Don’t Ask Henry

Alan Hollinghurst

  • Belchamber by Howard Sturgis
    NYRB, 345 pp, £8.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 1 59017 266 7

The story of Belchamber’s publication is probably better known than the book itself, which, like its author, has suffered the ambiguous fate of becoming an accessory to the life of a more important writer. It is his friend Henry James who keeps Sturgis’s novel distantly in view, at the same time as casting a long shadow over it. James read it in proof, and wrote a characteristic sequence of letters to Sturgis about it, beginning with neat praise and mild demurrals, but quickly building up to such fundamental criticisms of the book that the demoralised author said he would withdraw it altogether; at which James protested and pleaded, successfully though not with any retraction of the criticisms he had made. Belchamber duly came out, in 1904, and was not well received – though perhaps for reasons other than those put forward in James’s letters. In his remaining 16 years, Sturgis wrote nothing except a short story, ‘The China Pot’, about a minor writer so crushed by the criticisms of a great writer that he kills himself, the great writer pretending not to understand why.

Belchamber is an odd book disguised as a more conventional one. Sturgis could certainly write, with control and wit, but he was a stylist whose personality was best expressed in imitation. ‘By the way,’ the New York Times’s reviewer wrote in 1905, ‘there’s a sort of old-fashioned touch about some of it, and now and then a suggestion of Thackeray’ – which was a funny thing to mention as an afterthought, since a relished old-fashionedness is one of the book’s most persistent registers. Though it takes place mainly in the 1890s, it borrows much of its tone from the mocking, spirited irony of Trollope, or Thackeray, or even Jane Austen; Sturgis loves to assassinate a character before he or (more usually) she has had a chance to do anything for themselves. Belchamber is a novel of aristocratic life, centring on a great Jacobean house, and peopled with a marvellously unlikeable cast of rakes and schemers, dodgy duchesses and complacent earls. It has touches of droll documentary interest, and its talk is a compendium of racy slang, but the Thackerayan lens of the narration gives a tale of more or less contemporary life a further reverse-telescope effect, a subliminal air of taking place in the Regency. Perhaps at the time the book’s Edwardian nostalgia for an earlier age was less evident than it is now, when it seems an element of Belchamber’s creaky appeal. Even its tartness is somehow nostalgic.

Its originality lies in part in its not being about a picaresque charmer and chancer, but about a high-minded, high-born weakling, the heir to a marquisate who wishes repeatedly that his brainless and hearty younger brother, Arthur, could inherit instead. ‘Sainty’ Belchamber has no taste for games, girls or money; in his new introduction to the novel, Edmund White calls him a ‘sissy’, which is about right, though, oddly, Cissy is the name of the pitiless young woman Sainty is trapped into marrying. Sturgis never makes any play on this lurking pun, though as a treacherous and neglectful wife Cissy is a constant taunting reminder of Sainty’s sissiness. The great moment for Sainty comes early on, when the boys are out riding with their tutor, and he is goaded into jumping a ditch which Arthur has already cleared with ease. Sainty panics, his horse bolts, he faints and falls and breaks his hip. When the great surgeon (‘Sir John’) who tends him reluctantly confirms that he will never be able to ride again, Sainty ‘heaved a sigh of unmistakable relief. “Ah! well, that’s a comfort, anyhow,” he said.’ From now on, Sainty’s lameness will be the useful badge of his difference and exemption from ordinary life.

Sainty’s life is shaped by two powerful women, very different from each other: his mother, Lady Charmington, a heavy-going Presbyterian Scot, whose severe morals and devotion to good works do not wholly conceal more brutal instincts; and Lady Eccleston, Cissy’s mother, a tireless schemer who constructs the marriage plot to snare Sainty, and whose effusive falseness is laid on very thick indeed. Cissy herself, though also in a way a victim, makes the absolute most of her situation, despising her husband and spending his money with insolent abandon. The ‘pretty little Lady Belchamber’ is a heartless monster, and a very gripping one on the page, given the benefit of Sturgis’s most witheringly sarcastic manner; while Sainty himself, with his ‘terrible habit of appreciating other people’s points of view’, seems to sympathise with her even as she is destroying him. To that New York Times reviewer the theme of Belchamber was ‘the ruin wrought by misguided women … in the lives of their children’, as if this were a well-attested social problem. To the modern reader, the cast of females in the book may seem so multifariously ghastly as to suggest a private vendetta against the sex in general.

But everything for Sainty is a history of disappointments. At Cambridge he idolises his young tutor Gerald Newby, in whom he senses a kindred spirit, an idealist unimpressed by wealth and station. Newby’s acceptance of an invitation to his coming-of-age festivities at Belchamber is the one thing that makes the prospect of the weekend bearable to Sainty, who is only going through with it all to please his mother. But when Newby arrives, he is clearly as intoxicated with rank and riches as anyone else in the book. Surely, Sainty thinks, ‘a man whose whole life has been spent in a bracing atmosphere of noble thought cannot feel at home in the exhausted receiver that is called “society”’? But to Newby (as to the satirical novelist) that particular receiver is pretty well inexhaustible; he shows himself excitedly à la page with the intrigues of various society women, as well as sanguine that the prodigal Lord Arthur will turn out well. As he puts it with airy relish, ‘Bon sang ne peut mentir.’ (In fact, Arthur goes pitiably to the bad, and becomes, against expectation, one of the book’s few touching characters.)

A more drastic betrayal is delivered by Sainty’s cousin Claude Morland, around whom an air of danger plays from the start. Claude represents the novel’s nearest approach to a sense of sexual allure. Arthur is a splendid, thoughtless physical type, who surprisingly marries his chorus-girl mistress (Maria Muggins, stage name Cynthia de Vere) and sinks into a life of matrimonial misery, presented by Sturgis with a telling mixture of relish and revulsion. But Claude is something more troubling; his ‘latent sensuality’ at the age of 13 creates a ‘vague repulsion’ in Sainty, ‘like some strongly scented hothouse flower, white with a whiteness in which there was no purity, and sweet with a strong sweetness that already suggested some subtle hint of decay’; when, years later, he reluctantly works out that Claude is the father of Cissy’s child and thus of the heir he himself has been unable to sire, his own sensuality seems for a moment to awaken: ‘How well he knew that back, the sinuous curves of the waist, the sidelong, persuasive droop of the head.’

Belchamber is a curious hybrid, a masochistic Bildungsroman interwoven with a caustic and generally more enjoyable novel of high society. Where had this strange confection of satire and sensibility come from? Sturgis certainly knew about rich people, and about what wealth – having it or losing it or wanting even more of it – can do to them. He was, in E.M. Forster’s phrase, ‘a foreigner in a front seat’, ‘well-placed for observing the airs and graces of the great’. The Sturgises were themselves a wealthy Boston family – James had been a friend of Howard’s father, Russell, who was the head of Barings Bank in England and a famously magnificent host. ‘Howdie’ was born in London in 1855, sent to Eton and Cambridge, and after the death of his overwhelming mother in 1888, settled with his life companion William Haynes-Smith in a newish house called Queen’s Acre, snugly cinched on the edge of the huge expanses of Windsor Great Park. Queen’s Acre was built in a quaintly eclectic style popular at the time: red brick, tile-hanging, tall roofs, tall chimneys. Its wide verandah seemed to some a reminder of the ‘piazza’ of a comfortable New England home, but it was really the commodious adaptation of Old England that was the point. All his friends referred to the house as Qu’Acre, a camp contraction that mimicked the antique social booby-traps of certain English names – Fanshaw for Featherstonehaugh and that kind of thing.

Here, through his comfortable middle years, Sturgis wrote his three novels. Tim (1891), a morbidly romantic Eton story, was the sort of book unlikely to have been published while an overwhelming mother was still alive. Four years later there was All That Was Possible, a novel in letters written by an actress who has retired from London to a remote valley in Wales. Even Forster, who quite admired the book from a technical point of view, acknowledged that it was ‘unlikely ever to be read again’. After this Sturgis worked intermittently on Belchamber for the best part of ten years – the finished novel, though evidently his magnum opus, has an undeniable air of being bodged together over time and under a variable pressure of interest and inspiration. All the while, Sturgis and Haynes-Smith were entertaining friends for incessant weekend parties, and to them it seemed that it was not writing but hospitality that was Howdie’s ‘passion and his genius’. His writing was cast as a hobby. ‘He did not care for the applause of outsiders,’ Forster said. ‘He wrote and he lived for his personal friends.’

Haynes-Smith, known to all as the Babe, was a man with ‘a hint about him of race glasses and cigars’, who might sit smoking contentedly behind the Pink ’Un while brainier and bitchier guests held court. His unironic presence seems to have anchored the circle of more or less sexually ambiguous men at the heart of which the generous Sturgis, ‘a sturdily built handsome man with brilliantly white wavy hair, a girlishly clear complexion, a black moustache, and tender mocking eyes’ sat quietly working on some ambitious piece of knitting or embroidery. Though men seem to have knitted more in those days, one friend at least felt it necessary to insist that there was ‘nothing effeminate about his execution of female tasks’. The Qu’Acre atmosphere was cosy and catty, rather than outspokenly gay; it clearly wasn’t like the more liberated ‘atmosphere of buggery’ which Virginia Woolf so disliked around Lytton Strachey – ‘a tinkling, private, giggling, impression. As if I had gone in to a men’s urinal.’ Edith Wharton, a frequent guest at Qu’Acre, wouldn’t have liked that either.

To the translator Gerard Hopkins, who stayed at Qu’Acre as a young man, the most striking thing was the provision of books in the lavatories. In a preface to Belchamber written in 1935 (which gives, incidentally, a sense of how long the tone of posturing obeisance to James’s manner persisted in certain circles), he recalled that ‘never before had I seen books ranged and offered in such shamefaced privacies. Guilty, elsewhere, of secreting a volume against the matutinal visit, one found at Qu’Acre that reading at such times was approved and catered for.’ The selection – The Diary of a Nobody, Three Men in a Boat – he thought showed the hand of the Babe, whom Howdie’s friends found, in Hermione Lee’s phrase, ‘taxingly unintellectual’; but they might just as well have been the choice of Howdie, who as Leon Edel remarked was ‘not at all intellectual’ himself.

Sturgis had an exceptionally good cook, and the dyspeptic Henry James complained of a sense of ‘repleteness before (even) dinner’. Still, he clearly enjoyed the Qu’Acre atmosphere of gossipy companionship mixed with intense reverence for himself. It was an indulgent contrast to the lonelier and austerer routines of Lamb House, to which he returned none the less with a sense of relief. Qu’Acre was a holiday, only to be approached ‘with the necessary protocols & solemnities – after preliminary gloatings’: the affectionate over-egging, in these phrases from a letter to Sturgis, hints, as so often in James, at reservations.

Sturgis was older, as well as much richer, than the other men in whom James showed a keenly emotional interest in his later years; he was only 12 years younger than the Master, who seems to have sought in him a closeness he knew was impossible with, for example, the young Hugh Walpole. He was led to surely unprecedented declarations: ‘I repeat, almost to indiscretion, that I could live with you,’ he wrote to him in 1900. (The repetition is not evidently of an earlier letter, so James had perhaps made the proposal in person.) It is not likely that he meant anything sexual by this; Edel thought that ‘it would have been for James a little like living with his mother.’ Three years later, eager for the second instalment of the Belchamber proofs, he wrote: ‘I am very lonely & so proofless as to feel almost roofless. Yes – I could have lived with you.’ The chain of thought is unclear but suggestive, a kind of virtual cohabitation: James will live in his friend’s work if not in his house. In the midst of his possessive criticisms of Sturgis’s novel, James urged him: ‘Start next year another book & let me anonymously collaborate.’ It would take the delicate fantasy of a Max Beerbohm to picture adequately the day-to-day workings of such an arrangement.

At the time, James was dictating The Golden Bowl, one of the great imaginative feats in literature, and one of the most formidably organised. You can see that to a writer in the grip of his method and in the mania of sustained creation Sturgis’s rambling, old-fashioned novel, with its unturning worm of a hero, must have seemed annoyingly pointless. But it’s true to say that anything James read at this time was seen as the misguided solution to a puzzle he would have solved quite differently himself. As he explained to Sturgis, ‘I, as a battered producer & “technician” myself, have long since inevitably ceased to read with naïveté; I can only read critically, constructively, re-constructively, writing the thing over (if I can swallow it at all) my way, & looking at it, so to speak, from within.’

He submitted to this critical instinct with rueful but unmistakeable pride; but as Wharton (another friend bruised by the process) coolly remarked, James was ‘never to be trusted about the value of any “fiction” which was not built according to his own rigid plan’. And the fact is that none of the more vital novelists of the younger generation did build according to James’s plan, which for all its appearance of objective perfection was untransferrably his own, and unsuited to most of the new things younger writers thought the novel should be capable of. Whatever its faults, there were qualities in Belchamber which James couldn’t apprehend, but which Forster, for instance, could. His complaint is like Wharton’s, though more homely: ‘James was a poor critic of any work not composed according to his own recipes.’ Forster’s own recipe had a dash of Howard Sturgis.

What, in the Master’s view, had Sturgis done wrong? On sending back the first batch of proofs (‘the thing goes on very solidly & smoothly’) James feels moved to say one thing, ‘which is that I feel you have a good deal increased your difficulty by screwing up the “social position” of all your people so very high’, and that by implication Sturgis hasn’t given a convincing picture of the life of an English marquis, the ‘whole masses of Marquisate things & items, a multitude of inherent detail in his existence’. This may seem a bit rich coming from someone whose fiction is thick with titles, and who was working at that moment on a novel divided into two parts called ‘The Prince’ and ‘The Princess’. But James was able to sustain a picture of upper-class life by confident, almost subliminal touches, as if he had nothing to prove, where Sturgis, he implies, working in a much more realistic mode, was in danger of looking as if he didn’t quite know what he was talking about.

The modern reader may feel that the problem lies at the opposite end of the social scale: while Sturgis’s picture of the aristocracy has a rich and variegated awfulness, he shows a looser grasp of the details of ordinary life. As Forster said, Sturgis ‘could no more imagine a gentleman not going to Eton than a servant not dropping an “h”’. One enjoys the odd Thackerayan butler announcing that ‘lunching was served’, but what is odd in a novel whose protagonist is racked by a social conscience, and longs to go ‘into one of those East End parishes and start a place something on the lines of Toynbee Hall’ is the mocking absence of sympathy for anyone of the lower orders. Late in the book we are told of Sainty’s activities as a ‘Radical peer’ with his ‘known interest in all schemes of beneficence’, but not a glimmer is given of either schemes or interest. The writer who won’t follow his hero into an interest he’s equipped him with risks forfeiting our own.

The main thrust of James’s criticisms comes in the next three letters, each maddeningly reinforcing the previous one: that Sainty needs to have, not just an interest but ‘a positive side, – all his own – so that he shall not be all passivity & nullity’; that he needs ‘a constituted & intense imaginative life of his own’ – otherwise, in the end, ‘the whole thing doesn’t seem to be happening to him: but happening at the most round him.’ Sturgis has adopted the convention of a third-person narration largely from the point of view of one character, but that character himself is not adequate to the demands of the material, is almost the opposite, a vacuum of character. This criticism, which is key Jamesian dogma, is also pretty well unanswerable, and you can see why poor Sturgis was so shaken by it. The account of Sainty’s motives and reactions often seems weak and implausible compared with the biting certainty Sturgis brings to those of his other characters. But can his failure perhaps be seen in a more positive light?

Sturgis is in general something of a non-deliverer, and makes a point out of the aborted climax and missed occasion. The protracted set-piece of Sainty’s coming-of-age celebrations is mainly a matter of anticipation and dread. The big scenes can’t happen for Sainty. Called on to make a speech at the tenants’ dinner, held in a stifling tent ‘heavy with the odours of meat and drink and the acrid exhalations of humanity’, he rises to his feet and immediately faints. Taken to bed, he misses the ‘monster fête and garden party’, and can do no more at the great ball than greet the 500 guests while leaning on a crutch. A number of other testing occasions, such as his wedding, are largely elided, or are glossed over with phrases such as he ‘never knew how he got through’ whatever social torment it might be. The birth of his heir, and then, that great Dickensian opportunity, the death of his heir in infancy, both happen in a swift sentence. So persistent is Sturgis’s failure to deal with big moments he has carefully set up that it starts to seem a calculated strategy, almost as though he were a conscientious objector to certain requirements of the form he is none the less conscientiously working in. A bolder or more original writer – a James or a Forster – would have ditched the cramping inherited form altogether; Sturgis, an amateur whose great pleasure and reassurance was in imitation, was not the man to make the imaginative leap.

If the element of formal dissension looks a bit unassertive, even accidental, it may none the less have been one of the things that impressed Forster, who was setting out on The Longest Journey when Belchamber was published. Forster’s novel, with its comparably important Cambridge scenes, was much criticised for the perfunctory, bathetic way in which he treated episodes that a more conventional novelist would have fashioned as gripping narrative set-pieces. A fatal accident that removes the fiancé of the girl whom Rickie Elliot, the protagonist, will later marry is famously conveyed to the reader in two short sentences: ‘Gerald died that afternoon. He was broken up in the football match.’ Rickie’s own death is equally laconic: ‘The train went over his knees. He died up in Cadover, whispering, “You have been right,” to Mrs Failing.’ This unconventional refusal of feeling at a narrative climax was what, in the next generation, Edward Upward would extol to the young Isherwood as the essence of Forster’s modernity: ‘The whole of Forster’s technique is based on the tea-table: instead of trying to screw all his scenes up to the highest possible pitch, he tones them down until they sound like mothers’-meeting gossip. In fact, there’s actually less emphasis laid on the big scenes than on the unimportant ones.’ Sturgis’s withholding isn’t exactly tea-tabling, but it is a formal sign of his weakling hero’s exclusion from the worlds of action and passion, a kind of narrative hobbling. The Longest Journey, of course, also has a limping hero (an inherited rather than accidental disability, but similarly seen as a possible obstacle to marriage); eight years later, Somerset Maugham’s Philip Carey, in Of Human Bondage, would also stagger through life with a club foot. A limp is not the most recherché of symbolic attributes, but it is striking that all three of these gay novelists should award it to their protagonists within so short a space of time.

Could one claim Belchamber as some kind of cryptic gay novel, in the way that Forster’s books, while dealing with matters of heterosexual love and marriage, are quirkily animated and destabilised by his own non-heterosexual viewpoint? Sainty’s nearest approach to having a sexual apprehension of another person is with Claude, but fascination is inseparably mixed in with ‘vague repulsion’ and mistrust. For the most part he lives somewhere on the border between effeminacy and sexlessness, terms which Sturgis, in the dawn of modern sexual psychology, seems to use interchangeably. Sainty certainly has no experience of the opposite sex in his young life, a point the author drives home: ‘No young monk in his cloister had had less to do with girls than Sainty’; ‘he could not have felt himself more outside the sphere of the ordinary attraction of man to maid’; ‘No girl could be more of a stranger to all that side of life than he, or approach it with more invincible shyness.’ In an angry moment his mother calls him ‘too sexless and poor a creature’ to have known his brother’s temptations. Sainty sees that women treat him as ‘a sexless being set apart like the priest in Catholic countries’, his ‘real disability’ being ‘not his lack of personal beauty, nor even his lameness … but his miserable inherent effeminacy’. When his Cambridge friend Ned Parsons writes a roman à clef, in which the Belchamber coming-of-age party is thinly disguised, Sainty is no less recognisable for having been turned into a girl (‘a great heiress with rather jimmy health and a cork leg’).

All this makes the novel’s two sex scenes (sc., not-sex scenes) between husband and wife particularly striking. They are what gave Sturgis his tiny contemporary reputation for ‘dangerous frankness’. Perhaps the most gripping scene in the book is that of Sainty and Cissy’s wedding night, an occasion which might naturally loom to a gay novelist as problematic, but one which Sturgis has given his own twist, the crisis being not the groom’s failure to perform but the bride’s refusal of any kind of intimacy at all. The couple have been lent a magnificent villa in Surrey, belonging to Sainty’s step-grandfather, the Duke of Sunborough; they travel down in a carriage with four horses and postillions, Cissy sulking violently. ‘What have I done that you don’t like?’ the bemused Sainty asks. ‘You’ve married me,’ Cissy snaps. At the villa a long and oppressively silent evening unfolds, Cissy determinedly putting off the moment when they must go to bed, until Sainty reassures her that he won’t come near her if she doesn’t wish it. But his timid kindness is rejected outright by Cissy, who tells him how ‘odious’ and ‘horrible’ she finds him: ‘you are repulsive to me. I can never be your wife in anything but name.’ James was exercised by the ‘breadth’ of this scene – breadth being doubtless something like the ‘larger latitude’ that he satirises in his brilliant story ‘The Death of the Lion’, a vulgar modern taste for sensational frankness in fiction. He thought Sturgis had got away with it, just. The bridal scene works above all as a sustained confrontation between two ill-sorted young people. Sex doesn’t happen, but something more important for the novel does, the crackle of a drama which Sturgis manages for once not to shirk. The nightmare, which seems to be his model for matrimony, still grips enjoyably.

In the companion scene to this, Cissy tries to get over her repulsion enough to have sex with Sainty just once, so as to cover the fact that she is already pregnant with Claude’s child. Returning late at night from a party, she surprisingly follows Sainty into his study, and gets him to make her a cup of tea. Throwing back her cloak, she seems about to give herself to him: ‘She was standing very close to him, a beautiful woman … the dazzling fairness of her bare shoulders was close under his eyes.’ Sainty steps back, ‘bewildered’ by these rather stock female attributes; and then Cissy changes her mind (‘“Ah, no,” he heard her whisper, “I can’t –”’) and rushes out of the room. Should he follow? ‘He had a vision of the grotesque figure he should cut, misled by his own fatuity, and meeting closed doors, or the half-concealed impertinence of a waiting-maid.’ James wished Sainty’s ‘failure to conjoin with her about 2 a.m. that night on the drawing-room sofa’ had been for some reason not ‘so merely negative’ for him. Edmund White in the introduction mocks at the idea of the virginal James reproving Sturgis for his ‘lack of heterosexual expertise’ – what did he want Sainty to do? Rape her? Perhaps the truth is that, here and elsewhere, James’s sense of dramatic rightness was at odds with Sturgis’s more original portrait of someone essentially asexual. Whatever James may have been himself, his imagination, excited by the subject of heterosexual intrigue, was nonplussed by the idea of a virginal hero.

The reappearance of Belchamber prompts further curiosity about Sturgis, who at the time was much less known than his elder brother, Julian, a successful lightish novelist and the librettist of Sullivan’s ‘serious’ opera Ivanhoe. Julian is now forgotten, but the quirkiness of Belchamber keeps Howard’s name alive. A figure in memoirs now seventy years old (by Wharton, for example, and Percy Lubbock), he deserves to come a little more sharply into focus. Meanwhile, a word against the suppression of middle names, since the author of Belchamber has always until now been Howard Overing Sturgis. Like a number of 19th-century writers, Sturgis’s most memorable name was his middle one; and though Overing, unlike Love or Makepeace or Wing, isn’t a real noun as well as a proper one, it has always none the less suggested the image of another figure, announced perhaps by one of his own Cockney butlers: Mr Overing Sturgis, the wealthy novelist looking down on life with an eye both waspish and puzzled.