Author Max Beerbohm is probably best known nowadays for his novel “Zuleika Dobson”, a satirical story of life in undergraduate Oxford, although Wikipedia reminds us that he was “an English essayist, parodist, and caricaturist”. “Zuleika” has been sitting on Mount TBR, in the form of a nice old Penguin, for quite some time, so I was pleased to be offered a review copy of “The Works of Max Beerbohm” by the independent publisher, Michael Walmer (whose edition of “Vainglory” by Ronald Firbank I reviewed here).
Beerbohm had a long and illustrious career and yet “The Works” was his first published book, a collection of essays previously appearing in various publications. There are seven of these, ranging in topic from dandies such as Beau Brummell, via a reconsideration of the life and character of King George IV through to one of his most famous, “The Perversion of Rouge” – the latter covering the resurgence of the use of cosmetics, an essay which was reputed to have moved Oscar Wilde to tears!
Stylistically, Beerbohm’s writing is ornate and very enjoyable. It takes a little adjusting to if you’re used to more prosaic modern writing, but once you get into the flow of it you find yourself reading surprisingly rapidly. MB certainly has a way with words and his prose really is a joy to read. Although the subject matter is not people or ideas that present-day readers would necessarily be familiar with, in many ways that doesn’t matter – there’s always the Internet to let you look up the history of, say, Robert Coates (whose terrible acting career is covered in the essay “Poor Romeo!”) – and in any event these essays are worth reading for the wonderful language alone.
“Most women are not as young as they are painted… Cosmetics are not going to be a mere prosaic remedy for age or plainness, but all ladies and girls will come to love them…the season of the unsophisticated is gone by, and the young girl’s final extinction beneath the rising tides of cosmetics will leave no gap in life and will rob art of nothing… Artifice, sweetest exile, is come into her kingdom.”
Beerbohm is a very clever writer, skilled at using language to play tricks and make the reader think completely the opposite to the obvious. In fact, the only trouble I had with this book was sometimes being unsure when Max was parodying or not! For example, his piece on King George IV actually came across as a genuine attempt to reappraise the man’s life and character; whereas “A Good Prince” very cleverly twists your expectations on the first page with revelations on the final fifth page which make you realise you aren’t reading about quite the sort of person you thought! And “The Perversion of Rouge” seems to me very definitely a cry out against the plastering on of so much make-up that the real person has completely disappeared – which is a surprisingly modern and relevant way of thinking, when confronted with today’s fashions of dying, primping, injecting and plasticising oneself so as to be as unlike the original as possible. Beerbohm’s Dandies are not that far removed from today’s fancy dressers, removing all trace of body hair, wearing fake tans (and fake everything elses!), spending fortunes on clothes and ointments – plus ca change, as they say! As MB points out, sun-tan make-up was being used by “countless gentlemen who walk about town in the time of its desertion from August to October, artificially bronzed, as though they were fresh from the moors or the Solent. This, I conceive, is done for purely social reasons.” How modern of them!!
These sparkling little essays were a real delight to read, and with surprising depth and relevance. The book itself is a nice little volume with stripey yellow covers and comes with a bibliography of the essays and their previous appearances. On the evidence of The Works, Max Beerbohm should certainly be remembered for more than “Zuleika Dobson”!
(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – thank you!)