Max Beerbohm: A Lesson in Manners

Fith the passing of Max Beerhohm the world of English letters has lost an impeccable essayist, a cartoonist who was in a class by himself, a critic. a charming conversationalist. and a dandy whose manners made an unforgettable impression on tinyounger generation. So says EVELYN WAUGH in this affectionate reminiscence.

by EVELYN WAUGH

BECAUSE of his early precocity’ and his open old-fashioned scorn of the new royal circle, of the new, popular writers of the Edwardian era, of Arnold Bennett and of H. G. Wells, because of his antiquated elegance in dress, Max Beerhohm came to bo regarded as a man of the 1800s. In fact his full flowering was in the 1920s. He wrote little then, but it is the decade of his best collections of essays, of his most brilliant drawings, exhibited at the Leicester Galleries, oi the publication of A Survey (1921), Rossetti and his Circle (1922), Things Sew and Old (1923), Observations (1926).

He lived abroad, and from being a ubiquitous man about town he had become a secluded and exclusive celebrity. On his rare visits to London everyone strove to meet him. I was not one of the young men to whom invitation cards came in great profusion — I was the author of one light novel and a heavy biography— but on one of these later visits I managed to find myself in his company.

To say that I was invited to dine with him by my solictor gives a wrong impression. I had no solicitor in those happy days. There were no japanned deed cases painted with my name in E. S. P. Haynes’s office. He had acted for me, it is true, in a single disagreeable piece of legal business, but he gave me far more in oysters and hock during its transaction than he charged me in fees. He was the most remarkable of solicitors, a man who actually enjoyed the company of literary men of all ages and reputations. A second Watts-Dunlon? the reader will ask. Not a second Watts-Dunlon. Haynes did not seek to restrain the pleasures of his clients; hovvever extravagant, he applauded and promoted them.

I kept no diary then. I think it must ha ye been in the spring of 1949 that I received the imitation to dine en famille in St. John’s Wood to meet .Max Beerhohm. I came with joy, for Max Beerhohm was an idol of my adolescence to whom every year had deepened my devotion. It was my first visit to Mrs. Haynes. Hitherto my meetings with Haynes had been in a subterranean bar in Chancery Lane. Now I saw him at home, in a home that might have come straight from the pages of du Manner’s Punch; Mr. Vandyke Brown A. R. A. at home.

As soon as I entered the drawing room I realized why I had keen asked; I was by far the youngest man presen I and I was there to provide a lively partner for the youngest Miss Haynes. Everyone else was illustrious, each an idol of mine. It was my first sight of Hilaire Belloc and of Maurice Baring. Either of these on any other night would have been a prodigious treat, but my eyes and ears were for Max. He was very polite and quiet. I stood far oil with the youngest .Miss Haynes, who had been dandled on the knees of ihcse resplendent beings and regarded them as jolly old buffers. Preposterous to record, she seemed genuinely more interested in me and my friends than in them.

In the dining room the separation persisted. Max sat far away, and between us hung the harrier of elderly intimacy and allusion. How well everyone talked and how loudly! All save Max. How they laughed and chaffed! What robust vocabularies, what rare knowledge, what exuberant fancies vollied and thundered between me and the object of my devotion! How splendidly lacking they were in any sort of side! What capital good fellows they were! And how Max enjoyed them, and they him! Every now and then with perfect timing, but quite inaudibly to us at the end of the table, the gentle exquisite, inserted his contribution. How joyously Belloc and Baring acclaimed him! Admirable wine circulated. I spoke freely to Miss Haynes about Robert Byron and Harold Acton. Then the ladies left us, and chairs were about to be drawn up when there irrupted two or three youngish men who (with their women folk, now in the drawing room) had been “asked in later.” Chairs drew apart again. More glasses were brought. The decanter went from hand to hand.

It was a memorable evening, but through it all thrilled the faint Panpipe of disappointment. When at length I left I had nothing to remember of Max Beerbohm; a “Good evening” and a “Good night.” I returned to the club where I lived, slightly drunk but slightly crestfallen.

It was there that I was vouchsafed a second chance. I found that club a convenient place to sleep, but already my then fast, smart preferences were alienating me from it. It was the genial resort of respectable men of letters, where the spirit of Edmund Gosse still reigned in the morning room and the younger members seemed mostly to be employed by the B.B.C. The truth must be told, I felt rather superior to the place. And there in the hall next day at one o’clock, watch in hand, a host evidently expecting a guest, stood Max Beerbohm. He did not wear the tall hat and tubular coat of the Nicholson portrait; he was military rather than aesthetic in his dandyism. But he was smart as paint.

I sidled forward wondering whether to accost him or not. He observed my movement, smiled and held out his hand. I remarked that the previous evening had been very pleasant. He agreed and added that he greatly looked forward to seeing the portrait on which he understood I was at work. He had heard Tonks speak of it with unusual warmth. In that awful moment his friend arrived. I slipped away broken. No luncheon for me that day; rather the Hamain Baths, which in that happy epoch existed for just this purpose — to soothe the wounded heart.

Under that exotic cupola I sprawled and sweated; I plunged into the raftered hall where the bust of “Sligger’s” father gazed down on mobled mankind. I dozed through the afternoon and at sundown had hot buttered toast and whisky and soda. Then, a better man, I returned to the scene of my disaster to dress for the evening.

I was greeted by the porter with a letter addressed— could it be? — in the fine little handwriting which fills the spaces of the famous drawings. How I wish I had kept it! Part of the anarchy which I then professed, was a disdain for personal records. I remember the gist but not the inimitable diction. It was an apology. Max Beerbohm was growing old, he said, and his memory played tricks with him. Once in his own youth he had been mistaken by an elder for someone else and the smart troubled him still. He reminded me that he knew my father well and had seconded him in days before I was born for this very club. He said he had read my novel with pleasure. He was on his way back to Italy. Only that prevented him from seeking a further meeting with me.

It was an enchanting document. More exciting still was the thought that, seeing my distress, he had taken the trouble to identify me and make amends.

Good manners were not much respected in the late twenties; not at any rate in the particular rowdy little set which I mainly frequented. They were regarded as the low tricks of the ingratiating underdog, of the climber. The test of a young man’s worth was the insolence which he could carry off without mishap. Social outrages were the substance of our anecdotes. And here from a remote and much better world came the voice of courtesy. The lesson of the master.