H.O. Sturgis, “Belchamber”

This is one in that marvelous series published by New York Review Books Classics, with lovely covers and interesting introductions, often obscure works that have been unjustly neglected. I was thrilled when I started reading: Sturgis, who was a friend of Henry James and Edith Wharton, knows his way around a grand English country house. (Our protagonist Lord Belchamber, for instance, shares crucial characteristics with the 9th Duke of Marlborough, and his house with Blenheim.) I got a huge charge out of the circumstantial detail and Sturgis’ wit. About our title character’s grandfather, he says: “he was inordinately vain, and a woman had only to tell him she was in love with him, and that she had never seen a man with such small feet, to get anything she wanted out of him.”

But sharp social observation and cleverness do not quite make a novel.  Sturgis starts out well, if slowly, by delineating Belchamber’s dicey genetic heritage. He carefully outlines the boy’s dilemma: he is one of those characters who simply cannot make himself loved, despite many innate virtues and the best of intentions. I thought the story might go somewhere interesting when Sturgis made clear that Belchamber had effeminate tendencies (his word, not mine) — Sturgis himself apparently lived rather openly with a male lover. Not so, however. He marries an eligible young lady to provide an heir to his title and vast fortune.

And then it all goes sour.

And then it ends. That’s the weird part. Things go from bad to worse for our poor hero. The wife is a bitch, his younger brother marries an actress, etc. etc. But rather than solving any of these problems, even with a suicide which would have been a cheap shot but at least conclusive, Sturgis just terminates the narrative. It was clear before then that he was in trouble with the pacing: the leisurely beginning promised a volume of Trollopian scale, which the few characters and the scanty number of incidents clearly couldn’t support.

Which leaves me with two conclusions. One, there’s more to this novel-writing business than meets the eye. Two, sometimes neglected books deserve neglect.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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