In 1921 Max Beerbohm urged Bohun Lynch, an early biographer, not to overanalyze his work, saying of himself that “My gifts are small. I’ve used them very well and discreetly, never straining them; and the result is that I’ve made a charming little reputation.” The blend of self-mockery and selfassertion, as well as the offhand and understated accuracy of the observation, are essential elements of Beerbohm’s style and approach to the essay. Beerbohm was never an especially prolific or an especially innovative writer, but within the limits he set for himself he at times achieved nearperfection in the familiar style of the personal essay.
Beerbohm’s most interesting essays came at the beginning and the end of his literary career. In his earlier work he was, as he mockingly said of himself, “of the Beardsley period,” and his essays of the 1890s reflect certain aspects of the current Aesthetic Movement. Beerbohm’s first published essay, “The Pervasion of Rouge,” appeared, appropriately, in the first issue of John Lane’s Yellow Book in 1894. This essay, written while Beerbohm was still an Oxford undergraduate and with tongue very firmly in cheek, extols the arrival of the “era of rouge” and concludes that the increased use of cosmetics will be a good thing for women, because with the emphasis on cosmetics “surface will finally be severed from soul” and people will now look on women’s faces as things of beauty rather than as indexes of character. “The Pervasion of Rouge” met with the incomprehension often accorded satire, and in the second issue of the Yellow Book Beerbohm had to explain that he was joking.
The first readers of “The Pervasion of Rouge” should not be judged too harshly, for Beerbohm was at this point far from the master satirist and parodist he would soon become, and, while the essay was intended as a parody of preciosity, the style and substance of it and several other essays are themselves somewhat precious. The subjects, style, and narrative voice of the early work were later refined but not transformed. The appreciation of artifice and display, the respect for Beau Brummell and any artist devoted completely to his art (“Dandies and Dandies,” 1896), the new and sympathetic perspectives on unpopular or unknown historical figures (“King George the Fourth,” 1894; Romeo Coates in “Poor Romeo,” 1896) remained constant, as did the characteristic blend of historical background, iconoclastic point of view, use of mild fantasy, and the perception of the extraordinary in the seemingly commonplace, all presented with mild irony in a style of considerable polish and sophistication.
The most lasting and important achievement of Beerbohm’s early essays, however, was their development of the Beerbohm persona, that of an elderly man looking wistfully back to the past. In “1880” (1895), Beerbohm’s description of the birth of the Aesthetic Movement, he treats his recent youth as ancient history, noting with the truth of paradox that 1880, a mere 14 years earlier, is “now so remote from us that much in it is nearly impossible to understand.” In “Diminuendo” (1896), Beerbohm perpetuates this voice of an elderly aesthete when, at the ripe old age of 24, he concludes that “Surely I could have no part in modern life” and bids farewell to literature, finding that as a writer he is already “a trifle outmoded.” The self-characterization and the sense of play pervade Beerbohm’s first book of essays, a slim volume published, with complete bibliography, as The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896).
With his characteristic blend of self-deflation and self-praise Beerbohm remarked of the Aesthetic period when he began writing that “To give an accurate and exhausting account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine” and moved on to new subject matter. The narrative voice, however—so successfully employed that Oscar Wilde remarked that the gods had bestowed on Max the gift of perpetual old age— remained, as did the purity of style. Beerbohm’s powers of observation were soon sharpened by his work as a caricaturist, his style by his experiences as a parodist and the 14 years he spent as a working journalist, primarily as the theater critic of the Saturday Review. Beerbohm was a diligent journalist, and his theater criticism can still be read with pleasure, but the essay remained his preferred form. Beerbohm felt that “what distinguishes literature from journalism is not vigour and sharpness of expression; it is beauty of expression.” Beauty of expression marks all of Beerbohm’s later essays, particularly those in his last and best collection, And Even Now.
By the time And Even Now was published in 1920 Beerbohm had become what he had always pretended to be, “an interesting link with the past” (“A Small Boy Seeing Giants”). While several of the essays in And Even Now treat such recurring Beerbohm themes as the difficulties of current social practices (“Hosts and Guests,” “Servants”) and the preference for imaginary rather than actual works of art (books by fictional characters in “Books Within Books,” the “museum of incomplete masterpieces” in “Quia Imperfectum,” his hilarious deflation of Goethe), the best of the later essays are informed by the real or imagined past. The imagined past is the background for Beerbohm’s remarkable re-creation of an 18th-century conversation in “A Clergyman” (1918), a figure who, Beerbohm informs us, “forever haunts my memory and solicits my weak imagination” by becoming the unwitting victim of Samuel Johnson’s wrath and disdain.
Two other “reminiscial” essays of a more personal nature provide excellent examples of Beerbohm’s differing approaches to the actual past of his youth. “No. 2 The Pines” (1920) is a distillation of several of Beerbohm’s continual themes and techniques.
The description of Swinburne’s life in suburbia is a literal example of the fantastic residing in the commonplace. The past intrudes upon the present as Beerbohm enters the house inhabited by Swinburne and Theodore Watts-Dunton and has the “instant sense of having slipped away from the harsh light of the ordinary and contemporary into the dimness of an odd, august past. Here, in this dark hall, the past was the present.” A young writer’s awe and pleasure at meeting one of his idols is beautifully conveyed, but the solemnity of the occasion is leavened by such characteristic touches of humor as the young and old writer nearly colliding as they respectfully bow to each other and by such evocative neologisms as the “tupperrossettine” drawing room. Beerbohm’s use of fantasy appears in his final vision of Swinburne, restored to youth, still being watched over and cared for by WattsDunton, even though the two of them are now in Elysium.
“William and Mary” (1920), Beerbohm’s most personal and perhaps best essay, also plays with memory. Reflecting that as one ages “The World has ceased to be remarkable, and one tends to think more and more often of the days when it was so very remarkable indeed,” Beerbohm uses a common sight, in this case a railway station, as a springboard to his past in which he was friends with William and Mary, two figures whose personalities and happy marriage are given permanence by Beerbohm’s superb description of their lasting effect on him. Acting on impulse, Beerbohm returns to their deserted cottage and hesitantly rings the doorbell, producing “a whole quick sequence of notes, faint but clear, playful, yet poignantly sad, like a trill of laughter echoing out of the past,” and concludes, “I must have rung again and again, tenaciously, vehemently, in my folly”—the folly of the attempt to resurrect the ghosts of his departed friends and so recapture his own past. “Playful, yet poignantly sad, like a trill of laughter echoing out of the past” aptly describes the usual tone of a Beerbohm essay, and the employment of two little-known characters both to demonstrate his belief that “the truth about anyone, however commonplace, must always be interesting” (“A Memory of a Midnight Express,” 1909) and to provide a way of objectifying personal emotion, is characteristic
of Beerbohm’s detached approach.
Beerbohm’s “charming little reputation” has never really changed. From the beginning of his career his essays have elicited a strong response from a relatively small but intensely devoted group of readers who relish their wit, their offbeat but fascinating subjects and themes, and above all their exquisite craftsmanship. In a review of The Prisoner of Zenda Beerbohm stated that he was “quite happy to sacrifice a story for style.
I rate the essayist far higher than the romancer,” the credo of a man and essayist who, as Beerbohm said of Aubrey Beardsley, “enjoyed life but…was never wholly of it.”
See also Humorous Essay
Henry Maximilian Beerbohm. Born 24 August 1872 in London. Studied at Charterhouse, Godalming, Surrey, 1885–90; Merton College, Oxford, 1890–94. Journalist and caricaturist, contributing to various periodicals, including the Yellow Book, the Strand magazine, and the Saturday Review, for which he was drama critic, 1898–1910. Married Florence Kahn, 1910 (died, 1951). Lived in Rapallo, Italy, 1911–14, 1919–37, and 1948– 56. Broadcaster, BBC, from 1935. Knighted, 1939. Rede Lecturer, Cambridge University, 1943. Honorary Fellow, Merton College, 1945. Married Elisabeth Jungmann, 1956.
Awards: honorary degrees from three universities. Died in Rapallo, 20 May 1956.
Essays and Related Prose
The Works of Max Beerbohm, with a Bibliography by John Lane, 1896
Yet Again, 1909
And Even Now, 1920
Around Theatres (theater reviews), 2 vols., 1924
A Variety of Things, 1928
Mainly on the Air (radio broadcasts), 1946; enlarged edition, 1957
Selected Essays, edited by N.L.Clay, 1958
The Incomparable Max: A Selection, edited by S.C.Roberts, 1962
More Theatres, 1898–1903 (theater reviews), 1969
Last Theatres, 1904–1910 (theater reviews), 1970
The Bodley Head Max Beerbohm, edited by David Cecil, 1970; as Selected Prose, 1971
A Peep into the Past and Other Prose Pieces, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1972
Other writings: fiction (including the novel Zuleika Dobson, 1911), three plays, several volumes of cartoons and caricatures, a study of Lytton Strachey (1943), and correspondence (collected in Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892–1956, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1988).
Gallatin, Albert E., and Leslie M.Oliver, A Bibliography of the Works of Max Beerbohm, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1952
Behrman, Samuel N., Portrait of Max, New York: Random House, 1960; as Conversation with Max, London: Hamilton, 1960
Cecil, David, Max: A Biography, London: Constable, 1964; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965
Danson, Lawrence, Max Beerbohm and the Act of Writing, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991
Grushaw, Ira, The Imaginary Reminiscences of Sir Max Beerbohm, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984
Lynch, John Gilbert Bohun, Max in Perspective, London: Heinemann, 1921
McElderry, Bruce, Max Beerbohm, Boston: Twayne, revised edition, 1987
Moers, Ellen, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm, London: Secker and Warburg, 1960
Riewald, J.G., Sir Max Beerbohm, Man and Writer: A Critical Analysis with a Brief Life and a Biography, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1953
Riewald, J.G., editor, The Surprise of Excellence: Modern Essays on Max Beerbohm, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1974
Viscusi, Robert, Max Beerbohm; or, The Dandy Dante: Rereading with Mirrors, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986
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