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.
Knowing 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 earlier times.
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 of 38.
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 cured”.
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 hermitage unpaid.
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.