Monday 9 December 2019

'The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox'

This is not a quiz, but the passage below – the first paragraph of a book – invites some questions:
What is the writer on about? What could possibly be the subject of this book? And who on earth could the author be?

'In this strange "goose-weather", when even the snow and the black-fringed clouds seem like old theatrical properties, dead players' cast-off rags, "the complexion of a murderer in a bandbox, consisting of a large piece of burnt cork, and a coal-black Peruke", and when the wind is so cold that it seems like an empty theatre's "Sea, consisting of a dozen large waves, the tenth a little bigger than ordinary and a little damaged", I thought of those medicines that were advised for Melancholy, in the anatomy of this Disease, of mummies made medicine, and of the profits of dust-sifting.'
[The embedded quotations, by the way, are from a 'List of Theatrical Properties', in The Tatler, number 42.]

The writer is clearly in thrall to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy – and, at the end of the chapter, quotes the passage from Sir Thomas Browne that ends 'Mummy is become merchandise, Mizraim cureth wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsam' – which at least gives the chapter a kind of circularity. But what is the subject of this book, and who is the writer? Well, the subject is English Eccentrics, and the author is Edith Sitwell, who has still several pages to write before – by way of the great 'Battlebridge Dust and Cinder-Heap', the Pandemonium Theatre Company, 'the clicking noises made by earthworms' ['recently discovered by the physiologist O. Mangold'], the 'morning worship' and vocalisations of lemurs, and attempts to teach human speech to chimpanzees – she finally arrives at the subject of Eccentricity, and the first of her English Eccentrics at last hoves into view.
'Eccentricity exists particularly in the English,' Sitwell observes, 'and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.'
  I've always tended to go along with Leavis's sniffy judgment of the literary Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – as belonging more to the history of publicity than of literature (I don't know why, as I'm sure I disagree with Leavis on most things). However, I owe a debt to Sacheverell, whose long introduction to Mrs Esdaile's English Church Monuments, 1510-1840 is the best, and by miles the most engaging, introduction to the subject, and was one of my chief inspirations in writing my book.
And now I'm giving Edith a try, and so far am greatly enjoying English Eccentrics. Reading it feels more like reading Burton or Browne than anything of the 20th century. I know too little of Edith Sitwell's other work to reach any great conclusions, but, for all her modernist experiments in verse, she seems, in this book at least, to demonstrate a thoroughly 17th-century sensibility – a rare thing in the twentieth.
 She was in many ways, however, of her own time, with her own place in 'the history of publicity', and with some surprising connections – here, by way of a coda, is Dame Edith talking, very astutely and sympathetically, about Marilyn Monroe...

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