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Belchamber

and the Second Canon

Belchamber, the last of Howard Sturgis's three novels, seems fated to depend on the kindness of periodic advocates, writer-critics who make the kind of strong case for republication that it takes to bring a "forgotten" novel back into print. E M Forster argued for Belchamber in the Thirties, and now Edmund White has done the same: his introduction graces the new NYRB reprint. The question posed by such re-issues usually hinges on absolute merits: why does a given "forgotten" novel deserve our attention?

While I expect that there are still plenty of "naive" readers capable of picking up Belchamber and reading it without any extraneous thoughts of canons and classics, I am not such a reader. I felt rather like an examiner as I turned the book's pages. This was good, that was weak and so on, as if it were up to me to second-guess the editors at NYRB. Quite aside from the impertinence of this stance (which I daresay has been shared to some degree by every committed reader of serious fiction who has taken up the book), there is the seeming futility of the effort: Belchamber is here, in our hands; perhaps the naive reader has got it right. Just read the book, and enjoy it or not as it takes your fancy. Tell us if you liked it.

I did like it. I liked its hero immensely, not least because, as the story wore on, he stood out as the only decent character in a flotsam of selfishness that even Trollope couldn't have stomached. The Marquis of Belchamber, known to his acquaintance as "Sainty," after a courtesy title (Baron St Edmunds) that he bore as a child, during the lifetime of the prior incumbent, is a likable anti-hero who turns out in the end to be as fully noble as his august title suggests, in a world largely devoid of aristocrats who are.

To suggest that the novel might have been better is, of course, to open proceedings on its eligibility for "canonical" status. Is Belchamber too good a book to require periodic resuscitation? Can one make a stronger case than Forster and Mr White have done, such that Belchamber doesn't go out of print again?

My answer to this question is to propose a second canon. The first canon consists of the books that everyone ought to read and that, in an ideal world, everyone will have read. (And I do mean everyone, not just "educated people.") There is no need to characterize this primary canon here; it's enough to acknowledge its undoubted existence.

The second canon, in which I think that it does, consists of books that everyone who is interested in literature ought to read always understanding that no single reader can possibly get through all of them while conducting anything like a normal life. No title on the secondary list is mandatory, but the reader is encouraged to explore as many congenial entries as possible. Congeniality is important, because the point of the secondary canon insofar as it has one, beyond simply recommending goodish books is to enlighten the primary canon, and a certain amount of seduction is essential if the lighting is to be just right. Whereas the argument for listing a book in the primary canon will involve language that tends toward the world-historical, pitches for the secondary canon must be prepared to appeal to any and all varieties of taste. This means placing the secondary candidate in relation to as many other books as possible, in order to allow the seasoned reader to make an intelligent choice about the significant commitment of time that reading a novel entails.

It is unnecessary, then, to evaluate Belchamber as a great novel, ticking off its successes and failures and grading it accordingly in or out. Belchamber, as I say, is almost definitively out. My summary judgment is that Belchamber lacks the inevitability of great fiction, by which I mean the rigor with which every word in, say, Emma or The Golden Bowl is made to justify its presence on the page. Austen and James are great novelists not because they have great stories to tell but because they never fail to bind the smallest colorful detail to the story being told. "Inevitability" here does not refer to the dramatic outcome, but rather to the sheer writing. It is the feeling, so welcome to every attentive reader, that this word alone will do.

Judged by that standard, Belchamber is chock-full of little bits of extraneous material, but it would be both mean-spirited and tedious to enumerate them, so I shan't bother dissected Sturgis's prose for passages that might have been slimmed down. My point in any case is not to argue that Belchamber does not belong in the canon of great books. What I want to do instead is to argue that it does belong on a list of novels that any self-styled well-reader will do his or her best to get through.

Likable anti-heroes are usually scamps and scapegraces: we love them in spite of themselves. Sainty is very good, but he is not lovable not for a long time. The absence of a lovable character, someone with whom to identify, poses a problem that Sturgis baffles by providing plenty of interesting ones. This gives Belchamber the rich feeling of one of Trollope's more upholstered novels, one of the triple-deckers, such as The Way We Live Now or Orley Farm. (Orley Farm comes to mind for a more particular reason.) Sainty's mother, Lady Charmington (bearer of another courtesy title), and her brother, Lord Corstorphine, watch over Sainty and his brother, Arthur, with all the high-minded anxiety of their counterparts in Trollope's novels; they even make the same mistakes. Although she is a rather dour Calvinist, Lady Charmington cannot help preferring her second son, Arthur, to Sainty; not because he is a better boy, but because he so clearly looks the part of the English country gentleman.

But if Belchamber reminds one of Trollope, it does so in a way that never ceases hammering at the utterly inconceivability of Trollope's having written it. Given Sturgis's opening chapters to work with, Trollope would have taken the novel down a completely different path, rescuing Arthur from his weaknesses and eventually killing Sainty off. For Sainty is not made of heroic material. He is retiring, a natural scholar. He is "sickly." He is lame and grateful for it, because it spares him the ordeal of riding. (Try to imagine Trollope thinking highly of any character who didn't like to ride!). What makes this novel so interesting vis--vis Trollope is that Sainty views the case precisely as Trollope would. If only he could change places with his brother! When his uncle suggests that he abandon Cambridge for shooting pheasants, Sainty boils over.

    "Do you care as much as all that?" asked Lord Firth.
    "Yes, I do," said Sainty.
    His uncle appeared to consider. "Well," he said, after a pause. "I don't see, if you want to go back and take your degree, why you shouldn't; but couldn't you come down for a week, say for the pheasants?"
    "Uncle Cor," said Sainty, "why should I come down, just in the middle of my work, and idle away a whole week, in order that other people should shoot pheasants? I don't shoot, myself; I hate the sound and sight of shooting."
    "Don't you think you could get to like it? Of course it's out of the question for you to hunt, but you could quite well shoot, with a quiet pony and a little cart, or even from a camp-stool, if you couldn't walk."
    "I don't want to shoot; I should hate it. And in my case, the one excuse, the tramping, the manly exercise, would be wanting. I should seem to myself a kind of monster, dragged out to the work of slaughter in some form of machine; sitting down to butchery, like Charles IX firing on Huguenots out of a window."
    "Well, I only thought it would give you something more in common with your fellow-men, make you more like other people."
    "Oh yes, I know; it's the old story, my unlikeness to other people, my hopeless, incurable unfitness for my position in life. I do so hate my position in life."
    "Many people would be glad to change with you, my boy," said his uncle gently.
    "I wish they could, with all my heart," said Sainty. "Oh, I fully realize, no one more, what an anomaly I am. If only someone of the hundreds of nice, impecunious young men with a public school education and no taste for work could have it all instead of me! Arthur, for instance, would be ideal. He would hunt, shoot, play cricket, captain the Yeomanry, be popular, successful, suitable, and enjoy the whole thing immensely into the bargain."

In Sturgis's version, however, it becomes clear that Arthur would not be a success even if Sainty contrived to get out of his way. We don't spend a lot of time with Arthur (thank heaven), but what we do see of him is dismally uninspiring. Far from being suitable material for Trollopean rehabilitation, Arthur is a sink of entitled egotism. He presumes so broadly and ungratefully on his brother's generosity that we begin to suspect that he, too, is only waiting for Sainty to drop dead. (Sturgis stops short, perhaps wisely, of making this melodramatic revelation.) Arthur is also a terrible fool, and when he winds up in the arms of an "actress," Sainty is driven to take uncongenial action.

If Belchamber begins by not being Trollope, it ends by not being James. Henry James would have handled the five characters who engage in the novel's principal action entirely differently. These are: Sainty, Arthur, Arthur's wife (and, by extension, children), Sainty's cousin, Claude Morland, and the woman whom Sainty marries in order to block Arthur's succession, Cissy Eggleston. There is something almost comic about the dispatch with which Sturgis handles the improper liaison that inevitably springs up between Cissy and Claude; Sainty is no Princess Maggie, circling her antagonist with velvet footsteps. Sainty is simply so good that it takes him forever to realize what the reader sees at the start. In fact, Sainty has to be told what an un-Jamesian development! No dark hints, no painstaking, horrifying deductions. Out-and-out told!

He had been sure of it, had known it. Yet now that the words were spoken, that the fact confronted him, admitted, undeniable, irrevocable, he staggered with the blow.

There is nothing about the latter half of Belchamber that James would not have made darker and more complicated. His sinners would have been evil and malignant, not just sensually selfish. It must have driven James mad, reading Sturgis's MS, to imagine what he himself might have made of this material. But it is not his material; it is Howard Sturgis's, and our one duty as readers is to be honest about liking it (or not) on its own terms. I find that I like it at least partly because it is not Henry James, and not Anthony Trollope, either. I admire both authors immensely, but there is no need for others to imitate them. Belchamber is interesting enlightening, as I said because it demonstrates another way of doing things. Aside from handling the drama differently, it gives us a hero that neither James nor Trollope would have countenanced. (Ralph Touchett comes to mind as the best that James might have done with Sainty.)

I mentioned Orley Farm because Sturgis or at least Sainty turns out to be no less fixated than Trollope on the vital importance of assuring that title to land pass only by the most scrupulously legitimate means. We, who regard land as a kind of personal property, have a hard time understanding how sacrosanct it was as recently as a hundred years ago. In Victorian England, it would have been possible, I think, to talk of a religion of landholding ironic, given the plummeting of agricultural values that would bring so many aristocratic families down to earth at the end of the age. Readers who sympathize with Lady Mason in Trollope's novel will sympathize with Sainty when he suffers similar agonies, even if we hold in reserve a wish that they would just get over it.

It is very naughty of Edmund White to begin his introduction by called Sainty a "sissy." Aside from a little childish embroidery, which he takes up just to have something to do with his beloved governess, Sainty displays no effeminate or homosexual traits (as Sturgis himself most certainly did). Sainty dislikes sports and violence, and he dreads giving offense, but he is not afraid of people. He is far more afraid of being unable to help them. Even if Sainty were deeply in love with a male character, he would still be anything but a sissy.

Belchamber may not be a great novel, but it is a fine one, and it ought never to be allowed to go out of print again. (July 2008)

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