The young composer William Walton
arrived at Oxford University in 1918, aged 16, and not long after was
taken under the wing of the Sitwell clan (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell),
who adopted him as an honorary brother. The Sitwells were perhaps the
most famous literary family of the time, though certainly not popular
with everyone. F.R. Leavis, for example, that tireless campaigner
against what he saw as literary dilettantism, characterised them as
belonging to “the history of publicity rather than of poetry”.
One legacy for us today from this
period of Walton’s music is his Façade, a satiric suite
composed to accompany recitations of some poems by Edith Sitwell.
First performed in 1923, it received
an instant and stormy fame, though over time it came to be
to seen as a bit inconsequential and no match for maturer Walton works
such as the viola concerto, the symphonies and Belshazzar’s Feast.
Walton later arranged the work for large orchestra as Façade Suite
Nos.1 & 2.
The musical appeal of Façade
lies in its wit, parody and jazz-influenced rhythms, and in the original
version these features perfectly complement Sitwell’s outrageous
poetry. Just imagine that first performance. There was the 39-year-old
author herself, unseen by the audience, declaiming her poems through a
megaphone protruding from the mouth of a huge head painted on a curtain,
which also concealed the seven band members.
What a marvellous thing to hear
Sitwell’s highbrow voice intoning, say, “Lily O’Grady, silly and
shady” to that soft-shoe shuffling sax obligato.
All her life Edith Sitwell was
notorious for her provocative eccentricities, in her dress as well as
her writing. She was no poseuse, however, Leavis notwithstanding,
always remaining true to herself. If she was interested in things odd,
she used them either to express herself or else as subjects for amused
reflection just because they pleased her. Luckily for us, the results of
her efforts are infectious, and we are the beneficiaries of not only the
nonsense poetry of Façade but also the wry commentary she
attaches to her narratives in English Eccentrics.
Originally (1931) the work was called The
English Eccentrics. Since then there have been at least five other
editions, including a Penguin one in 1971, those from 1958 having
additional chapters, and no definite article in the title. In 1964 the
work inspired an opera in two acts by expatriate Australian composer
Malcolm Williamson, with a libretto by Geoffrey Dunn.
little about Sitwell’s book when I first picked it up, I have
to confess I was anticipating yarns about contemporaries of hers. But it
was not to be. What delights her interest, and appeals enormously to my
own evil sense of humour, is a series of maverick vignettes from much
Let’s cast an exploratory glance in
their lunatic direction.
At Squire John Mytton (b. 1796), for
instance, who tried to scare off his hiccups by setting fire to his
nightshirt. Successful? Yes. Appallingly burnt? Yes. Luckily he only
tried this on the one occasion, unlike his equestrian stunts, where he
was regularly a rampant menace not only to his horses, but to his
friends and acquaintances too, especially if they were rash enough to
ride in his carriage. Not surprisingly, he didn’t make it past the age
Then there were the bizarre goings-on
with the century-old coffin of poet John Milton. Here Sitwell quotes in
full from a contemporary source — A Narrative of the Disinterment
of Milton’s coffin . . . and the Treatment of the Corpse . . .
And what about Monsieur Grin? He was a
Swiss adventurer of the late nineteenth century who passed himself off
in London as Louis de Rougement, a one-time cannibal chief from northern
Australia. Fantastic and preposterous though they are, his Münchhausen-like
exploits with turtles and alligators are nothing compared with his
afternoon buffalo escapade.
This involved him, not only killing
and ripping open the beast, but also crawling inside the still warm
carcase in order to cure himself of a chill. He remained inside the
intestines all night, and emerged next morning bloody all over, but “absolutely
Sitwell devotes sustained thoroughness
to the picturesque custom of the Ornamental Hermit. Apparently country
squires in centuries past were so keen on the idea of having a hermit to
grace their estates that that they used to advertise in the press, and
even offered purpose-built retreats (the less comfortable the better)
for their bearded dodderers. Flowing white beards, of course, were
essential attributes of a fashionable recluse, as were long finger- and
toenails and absurd clothes.
Yet Horace Walpole, for one,
disapproved of the whole thing, claiming that “it was ridiculous to
set aside a quarter of one’s garden to be melancholy in”. Few took
any heed, however, and some volunteers were even content to occupy a
And on it goes with our English odd
bods. There are inane follies galore to be enjoyed, not the least of
which is the delightful gem that portrays the ludicrous medical
aftermath of a failed amateur attempt at a remedy for flatulence.
A certain seventeenth century
physician (one Sir Charles Hall) did find himself
. . . the centre of
a scene as animated as it was remarkable. The windows of every house in
the village to which he had been called, the grass-grown streets, and
especially the village green outside the house of Mr Thomas Gobsill, 'a
lean man, aged about twenty-six or twenty-seven', were swarming with
excited yokels, as Sir Charles, calling for a ladder, and setting this
against Mr Gobsill's house, bound that gentleman head downwards upon the
ladder, and shook it violently.
The reason for this
remarkable energy and enterprise, on the part of Sir Charles, was that
Mr Gobsill, who suffered from wind, had, for some time past, been in the
habit — on the advice of 'a friend' — of swallowing round white
pebbles, in order to quell this disorder. At first, the prescription
acted admirably, and Mr Gobsill was, in the due course of nature,
delivered of both pebbles and wind; but some time afterwards the wind
returned to him, and Mr Gobsill returned to the pebbles, and both wind
and pebbles clung to Mr Gobsill and would not be parted from him. Mr
Gobsill concluded, very naturally, that the best plan would be to repeat
the dose, and this he did, until, instead of the original dose of nine
pebbles, he had swallowed two hundred. Mr Gobsill's two hundred pebbles
had remained clamped in the inner recesses of his being for the space of
two years and a half, when he noticed that his appetite had gone, and
that he was suffering from indigestion. He therefore consulted Sir
Charles who, on examining the patient, found that if Mr Gobsill were
severely shaken, the stones could be heard rattling as if they were in a
bag. When the scene which I have described was enacted, the stones made
a slight, slow, noisy journey in the direction of Mr Gobsill's mouth,
but immediately he was reversed, and placed upon his feet once more, the
surrounding multitude were gratified by the sound of the two hundred
stones falling, one after another, into their original resting-place.
I do not know what was
his eventual fate, or if he went to an early grave, accompanied by these
faithful minerals . . .