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Reading the Life and Art of Hubert Crackanthorpe Shafquat Towheed Corpus Christi College, Cambridge IN HIS STUDY of nineteenth-century literature and culture, The Victorian Temper (1951), Jerome Hamilton Buckley summed up Hubert Crackanthorpe's contribution to the world of letters in one spectacular paragraph: Crackanthorpe, who lacked Beardsley's talent for satire, sought to emulate in his brief fictions the cool objectivity of Maupassant. Yet he found a soulless naturalism quite unable to satisfy his own deeper emotional impulse; and he yielded again and again, in spite of his struggle for detachment, to an ethical commentary, sometimes oblique, but always more or less incompatible with the dispassionate method. In an unguarded moment he confessed that "all great art is moral in the wider sense of the word." But, failing to discover for his own art any moral sanction that he might accept with his whole intellect, he turned in despair to the Decadent "pursuit of excellence," which he called self-consciously, "the refuge of the unimaginative," until, eventually, defeated in all calmer efforts to escape, he plunged from a Paris bridge to his death in the cold impassive river. ^ Buckley's verdict is as simplistic as it is morally didactic. Art without "any moral sanction," in other words, "decadent" art, leads invariably, even inevitably, to despair and suicide by drowning in the Seine. The decadent artist, "defeated in all calmer efforts to escape," transforms his clearly self-willed death into his only lasting work of art. For Buckley, the brevity, fragility, despair and pointlessness of Crackanthorpe's life, its conflict between "soulless naturalism" and his own "emotional impulse ," and above all, its suicidal denouement, epitomises the futility of a lost movement and a lost generation. In pursuing his point, that all decadent art corrupts absolutely, that it is futile, worthless, and spurious, he effectively fictionalises Crackanthorpe's life. 51 ELT 43 : 1 2000 This convenient assessment of Crackanthorpe's life as his finest fiction has proven to be corrosively influential in any true assessment of his worth, and has set the tone for literary critics to date.2 Such readings have invariably served to obfuscate rather than illuminate the issue. The simple fact of the matter is that there is relatively little reliable information about Crackanthorpe's life, something which even his greatnephew and only biographer, David Crackanthorpe, is ready to concede.3 Crackanthorpe's oeuvre is not large, and his critical reception from 1893 to the present day has been correspondingly slight. The convenient superimposition of a perceived "life" on to the existing work is deeply misleading in forming any true assessment of the value or relevance of Crackanthorpe's works. I do not claim Crackanthorpe to be an important figure in the literature of the period, or indeed, as Buckley does, as a representative type of the failed decadent writer of the fin-de-siècle. What I do hope to demonstrate is that Crackanthorpe deserves our attention for very different reasons, particularly for that most prosaic, but most essential part of a writer's life, the very production and publication of their works. By all accounts, Hubert Crackanthorpe's highly anomalous literary career began with an article on "Mr Henry James as a Playwright" in ajournai which he edited and was partly his own personal vehicle, the Albemarle.4 It was a family affair, funded by his father Montague, who also contributed articles. Liberal in its political affiliations and miscellaneous in its character, writing for and editing the Albemarle evidently served as Hubert Crackanthorpe's literary apprenticeship. It is during this period that he began to write fiction. After the September issue, the Albemarle folded; whether this was caused by his father's refusal to provide further funding, or due to his own desire to concentrate on writing fiction, is a matter of conjecture. The Albemarle was an unfeasible business venture to say the least; priced at 6s., the same price as the average single volume novel and with a limited circulation, it could never have been intended as an economically viable enterprise. What is certain is that the magazine could not have continued without Montague Crackanthorpe's considerable financial backing. As his biographer David Crackanthorpe...


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