The Sitwells are one of my guilty pleasures.
As wildly unfashionable as they are now, as surprisingly far from the cultural centre they now lie, the three Sitwell siblings, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, speak with disconcerting directness to what I admit is my rather old-world sensibility.
The shelf on the landing at Swan House that bears (barely bears) the work of the incandescent Edith (1887-1964)—a truly great and now roundly overlooked poet—and the work of her two prolific and wonderfully graceful writer-brothers, Osbert (1892-1969) and the considerably younger Sacheverell (1897-1988)—is about four feet long. And even at that, I’m missing a lot of stuff for a collector. They were an outrageously, satisfyingly prolific trio.
It’s tempting to write here about all three of them, but that would take days and days and fill up a hundred screenfuls of ecriture. Failing that, I’m swinging the pendulum decisively in the other direction entirely, presenting here only one slim volume of Sacheverell’s called The Homing of the Winds, published by Faber & Faber in 1944.
The book’s full title is The Homing of the Winds and other passages in prose. Which title is a deliberate attempt to indicate to the reader—in a very deft and understated way—that this attractive little volume is in fact a Sacheverell sampler. It’s a fine title for anthology of one’s own work, since it evinces the centripetal returning-to-the-fold of much writing now distributed among Sitwell’s many other books. It wouldn’t be graceful, but one could have titled such a gathering of fugitives Bread Upon the Waters.
It’s hard to imagine how Sacheverell—“Sachi” to his friends and admirers—managed to write so much (and so well). His name apparently means “roebuck leap,” which may go some distance towards accounting for his runaway fecundity (on the page opposite the title page in this charming little book, where you’d expect to find a list of all the other books written by the same author, you find, instead a short muster of titles, over which is printed “Some books by Sacheverell Sitwell). Some, notice. Just naming a few.
The few listed there are: Primitive Scenes and Festivals, Sacred and Profane Love, Dance of the Quick and the Dead, Liszt, Poltergeists, Valse des Fleurs, La Vie Parisienne, A Background to Domenico Scarlatti and Canons of Giant Art. This last book, published in by Faber in 1933, carries a stirring subtitle--Twenty Torsos in Heroic Landscapes—and is, in fact, a book-length poem.
The list doesn’t even mention my favourites of Sir Sasheverell’s many books: Morning, Noon and Night in London, Splendours and Miseries, The Romantic Ballet, British Architects and Craftsmen, The Gothick North, The Hunters and the Hunted, the tiny but perfect Theatrical Figures in Porcelain, and his “autobiographical fantasy [what a lovely oxymoron that is!], the beautifully titled All Summer in a Day.
Sacheverell Sitwell isn’t to every taste. Readers less enchanted with him than I am have accused him of possessing more charm than substance (I’d say he possessed both in abundance), and of course there will always be readers who will balk at his occasional (well, alright, frequent) bouts of floridity and writerly rapture.
But not me. For me, this is a too-arid age we live in and reading Sachi is like stretching out full-length in a hot bubblebath (which of course may also not be to everyone’s liking!). I luxuriate in it. And I come away from it cleansed and refreshed and renewed.
There isn’t space enough or time here to discuss the book in detail. Let me just offer you some enchanting Sacheverell sentences—as aperitifs:
“It is a peculiar sensation, like a tauromachic dream, to look down upon a backyard that could be the cloister of a primitive temple and to see upon the floor two or three bulls’ heads with glassy eyes and lolling tongues that lick the dust, their crowns of horns toppling and beaten to the ground….” [from Mauretania]
“His clothes…are of moonlight, as if soaked in it. He stands for the artifice of night in this sunset landscape; at, at the same time, not for the darkness of that, but for its contradiction by the lit scene.” [from Southern Baroque Art]
“The iron beds are still standing in the roofless bedrooms, with their rusty metal cracked and twisted from the fire. Something of sinister horror attached to the iron claws of their feet, while the evident cheapness of these manufactured things is made rare and peculiar by experience, for the very claws seem clutched in agony….”
[from Sacred and Profane Love]
“In the names of the different kinds of snuff there is preserved, indeed, a particular poetry that cannot have been less potent when the kegs or casks were new. ‘A fine old rappee of San Domingo, just arrived,’ the tobacconist’s advertisement would run….” [from Sacred and Profane Love]
I wish there were room here to cite more delectable passages from Sachi’s works—pieces such as “Fantasy Upon German Toy Pigeons,” “Bow Windows,” The Different Sorts of Thunder,” “Black Swans,” “The Shoal of Pearls” and so many more eddies of glittering language.
On the other hand, this is perhaps enough. Too much Sacheverell Sitwell at one sitting is like eating five or six puff-creamy desserts, one after the other. Sachi is best when delicately sampled—not rapaciously gorged upon.