A Drink with Dame Edith by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark

A Drink with Dame Edith


It was a summer day in 1957. I had published a novel, The Comforters, with some critical success. In the literary world of those days I had become the new young thing. In fact, I was not very young. I was in my late thirties. I had already published poems, stories and reviews, a critical biography of Mary Shelley and a work on the then poet laureate, John Masefield. But it was the novel The Comforters that established my name. It was greatly praised by reviewers, especially by Evelyn Waugh. It was immediately transformed into a radio play on the then prestigious Third Programme. I had been given a contract for the novel by Macmillan – a lousy contract in which they controlled radio and film rights. I was poor, very poor, with a dependent son. I had therefore to find myself an agent. I had also, during the crowded year prior to the publication of The Comforters, started my novel Robinson, to be published in 1958.

Well, I employed an agent, David Higham Associates (earlier, Pearn, Pollinger & Higham). David Higham himself ran the firm, an old wooffie behind moustaches. It fell to my lot to deal with one of their men, Paul Scott, later a well-known novelist and author of the Raj Quartet, celebrated as a television series. I subsequently became friendly with Paul Scott, but I never put him at the highest level of fiction writing. At the time, he knew of my literary success, but when he read Robinson (if, in fact, he did read it) he wasn’t at all impressed. He asked me to come and see him about it. My clothes were old-fashioned but my best. He sat there pontifically with my manuscript in front of him on his desk, and wondered, after all, what was this novel about? A man and a girl on an island? It was, in fact, about a lot more than that. As he spoke, Paul flicked the typescript of my novel across the desk towards me with a contemptuous gesture of his third finger and thumb. I fairly loathed him for that. I said: ‘Don’t represent me if you don’t want to.’ ‘Oh,’ he condescended, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

That afternoon, it so happened, I had been summoned to meet Edith Sitwell. I went round to the Sesame Club, where Edith held court. I was still fuming against that ghastly agent, especially his rude gesture. The very thought of his touching my typescript now offended my guts.

As soon as I caught sight of Edith Sitwell it brought a totally new dimension into my day. She was impressively grand, quite eccentric, but she had no doubt whatsoever of what the artist in literature was about. High priests and priestesses: that’s what we all were. She wore her usual loose, dramatic robes, her high, Plantagenet headdress. Her lovely hands were covered with the most beautiful rings I had ever seen actually worn: they were deep, deep, coloured stones – aquamarines, blue agates, large and pool-like. A junior editor from Macmillan, an alcoholic who thought nobody knew, was fawning and ‘hand-washing’ and fussing around her, a performance which Edith, with half-closed eyes, magnificently and pointedly ignored. She asked me what I would drink, suggesting her own preference, gin and pineapple juice.

I had been in some trepidation lest Dame Edith should remember from seven years back an article I had written in Poetry Quarterly based on books by herself, Louis MacNeice and Kathleen Raine. In the course of the essay I had suggested something to the effect that W B Yeats was a ‘greater’ poet than Sitwell. This did not please her at all. She protested to the editor. I forget what happened next. The years pass… I am sitting next to the wonderful woman herself in the Sesame Club and she is telling me how taken she is by the mysterious qualities she finds in my writing. Plainly she has not connected me with the impudent reviewer of yore. Let it stay that way.

With her was another equally splendid woman, about Dame Edith’s age of seventy. She was introduced as a ‘war heroine’. I fancy she was also a Dame. How I wish I could say who in fact she was. Another young editor from another publishing house had now joined the gin-and-pineapple party. I let my eyes rove among the Sesame Club attendants, wondering which of them was the one who was reputed to have ‘converted’ Dame Edith to Catholicism. I have put converted in inverted commas because I know that her actual entering the Catholic Church took place under the guidance of our mutual friend, Father Philip Caraman, S J. The Sesame Club waiter, however, was no doubt the object of many conversations on the subject. I chose as a possibility an Italian-looking fellow with intelligent eyes.

While a great many of these impressions played on my mind like a left-hand accompaniment on the piano, the main topics came forth like those played decisively with the right hand. Dame Edith wanted to tell me an amusing story of her youth, already knowing from my writings that it would be dear to my merry heart. Her father, Sir George Sitwell, she said, had received an anonymous letter accusing him of having an affair with a well-known woman of the village. Incensed, he wanted to find the culprit, and to that end posted up the letter in the window of the village post office, offering a £5 reward. Edith said it was one of the joys of those days for her to go down to the post office with her brothers and read the salacious letter.

We found we had another friend in common, the poet Roy Campbell, whom I greatly admired, both as a person and as a poet. Edith told us with some relish how the critic Geoffrey Grigson had been accosted and slapped by Roy Campbell for having ‘insulted’ her in a review. Those were the days! (I felt, actually, that this was going a bit far, but when I looked up the review later on I saw that it was indeed decidedly and deliberately insulting.)

Inevitably, I came out with my experience that very afternoon with my agent, showing her how he had flicked my typescript at me with his thumb and third finger. She took an intense interest in the story. ‘My dear,’ she said, ‘you must acquire a pair of lorgnettes, make an occasion to see that man again, focus the glasses on him and sit looking at him through them as if he was an insect. Just look and look.’ She showed me with her own eyeglasses, which were hanging on one of the chains around her neck, how it was done.

I didn’t have any lorgnettes, but the next time I had an appointment with Paul Scott I meant to slip into my bag a magnifying glass, fully intending to subject him to a scrutiny if necessary. I forgot to do so, and anyway it wasn’t necessary. He had now read something else of mine. ‘I didn’t think you had it in you,’ were his words. I still think they were strange words, neither one thing nor another. But I thought of Edith Sitwell’s advice, and I simply didn’t care.

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