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It is for moments like this that one treasures Letters of Max Beerbohm, a collection of largely unpublished material; and for the well-turned jokes, the even better-turned jibes, the socioliterary gossip, the sudden bursts of fantasy, the sheer unashamed cleverness.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

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