[Disponible en español. Part 5 of The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895]

Felstiner writes that Wilde elicited "a revealing mixture of skepticism and allegiance" from Beerbohm (Lies of Art 42). What the mixture revealed was that Beerbohm learned as much from criticising and satirising Wilde as he did from imitating Wilde. In the early letters, as Danson points out, "hero worship alternates with a more objective criticism: the parodic focus is not yet clear" (65). Over the years from 1892 to 1895, however, Beerbohm became an increasingly deft satirist. Having mastered Wilde's style through imitation, Beerbohm parodied it. Having enumerated Wilde's faults with a critical eye, Beerbohm satirised them.

Wilde never fully recovered from his prison ordeal, and died three years after his release (Ellman 585). Upon hearing of Wilde's death, Beerbohm wrote to Turner: "I am, as you may imagine, very sorry indeed; and am thinking very much about Oscar, who was such an influence and an interest in my life....I suppose really it was better that Oscar should die. If he had lived to be an old man he would have become unhappy. Those whom the gods, etc. And the gods did love Oscar, with all his faults" (Letters to Reggie Turner 138).

So, too, did Beerbohm "love Oscar, with all his faults." This was a rather typical response from someone who was, in a sense, a rather typical ex-disciple. Like many young writers in mentor relationships, Beerbohm began by worshipping and imitating Wilde. When disillusionment set in, Beerbohm became critical and even cruel. Out of all his very typical reactions, however, Beerbohm made something unusual. By experimenting with the component parts of his responses to Wilde-the imitation, the criticism, and the satire--Beerbohm was teaching himself how to make his own voice heard even when he was imitating another's. He would get better at it with practice. In 1912, Young would write, "It is as though, instead of elaborately describing the clothes worn by his subjects, Max had himself put on each suit in turn, strutted or lounged awhile in the manner of each, and spoken thoughts like theirs in a telling imitation of their tones" (Beerbohm, A Christmas Garland xii). The Wildean suit may not have been the best fit, but it was the first Beerbohm wore.

In 1921, Beerbohm wrote a letter of advice to a prospective biographer, Bohun Lynch. "Years ago, G. B. S., in a light-hearted moment, called me 'the incomparable,'" he wrote. "Note that I am not incomparable. Compare me" (Letters of Max Beerbohm 128). Comparing Beerbohm with Wilde reveals, on the one hand, a typical young writer in a typical mentor relationship. On the other hand, it also reveals the origins of the writer who would develop into "the incomparable Max."

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


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Max Beerbohm

Last modified 18 May 2006