in Pearson’s book suggest more poignantly the violation of privacy inseparable from enterprises of this kind than the grave, uncamp expression of Osbert’s devotion. Some of the notes were merely exchanges of ideas from one part of the shared house to another (carried presumably by a parlormaid in a frilled cap using a silver tray), and one of these sticks in the mind: “It’s a sort of desecration to let people one doesn’t want enter into the heart and its secrets,”

Edith had expressed much the same feeling in her review of John Malcolm Brinnin’s grisly book about Dylan Thomas: “Great men welcome that privacy to which the humblest of us is entitled and which should not, in my opinion, be denied the greatest.”

Pearson’s book will guarantee that the Sitwells are denied privacy and, to this extent and with the best will in the world, it must be regarded as a sort of desecration. This does not mean that desecration need be a mournful task. The Sitwells were people of infinite resource who knew almost everyone of interest in the literary field of their time. They were aristocrats among poets and poets among aristocrats; they were prickly and disconcerting.


“From the beginning,” Pearson writes, “they were a self-contained literary and artistic movement in themselves, and as with any movement they were invariably concerned with power. They needed contacts, allies and publicity—an entire machine—and it was in creating this, rather than in their earliest work, that they revealed the full force of their powers.”

When Aldous Huxley met them in 1917, he reported to his brother that “their great object is to rebel, which sounds quite charming: only one finds that the steps they are prepared to take, the lengths they will go are so small as to be hardly perceptible to the naked eye.”

What, of course, the Sitwells were rebelling against was not the economic order (despite Edith’s later Gold Coast Customs) but Sir George and his tyrannical hold over their lives. Pearson sides with the children in their struggle against the parents and shares their view of Sir George as a man who always knew best, obsessed by a “crippling concern with birth and money” and remarkable for his “hypocrisy, his lunatic omniscience and the continual power-game he played with his dependents.” There is, furthermore, no evidence that he showed any remorse—or even mild regret—for his part in his wife’s disaster. Lady Ida is summed up just as harshly with her “extraordinary stupidity, her self-indulgent sense of “fun” and the disastrous belief that everything could ultimately be fixed and work out for the best.”

The three children referred to the parents as The Gingers, and one of the marks of intimacy with them was to be allowed to hear anecdotes about the Gingers’ extraordinary ideas and behavior. The literary acquaintances Osbert and Edith made in their first years in London would no doubt have been enthralled by such glimpses of upper-class life as the Sitwells chose to share. As Osbert’s autobiography makes clear, almost every member of the family was a character or an eccentric. The mixed Scots, Irish, and English blood produced the whole span of upper-class interest: hunting and shooting, landscape gardening, building, and redeeming (by prayer and example) the lower classes, especially fallen women. Although the Sitwells had known good years and bad, the three poets grew up at a period of great prosperity with households of servants and hangers-on—and a red carpet to cover the long walk from the family villa at Scarborough to the shore. Sir George spent a fortune creating pleasure grounds at Renishaw and at Montegufoni, the vast castello outside Florence that he acquired almost in a fit of absentmindedness and later made his home.

There can be no doubt that the Sitwells inherited from their Yorkshire Tory forebears their determination to be at the center of things; like all rural magnates, they took this to be their natural place. Anyone who dared to demur was dismissed as “impertinent,” and, in time, their manners became not so much aristocratic as regal. Gertrude Stein had described Osbert as looking like the uncle of a king, and W. H. Davies, the tramp poet, a great admirer, once told Edith that she was “always as fine as a queen.” In later years, Edith insisted on her royal blood. She told Tennessee Williams that she was a Plantagenet and then added Elizabeth Tudor to her personal collection of significant kinsmen, of the spirit if not significantly of the blood. This is harmless enough; England is full of honest-to-God folk claiming descent from who knows what lord or lordling. What made the Sitwells disconcerting was their combining an upper-class social assurance with attitudes that were essentially bohemian or aesthetic. Nothing mattered but art, and the most important citizens in any society were its artists. Heady stuff in an England still smothered by the gentility principle and Victorian philistinism; it made the Sitwells disconcerting allies and uncompromising enemies.

Pearson is very good at defining the precise and quite limited terrain where they operated. London after the 1914—18 war was still “London,” a recognizable social entity that could be conquered and seen to be conquered. The battlefield was spread over the drawing rooms of the great hostesses, the offices of literary magazines, and the no man’s land in between. The printed word was supreme without rivalry from radio or television or, for that matter, the cinema. Into this parochial little world dominated by the last disciples of the mousy, pastoral-romantic Georgian tradition, the Sitwells brought the notions of wit and elegance, the baroque and the cosmopolitan, a determination to be modern, to keep abreast with the latest in poetry and painting being produced in France, and a natural gut-hatred for the compromises of the age of the common man and the cant of popular taste. The Sitwells made their point and several enemies. In due time, they provided targets for satirists themselves, and Pearson goes into great detail about the anti-Sitwellites. About ten pages get taken up with the Noel Coward vendetta. I would have given up every one for a further discussion of Edith’s key early poem, The Sleeping Beauty, which only merits twenty lines or so.

During the twenties, as Huxley had noted, the Sitwells suggested rebellion; but theirs was essentially a revolt of feeling, and there is little evidence that they ever wished for an overthrow or even a modification of the way England was run. Osbert had been an unconvincing Liberal candidate in his father’s old seat in 1918 and later was briefly involved with Sir Oswald Mosley’s New Party; there was, however, little solid political thinking in anything he did. His political reactions were those of an aesthete and intellectual snob who disapproved but had nothing better to suggest. Like many men who served in France in the 1914—18 war, he became a pacifist and, as such, hostile to the generation of old men who had caused and waged the war with the lives of their children. This was probably his most consistently held belief and lasted right up until the 1939—45 war. By this time, ordinary people knew that pacifism was an irrelevance, and Osbert was a prophet with only a marginal following.

The case of his sister was markedly different. From her low church Scots forebears she had inherited a strong religious impulse which led to her conversion to Catholicism in the years after World War II. Her intense feeling erupted suddenly in Gold Coast Customs in 1930, when she said that her period of technical experimentation was done. The poem created some stupefaction at the time. Here was the creator of elegant and amusing trifles or brilliant technical exercises, dependent on one’s viewpoint, suddenly creating a diatribe against contemporary society and equating it with those African tribal societies that indulge in a perfect contempt for human life.

There was no immediate follow-up, and the next decade was a difficult one for Edith and her brothers. Their audience seemed to have deserted them—their stocks were low—and the younger critics tended to be questioning, if not hostile. By this time, too, the mutual admiration society had broken up: Sacheverell had married a beautiful banker’s daughter from Montreal and retired with a smallish private income to live in the country, interspersing long periods of work and seclusion with exotic travel; Osbert and David Horner traveled “while the going was good,” and Edith, as already noted, spent a great deal of time in Paris. During this period Edith wrote very little poetry. She had accepted responsibility for the welfare of Helen Rootham, the onetime governess who had helped her escape from Renishaw to London in 1913 and had stayed with her to act as chaperon when Edith gave her famous tea parties. This meant that she undertook to write prose books, on Queen Victoria, English Eccentrics, and Bath, to make money.

The outbreak of war in 1939 ended this period of uneasy travel and backbreaking commissioned work. She and Osbert retired to Renishaw and stayed there for the duration of the war. In this time of near-isolation from the outside world, both produced their greatest work, in totally different fields. Osbert worked throughout the war on his autobiography, and Edith began writing poetry again and in so doing took up her task on a quite different level from her earlier work. Her religious feeling deepened, and she responded to the war in terms that would have been understandable to almost any generation but her own: it was an event which proved, if any further proof was needed, that Man was indeed fallen and could be redeemed only by the blood of Christ. In wartime England, when sensibilities were sharpened to the possibility of death and destruction mornings and evenings, such poems had extraordinary resonance. In the more Pelagian mood of the postwar period they seemed overwrought, a poetic attitude. Pearson does not escape this reaction when he later discusses Edith’s conversion to Catholicism.

As the war ended, Edith moved back to London, staying at the Sesame Club, the rather dowdy establishment that was to be her base for the last period of her life when she reigned as the queen of English letters. Pearson says of this period: “Her techniques of public and of personal relations had immeasurably improved. Certainly no living poet could have hoped to muster anything like the personal support which Edith could command from influential members of the literary establishment. One can be very cynical about it all, seeing the way she operated as proof that Dr. Leavis had been right. But to say this is to miss the essence of her particular achievement. For Edith was not concerned with merely writing poetry. She was born, as she reiterated, to be a poet, and over the years she had been learning to live out this dedicated role.” Pearson says of the new public poet who emerged: “Consummate actress that she was, she lived the part of the celebrity that she had made herself, using her charm, her wit, her friendships to further and promote her work. She was quite shameless and quite single-minded in the way she did this.”

The last period of the lives of Osbert and Edith is almost legendary. After the great success of Osbert’s autobiography and Edith’s late poetry, they toured the United States and were able to beat Hollywood at its own game. There were several years of triumph before the sicknesses of old age began to hamper and depress. Both Osbert and Edith had tended to hypochondria, but in their last years their sicknesses were real: both were obliged to make use of wheelchairs to get around, and the story of their late lives is of one stratagem after another to thwart and hold back the onset of total incapacity. It says much for them that for all their combativeness, they were able to find friends to help them in their distress. Osbert found Frank Magro and, in return for his devotion, made him his executor and left him a life interest in part of the Italian castello. Edith was surrounded by young people who nursed her, typed her letters, and, in the case of her secretary, Elizabeth Salter, saved her from financial trouble by rescuing notebooks and paintings from Paris that fetched a good amount of money when auctioned.


Osbert and Edith Sitwell, it comes as a shock to recall, occupied a prominent place in London intellectual life for 50 years, give or take a few years either way. Osbert became a powerful committee figure; Edith used her prestige to advance the claims of younger authors she admired. After Osbert’s illness necessitated his retreat to the Italian estate, Edith was left alone to cope with the limelight. After a remarkable television appearance, she had become a British institution, and even those who had never read a word she had written understood that they were in the presence of an old lady of exceptional spirit: a character, evidently; some said a genius. For longtime admirers these were dangerous years as a pseudo-Sitwell, created by indiscriminate newspaper interviews and testy, self-indulgent opinions, took over from the painstaking worker with words. It was often difficult at this period to convince newcomers to the scene of the essential seriousness of the Sitwells; and Edith, living up to what the public expected by wearing a Tudoresque head-dress and aquamarine rings that weighed down her exceptionally beautiful hands, did not help matters. It followed that the death of the brother and sister brought an unusually severe reaction. Even in the offices of the publisher who had brought out Osbert’s autobiography and Edith’s last poems, the younger editors wondered what all the fuss was about.

The question now is whether Pearson’s book will do anything to cause a revival in interest in these two oeuvres — and a fairer assessment of what both achieved. There is a danger that, having enjoyed Pearson’s book as an anthology of good stories and larger-than-life behavior, the uncommitted reader will shy away, having had more than his fair share of Sitwelliana. Pearson’s book does not help a serious consideration of the two careers by its episodic, intertwined form. Time and again we are forced to consider the lives of Osbert and Edith like the two faces of a coin, one minute one way, one minute another. This is to do them a disservice; it is time they were judged as individuals and not as part of a family menagerie. Although the two were deeply attached and lived together in Renishaw and Italy, their personalities differed, and so did their tastes. Nothing more sums up the difference between them than the wartime period when they lived, at a distance, within the vast emptiness of Renishaw. Osbert used his time in writing what was in effect an elegy for his class and its way of life: a privileged bystander giving thanks to all those before him who had made that privileged detachment possible. Edith in another part of the house turned outwards to the world in its time of suffering. Transcending time and place and all the real and imagined humiliations of a life that had not provided exactly what she might have prayed for, she became the consoling mother; she took on herself the sorrows of a whole generation, and she tried, as best she could, to console it: “But I am one who must bring back sight to the blind.” Those were her greatest days, and during them there is a universality about Edith that was—and is—rare among women of letters. The maiden lady transcended herself, having already transcended family and class.

What Pearson’s book cannot give us—probably only a close reading of the notebooks and correspondence would do so—is a truly interior history of how this rare being, part show-off, part victim, part self-taught pedant, part holy-woman, suddenly came together at this time. There can be few progresses more unpredictable than the journey from Façade and The Sleeping Beauty to “Lullaby,” “Tears,” or “Once my Heart was a Summer Rose.” Yet the early poetry is there in the later one: the same love of color, something that she could lay on like a worker in enamels, the same love of strange words, the same personal rhythms as though a woman of 30 had just learned nursery rhymes. One small touch comes to mind: it is the use of the French nurse’s sound “do-do”—the equivalent of “bye-bye”—as used in The Sleeping Beauty and in the wartime “Lullaby.” In the early poem, a berceuse inserted into the flow of the story, the lullaby is sung to the fated princess who is compared to a tree that drips with gold. In “Lullaby” the same sound is used as materialism tries to comfort a dying world:

Heed my ragged lullaby,
Fear not living, fear not chance;
All is equal—blindness, sight,
There is no depth, there is no height:
Do, do.
The Judas-coloured sun is gone,
And with the Ape thou art alone—

The two periods of most intense inspiration lasted a comparatively short time, and the critic or scholar who inquires into Edith Sitwell’s poetry will have to try to create some pattern (if there is one) in the muse’s visitations. Even the wartime apocalyptic vision soon dimmed, and the insights turned into mechanical tropes that do not even succeed as homiletic exercises. She adopted the mask of the sybil (“I an old woman in the light of the sun”) and produced poems with long Blakean lines, but too often they read like self-parodies. In this last period of her life, clearly finding much of her early books alien, the work of another person, she tried to pillage her first poems for signs of the later significance. Thus The Sleeping Beauty was chopped up into songs and sections, a habit that Elizabeth Salter and Allanah Harper follow in their otherwise benign and sympathetic selection from Edith’s work published some years back. Any reconsideration of the work as a whole demands complete poems, printed in the order they were written.

Edith Sitwell’s prose is less interesting to those who admire the poetry. It reads too much like first draft poetry, and peculiar Sitwellesque telescoped images clog the page. A good example can be found in her book on Alexander Pope, a poet Edith had loved since childhood. Here she is describing “The Rape of the Lock”: “ That miracle of summer air, airy and glittering as the nets of the summer light and early dew over the strawberry beds—a poem so airy that it might have been woven by the long fingers of the sylphs in their dark and glittering Indian gauzes, floating like a little wind among the jewelled dark dews on the leaves of the fruit trees.” To which the reader can only say, “Amen.”

Osbert’s case is somewhat different. His Left Hand Right Hand volumes have continued to sell in hardback and paperback ever since his death and seem established as the swansong of Edwardian England and a certain kind of florid, peaches-and-chilled-hock style that flourished then. The novels and short stories have worn less well. Osbert Sitwell was not really at home in either form. For example, although he loved Before the Bombardment, his immortelle-like evocation of pre-1914 Scarborough, above all his works and asked to have a copy of the book buried with him, it has become difficult to read. There is something tedious and self-regarding in Osbert’s fictional work, and he indulged too often in the bad habit of using fiction to get even with old adversaries.

His travel books, especially Escape with Me!, still have vitality and a real historic interest, since the Sitwell brothers were travelers of taste and initiative. They more or less opened up southern Italy to modern art-lovers and taught a generation of English people how to appreciate the art and architecture of non-Western cultures. Pearson has some good comments on Osbert’s output but seems to go astray when he faults him for being too discreet in his memoirs. Apart from the fact that it is really absurd for a biographer to regret the reticences that he (the biographer) is only too happy to fill in, he seems wide of the point. Osbert knew very well what he wanted to do when he set out to recreate the world of his ancestors and parents. “I want my memories to be old-fashioned and extravagant” since the aim was “to beguile, and not to improve, the mind.” He went on: “I do not pretend to tell the reader everything, only to paint for him in a setting, a portrait, of which, as in a surrealist picture, many diverse incidents compose the features. I leave the skeletons in their cupboards, and the flesh in its clothing, and walk where I will.” It seems a bit hard of Pearson to cavil because Osbert has not told all and everything about himself, especially his private life.

Be that as it may. What is quite clear is that an artist, whether a poet or a painter, is more than the sum total of the events of his life. The biographer can catalogue every minute of any given working day and still be no nearer to the mysteries of inspiration. Pearson has come as near as anyone can to filling in the calendar of the Sitwells’ lives, but he has missed the face the poets turned toward their own heavens, an artificial paradise in the case of Osbert, a more sober and lasting one in Edith’s. Pearson is a child of his time, and the difficulties that he has had in convincing himself that the Sitwells were really writers of some value is that which most people of his ilk will experience. The Sitwells are at once too obviously “charming” and too serious; they are, in their own way, committed. In any case, it is doubtful whether any writer can please for long the typical contemporary reader, so knowing about trivialities, so suspicious of failure, so contemptuous of success, so avid for salacious detail, so ready to be shocked by these same details: an uncomfortable, overeducated doubter with the conniving eye of the debauchee and the sour, prim mouth of the Puritan.


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