Cover image for Osbert Sitwell
Osbert Sitwell
Ziegler, Philip.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Physical Description:
xiii, 444 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Chatto & Windus, 1998.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR6037.I83 Z97 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



A wonderfully witty, major new biography of the renowned poet, novelist, essayist and legendary twentieth-century eccentric, from the best-selling author of Mountbatten and King Edward VIII. The Sitwells -- Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell -- were the enfants terribles of the 1920s; outflanked in the 1930s by the politically conscious generation of Auden, Isherwood and Spender; then resurgent after World War II, when Osbert's autobiography, Left Hand, Right Hand!, achieved critical and commercial success and he and Edith took the United States by storm. At the heart of every literary fracas from 1918 until well after 1945, Osbert was a close friend and sometime sparring partner of T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly, and a ferocious enemy of Noël Coward, the Leavises and Winston Churchill. His love life was notoriously turbulent; he could be outrageous, perverse, arrogant, bullying; he could be generous, loyal, considerate, public-spirited -- but he was never dull. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, this entertaining biography provides extraordinary social insights, a striking overview of literary Britain in this century and, above all, a moving portrait of a remarkable human being.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Sir Osbert Sitwell (1892^-1969) published nearly 60 works in his lifetime, in almost every genre. Unfortunately, it's difficult to gain respect as a serious writer when you're the son of an English baronet and raised in castles, and even your friends, such as Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf, assume you're just a dilettante. Worse still, Osbert's sister, Edith, was a genius who wrote poetry herself, and their brother, Sacheverell, dabbled a bit with the pen as well; the effect was that "the fabulous Sitwells" were often lumped together and trotted out like a circus act. It wasn't until middle age that Sir Osbert undertook the five-part autobiography that established his reputation: Left Hand, Right Hand! (1945). In it, he painted amusing sketches of his aristocratic childhood, charming both critics and the public. Elizabeth Bowen said of Sir Osbert's work: "He anatomizes not a single life, but an age." Ziegler's entertaining biography examines Sir Osbert's work in detail but also recalls the hilariously antagonistic relationship with his father, his feuds with countless rival writers, and the four stormy decades he spent with companion David Horner. --James Klise

Publisher's Weekly Review

Curiously, Osbert, the senior of the three extraordinary children of Sir George, has never had a major biography of his own, though both his siblings have. Perhaps would-be biographers thought that, after the glories of his multivolume autobiography, beginning with Left Hand, Right Hand, there was very little a biographer could addÄand that any work he or she could do was bound to be overshadowed by the lambent prose and sprawling magnificence of their subject's own work. Fortunately, Philip Ziegler, who has created notable studies of Lord Melbourne, Lady Diana Cooper and Lord Mountbatten, took up the challenge and was able to survive with credit on both counts. He has the measure of the English aristocracy and its often peculiar ways, writes with considerable panache and has largely succeeded in making the extremely odd Osbert comprehensible if never entirely likable. It seems strange now, when they are seen largely as eccentric fringe figures, how Osbert, Sacheverell and Edith dominated English literary culture for much of the period between the wars, even to the point of becoming journalistic celebrities. On their American tours in the 1950s, Osbert and Edith became almost as celebrated over here. Edith had a fierce but small poetic talent and Osbert was a highly skilled man of letters who could turn his hand with equal facility to verse and travel journals, but who only really hit his stride in the magisterial memoirs. Indelibly snobbish, thin-skinned, imbued with all the unpleasant prejudices against Jews and dark-skinned people that were endemic to his time and class, Osbert could also be extremely generous, was a warm and witty (and endlessly extravagant) host and cherished many notable friendships. Despite his efforts, he may have never really escaped the shadow of Sir George, which he tried so hard to exorcise with ridicule in his memoirs. In midlife he implicitly acknowledged his homosexuality by taking on a companion, David Horner, who drove a wedge between Osbert and the rest of the family. The later onset of Parkinson's disease, against which he struggled hopelessly but courageously for years, further clouded his life at the close. Osbert's is a story that encompasses wide swathes of English cultural and social life in the first half of the century. Ziegler has told it so stylishly that even its hypercritical subject might have approved. Illus. not seen by PW. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The SitwellsÄEdith, Osbert, and SacheverellÄwere perhaps the most famous literary family between the wars. This well-done biography examines the life of poet, novelist, and essayist Osbert, best known for his memoir Left Hand, Right Hand. Ziegler (The Black Death) details Osbert's early life, from his schooling at Eton to his military service in World War I (which served to instill in him a permanent resentment at the futility of war) to his development as a writer. Ziegler digs deep to discern truth from fiction in his memoir and provides insights into Osbert's relationships with the likes of T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and Cyril ConnollÄto name a few. He also examines Osbert's long-term relationship with David Horner. An informative look not only at an individual but an era now long gone; recommended for all literary collections.ÄRonald Ray Ratliff, Emporia P.L., KS (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

A highly praised biographer (King Edward VIII, 1990; Mountbatten, CH, Sep'85; and many other biographical and historical works), Ziegler has written an elegant and-well informed biography of a man who, with his sister Edith and brother Sacheverell, formed one of the reigning families of British literature from the period just after WW I to the early post-WW II years. In fact, the family was known as much for its talent for self-promotion as for its literary gifts. Osbert's brother and sister have received more attention in recent years, so Ziegler's astute reassessment is especially welcome. As a cultural figure who knew T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Winston Churchill, and many other famous artists and politicians, Osbert Sitwell is undoubtedly important; but Ziegler is rightly circumspect about the value of his subject's writing. He suggests that Osbert's autobiography may be his finest achievement, the only book in which he was able to transmute his family's pretensions into great art. Ziegler's documentation is especially useful; in addition to bibliographical notes on the manuscript sources he consulted, the biographer includes a full listing of Osbert's books and of books about him and his family. For large academic collections supporting the study of English 20th-century literary and cultural history. C. Rollyson; Bernard M. Baruch College, CUNY



Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell was a man whose pride in his aristocratic ancestry coexisted uneasily with his conviction that the artist was the sole truly superior being. Only in his autobiography, where his background and upbringing were triumphantly transmuted into art, did these two ill-suited elements achieve complete reconciliation. His ancestry was, indeed, imposing; if not quite so splendiferous as he, and still more his sister Edith, were accustomed to assert. The Sitwells -- or Cytewelles, as they were spelt in the fourteenth century -- had been landowners in Derbyshire for over six hundred years. In the seventeenth century they ventured into industry, set up a large iron-works at Eckington, became one of the world's pre-eminent manufacturers of nails, and built themselves a fine new house at Renishaw, a few miles from their previous home. The direct line ended with the death of William Sitwell in 1776. William's nephew, Francis Hurt, inherited Renishaw. Francis evidently had great reverence for the family name: not only did he give it to his son as a Christian name but on succeeding to Renishaw he adopted it as his own surname. Young Sitwell Hurt, when he eventually inherited the estate, thus did so as Sitwell Sitwell: "Perhaps his hypersensitive descendant should resume the patronymic and call himself Sir Hurt Hurt," remarked Evelyn Waugh in 1961. In his autobiography Osbert ignored his manufacturing forebears by leaping boldly from the early Cytewelles to the first baronet, Sir Sitwell Sitwell. "There are precious few Englishmen who could not assume a mediaeval name if they chose to pick about in their pedigree," Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford. This was less well justified than his earlier jibe; though it may have strayed through the female line, Osbert's direct descent from fourteenth-century Derbyshire landowners could not be questioned. But Osbert certainly preferred not to dwell on the family's brush with trade four hundred years later; he left the source of Sitwell Sitwell's wealth discreetly obscure. He showed no similar reticence when it came to the zest with which Sitwell Sitwell and his heir dissipated the fruits of their ancestors' industry; this, indeed, Osbert felt more a matter for congratulation than for shame. Sir Sitwell, as he was to become after the Prince Regent visited Renishaw and repaid the hospitality with a baronetcy, displayed the incontinent extravagance that was to mark his descendants. He built stables, gates, triumphal arches; imported marble chimney-pieces which had been discarded by the Duke of York, pictures and tapestries, fine furniture; flung out a ballroom: all so that the Regent could be entertained in the style to which he was accustomed. Fortunately for posterity, he had excellent taste and left a much embellished property behind him; unfortunately for his heir, he also left a much diminished fortune to match the lavish train of life which he had established. Undeterred, the second baronet, Sir George, behaved with equal prodigality. Horses and politics were his particular indulgence but he also made unwise investments, was the victim of a crooked solicitor and lost a fortune in the crash of the Sheffield Land Bank. In 1846 he was forced to shut up Renishaw and eke out a -- relatively -- penurious existence in the small towns of Germany. He died not long afterwards and the family fortunes showed no signs of reviving under the third baronet, Sir Reresby. It was left to Sir Reresby's widow to pull things together during the minority of her son, George. Her astuteness, coupled with the discovery of rich seams of coal beneath the land at Renishaw, ensured that when the fourth baronet came of age in 1883 he found himself master of an estate which was not merely unencumbered but conspicuously profitable. Sometime in the early 1860s a small boy, escorted by a nurse, was travelling by train across England. A kindly old gentleman sitting opposite asked him who he was. "I am Sir George Sitwell, baronet," the child is said to have replied. "I am four years old and the youngest baronet in England." By this response he demonstrated both an alarming awareness of his own consequence and an inability to conceive what impression he might make on other people. Both characteristics were to mark him throughout his life. In the four volumes of his autobiography Osbert Sitwell portrayed his father as an eccentric on the grandest possible scale, grotesque yet awe-inspiring, a cross between Don Quixote and Lewis Carroll's White Knight. Given Osbert's freely admitted dislike of Sir George, it is tempting to assume that this was a caricature, largely the fruit of his imagination; an attempt to avenge himself on, or perhaps come to terms with, a man who he believed had done much to ruin his life. Elements of exaggeration there certainly were and many of Osbert's best anecdotes were embellished so as to make a point more forcibly or just to raise a laugh at his father's expense. But few seem to have been wholly invented. Sir George was a very curious figure; in some ways remarkably appealing, in some ridiculous, in some curmudgeonly and mean. Anthony Powell, who often met him at Renishaw, insists that he was every bit as bizarre as his son described him; indeed, that the portrait was, if anything, too generous: "In depicting the figure of Sir George Sitwell . . . the less pleasant sides are toned down, rather than exaggerated." This is not the impression of most observers, however. The weight of evidence suggests that, though little may have been made up in Osbert's portrayal, a great deal was suppressed or distorted; the impression given of Sir George's personality was unfair. "He wasn't nearly as comic a figure as [Osbert] made him appear," Osbert's younger brother, Sacheverell, told the historian of the family, John Pearson. "He was a much nicer person. I think he was much nicer than Osbert." Kenneth Clark felt the same: Sir George was "nicer and sadder than Osbert allowed in his ungenerous portrait." Again and again in reading of his dealings with other people one feels that, though he must often have been infuriating, his intentions were nearly always excellent and his courtesy immaculate. Osbert, with some reason, makes fun of his ridiculous inventions -- a musical toothbrush, a small revolver for killing wasps; his self-proclaimed omniscience -- continuously putting right lawyers, architects, doctors, gardeners, on the more arcane details of their professions; his megalomaniac building plans -- remove that hill, divert that stream, here we must have a triumphal arch! But his son takes too little account of the fact that much of Sir George's ingenuity was usefully and practically employed; that his knowledge was unusually wide and his advice by no means always silly; that his plans quite often came to fulfilment and both his Derbyshire home at Renishaw and his Tuscan palace at Montegufoni were rendered immeasurably more beautiful by his activities. Osbert mocks his father's genius for financial obfuscation and his tendency to keep careful count of the pennies while allowing the pounds to flood away, but gives no hint that Sir George had a shrewd financial brain, was one of the first people to see the potential in South African mining shares, and made quite as much money on the Stock Exchange as he squandered on visionary projects. If Sir George had been idle or stupid he might have been less resented by his son, but he was clever and alarmingly energetic -- the cleverest in the family, Alan Pryce-Jones believed: "On the rare occasions when I observed him in action, he struck me as a move or two ahead of his children." He wrote better than they did too, Kenneth Clark maintained: "I believe that au fond they were all jealous of him." This opinion is harder to accept. His finest book, On the Making of Gardens, is clearly based on much travel, study and reflection, but the style is lush and over-romantic; the judgments dogmatic -- "Flower beds in stars or moons or rounded figures cannot be right; they are simply unquiet." His advice to his readers was no doubt soundly based but not always entirely practical: "The great secret of success in garden-making [is] that we should abandon the struggle to make nature beautiful round the house and should rather move the house to where nature is beautiful." But he did know a great deal about Italian gardens in particular, his knowledge of the Middle Ages was extensive and peculiar and his views were taken seriously by genealogists and social historians of established reputation. His problem was that, almost since childhood, there had been no one to curb his whims, challenge his views, even to make fun of him. An only son, he had grown arrogant and aloof. His appearance fitted his character: "a suitable model for Van Dyck," Harold Acton described him; while Peter Quennell wrote of "his height, his patrician good looks, the air of dignified remoteness and self-sufficient impassivity with which he travelled through existence." Quennell saw something in him of Meredith's Sir Willoughby Patterne, and certainly few people can have been so complete an egoist. His view of contemporary life was almost entirely solipsistic and rendered the more eccentric by his firm assumption that, whatever subject might be in question, it had almost certainly been done better in the Middle Ages. Inevitably this led to a certain remoteness from contemporary life and an indifference to the views, the activities, the very existence of other people. Indeed, he rarely even noticed other people, never knew his constituents in the days when he was in the House of Commons, and was capable of walking past his children in the street without a hint of recognition. At Renishaw, when confronted by his guests, he would be polite, even convivial, but he would usually lunch alone an hour before the others got to table. When Beverley Nichols was introduced to him, Sir George "merely sniffed and went away to sit by himself in a corner." Such rudeness was unusual and suggests an exceptional degree of preoccupation; it was entirely in character, however, that he should look up in the course of the meal that followed this aborted introduction and observe plaintively, "I never know anybody in this house." "Sir George is the strangest old bugger you ever met," his butler, Henry Moat, once remarked to the composer Constant Lambert. He was prodigal when it came to acquiring works of art or constructing grandiose architectural follies, but would parsimoniously examine the smallest item on a bill or an estimate and was convinced that everyone except himself was guilty of the most wanton extravagance and must be curbed in their excesses. Osbert attributed this obsession to the depredations made on the family fortune in the nineteenth century by the army of poor relations who took up residence at Renishaw and exploited their host with parasitic vigour: "To be financially safe, he felt, one should be friendless. 'Such a mistake,' he remarked to me once without explanation, 'to have friends.'" Sir George devoted much of his energies to worrying about money and was preoccupied by thoughts of his incipient pauperdom. His fears were fanned by the monumental extravagance of his wife.. Sir George's father-in-law, Henry Denison, first Earl of Londesborough, spent on a scale which made the Sitwells seem like cheese-paring niggards. The family had amassed an immense fortune in the City of London in the mid-eighteenth century and their wealth was augmented by Elizabeth Denison, Marchioness of Conyngham, mistress of George IV. Osbert gallantly defended the reputation of his forebear in his autobiography but she remains one of the most rapacious harpies ever to have plundered the royal coffers. The Conynghams' son, Lord Albert, inherited the Denison millions, took their name, and became first Baron Londesborough. His son, Henry, became an earl and pushed still further into the upper reaches of the aristocracy by marrying a daughter of the Duke of Beaufort. He thus ensured that their younger daughter Ida, the future Lady Ida Sitwell, could claim direct descent from the Plantagenets. History was not Lady Ida's strong point and she seems to have taken little pleasure in her royal ancestry; to her children, however, it was a subject for infinite satisfaction. With alarming zest, Lord Londesborough squandered the huge fortune that he had inherited on race-horses, grand houses, theatrical productions and other such diversions of the very rich. By the time Ida needed to look for a husband her family's wealth had been dramatically reduced; she, on the other hand, had been imbued with the conviction that there was nothing which she could not afford, no whim which it was not merely permissible but desirable to indulge. Sir George Sitwell was an ardent genealogist and regarded his wife's lineage with all due deference. Lady Ida was also beautiful, and charming in a vapid, prattling way. By the standards of the time she was a most suitable match for a wealthy but not particularly grandiose baronet. In fact the combination proved disastrous. She was a stupid woman, "slightly mentally retarded" thought Harold Acton, and she was neither able nor willing to accompany her husband on his intellectual adventures. "I have been much alone all my life," Sir George told Osbert sadly, "as your mother could not be and did not try to be a companion." Confronted by his indifference she retreated into a twilight life of bridge, bad novels and social fatuity. Until disaster struck she was never actively miserable -- most strong emotions were beyond her -- but she suffered from a nagging discontent. "Have you ever been happy?" she one night asked her daughter Edith. "Yes, Mother. Haven't you?" "Never bird-happy." Perhaps with encouragement she could have learned to tread new territories but she lacked both animation and application: "One always felt boredom was just round the corner," her cousin by marriage, Constance Sitwell, remembered. She loved flowers -- preferably when out of season and expensive -- rich scents and fabrics, beautiful jewels, but was inordinately generous and scattered her valuable possessions among her friends and relations with the same unthinking prodigality as she had acquired them. She recognised her extravagance but could do nothing to control it: "I can't go to Paris," she once explained to Anthony Powell. "I'll spend money like a drunken sailor." It was as if only by spending could she keep ennui at bay; an attitude which filled her hyperactive husband with perplexed alarm. Her profligacy drove a fresh wedge between them; by the time their youngest child was born their relationship oscillated between cool neutrality and out-and-out dislike. When talking to the nine-year-old Osbert about his ancestors, Sir George once murmured pensively: "We've been working up towards something for a long time, for well over a century." Though he was in fact to take considerable pride in his children's achievements it is unlikely that he was contemplating a career in literature when he predicted this resplendent future -- something more political or pro-consular must have been what he had in mind. It was therefore something of a disappointment to him when his first child was a daughter, a disappointment that grew ever more severe as it became obvious that Edith was not going to mature into the sort of amiable, attractive and intellectually unassuming girl who could be expected to marry well and thus redress the initial solecism of her sex. To you, sad child, upon the darkened stair, Poor flaxen foundling of the upper air, Osbert dedicated one of his earlier books of verse, and the image of Edith as a sad child -- lonely, unfulfilled, at odds with the world in which she lived -- emerges strikingly from all recollections of her family at the time. "I had a very terrible childhood and youth, so terrible that I never think of it and never mention it," she told Stephen Spender many years later. In fact, she rarely ceased to brood on it and mentioned it repeatedly, but to the outside eye it does not seem that it was so very terrible. She was not treated cruelly, nor even seriously neglected. She might have been happier if she had been. Her trouble was that her parents tried to turn her into something that she could never be and failed to understand, or even to try to understand, her true potentiality. "What are you going to be when you are grown up?" a friend of her mother asked her. "A genius," Edith replied. Sir George, though with some doubts, might have accommodated a genius as a son but in a daughter such pretensions had to be resolutely curbed: the weapons used were gymnastics, the cello, and horrific contraptions of rubber and steel intended to adjust physical deficiencies which the doctors had detected or imagined in her legs, back and nose. "I doubt whether any child was ever more mismanaged by her parents," wrote Osbert. Whether or not, objectively, she had good grounds for being so miserable is neither here nor there: as Victoria Glendinning has remarked in her brilliantly sympathetic biography, "I have ended up with a great respect for her, and a very protective feeling, because of the loneliness and fear that were her almost constant companions." Any illusions Edith might have cherished about her importance in her parents' eyes were dispelled at the birth of Osbert on 6 December 1892 when she was five years old. The rejoicing in the household, the ringing of bells in the churches of his birthplace, Scarborough, must quickly have convinced her that something of great consequence had occurred. An heir had been born, and a mere daughter found herself relegated even further into the background. It was not just a matter of status or comparative importance: Lady Ida, whom Edith would have loved with passion if she had been given even the least encouragement, made a fuss of her son in a way her daughter had never experienced. Osbert was allowed to crawl over her bed, disorganise her papers, inspect her scents and jewellery; Edith had barely been tolerated in her bedroom. This was not just a tribute to the generally accepted myth of male superiority. Edith was gauche and superficially unattractive: a silly mother who relished pretty things was unlikely to find many charms in such a child, or to extend to it any great part of her limited capacity for affection. Another five years on, and the family was completed by the birth of Sacheverell. Sachie, as he was invariably called, found life less stressful than his elder siblings. He was an attractive and relatively uncomplicated child for whom it was as natural to love and be loved as it was difficult for his sister. Five years between brothers is a formidable gap but Edith's disappearance into a world of governesses and music lessons left Osbert hungry for companionship. "I suppose that when he was a very small child I understood him better than did anyone else," wrote Osbert. "I instinctively comprehended what he wanted to say, before others could: and on this foundation our friendship was soundly based." Friendship was an inadequate word for a relationship that was emotionally and intellectually intense; until Osbert went to boarding school the brothers shared a room, talked endlessly, and were as near inseparable as the demands of grown-ups would allow. They did not wilfully exclude their sister but inevitably at this stage of their lives she was a distant figure. Their father was still more remote but Lady Ida showed Sachie the same warm affection as Osbert already enjoyed. Edith later accused her younger brother of inventing a relationship which had never existed; Sachie "created for himself a wonderful dream-mother who understood everything and shielded him in some extraordinary way." The facts "were sadly and terribly different." She conceded, though, that Sachie had been sheltered from the worst afflictions of an unhappy childhood; "the horror was all mine." "The facts" seem to have been that Lady Ida was put off and slightly frightened by her intransigent daughter while regarding her sons as delightful playthings to be indulged and exhibited to her friends. Such an attitude did not provide a promising basis for a lifetime's relationship between a mother and her children but it served well enough while the boys were uncritical and undemanding Excerpted from Osbert Sitwell by Philip Ziegler All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.