The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 35: The Sitwells

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The Independent Culture
For a trio of writers who were as collectively prolific, and are still as collectively famous, as the Sitwells, it's amazing how little of their output has contrived to make it to the threshold of the millennium. In their joint entry in The Reader's Companion to 20th-Century Writers, Osbert's bibliography lists 11 novels, only one of whose titles, Before the Bombardment, continues to ring the tinniest of bells. As for Sacheverell, he is credited with the authorship of 67 - I repeat, 67! - individual volumes of poetry, the vast majority of which were published in the 1970s and 1980s. Published by whom? Read by whom?

Edith, of course, was far the best-known of the three, mainly by virtue of her extraordinary physique and eccentric dress sense: Lytton Strachey referred snidely to her "anteater's nose" and Elizabeth Bowen compared her imperiously bedizened manner to that of "a high altar on the move". She was, in fact, more persuasive as a poem than as a poet, just as her two siblings are likelier to be encountered in the indexes of other people's biographies than in their own now out-of-print works. From her many volumes of verse can be salvaged the memorable and regularly anthologised "Still Falls the Rain". To be sure, a single sliver of immortality is more than most poets can claim, but it does seem a paltry return for the expenditure of so much energy

Memorable, too, were the sprightly squibs of Facade, even if they've become more familiar to us in Walton's raffish musical setting. But what is interesting about Facade, whose translingual title intimates an affinity with such eupeptic Parisian ballets of the same period as Parade and Salade, is that it suggests that Edith might have been born into the wrong nationality, just as a transsexual feels trapped in the wrong gender. The French language would have offered a more congenial home for her mercurial verbal brilliance.

We come, finally, to the question of class. Whatever else may be said of the British cultural scene at the fin of this siecle, there can be no doubt that it has been completely democratised. There is, in consequence, less and less nostalgic affection for the old-boy (and old-girl) network of upper-crust and upper-middle-crust scribblers who dominated literary life during the interwar years. The Sitwells, alas for them, were among the last of the poet-toffs.

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