British author and music critic
Born 1901 Died 1965
Although formally, and very briefly, the 5th Baron Sackville of Knole for the last three years of his life, he was better known as simply Edward Sackville-West, the author of a number of critically acclaimed if now completely forgotten novels, and one of the leading music critics of his time.
Edward Charles Sackville-West was born on the 13th November 1901 at 105 Cadogan Gardens in London, the only son of Charles John Sackville-West, 4th Baron Sackville of Knole and his first wife, Maud Cecilia Bell. Known to his friends and family as 'Eddy' he was educated at the South Lodge Preparatory School at Enfield in Middlesex, Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford, although he left Oxford without taking a degree.
Edward had displayed some talent as a pianist whilst at Eton where he received music lessons from the concert pianist Irene Scharrer and won the Eton music prize in 1918, and for a time considered a career as a composer. However whilst he was at Christ Church he began writing the first of his of five largely autobiographical novels entitled The Ruin. Unfortunately The Ruin was rather too autobiographical with certain of the characters being readily identifiable with their real-life equivalents. Publication was therefore delayed for a while and his first book to see print was the Piano Quintet, which told the story of the relationships between the members of a string quartet who join forces with a pianist to play the César Franck piano quintet.
The Piano Quintet was well received at the time; the Evening News in London praised the "finesse and finish usually associated with a mature writer", the Sunday Times called it a "remarkable piece of work, worthy to be judged by high standards", whilst the Daily Chronicle admired "the exquisite character-drawing of this well-written book". After such a reception The Ruin was eventually published in 1926 to be followed by Mandrake over the Water-Carrier (1928), Simpson (1931), and The Sun in Capricorn (1934), all of which were generally well received by the critics at the time, whilst Simpson even had the distinction of being awarded the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize. However the critical accolades never translated into significant sales, and his novels soon went out of print. Only Simpson, which was revised in 1951, has remained in print, whilst two other novels The Eye of the Statue and Sinfonia eroica, remain unpublished to this day.
Indeed it seems that Edward became rather downhearted as a result of the lack of enthusiasm shown for his work, and later became particularly disappointed with the National Book League. They decided to launch an exhibition featuring the one hundred best works by British authors published during the previous thirty years as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations but quite neglected to chose any of his novels. Indeed his fiction, which now tends to be described as "unusual" or "eccentric", has failed to stand the test of time; his most recent biographer Michael De-la-Noy has referred to Edward's "gothic literary efforts" over which he "took infinite but rather pointless pains" and blames it all on Edward's enthusiasm for the work of the French 'decadent' novelist Joris Karl Huysmans.
Edwards also tried his hand at biography, and although his The Apology of Arthur Rimbaud: A Dialogue (1927), which largely consists of an imagined dialogue between Edward and his subject has largely been forgotten, his later work A Flame in Sunlight: the Life and Work of Thomas De Quincey (1936), which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is still referred to today as being of interest. However probably his most successful work, still regarded as "a genuine broadcasting classic" to this day, would be The Rescue: a Melodrama for Broadcasting, a play for radio which was first broadcast in two parts in 1943. Based on The Odyssey and written in collaboration with Benjamin Britten who produced the score, it was later published in 1945 with illustrations by Henry Moore.
Edward had earlier been the music critic for The Spectator in 1924 and 1925, but his critical career took off when the first of his 'Gramophone notes' appeared in the New Statesman of the 16th March 1935. Over the next twenty years or so became perhaps the most respected music critic of his age, and one of the early champions of the work of Benjamin Britten. (Being one of the reasons why Britten willingly collaborated over The Rescue.) Edward subsequently collaborated with his fellow critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor in producing the Record Guide, which first appeared in 1951, and subsequently went through various revisions and supplements during the years 1952 to 1956. The Record Guide proved to be a particularly influential publication and was even reprinted by the Greenwood Press in 1978, and modern enthusiasts and critics still refer to the opinions expressed in their now battered copies.
After the end of the war in August 1945 Edwards pooled his resources with a number of friends, being the aforementioned Desmond Shawe-Taylor, together with the painter Eardley Knollys and the literary critic Raymond Mortimer, and purchased Long Crichel House near Wimborne in Dorset. There they established something of an artistic salon although as it happens it was an almost entirely masculine affair.
Edward was indeed homosexual although he never appears to have ever quite been able to come to terms with that fact. Early on in his life he went to Germany to seek a 'cure' and went though a form of aversion therapy, which apart from causing him a certain amount of pain and discomfort had no effect whatsoever. He subsequently had a number of affairs or relationships with a variety of men including the sculptor Stephen Tomlin, the painters Duncan Grant and John Banting, and Paul Latham, baronet and Member of Parliament. Many, if not all of these relationships ended badly, at least from Edward's point of view, and contributed to his general sense of dissatisfaction with life.
He seems however to have attained a certain level of tranquility in his later years. Having abandoned religion, or at least the Anglican Church at the age of twenty-three, he later became a Roman Catholic in 1949 and eventually decided to settle in Ireland in 1956 after buying Cooleville House at Clogheen in County Tipperary where he seems to have spent the last and the happiest years of his life.
Towards the end of his life Edward became the 5th Baron Sackville of Knole following the death of his father on the 8th May 1962. As a result he formally came into possession of the family estates and their over-sized mansion at Knole Park, but since the property was entailed on the male line and Edward was unlikely to be making his own contribution in that direction, his father had already handed over effective control to his cousin Lionel Bertrand in 1960 who stood as next in line. This was all perfectly fine as far as Edward was concerned, as he had no interest in Knole as such, and indeed was quite fond of his cousin Lionel's daughters Jacobine and Teresa, both of whom later benefitted as the major beneficiaries of his will.
Although his father had lived to the age of age of ninety-two, it never seemed likely that Edward would challenge that achievement as he had never appeared to be in the best of health. In addition to suffering from asthma, he had inherited telangiectasia from his mother, an abnormal dilation of the blood capillaries, which in Edward's case meant that he had a tendency to suffer from regular nosebleeds. The end came when he suffered an acute asthma attack at his home of Cooleville on the 4th July 1965, which resulted in a seizure and his ultimate death. He was buried in the local churchyard.
Sadly his fiction appears no longer to be of interest to anyone, although he is still remembered (and often cited) as a music critic.
He makes an appearance (so it is said) in the novel Don't Tell Alfred (1960) by Nancy Mitford as the hypochondriac 'Uncle Davey'.
- Michael De-la-Noy, ‘West, Edward Charles Sackville-, fifth Baron Sackville (1901–1965)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006
- Margaret Crosland. Edward Sackville-west from Dictionary of Literary Biography. © 2005-2006 Thomson Gale
- Sale Of Vintage Classical Record Guides, Guide Books Etc.
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for
SACKVILLE OF KNOLE