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4.1 out of 5 stars
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Belchamber (New York Review Books Classics)
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on October 9, 2014
Anti-hero "Sainty" is a spineless booby. He's also, as Henry James said, "a passive nullity," a donkey, a weakling, a nicompoopy and a bore. At best, the novel offers England's ruling classes, c 1900, in all their excess and affrontery.
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on March 17, 2012
A couple of times while reading this amazingly neglected novel, I wanted to put it down because of the unlikable protagonist. Others have called him self-pitying, but to this reader his attitude seems closer to self-hatred. If he had really taken pity on himself, he might have acted much sooner to improve his lot. However that may be, I stuck it out to the end (and really it wasn't a great effort; the writing makes the reading a pleasure, no matter how unpleasant the subject). Do, by all means, finish the book, and you'll find out, among other things, what can happen when a "wrong" decision turns out to be exactly what makes everyone happiest.

As one of the cover blurbs points out, it's a book about moral decisions; I would add that it's a book about moral complexity. And this aspect of the novel makes everything about the protagonist's earlier development important and meaningful after all. Capturing human change is a remarkable achievement for any writer, and if he or she succeeds, the reader will also feel transformed. I believe that, on this score, Belchamber succeeds magnificently. I was quite moved.
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on January 18, 2015
The work is meant to be a bit oppressive to the reader, akin to some of the works of Hardy. It is well written, a plodding progression from bad to worse in a manner that is entertaining, if not a bit difficult for my reading to press on. The book may be less light-hearted than many would chose to consider reading. I do believe that, while being hardly up to the ability to create such a work, it might have been perhaps edited a bit more tightly to improve its pacing. To my taste, poor though it might be, the book plods along at times, needlessly slowly.
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on June 27, 2014
Beautifully written, sardonic intriguing and underrated. Henry James' contention that Sainty is a 'poor rat' is comprehensible, but viewed differently- the character has resonances of Prince Mishkin
(Dostoyevsky's passive but profound 'Idiot').
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on June 18, 2009
Edith Wharton and Henry James should be taking a few uneasy turns in their graves for their damning silence on BELCHAMBER. According to Edmund White's excellent preface to this perceptive, unsparing novel, they were his friends and frequent guests yet neither came to his rescue when the critics took the ax to BELCHAMBER. No wonder, it was decades ahead of its time in its appreciation of its effeminate central character, not to mention its depiction of upper class cruelty.
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on March 29, 2017
This novel affords the reader a chance to wallow in the troubled world of the aristocratic English as it was from about the end of the 19th to the early 20th centuries. Many clear details of the life of the high aristocrats are woven into this novel. Evidently Sturgis, although American, was part of the that world and portrays it convincingly, at least for me who knows nothing about it. But if you like that sort of vicarious nose-pressed-to-the-window sort of thing, this is a book for you. I loved it—although it is dark and troubling, with really no redeeming joy or light. No one in this novel is happy, free, easy, or satisfied. Nor is anyone particularly evil. As usual in these novels in the mode of Trollope, Austen, Eliot, there’s no violence, sex, or high drama—there’s just a lot of tsuris, as we say in Yiddish. There’s less of the usual money troubles than as in e.g. Middlemarch, since Sainty and his family have unlimited supplies of it.
Belchamber, a novel, is the fictional biography of “Sainty” Chambers, the Marquis of Belchamber. Sainty accedes to the marquisate as a young child. He’s called “Sainty” because his name is Charles Edwin William Augustus Chambers, Marquis and Earl of Belchamber, Viscount Charmington, and Baron St. Edmunds and Chambers. “Sainty” for short. His fellow students at Cambridge call him “Belchy.” He’s the scion of an ancient Norman aristocratic family and lord of one the finest estates in England; and miserable most of the time, because he is so unmanly, unassertive, unassuming, and self-constrained.
The unfolding drama, then, is the story of Sainty’s continual defeat and discouragement in every aspect of his utterly privileged life. You’d think it would be wonderful to be master of 15,000 acres of beautiful English countryside, a great house, a huge fortune, great honor, aristocracy, and being at the pinnacle of the socially elite. Not so. Sainty is manipulated, pushed, and controlled by his mother, family, society, and worst of all by himself and his foolish codes of honor. If only he could just come out and assert himself and shake free of his ideas of propriety! But he can’t—he’s constrained by custom, appearance, norms, so that he’s virtually a slave. With a good soul and mind, he’s worthless to himself and others.
Other novels in this mode come to mind. In particular those of Edith Wharton. Being rich, clever, healthy, socially elite is no proof against defeat and constraint that ruins one’s chances for happiness and any hope of achieving anything of value. The claustrophobic chains of social norms smother one.
How to save oneself from this suffocation, which perhaps even we social munchkins suffer from at times? No answer is given in Belchamber. Of course, given the approach of WW I in a little over a decade all of their current problems will seem rather trivial—which actually they are anyway.
This is a good novel. I recommend it if you like glorified soap operas about the rich and aristocratic of a hundred and fifty years ago. I do.
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VINE VOICEon May 12, 2010
This novel, in effect, offers a twist upon Shakespeare's line that, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." For Sturgis and for our protagonist, Lord "Sainty" Belchamber:

"The world is like a huge theatrical company in which half the actors and actresses have been cast for the wrong parts."

The book is very reminiscent, in many ways, of some of the works of Sturgis's friend, Henry James, except that, in James, there is always at least a hint at redemption for the main character, usually more sinned against than sinning. In fact, whilst reading the novel, I was continually reminded of the character of Ralph Touchett in A Portrait of a Lady. The difference is that whilst Ralph is taken out of the picture shortly after the off in the James novel, Sainty remains in focus throughout this essentially pessimistic gem of a novel.

Belchamber, published in 1905, is at once a shot across the bow of Victorian mores and Edwardian society, specifically the women in them, the older ones who propagate the former and the younger ones who carouse in the latter. The entire plot of the book might be effectively summed up by a reflection of Sainty's near the end:

"He saw what a puppet he had been in the hands of two strong-willed women, an instrument to satisfy the vulgar ambitions of the one, the angry revenge of the other."

The one thing that struck me as a bit off about the otherwise quite believable novel was Sainty's complete asexuality. One suspects that Sturgis would have liked to make his "hero" homosexual as he himself was, but doing so, of course, would have rendered the novel unpublishable. One suspects the same thing of James - "The nicest old lady I ever met," as Faulkner famously put it - as well.

In the event, we have to make do with the epicene Sainty who suffers no great perturbations of the heart or soul during the entire time the miscast characters of the world work perniciously upon him. When the ultimate tragedy occurs, it actually comes as a sort of relief to Sainty due to its pureness and profundity, untainted by the pettiness of the other, foregoing tragedies, and Sainty is left to reflect upon Shelley's contemplation of the statue of Niobe in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, "her tender and serene despair," as Shelley puts it.

Still, this novel deserves, I think, to be more widely read than it is currently (i.e., not at all) for the language alone, especially in the early going. The heady admixture of French into the English amongst the upper classes reminds one of nothing so much of the English used in the salons in Proust.
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on July 6, 2009
This book is too driven by pity for the protagonist -- apparently a stand-in for the author -- but it's very involving.

Sturgis was a protegé of Henry James, who however criticized the novel rather harshly, and it also failed commercially. It was his third and last novel. He was a wealthy English-born son of an American banker, who lived in a country house keeping a popular gay literary salon in the 1890s and 1900s, seeing a lot of James and Edith Wharton, and later a bit of EM Forster who seems to be the only one to really like this novel until recently.

The first half is great, about the trials of an effiminate and pure-hearted heir to a great noble house who copes with the paradox of power and powerlessness. The second half, after he's maneuvered into marrying a truly awful woman, works less well: the characters become less believable and the focus on pitying the protagonist becomes tiresome.
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