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Reading Howard Sturgis’s Belchamber

I have never heard of Howard Sturgis until I pulled this book off the shelf at my local used bookstore. Its a diamond in the rough to say the least. Sturgis was a friend of Henry James, who keeps Sturgis’s novel distantly in view, at the same time as casting a long shadow over it. Despite some obligatory praises and demurrals, James delivered some scathing criticisms that demoralized Sturgis. The book was not well received when it came out in 1904.

Belchamber is a novel of aristocratic life, centring on a great Jacobean house, and peopled with a marvelously unlikeable cast of rakes and schemers, dodgy duchesses and complacent earls.

Its originality lies in part in its not being about a picaresque charmer and chancer, but about a high-minded, high-born weakling, the heir to a marquisate who wishes repeatedly that his brainless and hearty younger brother, Arthur, could inherit instead. He’s antisocial, has a propensity for work, has a real aptitude for scholarship and a love for erudition for its own sake. He’s out of place with other gentlemen in his social standing. He’s called a sissy but he is true to himself and his conviction. It’s not easy to see that he is a homosexual, despite being forced to marry a neglectful woman as his wife.

the book is yet another that satirizes the English ruling class, but through the eyes of someone who is undermined.

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