A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Over Christmas, I had the treat of reading Renishaw Hall by Desmond Seward, which I was lucky enough to receive as a review copy from a PR lady who wisely knew that I was likely to be drawn to a book about the Sitwells. While I have read very little by Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell, all three are well-represented on my shelves and they crop up enough in other biographies for me to have developed an interest in them in advance.
Seward, though, takes the interesting tack of focusing not on the famous trio but on their palatial home – which has been home to various Sitwells for nearly four centuries (though for much of that time they chose to live elsewhere). It certainly puts his book apart from biographies of Edith, though it still remains more a broad biography of many notable people than a book about a house, strictly speaking. We learn quite a bit about extensions and repairs, refurnishings and whatnot, but the Sitwells are unquestionably the prominent people.
This takes us right back to George Sitwell, born in Eckington, Derbyshire in 1601. Eckington is mention on the first page, and was a bit of a jolt for me – as I grew up in Eckington. My Eckington, though, is in Worcestershire – I’ve never been to the other one, but it has the lion’s share of the Google results and is rather bigger, I believe. I more or less trained myself to stop thinking of Worcestershire Eckington by the end of the book…
The early generations of the Sitwells at Renishaw are drawn with as much detail as Seward can discover, but it is inevitably not as detailed as those pages concerning later occupants. The passions, characteristics, habits, and wishes of these successive inhabitants must be found within limited resources, and perhaps they skew to becoming exaggerated ‘types’ because of it – which of us would think ourselves revealed entirely in a correspondence with a handful of people? – but Seward does a wonderful job of delineating these generations without making them seem remote or flimsy. He also often connects them to their descendants, and even the present day. This sort of paragraph, appearing very early in the book, is in some ways typical:
In 1625-6 (the first year of King Charles I’s reign), using money saved during his minority, George built Renishaw Hall within sight of Wigall’s dwelling. A ‘Pennine Manor’ on an H plan, this would become the nucleus of today’s Renishaw. In some ways George always remained a farmer here, eating with his servants in the hall. Even today, when you go through the north porch into the hall – which is not much changed since his day – the panelling, huge fireplace, stone floor, and rough oak furniture have a distinctly rustic feel.
I love the quick way we learn to know (and feel affection) for George – there aren’t all that many notes or references in the book, so it’s often not quite clear how Seward knows these details; we take them on trust. He is a friend of the current Sitwell residents, which is great for these comparison, though (as I’ll talk about later) doesn’t always serve him well.
For the sake of space, I’m going to skip over some generations, but rest assured that Seward doesn’t. Unsurprisingly, though, it is Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell who get the largest section of the book – but their parents are equally significant. One almost gets the impression that Seward wanted to write Renishaw Hall to right the wrongs of Osbert Sitwell. In various (somewhat curiously) bestselling volumes of autobiography, Osbert slighted and mocked his father George. He insulted his intelligence, apparently, and made him out to be an oaf. Well, Seward is more than happy to redress the balance – time and again, he highlights Osbert’s objectionable behaviour (‘Whenever Sir George spoke, his son would make loud popping noise with a finger in his mouth, as if opening a champagne bottle’ – that one does have an endnote, to a memoir by Peter Quennell) and the injustice of George’s reputation.
By contrast, the Sitwell trio’s much-loved mother is rather exposed to ruthless examination by Seward. Lady Ida was apparently a mindless spendthrift whose habits constantly threatened to ruin George. Their chaotic and doomed marriage is fascinating to read about, and even Seward’s open bias towards George doesn’t disrupt making this treatment of a relationship interesting and dealt with well. Indeed, seeing Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell as children and young adults, and the shifting relations between parents and children, provides an exceptionally detailed background for understanding them as the cultish figures and Bloomsbury Group rivals they became, not to mention their writings. Renishaw Hall doesn’t pretend to be a critical biography, but Seward analyses the group’s writings briefly but well – not objectively, but that is fine.
What makes these sections so good, in my eyes, is that Seward does capture the changes in dynamics. Nothing here is static; he draws out how people change, and how their relationships with people and place change.
If I were editing Renishaw Hall, I might have suggested that he draw a line after the most famous occupants, and end things there. The final section of the book brings us up to date, and this is where it gets a little more awkward. Because Seward is writing about friends, and the close relatives of friends, it feels as though he is being hagiographic – even if, one must admit, he has hardly claimed to be writing objectively before that. Still, that is a small criticism about an extraordinarily ambitious – and successful – book that will engross anybody with any interest in the Sitwells, beautiful houses, or family dynamics in general.