Sitwellism

December 9: Dame Edith Sitwell died on this day in 1964, and Sir Osbert Sitwell, her younger brother, was born earlier this week—December 6, 1892. Edith and Osbert published two-dozen books between them, and Sacheverell, the third and youngest of the famous siblings, published fifty more. Beyond Edith's Collected Poems, few are now in print, but the Sitwells' place in modern literary and cultural history is based as much on their role as patrons, and on their unusual personalities.

 

1922 is modern literature's annus mirabilis because of the publication of The Waste Land and Ulysses, but that is also the year of Façade, the event which more than any other is associated with "Sitwellism." The siblings premiered this evening of experimental poetry, music, and performance in their London home, Edith declaiming her unusual poems through a modified megaphone directed through a painted curtain, accompanied by Sir William Walton and the English Opera Group Ensemble. The evening puzzled or amused many, and provoked some to parody, Noel Coward among the first with a skit in London Calling (1923), his first musical. Titled "Swiss Family Whittlebot," Coward's skit presents the poetess Hernia Whittlebot reading several of her obscure, modernist poems to her adoring brothers, Gob and Sago. Coward thought the joke so funny that he later published a whole book of Poems by Hernia Whittlebot, and Edith thought them so unfunny that she refused to speak to Coward for thirty-five years. But she and her brothers groomed their profile as eccentrics and continued to publish, enduring F. R. Leavis's public jibe that they "belonged to the history of publicity rather than the history of poetry," and T. S. Eliot's private preference for the name "Shitwell."

 

Using her position as an authority on the subject, Edith published a popular book on The English Eccentrics. The Sitwells now appear in such collections—Karl Shaw's recent Curing Hiccups with Small Fires, for example, where we read that the siblings successfully escaped the family castle in Derbyshire to live in London by convincing their father, by way of packed bags, faked letters, and other ploys, that they were on a prolonged world cruise. But by all accounts, Sir George Sitwell was too detached and busy to care. His inventions include a pistol for shooting wasps, his books included The Invention of the Fork and Acorns as an Article of Medieval Diet, and his pastimes included the transformation of the cows on his estate into moving art by having them stenciled in a blue and white Chinese willow pattern.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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