THE FORTNIGHTLY’S 2013 serial, published a little later in the year than usual, is Helen, by Oswald Valentine Sickert, published in 1894 as number 44 in T. Fisher Unwin’s ‘Pseudonym Library’ series. This study of late Victorian characters reveals not only something of its time but especially the social setting of the man who wrote it. Oswald’s book is a slight and delicate work – much like Oswald himself – in which two characters – an ambitious writer and a freshly liberated woman – are revealed in elaborate detail. The manuscript was shown by Oswald to those he thought might help improve it, including, even, Frank Harris. Edward Marsh, a Cambridge friend who gave the book an edit before publication, recalled in 1939, “[Oswald] wrote with infinite pains and utter integrity a novel…but nobody read it. Such fire as he had was banked under his ‘artistic conscience’; he kept his tone so perfectly that nothing stood out; he was so careful not to say too much that he seemed to be saying nothing at all.”
Sickert, born on Valentine’s Day 1871,1 was the younger brother of painter Walter Sickert, who was ten years older, and, like virtually every other writer and artist in London, an acquaintance of James McNeill Whistler’s, under whom Walter had worked and studied and suffered. Whistler’s network of friends and former-friends-turned-adversaries, such as Walter and Oswald Sickert, comprised a roster of accomplished people all of whom knew each other sometimes perhaps a bit too well.
The Sickert family was a complicated little troupe. The father, Oswald Adalbert, a melancholy Danish-born painter, and his wife, Nelly, produced five boys – only two of whom were ultimately unemployable, although one of them – Leonard, called Leo – nearly made a living as a singer. Walter was the famous painter, and a daughter, Helena, the suffragist. Oswald was by far the most conventional Sickert.2
At the time Helen was written, the family had long made a second home in Dieppe, where Walter painted on the beach while his brothers walked along the shore or spent slow afternoons under the arcades facing the harbor. In an 1895 letter to his Cambridge friend, Edward Marsh, Oswald Sickert sketched his own, somewhat rosy, view of family life far from the gloom he had found at Cambridge:
I often wonder whether you would like this place: on the whole, I think you would, though I know now that the Sickerts can’t expect other people to see in Dieppe all that it means to them… I suppose I was about seven when I first came, in the spring-time: I stayed with my sister at Mother’s old school, and the girls and I used to make houses with bricks and twigs and carpet them with the petals of peonies. Then a little later the school stopped and we took the house for the summer, and I remember Oscar [Wilde] reading us his poems in the meadow in front of the house, and playing with Leo and me. Once, when he was reading his poems dear old Miss Slea, the schoolmistress, “Aunty” we used to call her, interrupted him and said: “No, my dear fellow, not like that: now begin again.” Johnston Forbes-Robertson [the great actor] was with us too, but I can’t recall him…Then one day Whistler arrived, and he used to be at odd corners, standing upright, immaculate, dainty, doing little water-colours as another man would roll a cigarette; and then Degas came too, and I shall never forget the gentleness and the charm of his personality. That was all very long ago, and I don’t feel as if I lived a separate existence then.3
Oswald learned to dance and, under the tutelage of his brother, Leo, “made a speciality of clapping the right people” and sitting on the casino ballroom window sills “to listen to the adored Rivard playing the violin.” Literary and artistic friends would come and go.
[Last] year, when Stanley [Makower] was here, we had the best time of all, and on ball-nights Leo would come and laugh with us between the dances; then we sent him on to the café first, and we followed when the dance was over and sat drinking Loewenbräu. That’s the Café de Rouen, to the side of the Café des Tribunaux, and it was there that when I was here alone Walter always used to meet met at 12.30 and draw pictures on the little round tables, and catch sight of his famous Madame de Something, driving her pair of spanking greys about at midnight with white kid gloves on. There can never be any other place for me quite like this.4
Sickert, according to his sister, the feminist writer and editor Helena Maria Swanwick, was simply “much the best of us all….even as a young man he had much the better and more considerate manners than any that I knew.” Others, especially Janet (Hogarth) Courtney, enjoyed his soothing gentility, agreeing, no doubt, with his sister who found that “he was impossible to anticipate, because he was authentic and because his mind was uncommonly discriminating. His attitude to life had something religious about it: he reverenced and savoured not only people but materials and emotions, so that he was fastidiously temperate and capable of ecstasy” – if not of hard work. “He was a terrible worker,” his sister admitted, “and he used to excuse himself by saying that he had to be, because he was slow,” not in his thinking, but in his preferred manner. He once told her that his idea of a perfect vacation “was to do what he usually did, but ten times as long in doing it.” Once, explaining to a doubtful Helena how to properly enjoy buckwheat porridge, one of his favorite dishes (and one of her least), he said, “Ah you haven’t found the technique of Buchwaizen. It is faint, at first. But if you wait for a minute or two after you’ve eaten a spoonful, the most heavenly ghost of a taste appears. Almost as heavenly as the best smells.” Helena pointed out that eating breakfast that slowly would take all morning. “But I thought we were talking about a taste!” Oswald scolded, “Not about being in time for the office.”5 As with buckwheat porridge, so with Sickert’s fiction.
OSWALD ATTENDED CAMBRIDGE where he helped launch a weekly newspaper, the Cambridge Observer, chummed with Bertrand Russell (who read several of Oswald’s first stories), pursued women chastely and socialized on the margins of the Apostles, although he was never a member. His best friends were Russell, Lowes Dickinson, the composer Dalhousie Young, Eddie Marsh and especially Roger Fry, who became a close friend of the Sickert family, with whom he found companionship and lodging when his wife became mentally unstable. Fry called Oswald “the most entirely beautiful character I have ever known.”6
The paper, The Cambridge Observer, was a project by Oswald and a few friends – identified by Russell, who was among them, as “a clique of high-brow and extremely literary Cambridge undergraduates.”7 Oswald gave Russell his first appearance in print. In 1893, a trio of Observer editors, Oswald, Stanley Makower and Arthur Myers Smith, collaborated on The Passing of a Mood, number 30 in the Pseudonym Library (and in which an early rehearsal of “Helen” appeared). Both Makower and Sickert appeared in the list of contributors to The Yellow Book in 1894, the year Oswald’s Helen, published under the name Oswald Valentine, finally appeared — and was promptly forgotten.
“This sensitive and exquisite creature,” to use Marsh’s description, joined the reviewing staff of the Saturday Review, and from there was recruited by the proprietor of the Encyclopædia Britannica, first to help run The Times Book Club on Oxford Street, and then to head the Britannica’s controversial and prolific advertising department. Soon, he was circling the globe, his sister wrote: the Orient and India, the U.S., south and central Africa – “even in Spain,” which is where he was when he unexpectedly died in 1923, leaving behind a widow, an actress named Kathleen Kennedy.
Sickert, as Marsh recalled, had “spent years of his life as a ‘traveler’ in the Dominions for the new edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica,” often delegated to survey the Asian and Imperial market for the set. After one sales journey to China and Japan, he contributed a very thoughtful and well-researched collection of letters that eventually were published in Arthur Waley’s Nō Plays of Japan.8
The idea of Sickert finding success in the ad department of the Britannica, whence for many years some of the most aggressive and hyperbolic advertising had issued, amused those who knew Sickert well. In 1904, when he returned from one of his lengthy voyages, he devoted himself to helping his brother Bernard, a nearly incapacitated alcoholic with pretensions to a writing and artistic career, like his brother, Walter. In Oswald’s situation with the Book Club, he proved to be a lively, gregarious collaborator who worked hard, even as he turned what his sister said a friend called “the finest monosyllabic style in Cambridge” to the Britannica’s notorious use of avalanche-language in ad copy, made maddeningly famous by his mentor, H.R. Haxton. “It was one of the oddest appointments and oddest successes which I have known,” his sister recalled.9
Helen, in three instalments:
- Troy Bassett, victorianresearch.org. ↩
- Walter Sickert: A Life (2005), by Matthew Sturgis, is a very thorough biography of Walter and provides a detailed and helpful family portrait. ↩
- Marsh, Edward. A Number of People: A book of reminiscences. Heinemann, London 1939. pp 50-51. Our photographic portrait is from Marsh’s book. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Helena Maria Swanwick, I Have Been Young (London 1935), pp. 350-51. ↩
- Letters of Roger Fry, edited by Denys Sutton. London 1972. Vol. 2, pp 546-7. ↩
- Spadoni, Carl (1982) “The Curious Case of The Cambridge Observer,” Russell: the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 12. Available at: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/russelljournal/vol2/iss1/12 ↩
- London, 1921, pp 306-316. ↩
- Swanwick, p. 352. ↩