“He had an almost painful intuition of her sacrifices, her hopes, her frustrate ambitions for him, and of the disappointments he must inevitably be to her; he probably read into her not very complex emotions fine shades of sensibility from his own consciousness . . . It was this habit of deference to her lightest wish they sent him off against his wish . . . ” (V, 55)
Set in 1890s England, Belchamber is a novel of aristocratic life told in the perspective of a misfit. Its originality lies in how the protagonist, a high-minded, high-born weakling, slightly effeminate heir to a marquisate, is at odds with what the high society expects of a gentleman. Born Charles Edwin William Augustus Chambers, the Marquis and Earl of Belchamber, he is commonly known as Sainty. He has no taste for games, girls, or money; he dislikes sports and hunting but adores gardening and interior decoration. Another eccentricity that shows his unfitness for his social status is his exaggerated propensity for work. He has a genuine aptitude for scholarship and loves erudition for its own sake. In short, he is a loner content in his own world.
And he launched out a tirade, . . . on the barbarism of the English upper classes, their want of education and refinement, their inability to appreciate intellectual pleasures, their low standard of morality, and, above all, their entire self-satisfaction and conviction of their own perfect rightness. (VII, 87)
The great moment of Sainty comes early on, when he becomes friends with his tutor Gerald Newsby in Cambridge. Then his life is shaped, or shattered to pieces, by two powerful women if very strong will. His mother, Lady Charmington, with her severe morals and puritanical obduracy, exercises a tight reign over him. Lady Eccleston, a tireless schemer who constructs the marriage plot to ensnare him. Cissy herself, though also in a way a victim of her mother’s deceit, is a fortune-hunting girl who makes the most of her situation. She despises Sainty but spends his money with insolent abandon. She’s a heartless monster, an adulteress, who epitomizes the very vices of high society that Saint renounces. All the sympathy one might feel for her would quickly desiccate as the novel nears the end.
The book portrays a series of betrayals against Sainty and his spinelessness to fight back, for the sake of preserving appearance and avoiding scandal. He is crushed by the race for luxury, since he himself is rich enough to absorb his losses and quite indifferent to his possessions. There’s a ponderous, contemplative quality to the writing, often supplying psychological stings after a plot narrative. Despite being a misfit, Sainty remains an aristocrat; he is bored and repulsed by his class yet never ceases to belong to it. It’s a story about individualism thwarted and innocence deceived, and, after all, virtue is not its own reward.
334 pp. New York Review Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]