[Disponible en español. Part 4 of The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895]
Beerbohm's infatuation with Cissy faded unobtrusively out of Beerbohm's letters after October 1893, making way for the re-entrance of Wilde and his circle. Far from being a soul "swooned in sin and revived vulgar," Wilde was once more described as "sweet," and Beerbohm again related anecdotes about Wilde with pleasure. In January 1894, he wrote to Turner, "I must tell you a sweet tale of Oscar....[Robert] Sherard, as is his wont, got drunk and frightful and rising from his chair assumed an attitude of defence, saying in a loud voice that anyone who attacked Mr. Oscar Wilde would have to reckon with him first. 'Hush, Robert, hush!' said Oscar, laying a white hand of plump restraint upon Sherard's shoulder, 'hush, you are defending me at the risk of my life!' Isn't it lovely?" (Letters to Reggie Turner 87). As the reference to Wilde's "white hand of plump restraint" suggested, however, Beerbohm's later responses to Wilde generally were tinged with satiric overtones.
In April 1894, Beerbohm's essay, "A Defence of Cosmetics" appeared in the first volume of the Yellow Book, a periodical created as an alternative to the commercial press and regarded by many as "an emblem of decadence" (Beckson 247). In both its style and its subject matter, "A Defence of Cosmetics" was a parody of Wildean aestheticism.
Too long has the face been degraded from its rank as a thing of beauty to a mere vulgar index of character or emotion....And the use of cosmetics, the masking of the face, will change this. We shall gaze at a woman merely because she is beautiful, not stare into her face anxiously, as into the face of a barometer. ["Defence" 143]
The reviewers did not get the joke, and were outraged by Beerbohm's essay. In a letter to the editor of the Yellow Book, which appeared in the second volume in July 1894, Beerbohm defended himself:
May I, Sir, in justice to myself and to you, who were gravely censured for harbouring me, step forward, and assure the affrighted mob that it is the victim of a hoax? May I also assure it that I had no notion that it would be taken in? Indeed, it seems incredible to me that any one on the face of the earth could fail to see that my essay, so grotesque in subject, in opinion so flippant, in style so wildly affected, was meant for a burlesque upon the "precious" school of writers. If I had only signed myself D. Cadent or Parrar Docks, or appended a note to say that the manuscript had been picked up not a hundred miles from Tite Street, all the pressmen would have said that I had given them a very delicate bit of satire. [Letters of Max Beerbohm 2]
A "hoax" of a different kind appeared in a letter to Turner on 12 August 1894. In what was probably an allusion to a raid on a homosexual club that took place on that date, Beerbohm wrote, "Oscar has at length been arrested for certain kinds of crime. He was taken in the Café Royal (lower room). Bosie escaped, being an excellent runner, but Oscar was less nimble" (Letters to Reggie Turner 97). Less than a year later, Beerbohm's fanciful fabrication would prove itself uncannily prophetic.
Beerbohm was in America when the Wilde scandal broke. In February 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry (whose son, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, was Wilde's ex-lover and constant companion) left a card for Wilde at his club accusing him of being a "posing Somdomite [sic]" (Ellman 438). In March, Wilde brought a libel suit against Queensberry. As a result of evidence given at the libel trial, Queensberry was acquitted, and Wilde himself was arrested for committing indecent acts. Beerbohm's sympathy for Wilde did not prevent him from seeing the affair's amusing side. "Though loyalty made him ready to support Oscar when in trouble," writes Cecil, "and though he admired his courage, he had during the last years grown steadily more conscious of his faults. His flashier side had come to jar on Max increasingly" (122). Beerbohm's detachment allowed him to see both the hypocrisy of Wilde's accusers and the melodramatic quality of Wilde's predicament (Cecil 120). "What a lurid life Oscar does lead-so full of extraordinary incidents," he wrote to Ada Leverson in March 1895. "What a chance for the memoir writers of the next century-the Thackerays and the Max Beerbohm's of the future" (Danson 79).
In the wake of Wilde's arrest in April 1895, Beerbohm wrote, "I look forward eagerly to the first act of Oscar's new Tragedy. But surely the title Douglas must have been used before" (Ellman 424). Again, Beerbohm utilised elements of the style he had learned by imitating Wilde. The Wildean paradox was in evidence in "Oscar's new Tragedy," since Wilde's success as a dramatist was based on his string of popular comedies. The mock-ingenuous tone, however, was distinctly Beerbohmian.
Beerbohm was not so flippant when he returned to England and saw the very real danger Wilde was in. He was present at Wilde's first criminal trial, and reported on it to Turner, who had been with Wilde when he was arrested and had left England for fear of being arrested himself. "Oscar has been superb," Beerbohm wrote. "....Here was this man, who had been for a month in prison and loaded with insults and crushed and buffeted, perfectly self-possessed, dominating the Old Bailey with his fine presence and musical voice" (Letters to Reggie Turner 102). Nor was the hypocrisy of the proceedings lost on Beerbohm. "It was horrible leaving the court day after day and having to pass through a knot of renters [male prostitutes]...who were allowed to hang around after giving their evidence and to wink at likely persons" (Letters to Reggie Turner 103).
Beerbohm went on to describe, with what Felstiner calls "involuntary cruelty"(Lies of Art 50), a scene that took place at the home of Ernest and Ada Leverson on the eve of the trial. "Mrs. Leverson making flippant remarks about messenger-boys in a faint undertone to Bosie, who was ashen-pale....Mr. Leverson explaining to me that he allowed his house to be used for these purposes not because he approved of 'anything unnatural' but by reason of his admiration for Oscar's plays and personality. I myself exquisitely dressed and sympathising with no one" (Letters to Reggie Turner 104).
And there, for all intents and purposes, Wilde's influence on Beerbohm came to an end: with Beerbohm (in good Wildean form) "exquisitely dressed and sympathising with no one" on the eve of Wilde's downfall. On 25 May 1895, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour (Ellman 474). He was never again to be such a presence in Beerbohm's life, or to wield such an influence over his work.
The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895
- Introduction: The Incomparable Max and the Unspeakable Oscar
- The Early Period: Imitation
- The Middle Period: Criticism
- The Late Period: Satire
- Conclusion: "Compare Me"
- Works Cited
Last modified 18 May 2006