I have always made a policy of not writing about living relatives more than merely en passant. Having read Desmond Seward’s Renishaw Hall: The Story of the Sitwells while closeted in Derbyshire for the Easter weekend, I consider this a lesson well learned. At the heart of this amusing, scrupulously fair biography of the family who has inhabited Renishaw for more than four centuries is the unholy trio of literary siblings Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell. The wrongs they write are redressed by Desmond Seward.
The aristocratic antithesis of the Bloomsbury Group – those censorious creatures who lived in squares and loved in triangles – the Sitwells struck a bizarre, Baroque pose in early 20th century literary London. Though Edith’s poetry is lauded, Osbert and Sacheverell’s all-too-prolific output is gently deflated by Seward. Both Oswald and Edith told terrible tales about their father Sir George and mother Lady Ida that have passed for truth. In Renishaw Hall, the author plays Nemesis and questions their judgement.
Rather than a romantic view of the Sitwells in the famous Sargent group portrait, Seward sketches his characters with ruthless efficiency like a Helleu drypoint. Describing the misery of Sir George’s marriage to Lady Ida, he pins her down like a butterfly: ‘Her priorities became clothes, jewellery and champagne. When her husband cancelled her orders for cases of champagne, she turned to whiskey, and was only saved from destroying herself by his watchful eye’.
Lady Ida’s profligacy and alcoholism drove Sir George to a nervous collapse in 1901 long before the lady was convicted of fraud at the Old Bailey and imprisoned in Holloway in 1915. Seward’s Sir George is sympathetic; a beleaguered husband who finds ‘salvation’ touring the gardens of Italy, collecting Renaissance furniture and Baroque paintings and restoring the Tuscan castle Montegufoni.
Seward takes the sting out of Osbert’s malice by flatly denying Sir George had published obscure books with the bathetic titles The History of the Fork and Lepers’ Squints. Instead, he praises Sir George for bringing Renishaw Hall back to life and planting the magnificent gardens that owed so much to his travels in Italy. Far from being an eccentric booby, Sir George’s expertise as a plantsman won praise from Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens.
The author doesn’t demonise Osbert or Edith admitting that the beautiful, volatile Lady Ida was a divisive influence on her children. As he writes, ‘Her behaviour could be horribly embarrassing when she’d had too much to drink’. The book strongly suggests that Osbert’s antipathy to his father intensified because Sir George had failed to save his mother from disgrace and Edith loathed Lady Ida for treating her like a grotesque.
Like Lady Ida, Osbert grows-up wilfully extravagant while Edith inherits her mother’s enjoyment of a few too many sips. The most entertaining chapters of the book begin when Osbert, Edith and later Sacheverell impose themselves on the London literary scene. It is hilarious to read how awful Evelyn Waugh considered his friend Osbert’s writing to be in letters to their mutual friend Nancy Mitford.
I have read endless biographies of Edith Sitwell as well as her poems, literary criticism and rather bitter late-in-life autobiography Take Care Of. Seward’s rendering of Dame Edith is by far the most balanced. The description of Edith’s performance poem Façade declaimed through a ‘sengerphone’ to music by William Walton is a joy as is Noël Coward’s parody of Dame Edith as poetess Hernia Whittlebot.
Tales of Renishaw Hall when Sir George handed it over to Osbert in 1925 are as comedic as Cold Comfort Farm. Osbert installed his lover David Horner as chatelaine of Renishaw; a promiscuous drunk Edith christened ‘Blossom’. Sacheverell stayed away having married Georgia, a woman Sacheverell’s biographer called ‘highly sexed, materialistic, ruthless and socially ambitious’. Edith terrified maids and houseguests by floating round the Haunted Wing dressed like the ghost of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Bearing in mind Renishaw had no electricity and no heating until 1965, the hall must have been equal parts romantic as Rex Whistler found it or a Gothic horror as Reresby’s wife Lady Penelope experienced after Edith abandoned her in a deserted wing with only a candle for company. When dinner guest Alec Guinness was told his son was ‘yelling his head off’ upstairs at Renishaw, Edith mischievously told him ‘I expect the baboon has just looked in and frightened him’.
Though Edith was lionised and made a DBE, she was evicted from Renishaw by Osbert and her final years were bittersweet. Bravo Desmond Seward for holding his nerve and refusing to judge what he cannot adding the caveat that Edith’s feud with Blossom was behind her departure. In an either-or ultimatum, Osbert chose Blossom, a creature W. H. Auden described as ‘a rose-red cissy, half as old as time’.
I thoroughly enjoyed details such as the feud between Blossom and Osbert’s new valet Frank Magro. But the years between 1965 when Sacheverell’s son inherited Renishaw to the present are taken at too much of a gallop. Reresby and Lady Penelope did for Renishaw Hall what the late Duke and Duchess of Devonshire did for Chatsworth and I’d have liked to have read more about ‘Renishaw Reborn’. Lady Sitwell is still thriving and her daughter Alexandra’s family now live at Renishaw so perhaps Desmond Seward is also an author who honours the ‘living relatives’ rule.