Honestly, I’m not trying to be willfully obscure or elitist or anything like that when I rave about a writer like Hubert Crackanthorpe (1870-1896), it’s just that I think the guy is really, really good. If remembered at all today, Crackanthorpe is seen as a minor fin de siecle decadent, part of the Yellow Book crowd, most notable for his premature and somewhat pathetic death. Not only is this perception unjust, but it’s a real misunderstanding of both the man and the writer.
English Decadence isn’t the same as French Decadence, and in fact it’s quite difficult to precisely define what either of those terms mean. The only critical work in print about Crackanthorpe is called Hubert Crackanthorpe and English Realism in the 1890s by what I presume is his relative David Crackanthorpe, (I haven’t read it yet, but thanks to ABE a copy is on the way) and realism and decadence are not two things we usually think of as synonymous. In nineteenth century England any French influence was seen as morally suspect, and the writers who most influenced Crackanthorpe, Balzac and De Maupassant, can hardly be called decadent. Rather, they inspired him to consider without censure or sentimentality all strata of English society, even figures that the Victorians found too unseemly to mention like alcoholics, fallen women and card sharks. Similarly he portrayed addiction, sexual obsession, and other extreme mental states that were previously taboo.
Although, in contrast, true decadents like Huysmans and Oscar Wilde portrayed aristocrats who only encountered the lower depths while slumming, Crackanthorpe did share the decadents’ love for polished prose and a jewel-like formal surface beauty regardless of the subject matter, and the incredible quality of his prose is what really wows me about him. Its lyrical, subtly rhythmic, almost incantatory qualities hypnotize me, as does his precise diction and devotion to Flaubert’s le seul mot juste.
Wisely, Crackanthorpe stuck to shorter pieces where his characteristic. languorous tension can be maintained, as can be seen by the titles of the books of his I own — Wreckage: Seven Studies and Sentimental Studies and A Set of Village Tales. I got them both off E-bay, paying about what a new hardback goes for today, and was the only bidder each time, which shows that they are rare but not especially valuable. Kessinger Publishing will provide you with a print on demand copy of any of his works (and I may yet go that way with the posthumous Last Tales) at roughly the same price, but, grateful as I am that there is some way to obtain them, it just seems wrong to have these books in ugly generic packaging rather than the charming bindings they first appeared in.
It’s a little eerie that in Wreckage there are several scenes in which characters consider suicide, and one in which the protagonist (a writer) stands on a bridge, looking down at a river, horribly tempted by the obliterating allure of the dark water. Crackanthorpe himself evidently yielded to that urge, throwing himself into the Seine when it seemed like his prestigious family would learn of the unconventional lifestyle he and his wife had been pursuing. Like Oscar Wilde, another victim of hypocritical Victorian society (not so very unlike our own), it wasn’t the private acts but the threat of public scandal which precipitated tragedy. Nobody really knows how long he was in there but when he was fished out on Christmas eve even his own brother couldn’t recognize him. He was twenty-six years old.
It was an ugly end for a writer who could find beauty in even the most shadowy places. In our era where the quality of the writing is secondary to the purity of the politics, and literary prose is often as dull and depressed as the characters it describes, Crackanthorpe reminds us of how beautiful an true words can be. Here are some of my favorite examples from Wreckage:
The half-girl, half-child, simple and heedless, with occasional moods of confiding, dreaming gravity, and fits of charming pettishness, the easy dispelling of which he had enjoyed, was gone. The events of the past few days had broken down the barrier behind which the strong passions of her nature had laid dormant, and now, let loose for the first time, they mastered her; she was their slave. She was capricious and irritable, with outbursts of nervous exasperation, followed by hot tears of remorse and a desperate sensuality that disturbed and almost frightened him.
Something about the crispness of her hair; something about the modeling of her chin; something in the questioning look that darted out from the liquidness of her big eyes; something – he knew not what – had haunted him ever since their first meeting.
And before him defiled, in a grotesque procession, all the men who wanted to marry her; each one, as he passed, looking up in jealous admiration.
“A Dead Woman”
And simultaneously there appeared to both of them a vision of the dead woman – to Jonathan clear-cut and living, to Richard half-effaced by time. And each remembered that she had belonged to the other, and, at that moment they felt instinctively drawn together: each was conscious of a craving to talk about her, to hear the other mention her name.
“When Greek Meets Greek”
Her hair was drawn into a single coil on the top of her head, and her black evening dress revealed her warm-tinted throat and breast and her delicately modeled arms: she wore no ornament of any kind, and this enhanced the purity of her charm. Though she stood almost as high as he did, she was little more than a child.
The contrast between the two was a violent one, the man, with infinite possibilities of one kind in the past, the girl with infinite possibilities of another kind in the future.
The scattered remnants of a craving for religion or its equivalent, which years of loose living had not been able to eradicate, had centered themselves in his worship of her, so that there were moments when he could have knelt down before her, and prayed to her as a child prays to God.