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

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