by Gutierrez, Jeffrey S.
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Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969)
Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, born on December 6, 1892, was a poet, novelist, journalist, essayist, memoirist, and prolific traveler; he is particularly noted for his contributions to the literary magazine Wheels, which he co-founded with his brother, Sacheverell, and his sister, Edith. Charged with the authority and confidence that resulted from the Sitwell legacy (as well as the self-assurance that resulted from the bond between siblings, who shared a “strangely isolated existence”) Osbert as a child developed an often diffident demeanor, partly from isolation and partly from ill-health. He was also known to be insistent and stubborn, particularly toward his father, Sir George, whom Osbert saw more as an adversary than a father.
Educated by governesses and tutors as a child, he matriculated at Eton College (1906-1909) with the hopes of gaining entrance to the University of Oxford. Sir George, instead, urged him to join the army; and when Osbert failed his qualifying examination for Sandhurst (an officer training academy), his father managed to influence those in the proper authority to allow him entrance. Having copious amounts of free-time while stationed in London, Osbert met Claude Debussy, Frederick Delius, and Richard Strauss, as well as George Moore, Henry Tonks, and Robert Ross, the last of whom opened doors for Osbert to meet the greatest literary figures in London.
Being in the middle of a war provided Osbert with an inkling for a future career path. Disgusted by the fighting, he aimed to enter the arts and to find a voice he could use to openly speak out against war atrocities. From his war experiences, he wrote “Babel,” his first poem, which was published in The Times on May 11, 1916. Yet Osbert rebelled not only against war, but against the spirit of contemporary Georgian poetry, with its romantic and hedonistic emphasis. And as he developed his literary career, he worked on his social career, too. Osbert gained momentum outside of literary circles and became a public figure, playing poker until the early morning hours with Cabinet minister Edwin Montagu and visiting the Russian choreographer Leonide Massine after theatrical performances. He also associated with the antagonistic Bloomsbury Group.
When Wheels was published between 1916 and 1922, it caused, according to biographer Philip Ziegler, a stir among London intellectuals, but the magazine failed to achieve much credibility in the eyes of the avant-garde, particularly T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley, a frequent contributor. Ziegler comments that Wheels was mainly a vehicle to further the Sitwells’ name and their literary capabilities.
In January 1919, Osbert contracted Spanish Influenza and spent six weeks in King Edward VII’s Hospital for Officers; some questioned whether or not he would survive. From then on, he was extemely concerned with his health, often to the point of being a hypochondriac. After leaving the army in 1919, Osbert focused more on his literary career. From Herbert Read, he took over Art and Letters, which had regular contributions from Wyndham Lewis, but the magazine expired in 1920, due to low subscriptions. Osbert continued writing short pieces, sketches, and short stories, notably “The Machine Breaks Down.” His first novel, Before the Bombardment, was moderately successful and reflected his belief that the novel should be “an entity” that arises from the sub-conscious. He took great care in his writing, often revising manuscripts many times. Ziegler notes that “the various drafts of [The Man Who Lost Himself] in the Berg Collection in New York show how intensely Osbert worked and reworked his creations. His manuscripts, already radically rewritten, [were] typed and pasted into a folio book with marbled boards, each page with a blank page opposite. It was then once more rewritten and, presumably, retyped. Between this third version and the published text, however, another rewrite took place” (230).
As Osbert’s literary reputation grew, so did his ego as he tried to live between the worlds of the avant-garde and the aristocrats. His craving for attention, suggests Ziegler, “made it inevitable that he would show off outrageously: whether reading his poems in a village hall in Derbyshire or holding forth at some sophisticated London dinner table. He preferred monologue to conversation, though he was sensitive and sensible enough to realize that by perpetually holding the floor he would alienate the very people whom he sought to impress” (158). Virginia Woolf, for one, “resented the ambivalence of [his] status” (154). Wilfred Owen commented that Osbert’s social mentality resembled that of Louis XIV, almost to the point of being the king reincarnated.
As Osbert found his poetic voice, his literary output flourished. He wrote several portraitures of people he knew and collected them in England Reclaimed (1927), which caused some controversy because E. L. Masters' collection Spoon River Anthology was structured similarly. From 1941 to 1950, Osbert devoted much of his time to his autobiography. The first of five volumes, Left Hand, Right Hand, devoted to his ancestry, was published in 1945, followed by The Scarlet Tree (1946), Great Morning (1948), Laughter in the Next Room (1949), and Noble Essences (1950).
The beginning of the 1950s saw a rapid decline in Osbert’s health. He suffered from intermittent tremors, constant pain, and difficulty sleeping. After various visits to doctors, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. However, Osbert continued his literary pursuits, even lecturing in America in 1956. He died on May 4, 1969, in Italy.
―Jeffrey S. Gutierrez
- Ziegler, Philip. Osbert Sitwell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Selected Works by Osbert Sitwell
- Argonaut and Juggernaut (Chatto and Windus, 1919)
- At the House of Mrs. Kinfoot (Favil Press, 1921)
- Out of the Flame (Grant Richards, 1923)
- Triple Fugue (Grant Richards, 1924)
- Discursions on Travel, Art and Life (Grant Richards, 1925)
- Before the Bombardment (Duckworth, 1926)
- England Reclaimed: A Book of Eclogues (Duckworth, 1927)
- The People’s Album of London Statues (Duckworth, 1928)
- The Man Who Lost Himself (Duckworth, 1929)
- Dumb Animal (Duckworth, 1930)
- Collected Satires and Poems (Duckworth, 1931)
- Dickens (Chatto and Windus, 1932)
- Winters of Content: More Discursions on Travel, Art and Life (Duckworth, 1932)
- Miracle on Sinai (Duckworth, 1933)
- Penny Foolish: A Book of Tirades and Panegyrics (Macmillan, 1935)
- Those Were the Days (Macmillan, 1938)
- Escape with Me! An Oriental Sketch Book (Macmillan, 1939)
- Two Generations (Macmillan, 1940)
- A Place of One’s Own (Macmillan, 1941)
- Selected Poems, Old and New (Duckworth, 1943)
- A Letter to My Son (Home and Van Thal, 1944)
- Left Hand, Right Hand! (Macmillan, 1945)
- The Scarlet Tree (Macmillan, 1946)
- The Novels of George Meredith (Oxford University Press, 1947)
- Great Morning (Macmillan, 1948)
- Laughter in the Next Room (Macmillan, 1949)
- Death of a God (Macmillan, 1949)
- Noble Essence (Macmillan, 1950)
- Collected Stories (Duckworth and Macmillan, 1953)
- The Four Continents (Macmillan, 1954)
- On the Continent (Macmillan, 1958)
- Fee Fi Fo Fum! (Macmillan, 1959)
- Tales My Father Taught Me (Hutchinson, 1962)
- Pound Wise (Hutchinson, 1963)
- Poems about People or England Reclaimed (Hutchinson, 1965)
- Rat Week (published posthumously, Michael Joseph, 1986)