Reading Note:
Transitional Protocols
8 April 2015

Although this entry is about John Pearson’s The Sitwells: A Family’s Biography — published in 1978 — it does not really concern the Sitwells. My subject today is rather Pearson’s intriguing handling of the elephant-in-the-room topic — as it still was in those days, almost forty years ago — of Osbert Sitwell’s homosexuality.

For well over two-thirds of the book, Pearson appears to treat the matter with old-fashioned circumspection. Although the H word is attached to a small number of minor figures, and to the artist who was the focus of Edith Sitwell’s most painful fixation, Pavel Tchelitchew, it is not used in reference to Osbert. We hear instead of Osbert’s “friends,” of two friends, to be exact. (He appears to have had no “friends” at all as a young man, not even at Eton.) The friendship with Adrian Stokes is not long-lasting, but the fact that it peters out after a short time, along with that of the age difference, suggests that the relation was something quite other than the platonic mutuality of two peers. The friendship with David Horner lasts for decades, but not once is carnal contact so much as hinted at. We are in the old world in which such things were not mentioned. Anyone with an adult, reasonably cosmopolitan mind could infer them. Although we now regard such discretion as both evasive and repressive, it had a lot to recommend it. I myself didn’t fault Pearson for observing the traditional protocols.

What shocked me was the way he dropped those protocols, like a stack of china plates, in a late chapter that is dated 1949-1952. (Osbert’s dates: 1892-1969.) Nothing to do with sex!

Cyril Connolly defined the natural qualities of the homosexual writer as “combativeness, curiosity, egotism, intuition and adaptability,” and one can see how much Osbert had relied on all these literary advantages to complete his monumental work. (407)

Typing it out now, I’m still shocked. Everybody knows, it seems, that some men like to have sex with other men, and only with other men; there’s no need to call attention to this in print. “Homosexuality,” it appears, means something else, something that comprehends an aesthetic, an artistic style that Cyril Connolly obligingly unpacks for the gentle reader. It also appears, in 1978, that, where art is concerned, the love that dare not speak its name can shout it — so long as love has nothing to do with it.

The thick plottens a few pages on. Even after pointing what “one can see,” Pearson continues his policy of not identifying the relationship between Sitwell and Horner as homosexual. But the euphemism of friendship undergoes a terrible strain, not least, one imagines, because Osbert was by this time well into the onset of Parkinson’s Disease.

But inevitably the illness made him more of a recluse, and more and more dependent on the few close friends he had. He became gentler and more accepting of his lot, and very tolerant and thankful for the affection that he could command — particularly from David. He seems to have been very wise about him now. He knew that it was only natural for David to have other friends and something of a life away from him. This always had been a condition of their life together and it still applied. But David was still fond of him, still spent the greatest part of every year with him, and he was grateful. (436)

Other friends… This is not the way one speaks of friendship. It is a way of talking about romance, particularly the imbalanced romance that subsists between lovers who do not love equally. David is “fond” of Osbert, and no more has been imputed to him at any earlier point in the narrative. Osbert, in contrast, has been explicit about his love for David, especially in letters that might have been copied from Wilde. Whether the romance had a sexual aspect is of course nobody’s business, but it would appear to be more candid to speak of David and Osbert as lovers. The want of such candor screams two pages later.

But Osbert had more serious troubles to contend with now. Gossip had started about him and David, and while he was still in Florida he received a disturbing letter from David saying that there was talk that they were breaking up. (438)

Now we are beyond the problem of nomenclature, and clearly in need of more explicit descriptions of the actual relationship between the two men. Gossip? Breaking up? Why would David be the one to report this? Had he given grounds for such a rumor? He very possibly had, with one of his other friends. But Pearson tells us nothing. He tells us, in fact, no more than Sitwell himself did in his multi-volume autobiography, in which David was mentioned, Pearson tells us, once. Pearson might just as well have done the same. Osbert’s friendship with David occurs entirely off-screen. Rather, it takes place entirely in public, but with an altogether unnatural invisibility.

As a result, there is no preparation for the startling development that occurs shortly after the events that I’ve related. This development is nothing less than Edith’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, which is, long story short, attributed to her attempt to deal with the rage occasioned by David’s mistreatment of ailing Osbert, a mistreatment that is not specified in even the grossest detail. Without David’s having appeared to do anything, he moves from being Edith’s friendly correspondent about her brother’s health to the arch-villain of the piece.

And, once again, I should understand this coy confusion perfectly well had not Pearson barged in with the news that Osbert was a homosexual writer!

The fact that Pearson was writing years and years ago, in a very different climate, when homosexuals were beginning to be tolerated, but still not quite accepted, doesn’t explain much of anything — does it? In fact, I’ve just put my finger on it. Homosexuality was, at least in sophisticated circles, tolerated. That Osbert Sitwell might be a homosexual was no occasion for contempt or ostracism. But homosexual relationships — the ways in which two men might express their love in public, with their clothes on — still made the heteronormative world uncomfortable. Such relations, it was hoped, would continue to remain closeted.

So, what the hell did David Horner do?