The scale of international interest has amazed us Sitwells. That Edith’s address book alone could muster 260 times its low estimate is testament to her followers’ devotion and her status as an iconic poet of the 20th century. As we approach the centenary of the first performance of her avant-garde piece Façade, Edith’s extraordinary poems set to music and her reputation as a remarkable literary talent are undiminished.
It was only earlier this year, sorting through 300 years of Sitwell family ephemera, that I discovered her address book in one of the many attics at our family house, Weston Hall in Northamptonshire. When I was little and visiting my grandparents at Weston, those nine attics were too frightening to brave, with their long dark passageways, creaking doors and rickety stairs. But decades later, I ascended the stairs and dutifully helped clear them out. My mother, brothers George and William and I had made the heart-breaking but financially necessary decision to sell our beloved home. Packing up the contents and preparing for an incredible two-day sale with Dreweatts, which ran from 16-17 November, was a mammoth task.
The day of my great find was gloomy, mid-winter lockdown, and I had spent most of the morning in the smallest attic lit by a single lightbulb and ridden with dead flies and peeling wallpaper. One last unopened box beckoned from the corner; I peeled back the thick brown tape and picked out an insignificant-looking black, leather-bound book. “Insolent women with the shrieking children!” read the first entry I happened upon. Oh, the sympathy I felt for whomever this insult was directed at – I have two young children of my own.
I called William over to take a closer look. Flicking through more of the pages we began to realise that we had stumbled upon something special. It read like a Who’s Who from the world of music, theatre, publishing, film and ballet. Entries in blue and red ink included The Queen Mother at the Castle of May, Evelyn Waugh, Gore Vidal, Cecil Beaton and Graham Greene. The handwriting looked familiar and quickly it dawned on me that what I held was the address book of my great aunt Edith. Although I never met her, I instantly recognised her humour pouring out of its pages. We laughed out loud at ‘That Blasted Priest’, ‘Psychopath who insulted me after television’, ‘The American who wants to bring his wife to tea’ and ‘Cat Torturers names withheld by the horrible woman magistrate.’