- Aubrey Beardsley: An Account of his Life by Miriam Benkovitz
Hamish Hamilton, 226 pp, £8.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 241 10382 7
‘Although he was only 17, his interests were iridescent.’ I wonder what Miriam J. Benkovitz, sometime Professor of English, thinks ‘iridescent’ means. The next stage after ‘adolescent’, perhaps. Something, certainly, to do with growing. A hundred or so pages further on, she suggests that Beardsley’s ‘iridescent interests’ may have ‘enlarged his stature’. What’s more, she describes A Book of Fifty Drawings (1897) as a monument to the 24-year-old Beardsley’s ‘iridescence and growth’.
She could scarcely have found a more inept word to harp on in a biography of an artist who expressed his genius almost exclusively in black and white.
Ineptitude is something Ms Benkovitz carries to a pitch where it seems inspired. It must be a Muse of Ineptitude who directs her towards artists who least abide literal-minded question: Firbank, of whom she published a biography and a bibliography in the Sixties, and now Beardsley. The Muse perhaps dozed during the interval between those two, while Ms Benkovitz addressed herself to the sad subject of Fr Rolfe, but she’s now back on duty and alert. She jogs Ms Benkovitz’s elbow on the very epigraph page, where a sentence whose French seems questionably transcribed is attributed to a painter barely recognisable under the unfamiliar form ‘Jean Ingres’. She does not allow Ms Benkovitz even to complete her two-page Prologue without a nasty collision of plural and singular: ‘His associates ... included Oscar Wilde, briefly, and Wilde’s “Sphinx”, Ada Leverson, and her husband. It included, too, William Rothenstein.’
Guided by her personalised Muse, Ms Benkovitz swoops on Beardsley’s character, which, however, gets away. Her claimed ‘attempt to evaluate Beardsley’s character more precisely’ than other writers have done boils down to ‘He was role-playing again’ and ‘he pretended to enjoy his lurid reputation.’ Well, as Nanny always says, he only does it to get attention. That what Beardsley was doing was to create great works of imaginative art seems scarcely to have struck Ms Benkovitz. Though she concedes with some condescension that ‘many of’ his pictures for the Yellow Book ‘warranted notice’, she shows no sign of being very taken with his work or even very conversant with it. She recounts his attendance at the first night of Arms and the Man without mentioning that there was a Beardsley design on the programme. The fact that people are still interested in Beardsley she attributes only in part to what she lukewarmly calls his ‘ability as an artist’. For the rest, she places the responsibility on his ‘association with the best that was known and thought in his day’, a Children’s-Encyclopaedic dictum in which I can discern no meaning that could conceivably apply to Beardsley.
Still less does she betray any insight into what was truly lurid in Beardsley’s life – namely, his race with death, which dictated the economy of both his style and his medium, and which tore him in two between the hope of immortality in art and resignation to putative immortality in a Catholic heaven. Instead, she lectures him. The letters to the press in which he defended his pictures against public attack she calls ‘impudent and sometimes silly’ (she fails to mention that they are often funny), she repeats the nannyish diagnosis ‘Perhaps Beardsley was pretending again’ and concludes with a sententious ‘Certainly at best such replies are a futile business.’
To write with complete accuracy to any set of facts is hard even for the diligent and self-critical. I think with rue of a couple of half-inaccuracies in my own recent book on Beardsley (to which Ms Benkovitz’s notes make generous acknowledgment though her text has paid it little heed). It is no more than human bad luck that her Herbert Horne suddenly turns into Henry and then reverts to his correct name, and that she says that Ricketts and Shannon lived in ‘The Vale, a cul-de-sac off King’s Road, Chelsea’ without adding for the benefit of pilgrims that, although The Vale is often said to have been a cul-de-sac in the Nineties, it hasn’t been one for (at the estimate of an erudite present-day resident, Sir Edward Playfair) the last six or seven decades.
More than human influence is at work, however, in her disquisition on Beardsley’s correspondence with André Raffalovich, in which he addressed Raffalovich as ‘Mentor’ and signed himself ‘Télémaque’. The names are not, as she supposes, in allusion to Homer’s Mentor and Telemachos but (as she could have learnt from my book if not as a result of naturally wondering why Beardsley adopted the French form of Telemachos’s name) to Mentor and Télémaque in Fénelon’s novel Les Aventures de Télémaque. Only the blunder-loving Muse could have pushed Ms Benkovitz into her next step, a lengthy surmise, dressed up with documented references to Freud, to the effect that Raffalovich figured to Beardsley as a substitute father. Freud was never so literal-minded. It is much more likely that Beardsley apprehended Raffalovich as a second mother, one who could make financial and practical provision for the by then virtual invalid and one who was always pressing on him the spiritual home comforts of Holy Mother Church, In Homer and Fénelon alike, Mentor is in fact female, Minerva in the guise of a man. Ms Benkovitz has unnoticing blundered into one of Beardsley’s jokes. ‘Mentor’ alludes to the concern with sexual ambiguity manifested by Raffalovich, author of Uranisme et Unisexualité.
Again, the Muse must have directly dictated one of Ms Benkovitz’s passages on Beardsley’s childhood: ‘His sister spoke of his “extreme fragility” and compared him to a “delicate little piece of Dresden china”. She said that once “he helped himself ... by a fern up a high flight of steps.” ’ It was the Muse at her most malicious that prompted Ms Benkovitz to go straight on: ‘If any of that worried his mother, she gave no evidence of it.’ In fact, both the leaned-on fern and the Dresden china comparison were recorded by Beardsley’s mother, not his sister. After that, it was mere gratuitous spite on the part of the Muse to persuade Ms Benkovitz that, if someone has the name and title Lady Henrietta Pelham, you can save time when she is next mentioned by calling her Lady Pelham.
To students of Firbank Ms Benkovitz has managed to make herself, despite everything, indispensable: by buying several of his unpublished or only fragmentarily published manuscripts. On information about Beardsley she has no such purchase. The best she can do in that line is to make a point of quoting his never-completed erotic novel Under the Hill (which he sometimes called The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser) from the manuscript (‘the property,’ her notes say, ‘of the Philip H. & A.S.W. Rosenbach Foundation, Philadelphia’) rather than from any of the published editions. She doesn’t, however, quote it very extensively. Neither does she say when and where her quotations diverge from the text already in print. You have to compare texts for yourself, whereupon the differences prove, for the most part, minimal – a matter, for instance, of a published text in which Tannhäuser ‘passed’ his gemgirt fingers over Venus’s limbs and Ms Benkovitz’s quotation, where he ‘pressed’ them.
Beardsley was in even more minds about his hero’s name than the book’s. He is Tannhäuser or the Abbé Aubrey or simply the Abbé (which Ms Benkovitz has not noticed is a French-pronounced pun on the A.B. with which Beardsley conspicuously signed many of his pictures); and he is autobiographical in the sense that the fantasist is always the hero of his own erotic fantasies. Ms Benkovitz seems to mistake him for the autobiographical hero of the standard middlebrow first novel. After relating some of the goings-on at the banquet Venus gives Tannhäuser, she solemnly asks, ‘Was Beardsley a voyeur of the underside of London and Paris?’ – a question which, especially as she has no answer to proffer, does nothing except fill space and disclose that she is no better acquainted with the processes of fantasising than with those of the imagination.
One of Ms Benkovitz’s quotations reads: ‘a tall slim diseased young man with a slight stoop, a troubled walk, an oval impassable face with its olive skin drawn tightly over the bone ...’ This she calls ‘an obvious self-portrait’ and she implies that it is a description of the hero of the novel. In fact, it is a description of the hero, Sporion, of a ballet within the novel. Even so, she is right – indeed, to an extent she does not know – in recognising it as a self-portrait, but it is not so much an ‘obvious’ as a retouched one. Where Ms Benkovitz’s quotation melts away into dots, the published text goes firmly on: ‘strong, scarlet lips, long Japanese eyes, and a great gilt toupet’. Beardsley’s fantasy has gilded his mop of hair. His non-fiction, though deliberately self-depreciating word for its colour was ‘red’, just as his non-fiction word for his complexion was not ‘olive’ but ‘sallow’. The description of the fictitious Sporion is in fact an almost item-by-item reworking of a description Beardsley had sent of himself in 1891 to the man who had been his housemaster at Brighton Grammar School: ‘I am now 18 years old, with a vile constitution, a sallow face and sunken eyes, long red hair, a shuffling gait and a stoop.’
The description of Sporion contains the most remarkable of Ms Benkovitz’s unsign-posted divergencies from the previously known text and one that has implications of terror. Her ‘diseased’ young man was published as ‘depraved’. No doubt ‘diseased’ was, if she has transcribed the manuscript correctly, Beardsley’s first reworking, less down to earth and even slightly provocative, of the ‘vile constitution’ in his letter to A.W. King. The change to ‘depraved’ (which, had she noted it, would probably only have confirmed Ms Benkovitz in her belief that he ‘pretended to enjoy his lurid reputation’) must have been made at least with Beardsley’s consent and most likely by his volition, since publication of this bit of his novel took place during his lifetime and under his supervision, in the second number (April 1896) of the Savoy. Probably ‘diseased’ was by then too frightening a self-recognition. The same number of the magazine bears at the back a publisher’s note regretting that publication had to be postponed of Beardsley’s illustration to the episode: ‘owing to Mr Beardsley’s illness he has been unable to finish one of his full-length drawings to Chapter IV of Under the Hill, i.e. “The Bacchanals of Sporion”.’
These unremarked and undiscussed variant readings in a few snippets quoted at random from Beardsley’s novel are not enough to explain, let alone justify, the putting of Ms Benkovitz’s book into print. Plenty of bad books (and some good ones) about Beardsley are available already. Why one of the best British publishing houses should import copies of this abysmal book from the USA and utter it, alien spelling and all, under its own imprint is a mystery as insoluble as why, given Beardsley’s prolificness of graphic as well as literary self-portraits, the jacket should flaunt an imitation Beardsley self-portrait in profile that does not even achieve a likeness. Of Beardsley’s authentic oeuvre the book reproduces comparatively little, and that not very well.
What scares me is where Ms Benkovitz’s Muse will point her next. Given her predilection for the Nineties, her acquaintance, imprecise though it may be, with the documents of the homosexual superculture of the period, and the manful, modern and egalitarian gulp with which she takes it (‘Despite his friendships with homosexuals ... Beardsley’s sexual preference reputedly was what the 1890s considered normal’), I fear – Absit omen. I am lighting a candle to the Muse: please let Ms Benkovitz content herself with Bosie.