BOOK REVIEW / One degree under in the family triangle: Sacheverell Sitwell: Splendours and Miseries by Sarah Bradford, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
AS A young poet immediately after the First World War, Sacheverell Sitwell looked into the future and saw his own greatness:

The ideal pyramid will raise

its pinnacle too proud for praise,

that, like a diamond, writes a name

across the skies, and gives me fame.

His name was written all right, for a generation at least, but only the shared bit of it. His curse was to be, not Sitwell, but a Sitwell, even the minor Sitwell, with neither his brother Osbert's inheritance nor his sister Edith's literary celebrity. The usual place for 'Sachie' is in group biographies (there have been three, and he declined to give assistance to another project called Triad of Genius). Sarah Bradford has now singled him out, five years after his death, for one of his own. Predictably, though, his siblings' domination of his life fills the book with triangular patterns.

Isolated by their class, and isolated from their class by their cultivation of the arts, the Sitwells seemed to D H Lawrence 'as if they had been brought up on a desert island'. One of the seductions of that island was the sound of Edith singing your praises. Her puffing of Osbert, 'whose large strength', she reckoned, 'Great body and grave beauty still reflect / The Angevin dead kings from whom we spring', looks objective next to her idolatry of Sachie. Her astounding 40-page introduction to his Collected Poems of 1936 proclaims him 'one of the greatest (poets) that our race has produced in the last 150 years', and she would constantly remind him that he was 'a poet as great as Milton'.

Alas, his life's struggle was rather to prove himself a Sitwell as great as Edith. To this end, he gradually and with growing sullenness removed himself from the compact of all for one and one for all; at his sister's death he could be found bemoaning 'so much adulation of Edith going on . . . and nothing to encourage her younger brother, now at my best as a writer, and completely neglected by all and sundry'.

But the neglect which hurt him most was the kind he suffered in the wills of his father and brother. The 'Miseries' of Bradford's subtitle are almost all financial, and few readers will be able to register the full horror of them. 'I have had too much and more than my fair share of troubles' is an unimaginative complaint from one for whom 'wages' were an item of domestic expenditure rather than income, and whose biography has a hundred passages like this: 'They (Sachie and his wife Georgia) stayed with the Courtaulds at the Palazzo Morosini until mid-September, then with Bertie Landsberg at the Villa Malcontenta. After a brief visit to Padua they returned to Venice as guests of Sir Henry 'Chips' Channon.' And so on.

Sachie saw his marriage (in 1925) primarily as a means to avoid being one of three. Affairs began on both sides within 18 months. Sachie's infatuations - half of them with ballerinas - are characterised by his wife's observation: 'He cannot understand people at all . . . He sees them like pictures he has painted himself with no resemblance to reality except in outline and sometimes without even that.' Hence he could figure his three great loves as 'dancers at a masqued ball after fashion plates by Gavarni', and could write to Moira Shearer: 'I adore my bird of paradise though always surprised that you can talk.'

The ordinary stuff of humanity was likewise absent from his writing. Anthony Powell described the matter of his poems as 'the minutiae of aesthetic sensation, rather than the poet's relation to other people'. And the author of the prose works saw himself as 'the Mercury or Harlequin of these pages, designed . . . to run into the world with the messages of my own feelings'. He felt prolifically enough to fill 75 volumes. The best of them, such as the early Southern Baroque Art and some of the travel books, are purposeful applications of his acute sensitivity to beauty; the worst are incoherent, monotonous, dully fantastic and forbiddingly solipsistic. 'I write to please myself,' he explains, 'and I am my own best audience.' It is the fault of too many of his works that they imagine, and so deserve, and now achieve, no other.

Before he was 30, Sachie drew a prophetic portrait of Harlequin in old age: 'A stranger to sorrow, he feels with added bitterness the neglect that has befallen him . . . His career resembles that of an ornament passed out of fashion.' By the end of his own career, he had written himself into just such a lightly pathetic obsolescence. One late, E J Thribb-like poem tries weakly to re-animate the myth that everyone had left behind:

What an exciting world it was

When the three of us were young together:-

Even in trouble for being young

and having talent:-

Well it is over and finished now,

long ago,

And will never be again.

This is not the voice of a famous writer, but of an ornament passed out of fashion, or one third of a fashion; hence this biography. Sarah Bradford's previous subject was not Milton, but George VI, and while her book is an efficient deployment of the sources the Sitwells so abundantly generated, she is more at home with Sachie's social milieu, chalking up 'the Kenneth Clarks', and so on, as if for Jennifer's Diary, than she is with his writing. If you want an account of the genius of Sacheverell Sitwell, you still have to go to Edith.

(Photograph omitted)

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