Friday, April 25, 2008

New Book Review: Howard Sturgis' Belchamber: Bathos and Frustration


The New York Review of Books Press, in it’s incomparable Classics imprint, has just republished Howard Sturgis’ Belchamber (originally published in 1904 and long out of print). Sturgis’ friends and contemporaries seem to have mistaken their knowledge of Sturgis (1855-1920) the effeminate entertainer and host – Sturgis’ famed country house hosted such luminaries as Wharton and Henry James – for his tough and even harsh novel.


Superficially, Belchamber is a polite novel. No immigrant workers, steel mill riots, impoverished farmers, communist writers, cowboys, gangsters, alcoholic sports-journalists or other commonplaces of American writing penetrate (and ultimately, Sturgis couldn’t escape that he was an American living in England). The main characters are Englishpeople of (mostly) noble title – the title being the name of both the ancient country seat of the Chamber clan and their title, the Marquis of Belchamber. This fine country house, lavishly described by Sturgis (clearly a writer who knew his architecture), is a great marvel of England – and perhaps expectedly is equally a container for a clan of drunkards, degenerate gamblers, foolish skirt-chasers, sluts and plain scumbags stretching back into the mists of English history.

Belchamber condemns almost everybody within it’s world. The titular character is a naïve and foolish weakling, the Marquis Belchamber, whom his world mockingly nicknames Sainty. Strangely enough, as the novel progresses, we grow ever more fonder and fonder of Sainty, who’s infinitely taken advantage of by his idiotic hunting and showgirl-mad brother, his shrew of a wife, his smooth-talking but ultimately trivial and snobbish professor and his sly malicious bastard of a cousin.

As E.M Forster writes in a 1935 afterword to Belchamber (thoughtfully reprinted in the latest edition from NYRB Press): “His [Sainty’s] tragedy is only partly due to his own defects: he really fails because he lives among people who cannot understand what delicacy is; at the best they are dictators, like his mother, and miss it that way; at the worst they are bitches, like his wife.”



Ultimately, Sainty’s world is run by trivial people ruled largely by pure self-interest. Read it for a tough take on a world very much like our own.

Sidenote: The pictures above are of Basildon Park outside of Reading in Berkshire, built 1776-1783 by prominent local architect John Carr and an excellent example of a Palladian mansion. Perhaps too small for the Belchamber mansion described in the novel, but most tasteful and delightful in its own way.

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