EVEN THOSE WHO can look back upon a lifetime of anglophilia are likely to find The Sitwells gives them pause. However much the events of separate Sitwell lives may once have entranced us, conflated within one volume of biography, they appear merely an affront to virtue. Indeed, virtue being notoriously its own reward, the Sitwells in pursuit of the widest publicity and the rankest snobbery, desired nothing to subfusc. Yet their lives, though unelevating, are profoundly moralistic, for despite their great fame and royal friends, they ended as miserable and deprived as they had begun.One is left wondering if virtue's own reward is not preferable, after all.
There were three Sitwells-Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell-but after their spectacular leap to fame with Facade, that combination of poetry and music in which all three, with William Walton, dazzled the already bedazzled '20s, Sacheverell married, sired sons, wrote books, and more or less dropped out of the act. That left Edith and Osbert to combine the avant-garde with the aristocratically acceptable and become the main characters in John Pearson's biography. Two are sufficient. Like Lear's evil daughters, they seem coupled to convince us that they are meant to be frightful, and are not just an abberation. As frightful people so often do, Edith and Osbert make marvellous copy, acting out our most retrogade desires. Reading about them is fun not least because one can sinfully delight in it all, and yet watch them dissolve at the end, like the Wicked Witch of the West.
For most of the biography one hopes, one often desperately hopes, that Edith and Osbert will find happiness. The children of the most selfish and mismatched couple in the annals of the British aristocracy, they tried to compensate for their beastly parents and succeeded only in becoming like them. Edith's was by far the worst childhood of the three, and her refusal ever to let us like her in recompense for this is agonizing. She was, as first-born, a girl, inexcusable in itself, and moreover a homely girl who grew to be six feet tall and angular. Her father remarked often on her ugliness, and we long for her to turn into a princess. Not bloody likely. If she had a nose unkindly described as like anteater's, she would in turn describe other women's noses as like "tin-openers." She was nasty to young poets, detested other women poets, plagiarized those she insulted, and carried arrogance to new and dizzy heights. Throughout her life her successes, and they were great, were inevitably followed by despair and paranoia.
Osbert, the longed-for son, follows a path less excruciating but more outrageous. The conflict between his artistic and social ambitions was resolved by his friendship with the Duchess of York, who rewarded him by becoming Queen. If not wholly guilty of the "conceit, publicity-seeking, snobbery, the ruthless youth of anyone to boost a reputation, and terrible ingratitude" of which a former friend accused him, neither could these epithets can be called inaccurate, Osbert lived in Italy for many years but, Pearson tells us, never came to know Italy and therefore welcomed Mussolini, who made the world safe from "middle-class democracy" and unpunctual trains. Needless to add, Osbert supported the fascist Mosley in England. He also wrote a treatise on how best to wound one's enemies.
To write of persons who, like the Sitwells or the Beatles, are more phenomena than flesh requires a special biographical talent which Pearson notably possesses. The danger in writing the life of unappealing people is that one may loathe them before one is done. But Pearson never deludes himself into admiration; he keeps his distance, and describes his subjects with an impersonal affection lightly laced with disdain.
The only possible complaint arises from one aspect in Pearson's treatment of Edith. She failed by every human standard; however, Pearson chooses to measure her against the conventional female life, bemoaning her "thwarted maternal urges," her spinsterhood, her failure to "know what true physical love" could really mean. Surely her life is bizarre enough without being judged so simplistically.
But apart from his cliches about female destiny, Pearson succeeds well in recounting the life of two individuals who thought they knew what they wanted, got it, and died in grotesque pain. Each had one try at selfless courage, Edith when she joined the Church, Osbert when he first struggled with Parkinson's disease. Both failed. They never found a cause outside themselves in which to dissolve their anger at their parents. Readind The Sitwells, I wanted, for the first time in my literary life, to whistle up a psychoanalyst. Any psychoanalyst. Yet in the sinister delights of Pearson's biography, there is compensation for the Sitwells' failure to try a measure so drearily middle-class. CAPTION: Picture, of Edith Sitwell by Wyndham Lewis