Reviewed by Diana Birchall.
Diana recently retired from the movie business, where she was a story analyst at Warner Bros, reading novels to see if they’d make movies. This was a dream job because she got paid for reading, and was able to work at home all night and sleep all day, as was her wont. Along the way she wrote a few books of her own, a biography of her grandmother the first Asian American novelist (though Diana is New York Jewish and actually only one-eighth Chinese but never mind), and several Jane Austen sequels. Jane Austen was her natural refuge and solace from a life spent plowing through eight hundred page manuscripts about robots, dragons, dwarves, Mafiosi, and bombs. Now having said goodbye to all that, she contemplates her massive To Be Read stockpile with a mixture of liberation and dread. She lives in California with poet husband, librarian son, and three mercifully illiterate cats.
Having recently retired, I’ve come smack up against the reality of what happens if you steadily buy books through all the decades of your employment, telling yourself “I’ll read them when I retire.” In such a case, your TBR pile, when finally faced, is a veritable Great Wall, chinked with dust so no light shines through. Nothing daunted (and at least a dozen new additions came from last autumn’s visit to Daunt Books in London), I reached in, and plucked one with an enchanting title: English Eccentrics by Edith Sitwell. That seemed promising because I’d never read a book by a Sitwell, but knew they were colorful literary types who might be amusing to dally with. (Disclaimer: although I fancied myself thoroughly au fait with Vulpes Libris, I somehow missed Simon’s sojourn at Renishaw Hall, and apologize for what may be a Surfeit of Sitwells…though with Bloomsbury and Mitfordland seemingly inexhaustible, why not Renishaw?)
English Eccentrics is a compendium of English oddities, an intrinsically eccentric volume in itself, written in a densely packed, rococo style, laced with dark sardonic wit. Unquestionably stuffed with fascinating historical curiosities, anecdotes, and snippets, it is like an extremely clever anchovy: a small taste goes a long way. I would read one, two, a few weird bits described with ornateness and affectation, and then feel like throwing the book against the wall like an incessantly chirping insect. My reactions varied from “I can’t read any more of this” to, “Hang on, look at the next section. Hermits. Quacks – may come from the Coptic quok, hmm … never knew that. Alchemists. Man buried upside down. Hunter who hated horses and rode to hounds on a bull. Whatever next?” etc, etc …
I was just starting to get rather tired of what seemed like an overwritten freak show, when I came to the “Portrait of a Learned Lady” chapter, in which the life of Margaret Fuller is offered as an extended joke. Sitwell describes Fuller as an absurd creature influenced by “the trousered emancipated women like George Sand” who were “collected with great eagerness by sex-snobs.” Sitwell infectiously invites us to laugh at the delicious spectacle of Mrs. Emerson begging the lugubrious Margaret to tutor Emerson and Carlyle on the sense of humour they so lacked. (Carlyle was a particularly difficult subject as he insisted on talking without interruption and never let Margaret speak.) The learned lady is balanced by the next chapter on men of learning, in which Herbert Spencer is seen traveling in a hammock slung in a train, his manuscript tied around his waist with string.
The section on travelers is dominated by the exotic imposter Princess Cariboo, whom the exiled Napoleon wanted to marry; and this anecdote is followed by one about a fake cannibal chief. I learned about a great many things, an unknown number of them apocryphal, such as the octogenarian squire who tried to fly, bathed his owls, and affectionately adopted a sloth in South America; and the Countess of Desmond who died at 140 falling from an apple tree.
This indigestible yet exasperatingly fascinating tome (which may I say is ideally suited for intellectual bathroom reading), left me with a certain curiosity about the mind that compiled, or concocted, it all. Edith’s memoir Taken Care Of is more connectedly written than English Eccentrics, and very sad indeed. Rejected by her parents (“I was unpopular with my parents from the moment of my birth” she writes) Edith painfully recounts how her mother, a beauty, had no use for the ugly child, and her father forced her to wear a metal “Bastille” to straighten her spine. As a young women, when her parents were embroiled in bankruptcies and scandals, she left the family home to live in near poverty in a small flat in London with her old governess. Edith’s serious avocation was always as a poet, but she seems to have had an equal talent for knowing all the great literary figures of her day, particularly being drawn to the artist Pavel Tchelitchew and poet Dylan Thomas. Her talents were then highly rated, as were those of her two younger brothers Osbert and Sasheverell, and they formed a colorful trio whose publicity tours were only too fiendishly successful. Tiring of these, Edith noted, “Began to operate as a team, came to regret it, felt like an Indian god with 3 sets of legs & arms.”
She does not seem to have much enjoyed her eccentric fame, claiming to feel like “an unpopular electric eel in a pool of catfish.” Osbert’s biographer Philip Ziegler calls the Sitwells early exponents of the “famous for being famous” school, and this fame seems to have collapsed like a bubble, for nowadays their writing and their legend are all but forgotten. Nothing if not original, with a strong display of the rhythm of words, Edith Sitwell’s most famous book nevertheless struck me as equally exhausting and exasperating as entertaining. In truth, what I enjoyed most in this Sitwellian immersion was a mesmerizing YouTube interview with an Edith aged, tragic, a masklike fantastically garbed grotesque, yet clearly innately humane and kind. Still, I may be forgiven for hoping for something more ordinary and orderly from my next foray in the TBR pile …