Supermax

John Bayley

  • The Letters of Max Beerbohm 1892-1956 edited by Rupert Hart-Davis
    Murray, 244 pp, £16.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 7195 4537 4
  • The Faber Book of Letters edited by Felix Pryor
    Faber, 319 pp, £12.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 571 15269 4

The desire to put people right about other people is incorrigible, indeed obsessional. In his review of David Cecil’s biography of Max Beerbohm Malcolm Muggeridge allowed it to be a graceful job of work, but said it missed the real point about Beerbohm and his lifestyle, which was that he concealed his Jewish origins and was a crypto-homosexual. Of course! Something must explain Beerbohm – his dandyism, his diffidence, his talent nurtured under so exquisite a bushel, his sudden decision to leave England and live on the Italian Riviera, his tranquil, affectionate, but apparently sexless marriage – and what more cogent and plausible explanation could there be? Unfortunately, however, it is not true. Max, it appears, was neither gay nor Jewish. He might have been, and been just the same sort of chap, but as it happens he wasn’t.

Biographers want to explain things too – often by an unconscious wish to identify themselves with their subjects. I have something in common with Joyce, and with Wilde, is the modest assumption of Richard Ellmann. Max was a bit like me, implies Cecil. That brings them, and us, all the closer to the subject. It can also lead to misunderstanding. Oddly enough, as Cecil’s admirable biography shows, both he and Max understood Oscar Wilde a good deal better than Ellmann did. Ellmann was romantic about Wilde and they were not. As Max’s letters clearly show, both he and his biographer are fond of Wilde but do not take him or his fate all that seriously. Max rallied to Oscar, not as a martyr, but as a great friend who had got himself into an absurd and painful situation; attended his trial to give moral support; sent him books and met him between trials at the Leversons; tried to get him better treated in prison. But his letters to their great mutual friend Reggie Turner suggest quite a different view of the trial from the one Ellmann presents. It was not a cathartic and humbling metamorphosis for the poor victim but a smart triumph quite in his usual style. ‘Oscar has been quite superb. His speech about the Love that dares not tell its name was simply wonderful – and carried the whole court right away – quite a tremendous burst of applause. Here was this man – who had been for a month in prison and crushed and buffeted and loaded with insults, perfectly self-possessed, dominating the Old Bailey with his fine presence and musical voice ... most leonine and sphinx-like.’ Max considered that Gill, the prosecuting counsel, had let Oscar down very lightly; and he commented on the ‘renters’, young male prostitutes, one of them wearing ‘her Majesty’s uniform – another form of female attire – who were allowed to hang around after giving their evidence and wink at likely persons’. Max was under no illusions regarding the corruption of Edwardian society, from the top to the bottom. He also strikes a curiously modern note when describing the reaction in enlightened circles. ‘The scene that evening at the Leversons was quite absurd. An awful New Woman in a divided skirt, introduced by Bosie, writing a pamphlet at Mrs Leverson’s writing-table with the aid of several whiskeys and sodas; her brother, who kept reiterating that “these things must be approached through first principles” ... two other New Women who explained that they were there to keep a strict watch on New Woman number one: Mrs Leverson making flippant remarks about messenger boys in a faint undertone to Bosie, who was ashen-pale and thought the pamphlet (which was the most awful drivel) admirable.’

Ada Leverson, an excellent novelist and a thoroughly kind woman, stood by Oscar with her husband with great determination, but, as this scene suggests, she drew the line at being high-minded about him. Max was unimpressed too, although his common sense is not coldheartedness. He stood by Oscar, but he was not deceived about him. He saw that success had made him arrogant: ‘gross not in body only – he did become that – but in his relations with people. He brushed people aside’ – and his later comments on Wilde are tolerant but penetrating. Wilde wrote that ‘absolute humility’ was the one thing left for him, and Max observed that doubtless while he was writing he felt the sensation of humility. ‘Humble he was not.’ He pointed out that

the artist spoke, and the man obeyed. The attitude was struck, and the heart pulsated to it. Humility ... was the luxurious complement of pride ... Even ‘from the depths’ he condescended. Sometimes the condescension was from his present self to his old self: sometimes from his old self to his present self. Referring to the death of his mother, ‘I, once a lord of language,’ he says, ‘have no words to express my anguish and my shame.’ Straightway he proceeds to revel in the survival of that lordship. ‘What I suffered then, and still suffer, is not for pen to write or paper to record.’ Yet pen wrote it and paper recorded it, even so.

Rupert Hart-Davis does not reprint much of the correspondence about Wilde, rightly thinking it available elsewhere, but he does publish the touching letter Max wrote to Robert Ross, Oscar’s premier initiator, when he was in New York with his half-brother, the famous impresario Herbert Beerbohm-Tree. A Canadian adventurer and confirmed homosexual, Ross was a remarkable and on the whole a rather good man, who became influential in social and political circles: but Beerbohm was nervous of his influence on their mutual friend Reggie Turner.

The epistolary style has Max’s slightly irritating pussiness but it is also full of sense, affection, and the best sort of detachment. Max was fond both of Ross and of Turner and saw how the land lay. But in a letter to Ross a month earlier he had simply been a tease and a gossip, reporting that Ada Leverson had been delighted with his saying that she almost persuaded him to be a ‘mulierast’, and that Bosie was rumoured to have taken to an eyeglass, after reading the case of a Major Parkinson who cut his throat with a bit of glass in a Holloway cell. Max’s was a tough, unsentimental world, but could combine both feeling and elegance with toughness.

If Max really was leading a double life – a pleasurable but hardly tenable hypothesis – he concealed it well, spending a lot of time not only with Ada Leverson but with two actresses, Grace Conover and Constance Collier, to both of whom he was successively if unofficially engaged. He christened the first ‘Kilseen’, a tease on her acting abilities, but she and their friends took pleasure in the nickname and she certainly loved him. Constance was what David Cecil calls ‘a full-blooded woman’ who soon started an affair with her principal man and allowed Max to slip gracefully away. The lady he eventually married, Florence Kahn, American and Jewish, was also an actress, with a solid kindly family home in Memphis. Shy and refined, she found her chosen profession agonisingly difficult, but was intense and moderately successful in the role of Ibsen’s heroines. She and Max became deeply attached and mutually dependent, and Rupert Hart-Davis speculates on the basis of Max’s letters to her that both privately wanted a marriage blanc, but, naturally enough, did not find it easy to apprise each other of the fact. When it seems they did, or something like it, Max’s suddenly exuberant love letter is touching and joyful. But, of course, it might mean just the opposite: in these matters you never can tell. At any rate, both were happy to give up their current way of life, and they settled in a tiny villa outside Rapallo. When Florence died, Max in old age married Elizabeth Jungmann, who had looked after the German dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann, and had more late years of wedded bliss.

Max is not a specially good letter-writer but he does come over in every turn of phrase, and shares himself in each epistolary friendship. He was self-centred like a very good child, who loves his family but is happy with his toys on his own. He enjoyed his social success in London but dropped it without a pang because it was never really quite his thing. He is amusing about his wish at grand house parties to go comfortably to bed instead of having to change into tails and go down and sing for his splendid dinner. He took great care with words but drawing came naturally to him, though he seldom succeeded with sketches of women and was perhaps best at himself. As a caricaturist he was wholly good-natured. Hart-Davis includes a marvellous one of Shaw, flashing a set of new teeth: Shaw, who had previously kept his mouth closed because of his bad teeth, was delighted by it. The most sinister is of a Mr Bernard Posno, a bon viveur and member of the Orleans Club, a select little establishment where no money changed hands with a meal but an unverifiable account was dispatched to members half-yearly. Hart-Davis’s wonderful editing is full of little nuggets of this sort.

But how good a writer was Beerbohm? The Happy Hypocrite is a good idea, which goes to the root of Beerbohm’s own personality, but it has dated. Seven Men is excellent in parts but a bit laboured, as Max impishly confessed himself. Zuleika – rhymes with ‘seeker’, not ‘hiker’, as he always insisted – Dobson was the one he cared most about, though A Christmas Garland is probably his best: Edmund Gosse reported Henry James as calling it ‘the most intelligent thing that has been produced in England for many a long day’. Several of these letters defend the climax of Zuleika, when the undergraduates commit mass suicide for love of the heroine. With uncharacteristic vigour, Max points out, quite rightly, that fantasy is under no debt to either tragedy or realism, but his friends were not reassured. There is something disconcerting about that ending, even in our days of casual black humour: it certainly shows that Max lived in a world of his own and was surprised when others commented on it. But he never minded in the least that many people, his wife included, failed to see the point of his cartoons or jokes. For him they were a private pleasure, and he never attempted to produce more or commercialise his success. He earned little but enjoyed being frugal and self-sufficient.

There are no letters by Max, as it happens, in the Faber Book: a point he would have noted with the sweetest of smiles, and perhaps with a version of the comment he once made that writing good memoirs requires ‘a far less brilliant pen than mine’. That would in fact be roughly true. Yet while most letters intended to survive are either strategies or show-offs, or a mixture of the two, the most compelling are not written by literary men, or at least not by writers who are writing as writers. Thus Sir Philip Sidney, in the book’s opening letter, addresses himself with a terseness never found in his poetry or prose to Mr Molyneux, his father’s secretary, whom he accuses of showing to others the letters he has written to his father. In brief, pungent, most un-Elizabethan sentences, he says, ‘I will thruste my Dagger into yow,’ if it occurs again. Strong and simple feeling like that is not common in surviving correspondence: did Molyneux keep the letter out of fear, or pride? There can be no doubt why Peter George Patmore, father of the poet Coventry Patmore, kept the letters in which Hazlitt passionately poured out his rage and jealousy over Sara Walker, the daughter of his boarding-house keeper, ‘who leads a sporting life with everyone who comes in succession, & goes different lengths according as she is urged or inclined’. Though ‘letting me enjoy her through her petticoats, looking as if she would faint with tenderness and modesty’, she would neither go to bed with Hazlitt nor marry him. On the evidence of the letter, foaming as it is with obsessional fury, one cannot blame her. Next year he published Liber Amoris, a work which described the affair in a more lachrymose style.

The letter is remarkable not only for its emotion but for its practical purpose, and as works of art letters rarely display either. Hazlitt wished his fellow journalist ‘to ascertain for me, by any means or through any person’, whether Sarah was in fact seducible, ‘though I should not like her to be seduced by elaborate means, but if she gave up as a matter of course I should then be no longer the wretch I am.’ (He was presumably referring to drugs.) As a ferocious human document with which Othello would sympathise, although conviction that Desdemona was a whore was no relief to him, the letter is astonishing: but touching, too, in its abjection (‘I was wrong at first in fancying a wench at a lodging house to be a Vestal, merely for her demure looks’), and the extraordinary muddlement of Hazlitt’s involuntary romantic self-projection – half Othello, half Lear. ‘Do you know the only thing that soothes or melts me is the idea of taking my little boy whom I can no longer support & wandering through the country as beggars, not through the wide world, for I cannot leave the country where she is.’

Receiving such a letter would surely alter permanently one’s idea of the man’s work and personality? The sheer silliness of poor Hazlitt spreads from it through his authority as a writer, helping to explain among other things his infatuation with Napoleon. Even so, it adds in retrospect to Hazlitt’s stature as writer and man, as do the spirits and spontaneity of Keats’s letters, dashed off half-way between sensation and idea. Whether to his friend Kinnaird, or his half-sister Augusta Leigh, Byron wrote as if talking, although there is a touch of Hazlitt in his comparison of Augusta and himself to Paolo and Francesca, ‘whose case fell a good deal short of ours – though sufficiently naughty’.

Wordsworth by contrast has an odd unnatural tone, full of studied elegance and humour, at least when writing to Lamb, and describing Hazlitt’s portraits of himself and Coleridge. He had burnt the one of himself, about which his brother Richard ‘had exclaimed God Zounds, a criticism as emphatic as it was concise. He was literally struck with the strength of the sign-board likeness; but never, till that moment, had he conceived that so much of the diabolical lurked under the innocent features of his respected friend and dear brother.’ Perhaps Hazlitt as a portraitist had more gifts than he is credited with?

Emily Dickinson is by far the most affected of these letter-writers: she must have made her admiring critic Colonel Higginson wriggle with her calculated and confiding archness (‘My eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves’), but she can also go straight to the point, as in her poems, and leave the reader quite breathless: ‘I have a brother and sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, which they call their “Father”.’ Thackeray, author of ‘The Ballad of Bouillabaisse’, pens a one-line acceptance to a friend’s dinner if he promises not to serve the stuff. Tennyson is moving about his stillborn child – would a father be shown it today? – even though ‘I refused to see the little body at first, fearing to find some pallid abortion which would have haunted me all my life – but he looked (if it be not absurd to call a newborn babe so) even majestic in his mysterious silence after all the turmoil of the night before.’ Forster is curt in a note to T.E. Lawrence about their young friend Palmer: ‘I continue to be his banker, but other relationships are forbidden by Mrs Palmer and Mrs Palmer’s mother. They say I have tried to put him against them. This is true.’

How many of us know that Yeats acquired the central image for his poem ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ – ‘Some burn damp faggots, others may consume/The entire combustible world in one small room’ – from a letter Henry James wrote him in 1915, contrasting the poet, ‘who can be present, and so present, by a simple flicker of your genius’, with the ‘clumsier race’ of novelists who have to ‘pile up faggots which may not after prove in the least combustible’? In what the editor describes as the ‘unbowdlerised’ text of a letter to Ethel Mannin, Yeats reports on the rejuvenating effects of his ‘monkey gland’ operation, in which apparently monkeys played no part: it is now simply called a vasectomy. But all letters tend to mislead: their recipient by intention and posterity by accident. One early in the book from Gerrard Winstanley to the Parliament Commander-in-Chief, Lord Fairfax, shows that the most well-intentioned of pamphleteers rarely know any history. Winstanley describes his communistic ‘Diggers’ as overcoming Charles, ‘our Norman oppressour’, but being cheated of the victory by a parliament which still upholds ‘the Norman Yoake’. Great Saxon thanes and landlords were, in fact, just as oppressive before the Conquest as the Normans after it, but visionary reformers must get their golden age from somewhere, as Chesterton did from the Middle Ages and F.R. Leavis from the Wheelwrights’ Shop.

Felix Pryor has put together a pile which could hardly be bettered in terms of general interest and information. Letters should bring news and tell us something. All these ones do.