3 min

Wealthy, witty and gay

A British expat's fascination with China's Imperial eunuchs

In the days when the  British Empire covered a quarter of the globe’s surface, Englishmen were to be found everywhere.

If they weren’t expatriates like actor Basil Rathbone in Los Angeles, or colonial administrators like Bloomsbury’s Leonard Woolf in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), then they were travellers — Oscar Wilde in Canada (“So this is Winnipeg. I can tell it’s not Paris.”) or writer and esthete Sir Osbert Sitwell, the subject of this month’s column.

Osbert was one of the three Sitwell siblings (he had an elder sister Edith and younger brother Sacheverell). Wealthy, witty and well connected — and being British of a certain class, deeply eccentric — the tight knit trio was an artistic force to be reckoned with in England in the inter-war years. If today only Edith’s reputation as a poet has kept Sitwell a name of literary significance, in his heyday Osbert was considered one of the best stylists in the English language, while brother Sacheverell was esteemed as a writer on architecture and gardens.

One of the family’s more significant contributions to 20th century culture was their adoption of the young William Walton as a protégé. Thanks to them, Walton was able to begin composing the music which eventually gained him a toehold in the core classical repertoire, most notably his 1922 Façade, a setting for Edith’s nonsense verses, which has become a classic, and his violin concerto, a recording of which won the Vancouver Symphony its first Grammy in 2007.

The Sitwell connection to Vancouver, however slight, is typical of the links between London and the outer fringes of the Empire.

Osbert loved to travel and made some money writing about his travels. That was just as well given that he was going through the Sitwell family fortune at a smart pace.

It was on his way back from the Far East circa 1934 that he passed through Vancouver on his way to Banff (“the capital, as it were, of the Rockies — a little town nestling among white-capped mountains, bison and buffaloes.”)

The book Osbert produced about his travels in the East, Escape with me (1940), provides the reader with one of the best accounts of life in pre-Communist Peking (now Beijing). In the three months Osbert and his lover David Horner spent in the city, the former was able to satisfy his curiosity about everything and anything, including the eunuchs of the Forbidden City.

Osbert describes a winter visit he and David make to the surviving Imperial eunuchs living in genteel squalor in a forgotten temple complex in the dusty plains surrounding the Chinese capital: “… immediately from behind the paper windows [we] could distinguish the clinking of tea-bowls and the sound of high-pitched gossip and chatter…When we opened the door, we found a cluster of excited, inquisitive old faces round us,” he writes.

The visitors are plied with endless cups of tea to delay their departure. “No one ever visited them… for having been powerful, some of them, they still possessed many enemies, though no friends, from the old days, and did not dare very often to visit the city,” Osbert notes.

Osbert observes that his hosts, isolated and bored, have a limited range of interests. “The state of the world did not affect them… No, it was the small points of dress… that concerned them, the make and texture of our clothes. (Surreptitiously, their soft, wrinkled old hands fingered them, to gauge their quality and subsequent cost.) What price, they could not resist asking us, had we paid for them? When enlightened, they babbled tremendously, and made a parade of disbelief,” he reports.

A photograph shows Osbert and David surrounded by the staff of their Peking residence. Osbert is tall and substantial looking, while the even taller Horner is slight and fair.

Like many men who come late into their sexuality, Osbert settled on a younger and prettier man as his mate, but not before a few false starts including making a pass at the unsuitable Walton (when asked what his music was about, Walton answered, “girls”).

Osbert and David’s relationship was made up of equal parts affection and financial interest, although the latter had money of his own. They were together for decades until a last, bitter estrangement that was greeted with joy by sister Edith, who referred to Horner as “poor little David Copperfield” and spent years plotting against him.

The Sitwell connection to Vancouver survives to this day because of William Walton’s younger brother, Alexander, who settled in Vancouver and became an important supporter of the Vancouver Symphony. The Josephine and Alexander Walton scholarship fund is administered by the Vancouver Academy of Music. Call it the Sitwell ripple effect.