Portrait of a Sissy

The novel Belchamber, first published in 1904, is the portrait of a sissy and as such it was initially disliked by everyone, including Henry James and Edith Wharton, who should have known better.* Curiously, the author, Howard Sturgis, was a beloved, amiable sissy who made no effort to hide his embroidery frame and the basket of silk thread he kept beside him at all times. Just as “Sainty,” the hero of his novel, finds the only happiness of his boyhood in his “work,” so Sturgis plied his needles with modest contentment and unremitting application.

Sturgis, however, had arranged his life much more satisfactorily than did his miserable character. Sainty has to give up his sewing. As his boisterous, athletic younger brother Arthur blurts out, “You’re jolly bad at games, and you like to sit and suck up to an old governess, and do needlework with her, like a beastly girl.” Whereas Sainty has no friends of his own and must submit to the wishes of his iron-willed Scottish evangelist of a mother, in real life Howard Sturgis surrounded himself with a family of distinguished and scintillating friends who adored him.

Sturgis was an American from a rich Boston family. His father, Russell Sturgis, had made money in the Philippines, but when he returned to Boston to enjoy his success he found the cost of living had become dauntingly high. He decided to go back to Asia with his family, but in transit they all stopped in London for several weeks—and never left. A bank, Baring Brothers, offered to make him a partner. Russell Sturgis accepted and soon was successful enough to maintain three houses, including a big country place, Givons Grove at Walton-on-Thames. He was wonderfully hospitable and was soon known as the “entertaining partner” at Baring’s (just as a character in Ford Madox Ford’s No More Parades is called “Breakfast Duchemin” after his splendid morning spreads).

Through his parents little Howard met such American luminaries as Charles Francis Adams and Edward Boit (a Boston artist who’d settled in Paris and whose daughters were painted by John Singer Sargent in one of the most technically astonishing canvasses of all time). Howard also met writers such as Thackeray (to whose fiction his own “caste-ridden” Belchamber has been compared) and Henry James, who was introduced to the family in the 1870s.

Howard was extremely attached to his parents, especially his mother. As a child he made his mother’s boudoir into his playroom, and she refused to correct him for his effeminacy. She murmured that he was “sweeter as he was.” As Howard’s cousin, the philosopher George Santayana, remarked:

As if by miracle, for he was wonderfully imitative, he became save for the accident of sex, which was not yet a serious encumbrance, a perfect young lady of the Victorian type.

For instance, when he would step over a puddle he’d automatically lift the edge of his coat “as the ladies in those days picked up their trailing skirts.”

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