A portrait by Frederic Sandys (1882)
One of my favourite Victorian scoundrels and an inveterate footnote of the period is Charles Augustus Howell. He is actually quite well-known – notorious – but mostly because he regularly features in the byways and footnotes of the biographies of the Pre-Raphaelites and the circle of William Morris. He does have his own biography, Helen Angeli Rossetti’s 1949 Pre-Raphaelite Twilight, which is highly readable and intriguing, though possibly over sympathetic and far from complete. He is definitely worthy of more attention because of the insights he gives to the murkier side of the art world in the Victorian period. Angeli gets to the heart of Howell’s reputation when she writes that “It would be easy to compile a Vocabulary of Vituperation” and then proceeds with a long-list of the highly uncomplimentary sobriquets which were attached to him during his 30 or so years on the margins of fame: arrant rascal, blackmailer, base fellow, confidence trickster, cunning rogue, parasite, stench of hell, vile wretch……
Howell was born in Oporto in 1840 to an English father and a Portuguese mother. Purportedly from an aristocratic background, he arrived in England in his youth, already suespected of being a cheat and also being involved in his friend Orsini’s plot to assassinate Napoleon III. For a while he disappeared but from 1864 onwards he became friend and business agent of both Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin. According to Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti, Howell was a skilful salesman “with his open manner, his winning address, with his exhaustless gift of amusing talk, not innocent of high colouring and actual blague – [he] was unsurpassable”. Like many scoundrels, he was charming and popular, regarded as a great raconteur and the perfect guest for a social dinner. However, constantly having to slip and slide, he, like most scoundrels, lived on the edge of crisis, condemnation and criminality. He is best known for persuading Dante Gabriel Rossetti to dig up the poems he had buried with his wife Lizzie Siddal.
He divided the people with whom he became involved. Morris, after an initial dalliance, would have nothing to do with him. Edward Burne-Jones described him as “a base, treacherous, unscrupulous and malignant fellow”. Hall Caine called him a “soldier of fortune” and Swinburne said he was “the vilest wretch I ever came across.” Others were more generous. Ford Madox Brown said that though he was “one of the biggest liars in existence” and “half mad”, he was essentially “good natured” and Whistler said he was a “wonderful man… a genius… splendidly flamboyant”. Eventually, however, he would always overplay his hand. As time went by he became more and more desperate, trading off friendships and business deals against each other. His need to always be looking over his shoulder is beautifully captured in Max Beerbohm’s cartoon which shows him listening at the door while his mistress Rosa Corder – he was a complete scoundrel – forges paintings by Rossetti.
Gradually rumours circulated that the lovable rogue was actually a criminal, including accusations of blackmailing as well as artistic forgery. His reputation as a blackmailer inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.”
He died at the age of fifty in circumstances that possibly befitted his lifestyle – dramatic, mysterious, and probably on the wrong side of the law. He was found close to a Chelsea public house with his throat slit, with a coin in his mouth. The presence of the coin was believed to be a criticism of those guilty of slander. The embarrassment of an inquest and police investigation was avoided when his death was ruled to have resulted from “pneumonic phthisis”, the slit throat having been inflicted posthumously. Numerous, carefully filed, letters from high-placed people were found at his home, leading to much speculation. In the words of Humphrey Hare, “Fallen on hard days, Howell did not hesitate to blackmail by the threatened sale of letters which contained the customary puerile indecencies.” However, Helen Angeli was adamant that there was no evidence of blackmail.
Like many true scoundrels, it is difficult to avoid a certain sympathy, even affection, for characters like Howell. He certainly warrants a new biography.