Max Beerbohm is an acquired taste. He has that witty, fin-de-siècle style reminiscent of the authors of the 1890s – Oscar Wilde & the writers at The Yellow Book are probably the best-known examples. Beerbohm’s essays remind me of the languid figures in Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings. I’m never quite sure when he’s being serious but then, that’s half the fun of reading his essays.
The only other book by Beerbohm that I’ve read is Zuleika Dobson, a complete fantasy about a girl so beautiful that whole groups of Oxford undergraduates fall into the river while gazing at her. Complete nonsense but a lot of fun to read. I felt a little like that about the essays collected in More. This book was published in 1899, when Beerbohm was only in his late 20s. It was his second book of essays (hence the title) & I think the best way to read them is to read one or two at a time. That’s what I did, I read one nearly every night & although I’m sure I didn’t always catch the irony, I did enjoy reading Beerbohm’s opinions on the many subjects he pokes fun at here.
Maybe the best way to decide if you’re going to enjoy Beerbohm’s style is to read a few examples. In “The Sea-side in Winter”, he enjoys his melancholy,
After the first day or so, my melancholy leaves me.The very loneliness of the place does but accentuate my proprietary sense. From the midst of all this lifeless monotony I stand out, a dominant and most romantic personage. Were I in London, who would notice me, no prince there? Even here, in the Season, I had but a slight pre-eminence over other visitors. But now I need but show myself to create a glow of interest and wonder. The blind man, standing by his telescope, knows my tread and tries, I think, to picture my appearance. The old gentlemen see in me the incarnation of splendid youth; the shop people, a dispenser of great riches; the school-girls, a prodigy of joyous freedom from French verbs. I could not have levied these tributes in the month of August.
On trying to convince shopkeepers that their window displays are so much less effective that the traditional sign-boards of the past,
Are you a jeweller? You fill your window with a garish and unseemly chaos of all you have : bracelets, sleeve-links, penknives, tiaras – toute la boutique. Your rival in Paris, even in New York, is much wiser. He understands the value of a reticent symbolism. Very little he puts into his window. What he puts is good. Men and women, beholding, praise it. Their imagination has been stirred, their appetite whetted from the things that are withheld, and they long to enter in at the door. Last winter, in the Rue de la Paix, I saw a jewel-window, sir, that should serve for an example to you. It was lined with scarlet velvet and illustrious with electric light. In the very middle of it, lay, like a bomb in a palace, one beautiful black pearl. Had I been rich, I must have entered.
He manages to insult the local jeweller, give a back-handed compliment to New York & exult himself as an arbiter of good taste while also admitting that he hasn’t the money to afford the beautiful things he craves.
In an essay on Going Back to School, he remembers the awfulness of the journey to the station at the end of the holidays, counting down the hours & minutes until he arrived (even paying for a first-class seat himself so as to avoid his companions for as long as possible,
Not that I had any special reason for hating school! Strange as it may seem to my readers, I was not unpopular there. I was a modest, good-humoured boy. It is Oxford that has made me insufferable. At school, my character remained in a state of undevelopment. I had a few misgivings, perhaps. In some respects I was always too young, in others, too old, for a perfect relish of the convention. As I hovered, in grey knickerbockers, on a cold and muddy field, round the outskirts of a crowd that was tearing itself from limb to limb for the sake of a leathern bladder, I would often wish for a nice, warm room and a good game of hunt-the-slipper. And, when we sallied forth, after dark, in the frost, to the swimming-bath, my heart would steal back to the fireside in Writing Home and the plot of Miss Braddon’s latest novel.
I can’t disagree with him there! I have to believe that he was joking when he deplores the Fire Brigade’s habit of putting out fires & thereby saving ugly buildings from destruction. That’s surely taking aestheticism too far. Some of his essays are still relevant today. A Cloud of Pinafores is about the cult of the child, “But, now that children are booming, the publishers and reviewers are all agog.” I loved the observation that children could now be as impertinent as they liked without being told to mind their manners. In Victorian times, the nursery was a stern place, full of discipline & cautionary verses to keep a child on the straight & narrow. Now, children have such absolute freedom that they are shocked by real life when they leave the nursery,
Finding no pleasure in a freedom which they have always had, incapable of that self-control which long discipline produces, they will become neurotic, ineffectual men and women. In the old days, there could have been no reaction of this kind. The strange sense of freedom was a recompense for less happiness of heart. Children were fit for life.
What would Beerbohm have thought about children’s fashion labels, babycinos & the abolition of prize-giving at sports days because “everyone’s a winner”?
Other essays on the state of the music hall, the novels of Ouida & Madame Tussaud’s waxworks are equally entertaining. You probably know by now whether or not Max Beerbohm is for you. Simon has also reviewed More in the latest issue of Shiny New Books.
The publisher, Mike Walmer, kindly sent me a copy of More for review.