Osbert Sitwell on being in books

Osbert Sitwell, brother of poets Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell, wrote poetry and prose, and is remembered for his autobiography. In this excerpt from the first volume, ``Left Hand, Right Hand!'' (1945), an elm tree is felled at Renishaw, the family estate, and he meets his first writer. ...as it fell, a cloud of bats, hundreds upon hundreds of them, flew out into the, to them, impenetrable daylight, and wildly sped and spun and circled, squeaking in their voices that are so high-pitched as to be felt rather than heard. With shrieks of terror, as though they had witnessed the landing of Mr. H.G. Wells's contemporary Martians, the women of the party, clasping their piled-up masses of hair tightly with their hands, so as to protect it - for a myth persisted that bats loved to become involved in those nests of crowning glory -, fled towards the house. It was an extraordinary scene, such as I now see might have inspired the brush of Nicholas Poussin, the flight, the stricken faces, the gestures of despair, the eyes round and welling with terror. (Incidentally, some much more attractive inhabitants of the tree, a family of white owls, also thus forcibly ejected from their ancient home, flapped through the air, though no one seemed to suspect them of wishing to nest within these flowing locks, whether golden or raven; and indeed that same afternoon they turned my mother's beautiful prize pigeons out of the dovecot on the lawn, and remained therein established for many years.)

Even at so early an age, I found this rhythmic flight of women towards the house impressive: I scarcely expected to witness again soon such a classic scene of anguish. But I was wrong, for a few days later Miss de Rodes, the heiress of the beautiful Elizabethan house of Barlborough, brought over to tea at Renishaw the members of her house-party. When, arriving on the lawn, she introduced one of them as ``Mr. Augustus Hare, the writer,'' her words created obvious panic. There ensued, metaphorically, the same tragic rush of women, away, off stage, holding their hair and, this time, crying, ``He may put me in a book!'' ... It was then brought home to me for the first - but alas! not the last - time, the universal horror in which the writer is held in England, in elegant circles no less than among the common men. The lurking, inexpressible, awful fear haunted each of their hearts, like that which, were it sentient enough, would haunt the mind of a butterfly about to be netted, anaesthetised, killed and pinned out upon a square of cardboard. The prejudice was immense. Each man - though my father's attitude, of course, was exceptional, for he was interested - and each woman felt sure of being herself the quarry. Perhaps, also, beneath the horror, sprang up a certain feeling of self-importance, in the same way that it had been, in a sense, self-flattery in each woman to have been so convinced that the bats wished particuarly to snuggle in her hair.... But then, writers, in addition, were clever. Even bats were not that! Again, the victims recoiled.

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