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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.”

He attended Eton and Cambridge (like Sainty), but unlike his character he courageously affirmed his effeminacy before his jeering classmates. His brothers had hoped Eton would make a man of Howard, but the plan came to nothing. Santayana praised his “inimitable honest mixture of effeminacy and courage, sensibility and wit, mockery and devoted love.”

Howard also attended art school but soon was entirely occupied with nursing his father and then his mother through long illnesses. Russell Sturgis died in 1887, when Howard was thirty-two, and his mother died the following year. Suddenly Howard was in possession of a large fortune—and had no direction in his life. As his friend A.C. Benson recalled, “He was almost in the condition of a nervous invalid, suffering from the long strain as well as from the shock of the double bereavement.” He made a year-long trip to America, where he met Edith Wharton and Santayana. He returned to England the following year, in 1889. He then sold a remote country house in Wales and bought a much more accessible and commodious one in Windsor, right next to Windsor Great Park and not far from Eton. It had been built only twenty years earlier and was cozy and comfortable with its wide verandas, vermillion brick walls, oeil-de-boeuf windows, and its single acre of rather frowsy gardens.

Inside, however, everything was perfectly tended—small rooms with deep chintz-covered armchairs and couches and little side tables and coal fires glowing in every grate. It was the height of comfort and Howard, who disliked exercise, would leave it only for the occasional “toddle” with Misery, his dog, into Windsor Park. Howard was envied for Mrs. Lees, his cook, and his expert, attentive butler. Perhaps he was even envied for his stolid, pleasant lover, William Haynes-Smith, known simply as “the Babe,” a man’s man who preferred cigars and the racing results in “the Pink ‘Un” to literary chat and The Golden Bowl. Eventually the Babe inherited what was left of Howard’s sadly depleted estate—and moved a wife in.

But for years and years Howard and the Babe ruled over Queen’s Acre, which was always called “Qu’Acre.” They received Howard’s many friends in such an unending stream that Howard confessed, “I feel at times like the unctuous manager of a smart hotel!” Most of the friends were male, many of them younger homosexuals, often from Eton, and they gathered in adulation around Henry James (after all, they had literary careers of their own to launch). They included Percy Lubbock, who would go on to enshrine James’s and Wharton’s ideas about the novel in The Craft of Fiction—he also wrote book-length portraits of James and Wharton. Another was the good-looking portly young writer Hugh Walpole (who purportedly once made an—unsuccessful—pass at the elderly and virginal James. Staggered by the initiative, James blubbered, “I can’t, I can’t”).

Arthur Benson, Edmund Gosse, and Gaillard Lapsley were all regular guests (Lapsley shared Edith Wharton’s enthusiasm for A.E. Housman and Proust). Wharton was one of the few women in the inner circle. She would travel with her fairly crazy husband Teddy over from France in her chauffeur-driven motorcar and swoop down on James in Sussex and whirl him off to Qu’Acre. She called the habitués of the house her “male wives.”

Everyone seems to have been happy there with the lively conversation, the alternate currents of stylish bitchiness and genuine affection, and the studied luxuries. Some of the guests would go on outings to nearby stately homes. They all loved reading aloud; James put aside his habitual stammer to cry forth with eloquence the rolling periods of Walt Whitman. James called Qu’Acre “a sybaritic sea.” Wharton was happy enough to leave behind the “anxious frugality” of James’s Lamb House for the “cheerful lavishness” of Qu’Acre. Santayana called Sturgis “host and hostess in one” and dubbed him a “universal mother.” Sometimes, of course, there were complaints in such a close-knit circle. As Hermione Lee puts it in her biography of Edith Wharton, “Hugging and yearning went along with satire and malice.”

Many of the guests were transplanted New Englanders or New Yorkers who were delighted to affirm among themselves their very American form of exclusiveness. It was a relief for them, who were so often condescended to by the superior English, to mock the King as an emperor of India who lived at neighboring Frogmore. They liked calling Edward VII an arch-vulgarian (the great French chef Escoffier claimed that the King—then Prince of Wales—liked to have caviar scattered over every dish, a preparation known as “à la Prince de Galles”). As fellow expatriates, Wharton and Lapsley would swap clippings from American papers with their favorite headlines about adultery, murder, and felony.

These New Englanders at Qu’Acre included Walter Berry (Wharton’s best friend and mentor), Morton Fullerton (a bisexual who became her lover—perhaps her first, since her marriage may have been sexless), Henry James, Lapsley, and Sturgis himself. As Percy Lubbock remarked, it was the only house in England where James was completely at home. In A Backward Glance, her memoir, Wharton writes that Sturgis sat next to the fire in a chaise longue,

his legs covered by a thick shawl, his hands occupied with knitting-needles or embroidery silks, a sturdily-built handsome man with brilliantly white wavy hair, a girlishly clear complexion, a black moustache, and tender mocking eyes under the bold arch of his black brows.

Such was Howard Sturgis, perfect host, matchless friend, drollest, kindest and strangest of men, as he appeared to the startled eyes of newcomers on their first introduction to Queen’s Acre.

The contrast of tenderness and mockery was noticed by all his friends, who remarked on his almost tearful kindness; after Sturgis’s first visit to Lamb House James asked him to live with him and years later Sturgis asked James the same thing—both unsuccessful bids. James once compared Sturgis to a big sugar cake that everyone—all his friends—feasted on. But Sturgis could also waspishly imitate his friends, especially James, including his maddening way of stammering as he groped after le mot juste. Just as Marcel Proust could reduce everyone to helpless laughter with his mimicry of his mentor, Robert de Montesquiou, in the same way Sturgis could “do” James—and perhaps this art of mimicry was linked to both men’s novel-writing talents.

In 1903 Sturgis passed along to James the first 160 pages of the proofs of Belchamber, his third—and as it turned out his last—novel. His first, Tim, had been the tale of a schoolboy crush at Eton. In his second, All That Was Possible, an epistolary novel, Sturgis had impersonated an actress who flees London for the peace and authenticity of Wales only to discover that Welsh men are as caddish as those in the capital.

Belchamber was altogether more ambitious. Sturgis worked on it intermittently for more than ten years. In it he draws the portrait of an English marquis who is also Baron St. Edmund and is nicknamed “Sainty,” a diminutive that is at once trivializing and an acknowledgment of his basic goodness. Just when Sainty is about to be sent to Eton and pushed onto the brutal playing fields, he is providentially injured in a riding accident. Lame and feeble, a partial invalid anchored to a raised shoe, Sainty is unable to participate in ordinary male games and the gentlemanly rites of hunting, much to his relief. From the beginning he was effeminate (more feminine than his bossy, controlling mother), but now he has an excuse for it.

Sainty is a complete contrast to his macho younger brother Arthur. When Arthur enters Eton he

took the place by storm with his frank and friendly manners, hatred of books, love of games, and perfectly obvious and understandable type of beauty.

Arthur remains uppermost in Sainty’s thoughts throughout the novel, first as an endearing but easily corrupted and brainless boy whom Sainty must look out for, then as someone who has been corrupted by his feline French cousin Claude Morland, who has introduced him to gambling and actresses. Claude—well-mannered and penniless—is suspiciously polite, a Gallic smooth operator:

  1. *

    This essay appears in slightly different form as the introduction to a new edition of Belchamber, to be published this month by NYRB Classics.

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