[Disponible en español. Part 2 of The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895]

The earliest references to Wilde in Beerbohm's published letters date from the summer of 1892. In June of that year, the Lord Chamberlain, who was responsible for licensing all plays for public performance, refused to grant a license for a production of Salomé (Beerbohm, Letters to Reggie Turner 22). Salomé was Wilde's dramatic interpretation of the biblical story of John the Baptist's martyrdom, in which John (Jokanaan) is beheaded at the request of King Herod's stepdaughter, Salomé. Beerbohm's indignation at the Lord Chamberlain's decision was expressed in a letter to Turner. In the letter he described a satirical drawing he intended to execute, in which the licensing fiasco would take on the form of Wilde's play.

King [John] Bull makes a great feast and when they have feasted the daughter of Mrs. Grundy dances before the King--insomuch that he promises her whatever she shall desire. After consultation with her mother she demands that "they bring unto her by and by the head of Oscar the PoŽtast on a charger." The picture--which will be called The Modern Salome represents Lord Lathom [the Lord Chamberlain] holding the charger.... [Letters to Reggie Turner 22]

Beerbohm's verbal illustration left no doubt about where his sympathies lay. John Bull and Mrs. Grundy, personifications of Englishness and Victorian respectability, took the places of Herod and his wife. Wilde became Jokanaan, the saint and martyr sacrificed to their whim. England, not Wilde, was the butt of this satire; Beerbohm's imitation expressed an implicit admiration for his mentor.

Wilde responded to the Lord Chamberlain's ban by threatening to quit England and become a French citizen. Beerbohm reacted in a tone that echoed Wilde's own urbane, amused style, remarking that "inasmuch as French naturalisation entails a period of service in the French army, I fancy that his [Wilde's] house in Tite Street will not be in the hands of an agent" (Letters to Reggie Turner 23). Beerbohm recognized the absurdity of Wilde's melodramatic threat, and undermined it with the same witty dismissiveness that was Wilde's hallmark.

Salomé was published in February 1893, and Beerbohm received a copy of the purple-bound volume from Turner as a gift (Beerbohm, Letters to Reggie Turner 32). Beerbohm's thank-you note contained what Danson calls Beerbohm's "first tentative parody" (64). Beerbohm praised the book in a style obviously modelled on Wilde's:

The book that they have bound in Parma violets and across whose page is the silver voice of the master made visible--how could it not be lovely? I an enamoured of it. It has charmed my eyes from their sockets and through the voids has sent incense to my brain: my tongue is loosed in its praise....In construction it is very like a Greek play, I think: yet in conception so modern that its publication in any century would seem premature....If Oscar would re-write all the Bible, there would be no sceptics. (Letters to Reggie Turner 32)

Beerbohm's passage purposely mimicked the floridly descriptive language of Wilde's play, in which Salomé compared Jokanaan's eyes to "black holes burned by torches in a Tyrian tapestry" (Wilde 558). The contradiction in Beerbohm's description of the play as "very like a Greek play" and yet "premature" in any age parodied Wilde's signature paradoxes. Beerbohm's final sentence, "If Oscar would re-write all the Bible, there would be no sceptics," was a typically Wildean pronouncement, structurally akin to "If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture" (Wilde 970).

In adherence to Wilde's doctrine that "Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art" (970), Beerbohm made Wilde the focus of occasional fabrications. "It seems that he speaks French with a shocking accent, which is rather a disillusionment," he wrote to Turner, "and that when he visits the Décadents he has to repeat once or twice everything he says to them, and sometimes even to write it down for them" (Letters to Reggie Turner 36). That this scenario was most likely Beerbohm's own invention is suggested by André Gide's assertion that Wilde "had almost no accent, or at least only such as it pleased him to retain and which might give the words a sometimes new and strange aspect" (Gide 2).

Beerbohm reported Wilde's mots with admiration, and used them as models for his own witticisms. In April 1893, Beerbohm commented appreciatively on Wilde's response to criticism of the actor, Henry Irving: "Oscar...was furious that all the 'wretched little donkeys of critics' had dared to attack him [Irving]. 'Surely,' he said, 'a gentleman has a right to fail if he chooses'" (Letters to Reggie Turner 35). Beerbohm used a similar tone about critics a few days later in an appropriately paradoxical comment about the premiere of Wilde's play, A Woman of No Importance: "The notices are better than I expected: the piece is sure of a long, of a very long run, despite all that the critics may say in its favour" (Letters to Reggie Turner 37). As Danson notes, the remark combined "satiric observance with imitation of the Wildean manner" (66).

An even more obvious case of Beerbohm imitating Wilde occurred in a letter from May 1893. "You need not, by the way, be jealous of Alfred Douglas as he does not peculiarly fascinate me," he wrote to Turner, "he is for one thing obviously mad (like all his family I believe) and though he is pretty and clever and nice I never judge my friends from an Aesthetic, an Intellectual or an Ethical standpoint; I simply like them or dislike: that is all." The tone and even the phrasing consciously reproduced Wilde's famous pronouncement in the preface to Dorian Gray: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all" (17).

Richard Ellman cites the fact that Beerbohm called Wilde "the Divinity" as evidence of Beerbohm's discipleship (309), but in doing so he disregards the satiric overtones of Beerbohm's mock reverence. That the title was meant at least partially in jest is clear from the May 1893 letter in which it appeared. Having dubbed Wilde "the Divinity Oscar," Beerbohm put himself on the same level by describing the "aristocracy of intellect as represented by me and the Divinity." He then raised himself one step further by taking a condescending tone about Wilde: "He was in a very nice mood-young and schweet [sic] and most amusing" (Letters to Reggie Turner 41). It was not the letter of a disciple, at least in the usual meaning of the word.

The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Max Beerbohm

Last modified 28 November 2004