Thursday, March 17, 2016

It was so like something I had known - some Beerbohm laughter in And Even Now

The Prince of Minor Writers leads off with almost all of the 1920 collection And Even Now.  The editor violates chronology because this collection, of pieces from 1910 to 1920, is so good, and a perfect showcase of Beerbohm.

Beerbohm the humorist, for example.  See  “’How Shall I Word It’” (1910), in which Beerbohm comes across a book of sample letters (“to Father of Girl he wishes to Marry” or “asking Governess for her Qualifications”) which he finds lacking in “wrath” and “bad motive.”  After a digression in which he confesses his desire to rob post office boxes, Beerbohm provides some samples that he thinks are more useful.  They mostly involve blackmail and insults.

Letter in Acknowledgement of Wedding Present

Dear Lady Amblesham,
  Who gives quickly, says the old proverb, gives twice.  For this reason I have purposely delayed writing to you, lest I should appear to thank you more than once for the cheap, hideous present  you sent me on the occasion of my recent wedding.  Were you a poor woman, that little bowl of ill-imitated Dresden china would convict you of tastelessness merely; were you a blind woman, of nothing but an odious parsimony.  As you have normal eyesight and more than normal wealth, your gift to me proclaims you at once a Philistine and a miser (or rather did so… (p. 25)

No, I should not quote the entire masterpiece.  I was impressed how Beerbohm skillfully orders the sample letters by funniness.

Or try “Kolniyatsch” (1913), a tribute to a pastiche of a Russian writer.

Kolniyatsch was born, last of a long line of rag-pickers, in 1886.  At the age of nine he had already acquired that passionate alcoholism which was to have so great an influence in the moulding of his character and on the trend of his thought.  (50)

Beerbohm sounds like Woody Allen in The New Yorker, or I suppose the reverse.

Mixed among the comedy, though, there are some pieces of a different kind, familiar essays or bits of memoir worthy of Charles Lamb.  One of them is “No. 2, the Pines,” his loving portrait of his visits to Algernon Swinburne.  Another is about a young married couple Beerbohm knew (or invented), “William and Mary.”  “Memories, like olives, are an acquired taste”  (267).  William is a socialist, poet and disciple of William Morris; Mary is “the Brave Little Woman” (277).  They are the perfect couple, an ideal of true love and happiness, made more perfect by their both dying young.

This is one sad story.  Beerbohm visits the couple frequently, drawn by Mary’s laughter more than William’s conversation, who switches from Morris to Ibsen (“At the time of my first visit, he was writing an extraordinarily gloomy play about an extraordinarily unhappy marriage”) then to Gissing (“he was usually writing novels in which everyone – or do I exaggerate? – had made a disastrous match,” 275).

In the final pages of the essay, Beerbohm revisits their cottage, long abandoned, for the first time in years.  It takes four pages for him to reach the front door and ring the bell, senselessly, just to do something.  Then he rings again.  The bell is like “a trill of laughter echoing out of the past.”

It was so like something I had known, so recognisable and, oh, recognising, that I was lost in wonder.  And long must I have remained standing at that door, for I heard the sound often, often.  I must have rung again and again, tenaciously, vehemently in my folly. (285)

This piece is fit company for Lamb’s “Dream Children.”  I wonder why it was omitted from The Prince of Minor Writers.  But I do not wonder much, since it is so easily available elsewhere.  My page numbers are from the copy at the link.


  1. Tom:
    I read ‘William and Mary’ today. Beautiful, deft, not a word too much. He is a master of natural flow, the incomparable Max indeed.

  2. Reading Machado, I see. Have you read Midnight mass yet? A solid candidate for best short story ever, IMHO.

  3. I have read it. That's one of the Machado stories worthy of the best Chekhov. The collection I am reading now, from Dalkey Archive, does not have "Midnight Mass," because it is not Dalkey enough.