Lewis’ terse account of his early years emphasized the romantic associations of the sea, the distinct phases of his life in three countries and the cosmopolitan background: “My cradle was a ship, moored to the side of a wharf. At around the age of 6 I arrived in England, a small American, and left it for France about 11 years later a young Englishman. I returned to England a European. ... It should also be remembered that at 6 years old I frisked and frolicked with other little American boys on the New England coast—not
with little Britons on the English coast. The American beginnings are irrelevant, except that I could not help imbibing from my very American father much Stimmung
[mood], a certain sentiment, and a lot about the Civil War. And my mother was more American than Irish, and her memories are mine. I have masses of my uncle’s letters, who was an American coal magnate. It adds up to nothing very solid, but must be reckoned in.”1
Lewis’ parents moved from America to England in 1888; and when they separated five years later, he was completely cut off from his American origins. His
education at Rugby and the Slade turned him into a young Englishman; and seven years of bohemian life on the Continent endowed him with a European rather than an insular outlook. The American, English and European elements all contributed to Lewis’ character, but they were never fully integrated and made him feel an
outsider in all three places.
Lewis’ great-grandfather, Ansel, was born and married in Boston. His grandfather, Shebuel, was a Quaker, born in Portland, Maine in 1803. Shebuel worked in the lumber trade in Pennsylvania and married Caroline
Romaine, whose wealthy French-Canadian family lived in the lakeshore town of Oakville, Ontario, and owned a business in Montreal and a substantial building in Toronto. Shebuel and Caroline had seven
sons and one daughter; and after he had retired in 1859, they moved to Nundā, a village in the Genessee Valley of western New York. They lived on a large farm called Cedar Place, just south of the village at the foot of Stone Quarry Hill, and Shebuel indulged his inordinate weakness for horseflesh. In 1873 the
Lewis family left Nundā and moved to Canada, where Caroline died in 1884.
Lewis’ father, Charles Edward Lewis, was probably born in New York City in 1843, and grew up in Nundā where he learned to shoot and ride. A tall, handsome, square-jawed young man, with brown hair parted in the middle and intense brown eyes, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1861 but resigned after four months because of failing vision. Charles returned to Nundā and in August 1862 enlisted in the Union Army, was made a sergeant and then promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in October. He had a dashing career in the Civil War, despite poor eyesight; and recorded his adventures in a pamphlet, privately printed in London and “Dedicated to comrades of the Grand Army, wishing them joy of their 1897 campfire.” Charles’ older brother and close friend, William, was a major in the Civil War; and his brother Julian, who was too young to fight, followed Charles to West Point.
Charles described, in his ornate and digressive style, his participation in the charge of General Sheridan’s cavalry at Manassas in October 1863. Charles led fifteen men of the 1st New York Dragoons to capture a vital hill and claimed that his rash attempts to seize a second promontory, when he was wounded in the hip, precipitated the battle. He was captured during the Battle of Wilderness, at Todds Tavern, Virginia, on May 7, 1864, and fled from a Confederate military stockade on November 4. He described his “Escape from a Rebel Prison” in a 2,000-word article in the Nundā News of February 18, 1865.
After six months’ confinement in Richmond, Virginia, and Macon, Georgia, Charles escaped without difficulty from a prison in Columbia, South Carolina. There was no fenced enclosure and he only had to wait for a dark night. The guards pursued him, but he hid in a thick wood. He then met two other escaped officers and decided to travel about four hundred miles northwest to Tennessee. He had been treated inhumanly in prison: starved, abused and insulted. With only a thin Rebel uniform, ragged shoes and no rations he was not prepared to endure hardship.
Charles was chased by a pack of bloodhounds and eluded them by crossing a swift-flowing river on a raft. Negroes often helped him by providing food and showing him the right direction. He had to cross the Smoky Mountains through six inches of snow and at one point, while being pursued by Indians, had nothing to eat for four days. After an exhausting month, he finally reached the lines of the Union Army and reported to the Provost Marshal in Knoxville on December 5. He spent
that month recovering in hospital, was on leave in January 1865, and returned to his regiment in February, when he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. In October 1868, three years after the War, he was made brevet Captain for “gallant and meritorious services.” Charles always wore his Grand Army button, loved to tell stories about the war, considered himself a member of the military aristocracy and regarded his active service as the happiest time of his
Lewis practiced law for a few years after his fighting days were over, but he was a confirmed romantic who despised American materialism, never had a proper career and followed what his son called the “do-nothing mode of life.” He played the flute and violin, was a great horseman and mariner, loved fox-hunting and sailed his own brig across the Atlantic. He seemed built on the grand scale: experienced, rash, humorsome—a spendthrift, a sportsman and a hard rider. Charles, who scarcely earned a cent in his life, was able to enjoy the ease of a “professional idler” and “essay-writing bum” because his prosperous family owned mining and railroad companies in upstate New York and Canada. Apart from his father’s wealth, his brother Harry owned a business in Wisconsin; his brother Albert, who had been educated at Heidelberg, had a law firm in Toronto; and his older brother George was the director of several banks and utility companies, and president of the Bell, Lewis and Yates Coal Company of Buffalo, which produced more than a million tons a year.
On February 23, 1876, in St. Stephen’s Church, Camberwell, Charles married the sixteen-year-old Anne Stuart Prickett, who had family in Oakville. She was a lively and attractive English girl of Scotch-Irish descent, with gentle features, a full sensitive mouth and a good figure. Anne had been brought up as a Catholic, though she no longer practiced her religion, and was sixteen years younger than her husband. For a few years after his marriage Charles worked in his uncle William’s wine business in Montreal, travelling around the Maritime Provinces and New England, and sending his wife many dull but tender letters which complain of sluggish trade, boredom and loneliness. Anne spent most of this period in Canada, but also visited her mother in England. In September 1877 their first child died just after birth.
The following year, though business was still slow, Charles spent “a pile of money” on a yacht, the Wanda.
On November 18, 1882, Percy Wyndham Lewis was born aboard that yacht, tied to a dock at Amherst, Nova Scotia. He was born in the same year as James Joyce and Virginia
Woolf, three years before Pound and six years before Eliot. Lewis was christened in Montreal, and kept
Canadian nationality for the rest of his life. He served as a Canadian War Artist in the Great War and lived in Canada, where he looked up his family, during World War Two.
Lewis spent his first six years on the coast of Maine and Chesapeake
Bay. His father, who had abandoned the tedium of commerce, hired a nurse, two servants and a cook, and indulged his passion for sailing. The earliest photograph of
Lewis portrays him in a sailor’s cap and jacket, holding a fishing net and standing beside a lobster pot. Lewis later traced his artistic origins and recalled: “My mother and father’s principal way of spending their time at the period of my birth was the same as mine now: my mother painting pictures of the farm house in which we lived, my father writing books inside it.”3
Fifty years later he still had drawings of beautiful American birds by his mother, who had been to art school in Bloomsbury Square before her
marriage, and sketches of his horse, dog and boat by his father. His mother would make fair copies of his father’s “Reveries” and journal of voyages to England, which he would then rewrite.
In 1888 the family moved to that Victorian pleasure-garden, the Isle of Wight. Anne had wanted to return home and be closer to her aging mother; and there Charles could more easily pursue the life of a dilettante gentleman, and enjoy fox-hunting, and yachting on the grey expanse of the Solent and of Southampton Water.
Though life was still pleasant, Charles was bored and easily distracted; and Lewis recorded: “My mother affirmed that he was scarcely responsible for his actions, some of which departed so far from the norm as to be alarming.”4
In 1893, when Lewis was eleven, Charles, who had a reputation for lechery and whom Lewis called “the Old Rip,” ran off with one of the housemaids—whose red hair seemed to make things even worse. He later confessed to his wife: “I have without realizing it soon enough, got myself entangled in a way that makes my extraction next to impossible. I would be all right as I am but for you and Percy. ... I am awfully sorry too for the miserably unnecessary pain I have caused your good mother.” Charles’ family was outraged and immediately sided with his wife. His sister, Tillie, who had married George
Chisholm of Oakville, wrote: “About Charles, the less said the better perhaps. I cannot bear to think of his despicable conduct, and hope I may never see him again. Rest assured you have our sympathy.” And his brother George exclaimed: “He seems to have become lost to all sense of duty and loyalty.... He has forfeited my love and respect and I have no desire for intercourse with him.”5
Though George disapproved of Charles’ immorality and idleness, he continued to send him money and also supported Anne and their son. In 1894 George lent Anne $4,500 and invested it for her in Buffalo real estate to provide her with an income.
Anne, with her son and mother, moved to a succession of London suburbs: Highgate, Hampstead, Beckenham and Ealing. Charles soon left his mistress and bought a cottage at Tarporley in Cheshire, where he consoled himself with his horse, and bemoaned his lonely fate and
the loss of his child. In a letter to his son of July 1894, filled with guilt and self-pity, he apologized for the pain he had caused and accepted all responsibility. But he also blamed Anne for excessive attachment to her mother: “When my thoughts revert to those two lone
figures, a great love and tenderness, an anxious yearning for at least one of these oppress my soul beyond the power of mere utterance, and then I feel I would readily give all I possess, and more if I had it, to cancel my transgression, and to look out for my boy and call him back again. I feel sorry, too, for Annie—pained, shocked, indignant with myself. Indeed it is only scant justice to her for me to admit I was all to blame
. She did her best always and did well, but she made the mistake of cleaving to her mother rather than to me.”6
Anne, wounded and embittered by his infidelity, refused to consider a reconciliation. George
Lewis sent £100 a year to Anne; but she had financial difficulties and tried a number of small business ventures, including dress-making and a laundry. She refused to divorce her husband—perhaps for religious reasons—and to arrange a definite settlement, though he stopped sending her money when his remorse turned to bitterness and she was warned that she would get nothing if Charles died. When George suddenly died in 1897, a year after selling his business, Charles inherited about $40,000. But the will had been made before their separation, and Anne received nothing.
Tillie, who had cut herself off from Charles, was still commiserating with Anne as late as 1904 when she said it was shameful that her wealthy brother forced his wife, who had been accustomed to comfort and leisure, to struggle for money. Anne lived precariously in genteel poverty, like one of
Orwell’s lower-upper-middle-class characters, with her mother and a loyal relative, Frances
Prickett, who was called “Tomkins.” She still had the family silver and china, and tried to maintain a standard above her means. Though she complained of poverty in letters to her son, she invariably responded to his rather relentless demands with sacrificial generosity.
Lewis attended the County School in Bedford and then the Castle School in Ealing from September 1894 to December 1896. In his last term he seemed to be well-behaved but not particularly studious. He was rated only fair to good in English, French, Latin, Bible, History and Mathematics; but his conduct was considered “Very good on the whole.” He also wrote, illustrated and stitched together “Good Times,” a thirty-page adventure story of shipwrecks and battles with savages. His father was well pleased with his drawings, and praised his son’s remarkable talent and original designs.
Though Lewis was glad to receive compliments from his father, his relationship with his mother, “a very grand character,” was far more important. They liked to go to Buzzards on Oxford Street for tea and
ice-cream; and spent a few weeks of every year in Paris, always visiting the Louvre and the Luxembourg. (While in France he kept a diary about the peasants, on a roll of toilet paper, and planned to make a book out of it.)
Lewis ignored the paternal influence in his portrayal of the
autobiographical hero of Tarr
, published in 1918, and stated that he inherited all his
characteristics “from his mother, except his height. That he seemed to have caused himself.... An enervating childhood of mollycoddling . .. has its advantages. He was an only child of a selfish vigorous little mother. The long foundation of delicate trustfulness and irresponsibility makes for a store of illusion to prolong youth and health beyond the usual term.”7
He replaced his father in his mother’s emotional life; and he confided in her, respected her and re...