- Love Among the Archives: Writing the Lives of Sir George Scharf, Victorian Bachelorby Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol
Imagine if young aspiring artist-cum-tutor Walter Hartright, protagonist of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White(1859–60), instead of losing his heart to his pupil, the insipid young Laura Fairlie, had hit it off with Mr. Fairlie, his dilettante host. Imagine if, rather than feeling his skin crawl and his heckles rise at the prospect of being "possessed at Limmeridge" by Mr. Fairlie, he had been delighted by the recognition and respect of a fellow connoisseur and had settled in for a pleasant summer of art appreciation, condescension, and fine food ( The Woman in White, ed. John Sutherland [Oxford and New York: Oxford World's Classics, 1998], 40)? What if, instead of trying to qualify as a knight in shining armor, he had gone on to swan familiarly around the great country houses of the aristocracy—Chevening, Knole, and the rest; had helped to found, and had become director of, the National Portrait Gallery; and had moved his delightful mother into a nice flat in its eaves? What if, instead of capitulating to the heteronormative suasions of the marriage plot, he had carved out a comfortable life dining in and out with a series of close male friends and companions, and, having adopted the proportions and fancy waistcoats of Count Fosco, had accepted a real Knighthood days before retirement and death?
For many reasons, not least his evasion of most definitions of romance, George Scharf poses a challenge to biography. Few of the labels tentatively ascribed to him by Helena Michie and Robyn Warhol lend themselves, especially in combination, to a recognizable Bildung: "'professional,' 'bachelor,' 'middle-class,' 'queer,' 'snob,' 'diner,' 'eater,'… 'diarist,' 'guest,' 'host,' 'fat man,' 'extra man,' 'socialite,' 'just plain "George,"'—and on bad days in the archives, 'The Most Boring Man in the World'" (6). Yet for anyone interested in, say, art history as a medium for class mobility and as a cross-class contact zone, in the queer affordances of Victorian bohemia, or in the gastric challenges of the nineteenth-century dinner party, Michie and Warhol's painstakingly authenticated account of the humdrum life and struggles of this unpromising hero will offer sensation, pathos, and, yes, romance, aplenty.
Scharf emerges here as a man whose ultimate success, manifest in friendships with the landed elite, institutional recognition, snug living quarters, and the portly dimensions and gouty complaints of a chronic bon viveur, belies all sorts of private compromises, accommodations, and humiliations. The respected art historian consulted by peers of the realm is also, inter alia, a temporary lodger, an exasperated neighbor, the supporter of what he calls "the elderlies" of his family (particularly his mother and her sister), the irritated son of a hapless father, and, within his small band of loyal male friends, a borrower, a lender, and at times an apprehensively obliging domestic partner (141). His life, as it transpires from the authors' reading of his surviving papers, is as much about [End Page 314]these baffling day-to-day negotiations as it is a glorious advance toward public recognition and prosperity. At one point he decisively manoeuvres his own father, the jobbing artist George Scharf senior, out of the family ménage, and replaces him as head of household. There is only ambiguous evidence of a significant squabble: lack of fatherly sympathy over his son's painful haemorrhoids hardly seems sufficient cause, even if it is the legible occasion of such a violently Oedipal expulsion.
In fiction such grotesque disproportion between cause and effect requires the sympathy and rigour of a George Eliot. In historiography it demands a rethinking of some of our cherished nostrums:
[W]e let the messiness, contradiction and eclecticism of the Scharf family archive lead us away from family and to the idea of the household. "Household" allows us to hear, however faintly, the self-effacing voice...