“It was a lark at first—really it was a lark, Gale, for all your long face! And I’ve made pots of money by it. But I’m sick to death of the whole thing—want to get my fingers on realities for a change. You know, I’m going out on some business in which I’ve associated myself with Sir George Curst.” For the life of him Bellamy could not resist a rolling emphasis on the ‘Sir’… “I’ve done with this sort of tommy-rot once and for all. It’s a real good thing that I’ve got on to. I believe, and Curst believes, we’ll pretty well make our fortunes, if it turns out as we expect.
“I say!” suddenly he laughed—he had not brushed his hair since he changed his clothes, it was a little longer than usual, and there was a hint of the old rampant crest above his brows:—“life’s not so bad after all, is it?—To be starting off afresh in this fashion; like the little dicky-birds which begin all over again every spring. La joie de vie! You cold-blooded fish, Gale. You don’t even know what it means.”
“There’s Hansen—and the two girls: you’ll have to pay them a month’s screw you know, Bellamy. I’m sorry to intrude on your poetical rhapsodies with anything so sordid, but still,” Gale shrugged his shoulders: after all he did not know why he interfered. But Bellamy seemed so horribly prosperous—he remembered the plea of Reynard the fox, that he could not resist eating the lamb because it looked so fat and contented, so well pleased with itself—if anyone ever murdered Walter Bellamy it would not be on account of his vices, but of his infinite self-satisfaction…
Elinor Mordaunt’s novel, Bellamy, was well-received by the critics at the time of its initial release, but seems afterwards to have vanished almost without trace. Possibly it was a case of bad timing: the novel appeared during the closing months of 1914, by which time its overt sympathy with the working-classes and the union movement, its graphic descriptions of the appalling factory conditions and its criticism of “the bosses” may have seemed inappropriate, not to say unpatriotic. Certainly this is not a novel to provide comfort or lift the spirits, or to make people feel good about the might of England.
That said, these aspects of Bellamy are not the novel’s focus, but rather the backdrop and framework of its eponymous anti-hero. This novel is above all a character study, tracing the ups and downs of Walter Bonnet Bellamy from his deprived childhood in a manufacturing town in the north of England to a place at the pinnacle of English society—almost. Bellamy’s is a life lived in cycles: he does not crave success and fortune so much as achieving success and fortune; again and again, on the very brink of grabbing the brass ring of his current enterprise, he self-sabotages, dropping himself back to the bottom of ladder for the sheer pleasure of climbing it all over again. Never once does it cross his mind that the next time, he might fail—failure is not a possibility for Walter Bonnet Bellamy.
For the most part Elinor Mordaunt presents Bellamy to us in a tone of wry detachment; there is a sense that she shares the strange mingling of revulsion and involuntary admiration that comprises the attitude of those closest to Bellamy himself. However, we should note the sardonic double meaning in Mordaunt’s choice of epitaph for her novel: It is ill work endeavouring to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear—the town which produces Walter Bellamy also produces artificial silk, a substance that functions as both the reality and the metaphor of his life: try as they might, neither one nor the other will ever be mistaken for the real thing.
The early chapters of Bellamy offer a vivid, shocking picture of life in a manufacturing town: the struggle for survival, the inadequate wages, the injuries and fatalities that unavoidably occur, the stunted, half-starved lives that most take for granted, the miseries of an extended strike. Walter Bellamy begins to combine work with his schooling from the edge of eight. He is eleven when his father dies; at twelve he begins full-time factory work. Initially he accepts a position as a “runner”: this is the best-paid work that someone of his age can attain, chiefly because it is also the most brutally demanding:
Directly it is taut, as it is in a moment, the boy runs forward with the loop in turn. And the twister, still winding, runs the silk on to big spools, set on a horizontal rod before him.
The boy must run very fast, just as fast as the twister can turn his wheel, and that is with a concentrated fierce rapidity. For it is only by doing this business at a tremendous rate that the silk will twist exactly as the best tailors like to have it.
If the boy does not run as fast as the man winds, the thread tightens too quickly and breaks. If he stops the man at the wheel must stop too: then there are words.
He runs with bare feet, for no one could run rapidly or surely enough with shoes. He runs in his shirt and trousers, because the work is terribly exhausting; and when it is hot he runs in his trousers only. From six o’clock in the morning till half-past five at night, with half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner. Through all the long day he runs, panting like a dog.
Occasionally, if there is a slack moment while the twister is fixing his stands, he flies at a frame over which tresses of silk are stretched, divides them up and ties them, all with an incredible quickness of touch.
But there are not many such moments: he is there to run; and he runs. Ceaselessly to and fro: padding out the hours with his bare feet; the days, months, years, till at sixteen, or there abouts, he is an old man, with bent and distorted legs…
Years later, when Bellamy is preening himself on having transformed himself from an ill-educated, ignorant, working-class-accented urchin into a gentleman – or at least, an artificial gentleman – he goes to a tailor to order a suit fitted to his new position in life. Though he has not thought about his days as a runner for the majority of those years, all of a sudden he is overwhelmed by memories—overwhelmed to such an extent, he has a rare moment of untainted sincerity:
But Walter Bellamy did not hear him: neither did he hear the sound of the traffic in the street outside.
All he heard was the pad, pad, pad of bare feet, and the buzzing whirr of a wheel… Suddenly, at the feel of the smooth stuff between his fingers, his imagination was again let loose: so vividly that memory seemed vitalised to reality. The pale January sunshine, creeping languidly through the high window sickened him. He felt the sweat prick out upon his skin; while his heart was somewhere up in his throat; his breath came in short, thick gasps, and once more he was running…
Unloosing the end of the silk from the nick which held it, he pulled it out a few inches and examined it closely. It was springy and smooth and tightly twisted.
Suddenly Bellamy realised the other’s presence and turned to him. “This silk is hand twisted.”
The tailor looked surprised. But he had been a journeyman before he was a master, and knew the details of his trade. “You’re right there, Sir,” he answered: “we make a rule of always using the best of everything.”
“Do you know what it’s done with?—It’s done with boys’ guts; with the hearts and souls and life of them. Don’t ever use it for my clothes, that’s all. And if you’ve got any humanity, don’t use it at all…”
From his earliest childhood Bellamy is somehow different from his fellows: a quality that, as he grows, he chooses to assign to the French blood on his father’s side of the family; fantasies about high-born relatives follow in due course. Bellamy is by instinct a story-teller, a play-actor, a poseur—but one who buys so deeply into his own inventions that he convinces others almost by sheer force of will. He has, likewise, a tendency to measure everyone else in terms of their “performance”. Bellamy’s dissatisfaction with “the show” put on by the invited preacher at the Methodist church attended by his family prompts him to make a play for the congregation’s attention:
“We’ve gotten all we wants, more than we wants o’ Thy bounty. We dwarn’t ask Thee for nwart dear Lord as th’ world can gie us.”
“It’s a loy!”
The children were crouched on the platform, bent forward like their elders… It had all been outward decorum till Walter Bellamy’s voice broke the silence with its amazing declaration: “It’s a loy!”
“‘Ush, ‘ush! Yark at ‘im!” The white faces swung forward, each punctuated by an open mouth.
Walter thrilled. Once more he held the stage. He flung out his hands almost into the faces of the two boys who still crouched at either side of him.
“We ain’t got what we want, an’ we ain’t contented, else we wouldn’t not be tryin’ fur better jobs. Us wants great foine ‘ouses like Morrison’s, an’ motor-cars an’ foine clothes an’ ter go the picture pallises every noight. Gawd dwarn’t give us all we wants. ‘E don’t do ‘alf as it’s up ter Yim ter do, so there! Why ‘E even lets it rain a Sundays!”
A sibilant hush swept through the chapel, broken by a subdued crackle of exclamations. “Lord a’ mercy. The lod’s daft. ‘Oo is it? Walter Bellamy—Walter Bellamy.” The high whisper of his name was like wine to Walter. “The lod’s daft! Turn ‘im out. Where’s ‘is mither? Oh, Lord, oh, Lord—it’s divil for sure. Divil’s in lod.”
The excitement roused by the minister’s prayer had been merely mechanical to this…
There was a clear still moment. Walter Bellamy stood on his tiptoes swinging joyously to and fro in his Sunday boots. “We ain’t got nothing we want for all our yowlin’ and prayin’. An’ we won’t get nothing we want. I’ve asked God scores upon scores o’ times fur a bike. An’ what der yer think ‘E said? ‘Go ter ‘Ell—go ter ‘Ell’.”
The boy’s voice had risen to a triumphant chant, he was drunken with his own imagery…
Later on, granted, Walter allows the minister to have the public triumph of casting out his devil – devils – but only because he takes such a profound delight in his own exorcism:
The bump had been Walter Bellamy dropping on his knees: bending to the powers that be. Generously, superlatively testifying; calling upon the Lord. Confessing to sins that made the minister’s hair stand on end. He had gloried in the “wrastling”. Into no other boy in Edge had seven devils ever entered; he could feel them all capering round inside him…
He would have gone on “wrastling” if it had not been that he wanted his tea: while it seemed that the minister was getting things altogether too much his own way. So he dropped to his knees with a will—as he did everything else. Such a sudden drop that he fell forward upon his hands; and the last devil tore him and came out of him, and went up the chimney.
No wonder that the ceiling of the room below, the very walls were shaken. In a couple of days his knees were black and blue with bruises. But when Mrs Bellamy proffered vinegar and brown paper, [he] shook his head bravely. “They don’t yurrt, thank yer, Mither,” he said, with a beautiful patience. And indeed if they had hurt ten times as much he could have borne it, for no other boy in Edge could show such bruises, such supernatural scars…
These scenes occur within the novel’s first couple of chapters, and Mordaunt wraps up this sequence as follows:
Walter took after [his father], but with all the pregnant differences of the newer generation. Bellamy senior was cheerful because he made a best of a bad job, Walter because he was determined to rise above the bad job; to trample those who made it under his feet: to live and be happy. Not merely content, but joyously happy—by foul means if it were not possible by fair. He could not have put it into words; but this was really the secret of his declaration that he meant to ask Satan for a bike if God would not give him one…
Not for a single moment had he any sense of self-reproach for having deceived everyone. To use his own expression he had “made them sit up”. They enjoyed the stir and animation: if anything he was a benefactor. For never, at any time of his life, was Walter consciously immoral. He was simply non-moral. Or, rather, he was like an actor who carries every detail of his art into his own life: with such completeness that often enough he was honestly unable to distinguish between the true and the false. If there could be a charlatan by birth, such was Walter Bonnet Bellamy.
Much later in the novel, Mordaunt picks up on that remark about Bellamy being “like an actor who carries every detail of his art into his own life”. Involved with a chorus girl, Bellamy briefly considers trying life as an actor – a natural choice, the reader might think – only to recoil from the idea of someone else putting words in his mouth; or, even worse, getting the credit for those words.
Beyond a few short passages such as these, Mordaunt refrains from editorialising, content instead to let Walter Bellamy unfold before our eyes. It is a masterful piece of characterisation: Bellamy is – make no mistake about it – an awful excuse for a human being; yet time and again Mordaunt manages to lure the reader into sympathy with him, either because the people he is interacting with are even worse, or (as with the church sequence) because of his sheer joy his own capacity for performance, his ability to put personalities on and off at whim. And time and again also, she pulls the rug out from under the reader with a reminder of just how cruel Bellamy can be in his monstrous self-absorption.
Leaving Edge as a young man, Bellamy effectively leaves behind his entire life-to-date there, too. The things he discards include his mother, who he leaves entirely to the care of others except for the occasional gift of money. He has not seen her for two years when she dies, and he does not bother to attend her funeral. His mother is one of the people must be reminded about when he suddenly abandons one business venture for another – that business venture referenced in the quote above, which has made him “pots of money” – tossing aside likewise his existing clients and employees:
“My dear Belle-amie, I think nothing, excepting that you’re truer to type than any man or beast I ever met. That reminds me—though why I don’t know—” Gale spoke smoothly, his head a little bent; but his deep-set eyes, suddenly keen and watchful, were full on the other man’s face. “What about your mother and—and Miss Irwin?”
“Jane—my pretty plain—Jane? Mon Dieu, I’d clean forgotten!” Bellamy had been giving his nails a last polish; but now he slipped the little pad into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out his note-book. “Better send her something—I suppose she had a lot of expense coming up here, when I was seedy, and all that.”
He was flicking over his notes as he spoke: passed by several for ten pounds, found one for five and held it out to Gale. “Send her that, will you? Tell her its for her and my mother to get some new frocks with: give them my love.”
But Gale making no attempt to take the note, had moved back a step with his hands behind his back…
Bellamy‘s central portrait is offset and balanced by two more, those of the only people who ever get close to Walter Bellamy: Jane Irwin, with whom he grows up in Edge, and Francis Gale, a chance acquaintance made upon Bellamy’s first arrival in London—a man down and out, living hand-to-mouth, an alcoholic…yet for all that immediately and unmistakeably a gentleman in a way that Walter Bellamy is not and never will be, no matter how hard he works at it, and no matter how otherwise convincing his play-acting might be:
The friendship between these two was a strange one. Francis Gale had the faculty of making Bellamy feel like a country bumpkin, coarse and commonplace; while he realised that the other man saw through him as no one else, excepting Jane, had ever done. Only with this difference: that while Jane liked him despite his flamboyant posing and prevarications—“flim-flam” as she called it—Gale liked him because of it: for he was piquant as a new cocktail to the waster’s jaded appetite, a creature of infinite variety and amusement.
Once having realised that it was no use pretending, Bellamy found a certain sort of relief in the presence of one person with whom he could let himself go; be perfectly natural. After all it was no good putting on airs with Gale if he really wished to learn from him, as he did. For his ardent desire for improvement in the things which he knew the world values overcame his vanity. You might pick a pocket and merely be called a kleptomaniac; but if you dropped an “h” you were lost; while seducing your neighbour’s wife was a minor sin compared to eating with your knife.
As for Gale he regarded Bellamy with a species of joyous bitterness, as the very quintessence of his kind: without heart or conscience or morals, the prophet of the great religion of “getting on”. The only excuse for the elder man being, that—having sunk so low himself—he found a sort of comfort in the thought of another who—without any sinking at all—was lower still…
Thus the two men, one as consumed with self-loathing as the other is with self-satisfaction, develop what is not so much a friendship as a perverse kind of symbiotic relationship. As Bellamy rises in the world, he feels strangely compelled to drag Gale up with him; while Gale, despising himself, goes along for the ride. As far as Bellamy can admire anyone, he admires Gale; as far as he is ever honest with anyone, he is honest with Gale, albeit chiefly because he has nothing to gain from being anything else. Yet, like his mother and the woman he professes to love, Bellamy tosses Gale away without a second thought or a backward glance when another opportunity for a fresh start carries him out of the country.
The third point of the novel’s strange central triangle is its most problematic aspect. Since they were children together, Jane Irwin has functioned as Walter Bellamy’s displaced conscience. She is as immovably, as fundamentally honest as he is the reverse; and yet in spite of herself she is drawn to him as something strange and exotic, something wild and exciting in the midst of her grindingly hard and monotonous life.
Along with her mother and Mrs Bellamy, Jane is an auditor of Walter’s “exorcism”; unlike her elders, however, she isn’t fooled for a moment. Still…
Walter was very pale; for his histrionic art took it out of him, as it will out of anyone who practices it with such abandonment. But he allowed himself to be coaxed to eat a good many slices of bread and butter and cake, and drank three cups of tea; while Mrs Irwin was tearfully tender over him, the minister visibly yearned, and all Mrs Bellamy’s scolding served to bring out the wonder of the whole affair. Only Mrs Clarke said nothing; while Jane sat on her little stool, gazing up at Walter with a sort of maternal indulgence.
Walter was made like that. He must seem to be very much better or very much worse than anyone else. All men folk told lies. But Walter’s lies were beyond the ordinary; it was wonderful how he did it. She was his one accredited friend and very proud of the fact; but though she understood him to the very innermost source of his being, his cleverness never failed to amaze her.
As he pursues his various life-schemes, Walter keeps Jane in a corner of his mind and heart—though sometimes it is a very small corner indeed. Jane is always the first person he runs to when he is in trouble; and she is the first person he brushes aside and forgets when things are going well. He leaves the thankless task of caring for his mother to her – Mrs Bellamy has one gear only, and that is “complaining” – sending money when he can, and when he remembers. Despite any number of irregular relationships and two different engagements (both of which he intentionally wrecks, for different reasons), Bellamy never ceases to suppose vaguely that he will marry Jane “some day”. Naturally it never occurs to him that she will do anything other than wait on his convenience.
When Bellamy suffers a collapse and contracts a dangerous fever, he calls incessantly for Jane in his ravings. As much out of curiosity as for Bellamy’s good, Francis Gale sends for her: he has always been aware that somewhere, there is a person Bellamy actually cares about. By this time Gale is sure that nothing to do with Walter Bellamy could surprise him, but Jane is a revelation to him:
“He’s very ill. Miss Irwin.”
Jane—seated on the very edge of one of the chairs pulling on the slippers—raised her head, her small face white with fatigue; her eyes, circled with black, serene and tender. “Don’t ‘ee take on,” she said. “It wouldn’t be Wally if he wasn’t very much whatever he was, that’s certain. An’ I’ve known him since we could both walk. He won’t be took yet, won’t Wally,” and she shook her head with an odd little smile.
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, he ain’t not ready yet,” her tone was one of infinite simplicity and finality. “But tell me, what does it seem loike, the sickness as has took him. Not—not—” her voice wavered, the colour went out of his cheeks: suddenly she was afraid. For even Wally, the audacious and indomitable Wally, might not be proof against that insidious white plague which claims its victims by the hundreds in Edge. “It’s not—not decline?”
“Consumption, they names it down south.”
“No, no—it’s a sort of breakdown. He’s been off colour for some time—something to do with his brain. I think I ought to prepare you. He’s raving—slightly delirious—talking all the time.”
“Aye, lod, but Wally always did that.”
Jane moves into Walter’s rooms, nursing him back to health, and slipping away as silently as she came as soon as she is certain that he will recover fully—although not before she has gently refused an offer of marriage from Gale. It is in the wake of this interlude that Gale recoils in incredulous disgust from Bellamy’s crass offer of five pounds.
Jane Irwin, then, functions as this novel’s moral touchstone—and that is exactly the problem. Jane, plain Jane, never changes, not all throughout her years of hardship and deprivation and loneliness, and not in the face of Walter Bellamy’s alternating neediness and neglect. Her immobility of thought and feeling grows increasingly unrealistic as the novel progresses, particularly when set against the shaded portraits of Walter Bellamy and Francis Gale, and it contributes significantly to the novel’s main weakness, which it its ending.
To my mind there were two ways that Elinor Mordaunt could have satisfactorily closed her character study. Unfortunately she chose a third, and in doing so introduced a false note into Walter Bellamy’s behaviour for the first time. It makes for a disappointing coda to what is otherwise an enjoyably caustic piece of writing.