Books: One man and his clan

Osbert Sitwell by Philip Ziegler Chatto & Windus, pounds 25; Eccentric, dilettante - or a canny cultural entrepreneur who made his family into his fortune? Annabel Freyberg explores the tumultuous times of a tribal elder
Born to eccentric, incompatible and hugely spoilt parents, Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell were uncomfortable, remote children who seemed to live in a world of their own. In a multitude of ways, this state of affairs endured for the rest of their lives. When D H Lawrence met them in the late 1920s he was bemused by their self-absorption, "as if they were marooned on a desert island and nobody in the world but their lost selves". The socially and artistically voracious triumvirate were by now renowned as writer-patrons; their reading through megaphones of Edith's Facade to William Walton's music passed into legend.

This self-dramatising was a gift to other writers. Noel Coward parodied them in a musical review; Wyndham Lewis mocked them savagely in The Apes of God; Aldous Huxley (in Chrome Yellow) and Lawrence (in Lady Chatterley's Lover) both based characters on Osbert. (This caused great umbrage; the family were keen feudsters.) The first biography of the three Sitwells appeared as early as 1927, and there have been several since, including excellent individual studies of Edith and Sacheverell.

This, however, is the first full-scale life of Osbert. He was the eldest son, the inheritor of the baronetcy and the family's forbiddingly grand home, Renishaw in Derbyshire, which mantles he cherished.

He took his vocation as a poet equally seriously. After serving in the First World War he became a dedicated pacifist and much of his early work is devoted to this theme. He strove hard to improve his craft and won good notices and critical acclaim. The work may no longer be read today, but Philip Ziegler undertakes a thoughtful critique of it.

Yet Osbert was quite unable to reconcile his position as artist and aristocrat. He dabbled in politics, acted as patron to William Walton, John Piper and Dylan Thomas, among others, even commissioned murals from the Italian Futurist Gino Severini, and spent an incredible amount of inherited money on pleasure while complaining constantly of his father's meanness. In the Thirties, he enjoyed popular success as a journalist and travel writer, but ironically, his writing - and his financial success - only really took flight when he turned his attention to his family.

His five-volume autobiography, Left Hand, Right Hand!, indulges his magnificent obsession with the Sitwells and above all with his father, Sir George, to the full. Osbert hated him - especially after he allowed their silly, spendthrift mother to go to court and then to prison for her debts - and did his best to ridicule him in print and in private.

Ziegler does his best to untangle far-fetched fact from fiction. Sir George was a restless, dogmatic, eccentric figure much given to bizarre inventions - a musical toothbrush, a small revolver for killing wasps - and megalomaniac building plans. Osbert's portrait of him was entertaining, (understandably) exaggerated and unsympathetic. Ziegler - and the reader - finds him engaging.

Money was at the root of Osbert's problems with his father, and caused increasing friction between the Sitwells. Edith and Sachie were financially dependent first on their father and then on Osbert. Both lived in fear that Osbert's long-standing and improvident boyfriend David Horner would deprive them of their means, and this anxiety ate into the family's unity. Osbert's own life loses much of its lustre in the last 20 years when he is stricken with Parkinson's; he faces it bravely with the help of another young man.

Philip Ziegler is a literary Cecil B deMille. He has successfully marshalled crowds of celebrity friends and acquaintances, their letters to and about each other, and a plethora of other garrulous sources, and comes up with a consistently engrossing book.

The dramatis personae help - a caustic Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, most of the Bloomsbury Group, Aldous Huxley, TS Eliot, Walter Sickert, Wyndham Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves - and so does Ziegler's empathy for his rebarbative subject. Osbert is frequently far from likeable. He was not a great writer. But he made things happen. Ziegler succeeds in making the reader care about the drama of his life and to see what was admirable in it.