The Ancient Child

A Catalogue of the Caricatures of Max Beerbohm

by Rupert Hart-Davis
Harvard, 258, 100 illustrations pp., $20.00

A Peep into the Past and Other Prose Pieces

by Max Beerbohm, collected and introduced by Rupert Hart-Davis
Stephen Greene, 125 pp., $8.00

The Lies of Art: Max Beerbohm’s Parody and Caricature

by John Felstiner
Knopf, 320 pp., $8.95

Max in Verse: Rhymes and Parodies

by Max Beerbohm, edited by J.G. Riewald
Stephen Greene, 167 pp., $2.95 (paper)

The major pleasure of old age lies in the ruthless one of remembering. It is notorious that Max Beerbohm plumped for this very young, possibly because advertising was coming in and he chose impertinent humility as his line; but for other reasons memory rapidly became a principle. In the 1890s he went firmly back to a sly eulogy of George IV because of that monarch’s wardrobe, and also proposed a return to cosmetics. Since the Regency the English had, he noted, exchanged the masks of rouge for the natural lobsterishness of vulgar Nature: the flesh had had its innings. Now was the time for reviving time-defying artifice. The romantics, no doubt because of the exhaustion caused by their reckless psychological insights, the bourgeoisie because of the glow of their moral satisfactions had begun to think of masks. The point was quickly seized by Max at the age of eighteen. So quickly that Wilde, already alarmed by the rise of a modish younger generation, asked a lady whether Max ever took off his face to reveal the mask beneath.

Yeats and others were to write of the mask as being the mark of the artist, so these words of Wilde’s were not an example of paradox for paradox’s sake. They contained a truth: Max Beerbohm had no face. Or if he did have one, it was as disponible as an actor’s. He was, in this sense, ancient man, or, rather, ancient child. Dressed in top hat and swallow-tail coat, with heavy eyebrows and unflickering eyes (in which get-up he had probably been wheeled in his pram in Kensington Gardens when he was not in the nursery considering himself in the mirror), he was armed to meet the human race.

The pose was not totally original. After all, there was already a cult of middle age and indeed of old age among the English, and among the Europeans, of the nineteenth century. Darwin had made the human species suddenly far older than the orthodox 4,400 years; but somehow the survival of the fittest had come to mean “naturally,” and not aesthetically, elegantly, or critically, the fittest. When Max was growing up, the Prince of Wales looked like a licentious grocer on a spree in “gay Paree”; only Ruskin, the son of a successful sherry merchant, looked like a saint. Beerbohm did not choose to be a saint—there was the family connection with the theater—but he did lean to that dandyism which the English had exported to France after the Napoleonic wars and which, under the influence of Baudelaire, had been darkly reimported into artistic England.

One had to be a very singularly old young man to bring it off and to have a doctrine to play with—play because the English were given to games, histrionics, hoaxes, impersonations, and to turning the conventions they loved into a sophisticated indoor sport. Here Beerbohm had the advantage of not being, in the strict sense, English. He was …

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Letters

Beerbohm’s Mum March 22, 1973