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Petit Maître

Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892–1956

edited by Rupert Hart-Davis
Norton, 244 pp., $22.50

In 1954, when he was well over eighty, Max Beerbohm wrote a letter thanking a young admirer who had sent him a copy of The Reason Why, Cecil Woodham Smith’s account of the Charge of the Light Brigade and the two commanders responsible for that celebrated disaster, Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan:

Both of those Peers were (though you may hardly believe it) before my time; but I did overlap with the widow of one of them. In 1909 or so I was staying with friends within driving distance of Deene Park, and they took me to see the aged but unvenerated Lady Cardigan. She wore a wig of bright gold curls and was plastered with paint, and was dressed in the fashion of a débutante in the eighteen-seventies, and held in her left hand a huge red rose. She was very arch and fluent and spoke much about the Duc de Morny, and she sat down to the piano and sang to us a song entitled “Love me all in all, or not at all,” by “my old friend Julian Fane,” and at the close of the song she kissed her finger-tips to us with great vivacity. It was all very strange and conducive to deep thought.

It is for moments like this that one treasures Letters of Max Beerbohm, a collection of largely unpublished material; and for the well-turned jokes, the even better-turned jibes, the socioliterary gossip, the sudden bursts of fantasy, the sheer unashamed cleverness.

In 1913, for example, the Royal Society of Literature set up an Academic Committee “to maintain the purity of the English language.” Beerbohm was asked to join, and the invitation (sent by Edmund Gosse) gave him an opening that he couldn’t resist:

Honour having come to me through (what you charmingly call) the beautiful purity of my prose style, I must set my face against the not unnatural impulse to say “Nunc dimittis; it is enough; henceforth I shall take the line of less resistance and wield the pen of that ready writer, that fluent old Adam, which is in all of us.”

Flesh is weak, and strong now is the temptation to show myself, after all these years, in my true colours—a splitter of infinitives and a reckless and-which-er, a verb-sap-er and caeteris paribuster, a reliable protempster and a vae victist à outrance, a temperamental milieuist with a welcome touch of sincerity (to say nothing of undeniable gifts and undoubted promise), a scarely-too-much-to-sayer and a dare-we-adder, a haver of little hesitation in averring, and pre-eminently a ventilator of Britishers’ grievances, and a voicer—a no uncertain voicer—of their most cherished aspirations, on which the sun never sets.

At first you think you’ve got the point and that Beerbohm is going on too long. Then you realize that going on too long is part of the point, that once the fluent old Adam is into his stride it’s very hard to stop him.

Or again, there is the letter to Bernard Shaw, complaining about the literary style of H.G. Wells: “Have you ever seen a cold rice-pudding spilt on the pavement of Gower Street? I never have. But it occurs to me as a perfect simile for Wells’s writing.”

Gower Street, a long straight street in the university quarter north of the British Musuem, adds precision to the simile—and a final touch of absurdity to Beerbohm’s question.

And then there are Beerbohm’s illustrations. The British public, a bottle-nosed John Bull, being introduced to an impossibly elegant Zuleika Dobson; Lord Curzon, plump as a partridge; Enoch Soames, most minimal of 1890s poets, in chinless, wispy-bearded profile—every so often Beerbohm used to adorn his letters with little drawings, and the new collection (impeccably edited in this as in other respects by Rupert Hart-Davis) contains some fine examples.

What it lacks is any obvious highlights or commanding themes. There aren’t even any extended runs of letters—partly because Beerbohm seldom went in for them, partly because the letters to three especially favored friends, Reggie Turner, William Rothenstein, and Siegfried Sassoon, have already been published and aren’t represented. (The letters to Turner are particularly good: they have a relaxed intimacy that you don’t often find in Beerbohm’s writing.)

Hart-Davis has also decided to print only a handful of the many hundreds of letters Beerbohm sent to the American actress Florence Kahn between his first meeting with her in 1904 and their marriage in 1910; and when you read the ones that he does include, it is a decision you are unlikely to regret. They have their minor rewards—a glimpse of Sir Henry Irving’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, for example—but in comparison with almost everything else in the book they seem rather tame.

The one moment of oblique drama in the letters to Florence comes in 1908, when Beerbohm summons up the courage to tell her that “I like you better than any person in the world. But the other sort of caring is beyond me. I realise now that I shall never be able to care in that way for any one.” Her reply must have reassured him, since his next letter—up to then he had always addressed her as “Very dear little friend”—begins “Darling love.” The sigh of relief is almost audible.

For the rest, it can hardly be said that his letters were the key with which he unlocked his heart. But then he wasn’t in the heart-unlocking business. What he does provide is a finely shaded register of his friendships, his antipathies, his relationships with other writers.

The most interesting letters in this last department are the ones to and about Bernard Shaw. How adroitly Beerbohm parries Shaw’s criticisms! How nimbly, writing to him, he stops just short of open insult!—and yet he is careful to make clear his admiration, too.

His formal objection to Shaw was that he wasn’t an artist—or rather, that he had dissipated his art in a welter of talk, propaganda, and self-advertisement. But he didn’t much care for the man, either. The only drawing of Shaw in the present volume—a smiling, ingratiating Shaw—makes a deliberately sickly impression, and many of the other caricatures he drew of him were even more openly aggressive, violent transformations that made him look like a bogeyman or an idiot. (Mrs. Shaw once threatened to buy one of them and tear it up.)

Still, it was no use pretending that Shaw wasn’t a force to be reckoned with. “After all,” Beerbohm wrote to the publisher Grant Richards, “he is the most remarkable of living writers.” (This was in 1934: he might not have said as much if Hardy or James or Conrad had still been alive.) “And the fact that he is neither an artist, in any sense of the word, nor a human being in very many senses of the word, doesn’t detract from his immense value to the world.”

Needless to say Shaw gave as good as he got in the letters they exchanged. He wrote particularly vigorous retorts to two of Beerbohm’s theater reviews, one about Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, the other about Man and Superman. Whether Beerbohm replied to the first isn’t clear, but the second provoked him to a lengthy restatement of his views, and a firm refusal to be drawn by the teasing suggestion that he should follow Shaw’s own example and offer himself for election to the St. Pancras Borough Council. (“Ten minutes on the Drainage Sub-Committee would shatter your academicism for ever.”) No, he rejoined, “such limitations as I have I must guard jealously.”

Many artists might say the same, but Beerbohm was peculiarly insistent on his role as a petit maître. Again and again he warns us that he has a minor talent, that he is a man of his period (“the Beardsley period”), that it would be a mistake to claim too much for him. “You are all here to over-rate me,” he told the assembled guests at his seventieth birthday party. (He went on to remind them, with some satisfaction, that he wasn’t very clever, that “the act of thinking has always been up-hill work to me.”) And to his first biographer, Bohun Lynch, he wrote: “I find much reassurance and comfort in your phrase, ‘a little book.’ Oh, keep it little!—in due proportion to its theme.”

Talk like this could easily become tiresome if you didn’t feel that at some level Beerbohm really meant it. In any case, he chose his words with care. Cleverness wasn’t his line; intelligence (by implication) was. And if he wasn’t a great man—well, greatness had its limitations, too. He was quite glad to rise above them.

The letters confirm what everyone who is interested in him already knows. He returned again and again, whether in satire or tribute, to the relatively limited range of themes and personalities that had caught his imagination early on—dandyism, illusion, fashionable society, literary whales and minnows; and by the time he was forty, and had settled in Italy, he dwelled far more in the past than the present—not merely among his own memories, but among the ghosts of Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorians and his immediate predecessors. As he wrote to Holbrook Jackson, “It is the period that one didn’t quite know, the period just before oneself, the period of which in earliest days one knew the actual survivors, that lays a really strong hold on one’s heart.”

Few writers who emerged after 1910 or so held much interest for him. His admiration for Lytton Strachey is well known, and well documented in the letters. (Among other things, you can follow the brisk campaign that he waged—quite as though they were both Eminent Victorians—to get Strachey made a member of the Athenaeum.) Evelyn Waugh was another enthusiasm: in his correspondence with Waugh after a meeting in 1947, the two of them fell over each other exchanging compliments. And there are one or two surprises—a laudatory letter to Elinor Wylie, for instance, prompted by her novel Jennifer Lorne. It is true that most of it is devoted to pointing out slips and solecisms; but even that was tribute of a sort.

He himself was a famously fastidious writer. Beau Beerbohm, somebody called him. But one can make too much of the exquisite word-fancying side of him. He had a strong vein of common sense (as he didn’t fail to point out in his seventieth birthday speech), and his literary tastes, for all that he came out of the Yellow Book Nineties, were far from rarified.

No letter in the new volume breathes more obvious affection than the one in which, quoting from memory, he extols the political novels of Trollope. Few are more heartfelt than the letter to Virginia Woolf in which he praises the essays in her collection The Common Reader but draws back from her fiction:

In your novels you are so hard on us common readers. You seem to forget us and to think only of your theme and your method. Your novels beat me—black and blue. I retire howling, aching, sore; full, moreover, of an acute sense of disgrace. I return later, I re-submit myself to the discipline. No use: I am carried out half-dead. Of course I admire your creative work immensely—but only in a bemused and miserable manner. I don’t really, insidious though you are, believe in your Cambridge argument that a new spirit exacts a new method. There seems to me to be only one good method of narrative—Homer’s and Thackeray’s method, and Tolstoi’s, and Tom’s, Dick’s, Chaucer’s, Maupassant’s, and Harry’s…

He had just been reading Virginia Woolf’s pamphlet Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, with its attack on the Arnold Bennett brand of realism, and it is fairly obvious, even though he doesn’t quite say so, that he greatly preferred Bennett’s novels (at their best) to hers. Elsewhere he described The Old Wives’ Tale as “the finest novel published in my time.”

All this is sympathetic (at least, I find it so). But the negative, dismissive judgments are another matter. Taken one by one, they are often amusing, and sometimes shrewd; but as they pile up, the effect becomes oppressive. William Morris is waved aside. Stendhal is shown the door. Kipling (for the umpteenth time) bites the dust. A few lines of doggerel put paid to Proust.

The point comes when you want to protest. Reading Eminent Victorians, for example, Beerbohm rejoices in a passage making feline fun of the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, but his glee seems doubly misplaced. Not only was Clough—the Clough who wrote Amours de Voyage—a more serious figure than Lytton Strachey, he also had a much finer sense of irony. (As fine a sense, indeed, as Beerbohm himself.) And H.G. Wells—in spite of that spilt rice pudding, wasn’t he onto something bigger than anything Beerbohm ever set his mind to? And Kipling—which book has more life flowing through it, Kim or Zuleika Dobson?

It would be absurd to make too much of the cracks at other writers; for the most part they were simply Beerbohm’s way of clearing a space for himself. But, cumulatively at least, they remind one of how many other things he kept at bay, how many ordinary interests and concerns. Politics, for instance. He had a strong aversion to bullying and brutality, which is a good starting point for anyone’s political philosophy. But is it enough? In a letter to his friend Sydney Schiff, written in March 1939, he found himself forced to reflect on his basic values—it was a time of crisis; the Germans had just marched into Czechoslovakia—and the first thought he had was that “without aristocracy of one kind or another there certainly can’t be anything of the kind that you or I can regard as civilization.” He was also convinced that

there can’t be any sort of aristocracy without slavery. Slavery has, thank heaven! existed in England in our time, our beloved time. And now it is ceasing to exist, alas! I say “alas!” not with my whole heart. In a rather remote corner of that organ I am pleased that the lives of the majority of my fellow-creatures are happier than they were.

At least he was being honest; and he wasn’t saying anything with which some of the greatest modern writers wouldn’t have concurred.

It is a relief, even so, to get back to Beerbohm on his own ground—to overhear him discussing his caricatures, inventing an imaginary theater for Gordon Craig, summoning up the shades of Wilde and Swinburne and Bernard Posno.

And who was Bernard Posno? Even Philip Guedalla, who had an unrivaled collection of Beerbohmiana, had to confess that he was stumped. When he acquired a drawing of Posno he wrote to Max asking who he was, and received some lively recollections of a vanished world by way of reply:

I see clearly Bernard Posno seated at that particular table which was reserved for him every night at supper time by the manager of the Savoy Restaurant—a table for two, a table for him and Miss Helen Forsyth, a pretty though too plump actress whose protector he was. I wish I could tell you all about him, but I know so little. I wasn’t personally acquainted with him—only with this and that acquaintance of his, who seemed to have nothing to say except that Miss Forsyth really adored him. This adoration seemed to me, having regard to his age and appearance, odd. I doubt whether it existed. I saw in her no sign of a broken heart, or even of a bruised one, when presently (in ‘96, I think) I went to stay in the country with Frank Lawson and found her living under his protection. A year or two later, Bernard Posno, it would seem, decided that the time had come for him to marry and settle down. He induced (by what means I know not: I should think she and her family must have been starving) a respectable young woman to marry him. He settled down further than he had intended: into the grave. Miss Forsyth, too, has been dead this many a year. Perhaps she and he are once more united.

And there it is—commonplace materials, but a perfect short story.

Beerbohm was a master of several varieties of fiction: the imaginary memoir, the picture-sequence, the Borges-like trick fable, the parody that takes on a life of its own. In recent years, with the rise of a miniature Beerbohm industry in the universities, some large claims have also been made for Zuleika Dobson (including, in one instance, a full-scale comparison with The Divine Comedy). But they don’t seem to me very convincing; and while Lawrence Danson of Princeton University has worked wonders in sorting out the fragments of Beerbohm’s unfinished novel The Mirror of the Past, his reconstruction—published in 1982 by Princeton University Library—can’t do more than hint at the masterpiece that it might have been.

No, the major literary achievements remain, as you might say, resolutely minor: Seven Men, the parodies in A Christmas Garland, a handful of essays—and, of course, the drawings where word and image come together. For who can finally decide whether Beerbohm was more a writer or a visual artist? In Lawrence Danson’s words, “He won’t stay put.”

In this last connection, there is nothing more tantalizing in Letters of Max Beerbohm than Rupert Hart-Davis’s revelation, in a footnote, that an illustrated copy of A Christmas Garland was auctioned at a Red Cross Sale at Christie’s in 1916. (The pictures had been specially drawn for the occasion.) And there is nothing more poignant than the question with which the footnote ends: “But where is it now?”

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