Two Dinner Parties

SIR OSBERT SITWELL’S four volumes of reminiscences, which were published in this country under the AtlanticLittle, Brown imprint, stand as a peerless monument to Victorian and Edwardian England, and those who have read them will be unlikely to forget the brilliant portrait of the original and irascible Sir George Sitwell and of Henry Moat, his discerning and eloquent butler. Sir Osbert is now engaged in a further book about his father, from which we are privileged to draw these lively encounters.

by Sir Osbert Sitwell

PROVERBS are often supposed to embalm and preserve an ancient truth: nevertheless, to the precise contrary, they may on occasion present in its stead a stunning falsity. Thus, enough is not as good as a feast and never will be. An adequacy may be honest and healthy but lacks the glamour of a feast. After this fashion the idea of the banquets given by the City Companies conferred upon my father a special prestige in my eyes, because he would from time to time go up to London in order to attend a gala of this kind, and return the next day bringing with him an elaborate box of chocolates or some piece of glass or china which had been given to him as a memento.

Ordinarily, however, banquets and feasts bore no part in my father’s life, though he took an interest in the decorative and aesthetic side of them and would sometimes talk with apparent airy approval of the singular entertainments offered in Rome by that Syrian aesthete, the teen-age Emperor Heliogabalus, some two thousand years before. No! A nourishing and unexciting sufficiency was as a rule the culinary standard my father supported. He liked food to be tasteless and to be served tepid, though he had a good appetite and ate very quickly — a habit which he was fond of attributing to the rapidity of the working of his brain. His favorite dish was blancmange, that quaking white confection that masquerades under a bogus foreign title but is quite unknown in the whole gastronomic repertory of the French. So fond was he of it, and so often did it figure in the menu, that Henry would warn us beforehand, “He’s having his old rock of ages again for luncheon.” Yet though my father in no whit resembled or aspired to resemble either Lucullus as gourmet or Trimalchio as host, nevertheless at least two of the dinner parties he gave in his later years at Montegufoni attained a certain more than local celebrity.

While the first dinner party described pertained to the ancient and international world of slapstick, it is really with the second fantastic and mysterious occasion that I am chiefly concerned. The guests were comparatively few and chosen on no evident principle. For that reason it is necessary to consider and describe two of the persons present.

First, Mrs. George Keppel: a most unusual person who naturally dominated, but never domineered over, the people in her company. She was not a beautiful woman, but had a handsome and very individual appearance. In addition, she was, to use a colloquialism of the time, “great fun.” Jewels suited her and there was about her a certain natural magnificence which was always reflected in her surroundings. Thus her villa in Florence had the same splendor about it that her house in Grosvenor Street had formerly shown.

She added an ambience of amusement, good nature, and keen appreciation both of the surface and of what was occurring underneath it to any occasion at which she was present. As she talked in her clear and level voice, her bold and humorous gray-green eyes raked the scene and took in all that was happening. To give an example of her particular quality, I recall an incident that took place a year or two earlier at Renishaw when she was staying with us. A man whom we had never seen before was wished on us for luncheon one day. He was placed next my sister, and took it into his head to inquire of her: “Do you remember this house being built, Miss Sitwell?” Mrs. Keppel overheard this, and said to him quickly: “My dear man, be careful! Not even the nicest girl in the world likes to be asked if she is four hundred years old.”

Then, my Aunt Londesborough: she was by now an old lady. Without being fat, she gave the impression of being over life-size, and when she walked into a room, with a slight limp that was the result of a fall while hunting, she certainly looked an imposing figure, an Amazonian wreck, a substantial ruin of the Edwardian Age of which — in every sense of the word —she had been a prop.

My father did not share my views of her personal appearance, and when I one day asked him how my aunt had looked as a girl, he replied: “Just as she does now — always very flashy-looking!” But then he was prejudiced. He had never forgiven her for having bought at a local Conservative Bazaar a stone garden seat, somewhat fancifully classified as Italian, but whatever its origin may have been, of a quite unusual ugliness and an excruciating discomfort, and then, having publicly declared that she had purchased it as a present for her brother-in-law, for having sent him a bill for £14 — after which there was yet more talk than customarily of its being “easy to be generous with other people’s money.” Even now, after the passage of many years, the gift had been neither forgiven nor forgotten. Of course it may be that the bill was an error due to her absent-mindedness. She was, as will be seen, very vague.

I recalled, as I looked at her, how a cousin of mine had told me that at the Coronation of King Edward the Seventh, instructions having been specially issued by the Earl Marshal that peeresses were not to wear flowers, a distracted court official had rushed up to my cousin and wailed: “What am I to do? Lady Londesborough has entered the Abbey wearing a large bouquet of pink Malmaisons on her chest!” “What are you to do?” my cousin replied. “Go back to the Abbey and thank God that she isn’t wearing them in her hair!”

In her talk my aunt combined a singular eighteenth-century frankness with a degree of nineteenth-century squeamishness. To illustrate this trait, Henry Moat alleged that when, during her visit to Montegufoni for the dinner party, he went upstairs, he would often meet my aunt passing by in a dressing gown, and each time it had occurred, feeling that some explanation was due from her, she would invariably remark: “I am just on my way to wash my feet.”

FOR September, 1929, the International Festival of Modern Music, under the chairmanship of our old friend Edward Dent, had decided to hold its annual festival at Siena. This was for Dent a fortunate choice because he was never happier than when in Italy, and — which constituted an astonishing achievement for an Englishman, or, as for that, for an Italian — he could speak perfectly the dialect of every district and former sovereign state. For the festival the ancient city was crammed for ten days with visitors of a different kind from the ordinary tourist: with those who brought to music a modern ear.

There was a house party for the occasion at Montegufoni, because among works to be presented was Façqade, and the author, composer, and reciter — my sister, William Walton, and Constant Lambert — were all three staying with us, and were eager to observe the impact of this entertainment upon the two worlds that would form its audience, the cosmopolitan, including advanced composers from nearly every civilized country, superimposed upon the lively Italian main body of it.

In addition to the concert, a very full program of festivities included a special performance of the Palio, that great Sienese spectacle which had been arranged in honor of the visitors. Though every day was crammed, there was a free evening at the end of the last concert, and accordingly we determined to try to induce my father to invite the delegates to dinner. We cherished little hope of success, but to our surprise he proved on this occasion to be malleable, and even eager, to fall in with our plan.

Invitations were sent out and accepted; and on the last day of the festival, dinner was laid for Seventy-two persons in the Great Dining Room. The room had certainly not been used for a century and a half for this, its appointed purpose, and the choice of it no doubt explained why my father had allowed himself to be so easily persuaded; for he had lately restored it, made a kitchen underneath, and had installed as well a service lift to communicate with it. Now he wanted to see the room in action. It is nearly sixty feet long, and has a high coved ceiling, in the center of which is shown, in a framing of decorative white stucco, an attractive piece of color, a painted apotheosis, not so much of Cardinal Acciaiuoli, as of his hat, which is being conveyed up to heaven in a whirl of fleecy clouds and angels. On the north side five windows look toward Mont Albano — in a village at the foot of which Leonardo da Vinci was born — and to the south, on to the Great Court. Between the windows are seventeenth-century plaster pedestal brackets culminating in batlike faces which in their deliberate distortion rival Gothic gargoyles. My father as he hurried past them was wont to murmur “Brut to Seicento!” but they must have nobly fulfilled their evident purpose: to support baroque dynastic busts which had long vanished, for all the pomp and pride of their full-bottomed wigs and Hapsburg features.

DINNER was to be at quarter to seven, and the first guests, headed by Edward Dent, arrived at four thirty, in order to help in welcoming the delegates unknown to us: the main body was to make the journey in two specially chartered charabancs, due to appear at six. Unfortunately, someone — an indefatigable, indeed relentless sightseer-had advised the organizers to pay a visit first to San Gimignano, and then to Volterra, so that the parties could see these ancient cities. It would take no time, he had said, as they were practically on the way. But that afternoon they seemed a long distance out of it. The drivers of the charabancs continually lost their bearings, and wandered hither and thither for hours over Tuscany in the gloaming. Meanwhile my father stood in the Court of the Dukes of Athens, watch in hand, and would not be comforted. The waiters, hired for the occasion from Doney’s in Florence, tall, melancholy, distinguished-looking individuals, immaculately tailored, spent the spare hours in musing or in throwing the stones with which we provided them down the Well of Polidora in the Great Court and, as its full depth was revealed to them by the sound and sight of the falling pebbles, they would exclaim in tones of astonished pleasure: “Mamma mia! Mamma mia!”: but darkness soon crept Over the world and we had to substitute burning straw for pebbles.

Electric light had not yet been installed, and although candles and lamps were provided in great quantities, the enormous blackness within the Castle seemed to swallow and suffocate such light as there was. Gloom brooded and doubts began to develop as to whether our expected guests would ever make their appearance. The principals were at a loss to explain the breakdown of the program, and my father was full of reproaches, spoken and unspoken, and worked himself up into almost a fever of fussing. In fact he began to “create" in the popular sense of the word. What could have occurred? Motor coaches were always dangerous. Perhaps they had fallen over a precipice — a dreadful thing to happen — or the driver might have had a stroke at the wheel, or perhaps he had run amuck — driving, he had always understood, could impose a great strain on a man — or, worse still, had the two charabancs through some mischance telescoped each other, or — but here another side of the matter struck him: if there were no explanation of the sort he had outlined, it was grossly inconsiderate of the delegates. It was now long past the hour for dinner.

The sole consolation in our present quandary was that Henry Moat had entered my father’s service once again, and though he was by now physically very heavy, lightness had returned to the air, and it was amusing to see how quickly he and my father took up their accustomed roles opposite each other.

On this occasion my father called to him: “Henry, it is now 8:30: if they don’t arrive in ten minutes’ time, I intend to sit down to dinner—if necessary by myself.”

“Well, Sir George, you couldn’t ask for more cheerful company, could you?”

My father was just going to reply to this doubleedged compliment when at that very moment an excited clamor composed of the shouts, shrieks, and lamentations of a furious mob could be heard approaching; it was the first contingent of guests. Distracted by the nightmare journey to which they had been subjected, always, it seemed to them, brought up with a sudden creaking of overstrained brakes on the very edge of an abyss, lost on mountain roads and in forests of total blackness — difficult enough to find your way about in even by daylight — now maddened by hunger and thirst and other natural needs of the human body, in their search for comfort the herd broke loose and charged about in the vast interior darkness of the Castello. The members of our house party tried to help them, but they would not be guided; as they dashed down passages, they engaged in personal combat with inanimate objects, hitting here the corner of a cupboard, receiving there a black eye from a toppling torciere, tripped by a lurking footstool, had a K. O. administered to them by an invisible table, or were victims of some infamous attack by a carved saint, who had become an adept apparently at all-in wrestling. Suddenly the vociferation, bawling, and trampling were redoubled; the second charabanc had at last made its appearance. Mob fought mob. Pandemonium reigned. The scene, as occasionally a lamp or candle revealed this conflict of shadows, was memorable, and in spite of the international composition of the mob, it was plain that only an English artist, Rowlandson, could have faithfully recorded the riot.

Eventually, however, the guests were rounded up and the mob began to break down into individuals again, as they were conducted to the places reserved for them in the Great Dining Room, where we found friends and acquaintances — among them Edwin Evans and Spike Hughes — already in their chairs. We sat down exactly three hours late, but miraculously the food was not spoiled. The waiters had recovered their official mien, and Henry Moat could be seen growing more portly and more dignified with every passing moment. Upstairs and downstairs wine flowed like — I was going to write “like water,” but in Tuscany water only flows in fountains — no, flowed like wine. When dinner was over, and the ladies retired, several of the male guests — especially those from Balkan countries — instead of standing up, fell down. No one was tempted to stop and sightsee on the way home, for even this simple return journey to Siena in the dark took two hours. At the Castle silence once more clothed the walls, though the sense of mystery was a little dispelled by the common-sense croaking of mudhappy frogs.

THE second dinner party I wish to describe took place in 1930, in early May, when the wisteria is in flower uncontaminated as yet by rain and distills its perfume far and wide, when the banksia roses cascade over the high walls of the terrace and in the evening love-hungry female fireflies signal their presence to the more reticent males, and points of light wax and wane and flicker through the warm and fragrant darkness.

My sister-in-law Georgia and my brother and David Horner and myself had been on a tour in Greece. We stopped in Rome on our way to Montegufoni, where we had been invited to stay without fail during the last days of April, but when we reached our hotel, we found letters waiting for us from my father. He asked Georgia to go there three days earlier for some mysterious reason which he did not divulge, and requested the rest of the party to delay their arrival for a few days.

Later Georgia described to me her reception. On arrival, the motor — the Ark, which the reader of Laughter in the Next Room may remember — had met her. Even the conniving manner of the driver seemed to suggest a share in some mystification. My mother was in one of her rages, owing to the fact that she could tell that some arcane matter was in the air and that my father was evidently planning something big, but was determined not to let her into the secret. On the other hand, directly Georgia set foot in the precincts of the Castle my father dragged her off, adopting a most confidential mien, to talk in a distant room, thereby increasing my mother’s rage. Our Aunt Londesborough, the only other guest who had appeared as yet, vainly and ineptly tried to keep the peace between my parents, but the effort remained unsuccessful. To Georgia, though my father gave the impression that he was going to tell her of his schemes, he refused to reveal at present what he was planning, but his aim was plain: to work her up to a state of excitement rivaling his own.

Next morning he sent for her again, and again gave her noncohering pieces of information. But at last he made clear what he wanted from her: her help in making the whole of the plans as dramatic as possible. For the remaining days before the party he would dash into the gallery beckoning wildly to Georgia; thereby further inflaming my mother’s mood. On Tuesday my sister-in-law had been obliged to start for Florence with my father at eight o’clock in the morning in order to complete arrangements for the all-important Thursday evening. When they returned, he immediately kidnaped her again, still without revealing the entire plans. Her diary for the day contains the entry “sinister, eccentric, delirious”; no doubt an accurate summing up of the atmosphere.

The next day Georgia was to dine at the Keppels’ villa: but in the morning came the not infrequent announcement that the Ark had broken down. The prospect seemed hopeless, as there was no means of letting her hostess know. However, Mrs. Keppel found out somehow or other and rescued her. When Georgia reached the villa she found a large party, members of which besieged her with questions about what was to happen the following evening. They were all aware that some mystery brooded. Her position was more especially difficult because my father had at last revealed to her the full plans, first having sworn her to an embarrassing secrecy; which, the next day, was to make her relations with my mother still more unenviable.

My mother spent the day in her favorite armchair by an open French window, dressed in black, and with numberless copies of English newspapers drifting round her feet, as if deposited there by a receding tide. Occasionally she would lunge ineffectually with a fly whisk at some large velvety insect that steered itself in on a puff of golden fragrance from the garden, or would remark to someone passing through the gallery; “All one can do is to live from day to day.”

I remember that as one afternoon my father in a light-gray coat and wide-brimmed gray felt hat and carrying a sun umbrella passed rapidly by her in the Cardinal’s Garden, my mother called out: “George, you’re looking just like Bobby Arthington” — a cousin of his for whom she entertained no admiration, so that the alleged resemblance was certainly not intended as a compliment. My father, however, treated it as such, fluttered his hand at her, and with a radiant air called back: “So glad!”

However, in any case, my mother look a dejected view of the party. Her own contribution to the evening had been to order two dozen bottles of champagne, but my father, who had only found out about them when the cases were at the door, refused to accept delivery, explaining to my mother that the red wine of the Castle would be much more appreciated by the guests. My mother said: “But George, champagne makes everyone feel so cheerful.”

“But I’m not sure that I want them to feel cheerful. It isn’t the mood I am aiming for.”

This reply must have related to the special character of the party which was to take place — as no doubt did the fact that the dinner was laid in the Grand Sala, a large very high room across the Great Court opposite that room in which the dinner already described had taken place.

ON ARRIVAL at Montegufoni, it was plain that some mystery was hatching, but nobody seemed to know what or why. Henry refused to enlighten us — if, indeed, he were in on the secret. A volcanic air permeated everything and everyone seemed in bad humor. From the symptoms I could not diagnose the illness, though I ought from previous experience to have been able to deduce what business was brewing; it was presumably one of those dim, demipractical jokes to which my father was partial; as for example when he brought out on January 1, 1901, a prophetic issue of the Scarborough Post (a local paper which for many years belonged to him), dated January 1, 2001 —one of those jokes the fun of which resided in the months of preparation they required beforehand, rather than in the whimper and sputter of the resulting finale.

Georgia could not or rather would not enlighten us.

The Sala commanded the sharp declivities of the garden, the walls slanting back at the angle only to be found in walls built in Rome and Tuscany, and which seemed to bring a remote echo of temple terraces in Cambodia, but were hidden now under the clustered knots and buds of the climbing roses, and the wide expanse of country beyond the cypress groves and springwoods and the fields redolent of flowering bean. On the west was a door which revealed, when open, a vista of painted rooms, A meal in the Grand Sala was in itself an innovation, and therefore probably the choice of it must be connected with the nature of the mystery, but I held no clue.

My father sat at the head of a long table, looking imperturbably good-humored, by no means a true or at any rate an abiding aspect of his character. He also had somewhat the air of a conjurer about to produce a rabbit from his hat. Occasionally he would look round in a rapt manner, which I took to signify that he was thinking of early times when the Duke of Athens used to come here attended by five hundred Greeklings to visit his brother.

Dinner had started and continued in an ordinary enough way until the last course was handed round when Angelo the contadino came in and whispered something to my father, who got up, saying: “Somebody wants to speak to me,” and hurried away, returning in about five minutes. He then said to Mrs. Keppel, who was sitting on his right, “The workmen have found a ghost: will you come and inspect it with me?”

When they came back he went up to someone else, and said the same thing, repeating the formula to each guest in turn.

The guests came back looking startled and bewildered. My Aunt Londesborough looked frightened. Sachie was worried and distraught. “It’s simply Bouvard and Pécuchet,” he complained, “and makes us all look such fools.” I remember one old gentleman saying to me over and over again: “But what does it mean? I can’t make head or tail of it!”

I could not enlighten him, since I had not yet been conducted, but at last my turn came. I did not want to go, for I am not by nature very inquisitive: moreover I thought it just possible that a ghost had been found. Nevertheless, since the visit was clearly obligatory, I went. My father led me through the painted apartments, to the end of the Galleria, the principal drawing room, then he opened a door, which could not be seen unless you knew of it, and took me down a few breakneck stairs and through a crack-skull door into another room of the very existence of which we had been unaware: in the far wall a large jagged hole had been knocked, and through it could be seen a further secret chamber. In the foreground stood a table at which sat a middle-aged man with a sallow face, dressed in the scarlet robes of a Cardinal. On the table lay a vellum-colored holy book of some sort, and a human skull. The Cardinal was repeating over and over again with a strong cockney accent. “Perchè non mi lascia in pace?” I soon recognized him as an Englishman, a habitual of the castle.

The room was lofty for its size and behind the figures stood, fixed to the wall, a series of Gothic cupboards, in cypress wood, with elaborately carved borders to the larger panels and with a fretwork cornice. The table, a rare example of its kind, belonged to the earliest days of Italian furniture.

By the time we had returned to the dinner table we found an atmosphere of bewilderment amounting almost to stupefaction brooding over the guests. (This was, I think, the mood at which my father was aiming; he may not have wished his guests to feel cheerful, but he did want them to feel astonished, even flabbergasted.) The same old gentleman as before was still loud in his demand for help in understanding what was taking place. “What is the old fellow supposed to be?” he repeated. “Someone must know.” But nobody could or would enlighten him.

Looking back, I suppose the correct answer would have been: “One of the two Cardinals produced by the Acciaiuoli family.” But though the reply would have sounded so indefinite, even then the dates would not tally. I ought, too, to have explained to him that my father had designed the whole occasion as an attempt, as so often before, “to amuse my friends,” that phantom company to whose existence he so often and loyally referred. I ought to have added that “amuse my friends” was a common phrase with him, and that the fun in this instance resided in the fact that, except for himself and Georgia, no one present, my mother included, had been aware of the existence of the room disclosed this evening, that it must have taken months to prepare, workmen laboring at it day after day, always from the other side of the wall, and that they had only broken through it during the time occupied by the first few courses at dinner. I ought, too, to have explained to him that the bookshelves, so-called, had been copied in detail from a cupboard in a picture by Carpaccio.

Everybody appeared to be embarrassed, but I was told that my Aunt Londesborough had kept her head and had attempted an explanation to her escort, remarking: “It must be a sort of tomb, I think. I can’t hear what he’s saying. He must be a Cardinal ... or one of those what-d’-you-cullums . . . you know, dear boy.”

In any case, however, though she had made the best of it, this cannot have been her idea of a party. Skulls and hermits were not in her line; no, for her the word party summoned up the memory of great entertainments given at St. Dunstan’s for King Edward and Queen Alexandra, the gardens illuminated, the rooms crammed with Malmaisons and roses, and quails and champagne, and, behind her, her Indian page in pink clothes with a pink turban.

Soon the questionings of his guests were drowned by the clamor and clatter of the brass band of La Società Filarmonica di Montegufoni which started to play outside in the court. Their program began with a village version of God Save the King, with many idiosyncratic variations: these lasted for half an hour, during which time we had all to Stand to attention in the court facing the bandsmen. As the piece at last began to show signs of abating, my aunt, who stood beside me, said in my ear:

“Osbert, you were in the Brigade of Guards. Stand in front of Alice Keppel immediately! Otherwise she’ll take the Salute.”

I looked round, and there, sure enough, was Mrs. Keppel preparing to charge through the vanguard.

After the national anthem had finished, we danced in the court to the strains of lively, outmoded waltzes, grown rustic by the passage of time. It was a hot night and my Aunt Londesborough and her partner had found seats in a window. The conversation went somewhat as follows:

“I’ve bought a new house called Mill Hill Lodge,” she observed.

“Where is it?”

“I’m not quite sure where, but it’s on Barnes Common, wherever that is. There are two roads to London; which make it very convenient in a fog.”

I then came up to ask my aunt to dance. We glided off rather stiffly. She returned out of breath, but elated by the waltz. “I know what,” she exclaimed, “I’ll give a ball at Mill Hill Lodge when I get back! Electric lights — colored ones — in the garden in the trees, and you will choose the band, but we must have plenty of valses, dear boy. But of course there are those couples on Barnes Common . . . they lie there, you know.”

Time passed, and our guests departed into the darkness, which, on the point of “What is it all about?” matched this incident; but the darkness was thronged with dancing dots of light, supplied by the fireflies, and fragrant with the scent of honeysuckle. Most of the guests were still in a daze and, to this day, if they meet, the survivors still discuss it and the memory of it forms a link between them.