Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis

Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis

by Stephen Klaidman

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A long overdue biography of the power couple that nurtured and influenced the literary world of early twentieth-century England

"I write primarily to pay homage to a beloved friend, but also in the hope that some future chronicler of the history of art and letters in our time may give to Sydney and Violet Schiff the place which is their due."


A long overdue biography of the power couple that nurtured and influenced the literary world of early twentieth-century England

"I write primarily to pay homage to a beloved friend, but also in the hope that some future chronicler of the history of art and letters in our time may give to Sydney and Violet Schiff the place which is their due."
—T. S. Eliot, in a letter appended to Violet Schiff's obituary, Times of London, July 9, 1962

Largely forgotten today, Sydney and Violet Schiff were ubiquitous, almost Zelig-like figures in the most important literary movement of the twentieth century. Their friendships among the elite of the Modernist writers were remarkable, and their extensive correspondence with T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Proust, and many others strongly suggests both intimacy and intellectual equality. Leading critics of the day considered Sydney, writing as Stephen Hudson, to be in the same literary league as Joyce, Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence. As for Violet, she was a talented musician who nurtured Sydney's literary efforts and was among the first in England to recognize Proust's genius and spread the word. Sydney and Violet tells the story of how the Schiffs, despite their commercial and Jewish origins, won acceptance in the snobbish, anti-Semitic, literary world of early twentieth-century England, and brings to life a full panoply of extravagant personalities: Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and many more. A highly personal, anecdote-filled account of the social and intellectual history of the Modernist movement, Sydney and Violet also examines what divides the literary survivors from the victims of taste and time.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
On May 18, 1922, at Paris’s Majestic hotel, Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev dined together for the first and last time. Their hosts? Sydney and Violet Schiff. In this delightful book, which draws on extensive private correspondence, interviews, and personal friendship, journalist and editor Klaidman (Coronary: A True Story of Medicine Gone Awry) invites us to share the Schiffs’s privileged view of the modernist elite who reshaped literature, art, and music in the early 20th century and offers plenty of dishy details for cultural history junkies and readers interested in the period. Like Sara and Gerald Murphy, the Schiffs were independently wealthy and well connected. Their friends included T.S. Eliot, Proust, Katherine Mansfield, and bombastic gadfly Wyndham Lewis, who portrayed the Schiffs as social-climbing sycophants in his satiric novel, The Apes of God. The Schiff marriage was, in Klaidman’s words, a “thirty-three-year love affair,” a “collaboration between an inspired writer with a painful personal story and an intelligent, sympathetic but unsentimental editor”—namely Violet. Sydney wrote eight novels, many of them published under the pseudonym Stephen Hudson. Klaidman leaves the question of their literary merit to Sydney’s contemporaries, forcing us to draw our own conclusions. “I’m not sure it’s altogether a bad novel,” Mansfield told Sydney, unaware that he was the book’s author. When she realized her mistake, she was embarrassed: “It’s a thousand-fold more. It is a work of art.” Agent: Chuck Verill, Darhansoff and Verill Literary Agency. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"[Klaidman] has done us a service by rescuing Sydney and Violet Schiff from the obscurity to which the passage of the years has consigned them ... [A]nyone interested in the London literary world of the first half of the 20th century will find much to enjoy here, and something to learn also." The Wall Street Journal

"Klaidman writes about the formidable Violet and fussy Sydney with affection and even, on occasion, a bit of dry wit ... [A] fast-moving, anecdote-rich book ... If you enjoyed Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes or Ben Downing’s Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross, and are wondering what to read next, you might try Stephen Klaidman’s Sydney and Violet. [It's] an informative and entertaining look at one of modernism’s most ubiquitous, if now half-forgotten, power couples." The Washington Post

"Klaidman has written a fascinating book, using the Schiffs to reflect light on their more famous friends ... a satisfying read, which sheds a useful and interesting insight on modernist circles ... well-paced and full of the interesting details and anecdotes that remain in the mind ... anecdotal and enjoyable."The Huffington Post

"The world of Arts and Letters is often enriched by the lives of those who did not create lasting work of their own but who helped to make it possible for the legendary figures of their time to do so, and Sydney and Violet Schiff were just such a couple. To read about their adventures is to be transported back to the magical and mythical early years of Modernism and to appreciate the role this incredible pair played in bringing it about. They encouraged their friends in their creative pursuits, as they did T. S. Eliot during the grim years of his first marriage, and tolerated the outrageous behavior of their circle’s more difficult members, chief among them Wyndham Lewis. Stephen Klaidman has finally given the Schiffs their just due." —Deirdre Bair, author of Saul Steinberg and Samuel Beckett, winner of the National Book Award

"Reading Sydney and Violet is like visiting a newly opened gallery devoted to portraits of the Modernists. Sometimes it is a rogue's gallery, to be sure, but accompanied by the clear-sighted and always informative Stephen Klaidman, we can savor the delicious morsels (gossipy and otherwise), regret the less than ideal or downright bad behavior of the great or merely famous, and rejoice in meeting two fascinating people who lived at the center of the major cultural movements of the early twentieth century." —Mary Gordon, author of The Love of My Youth and Final Payments

"Sidney and Violet is a delightful way of discovering the rivalries and excesses, the nastiness and the brilliance of the early-twentieth-century English literary world. For forty years, Sydney and Violet Schiff  befriended and encouraged the best artists of their time, and Stephen Klaidman’s very entertaining book takes us through their life together with wonderful anecdotes. On one evening in Paris, the Schiffs gathered Proust, Joyce, Stravinsky and Picasso around the same table at the Majestic, all of whom rebuffed any attempt at civil conversation. It is a tribute to the genius of the Schiffs that they survived the ordeal and remained friends with such a raucous group of intellectual luminaries." —Anka Muhlstein, author of Monsieur Proust’s Library

"Klaidman makes clear the importance of this engaging couple." The Buffalo News

Kirkus Reviews
An engaging account of an author and his editor wife who may be obscure even to critics of modernist literature. Here is a biography in which the supporting cast generates most of the interest. Klaidman (Coronary: A True Story of Medicine Gone Awry, 2007, etc.) recognizes that it was a challenge proposing such a book when "only a small number of scholars and aficionados of the modern period had ever heard of the Schiffs." Yet Sydney and Violet Schiff were well-known to the likes of Proust, Eliot, Joyce and Picasso, with whom they socialized and corresponded. They hosted a literary salon, and they served as patrons of the arts. They were also literary figures themselves, he the author and she his editor of A True Story, a Proustian series of autobiographical novels that were praised at the time by their famous friends but have since succumbed to obscurity. It isn't necessarily Klaidman's intent to generate interest in work he believes has been unjustly neglected, but to explore the literary London of a century ago--when it was "the undisputed capital of the literary world…the baptismal font of modernism"--through the experiences and particularly the letters of a couple in the midst of its social swirl. Some dismissed them as "rich poseurs" and "fawning acolytes" (particularly toward Proust), while Eliot once wrote after a visit that they were "very nice Jews." The book builds toward the savage skewering of the Schiffs by Wyndham Lewis, a painter who had accepted both their friendship and their money, in his novel The Apes of the Gods, "published in 1930 and…almost immediately forgotten because most of it is hopelessly obscure unless you are intimately familiar with the lives of the real people who were its hapless targets." Few readers will be, though they'll know more about the Schiffs after finishing this book than almost anyone knew before. An enjoyable extended footnote to the lives of the better known.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.64(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.14(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Sydney’s Travels

In the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 1887, a rather effete-­looking, pink-­cheeked, eighteen-­year-­old Londoner named  Sydney Schiff set sail from England. His destination was an immense  cattle ranch in the Canadian west where he was being sent by his father to work and ponder his future. It was a compromise of sorts worked out after Sydney had rejected a position at A. G. Schiff & Co., his family’s merchant banking firm, and refused to attend Oxford on his father’s terms. Alfred Schiff had been willing to send his son to the university, but only as a prelude to working at the firm, and only if he prepared for a learned profession such as the law, which would be useful in banking. It was not the first time Sydney had displeased his father, about his future among other things. And it would not be the last. Alfred, like most Victorian males of his class and generation, believed his son owed him absolute obedience and he found Sydney’s disregard of his wishes deeply disrespectful.

He was not a patient man, so having been turned down twice one has to wonder what possessed him to offer Sydney a way out. Perhaps he believed the experience would be unpleasant enough to make banking look more attractive. But if that’s what he thought, he badly misjudged his son. Another possibility is that he thought exposure to North America’s aggressive commercial culture would be good for Sydney. He might even have offered to arrange a job on the ranch, thinking Sydney would turn it down. After all, why would he expect that someone who was no one’s idea of a rugged outdoorsman—­whose tastes ran to books and pictures, and who was brought up with every comfort wealth could buy—­would want to leave London, the world’s most vibrant city, for the vacuous grasslands of Alberta? He knew his son loved horses, but that would hardly have been sufficient, all of which raises another obvious question: Why did Sydney go? Perhaps it was the prospect that he would be six thousand miles away from his father. What seems self-­evident, though, is that Alfred’s efforts to change Sydney’s mind about joining A. G. Schiff & Co. were doomed from the start. He simply could not grasp that his son equated a career in banking with the loss of his soul.

Whatever Alfred’s intentions and expectations might have been, Sydney’s first several months on the ranch appear to have been happy. He enjoyed caring for the horses, he didn’t complain about loneliness or lack of comfort, and the owners, his father’s friends Sir John Lister-­Kaye and his wife, Natica Yxnaga del Valle, made him feel at home. But some months later the Lister-­Kayes were suddenly called back to England and left Sydney in charge of the ranch, a responsibility the nineteen-­year-­old was not eager to accept. Moreover, by then he had been there for almost a year and was getting restless. In any event, he packed up and headed for Cincinnati, three thousand miles to the southeast, to visit his father’s brother Charles, a railroad executive there.

Sydney’s most detailed and extensive account of his sojourn in Cincinnati occurs in The Other Side, the last book he wrote, which appears in its entirety in his multivolume autobiographical novel A True Story. In it he offers a fictionalized account of the logistics surrounding the last great bare-­knuckle boxing match in America, between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain. Charles Schiff almost certainly authorized one of his railroads to provide transportation to the fight’s site in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but Sydney’s suggestion that he played a role in getting his uncle to comply is fiction. The date of the fight is not consistent with his time in Cincinnati.

Charles Schiff and his Nashville-­born wife, Mamie, welcomed Sydney warmly and like the Lister-­Kayes made him feel at home, but he interpreted certain elliptical remarks by his uncle to mean that his stay was intended to be long and possibly open-­ended, a prospect he found disconcerting. He concluded his father had conspired to get rid of him and his uncle was complicit. For a while he was given the freedom to explore his new surroundings. Eventually, though, Charles Schiff received a letter from his brother that prompted him to put Sydney to work. He gave his nephew a few more days to settle in and then told him there was a job waiting for him in the railway’s head office. When Sydney found out what was in store for him, he considered leaving Cincinnati and traveling. But he soon realized he had no idea where he would go, so he accepted the job. The next day he began training as a clerk in his uncle’s office. The work, checking other people’s addition, was mind numbing. He only had to do it for a week, but the immediate future didn’t seem any brighter.

Soon thereafter Sydney told his uncle he didn’t think he was cut out to work in a railroad office. Charles Schiff, carrying no paternal baggage, was much more sympathetic to his young nephew than his brother Alfred would have been. He took his nephew’s resignation in stride. He also concluded that Sydney would not benefit from spending more time in Cincinnati. While not exactly throwing him out, he advised him to see more of the United States, a suggestion Sydney by then was ready to accept.

A Miserable Marriage

Sydney made his way to Louisville, Kentucky, little more than a hundred miles southwest of Cincinnati, but culturally much more southern. He must have had at least one introduction to someone there because he almost immediately met Marion Fulton Canine, whom many years later he would portray as Elinor Colhouse in A True Story. She was the dark-­haired, olive-­skinned eighteen-­year-­old daughter of a once-­prominent dentist named James Fulton Canine whose taste for alcohol had decimated his practice. Sydney was instantly smitten by her beauty—­by some accounts, she was the belle of Louisville. Less obvious to Sydney, who was twenty and not especially sophisticated, was that she was willful and single-­minded. She was dead set on finding a husband who would dramatically improve her social and economic prospects. Here’s how Sydney described Elinor’s initial reaction to Richard Kurt in the novel Elinor Colhouse:

“Her first impression of Richard as he rose from an arm-­chair beside the fireplace to meet her was that he was tall and slim and looked like a boy. The shutters were partly closed, but she could see that his hair was light, his eyes were dark and that he had a fair mustache. His accent, she thought approvingly, was very En- glish.” In contrast to Sydney’s shy demeanor and lack of experience, Marion was womanly, self-­assured, and socially adept. His immature appearance and social awkwardness, if he had been an otherwise eligible suitor from Louisville’s professional class, would have guaranteed that his first meeting with Marion would have been his last. But Marion, perhaps because of her family’s straitened circumstances, had perfected her own fiscally sound standard for calculating a young man’s eligibility. It was instantly apparent to her that Sydney had advantages to offer that the young men of her Louisville circle could not hope to match. He was an English gentleman, which to her way of thinking placed him cuts above the best local society. But more significantly, there was this elegantly simple fact: his family was rich on a scale unattainable, at least by her, in Louisville. She told her mother bluntly that Sydney met her well-­defined requirements for a husband, no one else did, and she was not going to let him get away.

Within a couple of months of the day they met, Sydney and Marion eloped. They were wed in St. Luke’s Church, Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, Canada, on August 29, 1889. Both Sydney and Marion lied about their ages, he claiming to be twenty-­five (he was four months shy of twenty-­one) and she twenty-­one. Sydney listed his profession as gentleman, his residence as London, England, and his parents as Alfred G. and Carrie Schiff. Marion gave her full name  as Marion Fulton Canine and those of her parents as James F.  Canine and Elizabeth Canine.

Sydney and Marion returned to Louisville a married couple, but considering that Marion had not asked their permission to wed and had denied them the pleasure of seeing her as a bride the reception they received from her parents was not necessarily warm. On the other hand, given the economically parlous condition of the Canines, an alliance with a wealthy English family might have mitigated their disappointment.

The young couple stayed only briefly in Louisville and what happened next is somewhat murky. Sydney and Marion might have traveled to Cincinnati to introduce Marion to Charles Schiff and his wife because Sydney wanted his uncle to break the news to his parents, whom he still hadn’t told he had a wife. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reported the marriage on September 12 under the headline: “Marriage of a Well Known Young Railroader to a Louisville Lady.”

Sydney knew his father would be apoplectic when he found out his son had married without his consent and was even afraid Alfred might disinherit him. He also knew his new wife’s unimpressive social status—­American of no particular background and very modest means—­would make matters worse. But his greater concern was for his mother, the former Caroline Mary Ann Eliza Scates, with whom his relationship was as warm and close as the one with his father was cool and distant. She had been diagnosed with valvular heart disease, a condition for which at the time there was no treatment, and he worried the news might come as a devastating shock to her.

Even Alfred, who continued to have serial affairs despite his wife’s illness, was concerned enough to buy a villa in the south of France to get her away from the bustle of London. He chose a house in Roquebrune, a historic town set on a tranquil hillside that was for centuries the property of the royal family of Monaco. It is hard to say whether the quiet life was good for Caroline’s health, but the proximity to Monte Carlo was disastrous for Alfred’s gambling habit. He made multiple daily trips to the casino during their eight-­month annual stays and ultimately squandered half his fortune at the gaming tables, which, it is not hard to imagine, must have been distressing for her.

Sydney’s concern that his parents would be incensed by his marriage was not unfounded. Alfred and Carrie, as all who knew her called Caroline, were extremely upset when they found out about the marriage. But between the time they learned of the wedding and Sydney and Marion’s arrival in London, they managed to repress their anger and disappointment. They welcomed the young couple with well-­bred civility, if not familial warmth. Sydney and Marion settled into a small but comfortable flat found and paid for by Alfred, who also gave Sydney a small allowance and a job at the bank. Sydney, for his part, for once did what was expected of him. He accepted the job. What he fervently hoped, however, was that his tenure would be short and at the end of it he would get enough money from his father to pursue his still-­developing interests in art, literature, and high culture generally, without having to earn a living.

While he was not exactly happy with the arrangement, Sydney resigned himself to it. Marion, however, would have none of it. She had arrived in London with grandiose expectations unrelated to culture or, it seems, reality, and demanded instant gratification. She began whining almost immediately about their small, unfashionable flat, her husband’s meager income, and the failure of the senior Schiffs to bestow on her the diamonds and furs she believed were the perquisites of her recently acquired status. What’s more, she drove Sydney’s mother to distraction by “making all kinds of [unspecified] mischief involving friends and family,” all the while seeming oblivious to the self-­destructive effect her behavior was having.

Although she probably could have gotten away with complaining to her husband about how deprived she felt, her frequent shrill bitching to his parents quickly wore out their grudging welcome. The only thing that kept Alfred from withdrawing all support from Marion—­and Sydney—­was his concern about aggravating Carrie. But before long Marion’s provocations became intolerable and he decided to put an end to them. He probably would have liked to cut off the two of them completely and send them away empty-­handed, but Sydney was Carrie’s favorite child and a gentler solution had to be found. His pragmatic accommodation was to give Sydney enough money to take Marion away from London and keep her away for as long as necessary.

Sydney, while troubled by his mother’s illness, was pleased with his father’s decision. He was eager to travel with the leisure and comfort Alfred’s money would afford. One might easily imagine, though, especially at that particular moment, that Marion was hardly his ideal traveling companion, if only because of the insufferable way she had treated his mother. But it went deeper than that. He makes clear in A True Story that his doubts about committing to a life with her began as soon as he proposed. It even appears likely he shared them with her almost immediately afterward. But having bagged her quarry she was not about to lose it. And despite his strong doubts, once having made a commitment his own youthful sense of honor would have prevented him from breaking it even if he sensed a disaster in the making.

So Sydney, cash and credit in hand, fluent in French and German and eager to explore European art and architecture, and Marion, financially and linguistically dependent and with little awareness of or interest in anything European but Paris and the Swiss Alps, set off for the Continent. What pleasures, if any, they shared during their wanderings, which consisted mostly of flitting from chic spa to elegant resort to cultural icon, are unknown. But somehow they managed to do it for more than five years, leaving no trace of their travels and returning to London only when Carrie died in 1896 at fifty-­two. They stayed just as long as was absolutely necessary, which probably was not their choice, but Alfred’s.

As soon as seemed decent after Carrie’s death Alfred Schiff settled a sum of money on his wayward son sufficient to provide a gentleman’s income for the rest of his life, but less than his full inheritance. He then bought a large villa on Lake Como for the couple not to own but to occupy and gave them money to furnish and refurbish it, which they did. They then lived in it—­unhappily—­side by side, but not together, for the next thirteen years.

Meet the Author

STEPHEN KLAIDMAN was an editor and reporter for twenty-three years at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the International Herald Tribune. He has also taught widely at institutions such as Georgetown University's Law Center and its School of Foreign Service, Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health, and Pennsylvania State University. For ten years he also worked at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics and Institute for Health Policy Analysis.

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