Wreathed in Pastiche: Max Beerbohm’s Christmas Garland (1912)

In a 1903 letter to E. F. Spence, the critic, artist, and humorist Max Beerbohm set forth a theory of caricature:

When I draw a man, I am concerned simply and solely with the physical aspect of him. I don’t bother for one moment about his soul. I just draw him as I see him. . . . It is because (and only because), or, let us rather say, when (and only when) my own caricatures hit exactly the exteriors of their subjects that they open the interiors too. Do I make myself plain? (I don’t mean, do I caricature myself? I never do: I am much too sensitive: the bully is always a coward.)

Here we encounter the artistic philosophy that informed not only Beerbohm’s caricatures of fin-de-siècle characters, published in The Strand Magazine and other popular periodicals, but also his literary parodies, best exhibited in his 1912 collection, A Christmas Garland. The exterior of a person, or the style of his prose, becomes a portal into the wells of interiority, if carefully observed. (Critics thought that Beerbohm had been given “temporary loans of [his subjects’] very minds”.) There is perhaps a riff on dandyism here. Like the dandy (and by all accounts this man was one from the get-go, having celebrated his tenth birthday with a coupe of champagne), Beerbohm achieves what Baudelaire describes as “a personal form of originality, within the external limits of social conventions”. Yet the external limits for this parodist are the visages of others, or the signature qualities of their voices on the printed page. Just as Elmyr de Hory, the art forger in Orson Welles’ F for Fake, did not duplicate preexisting images but painted “new” works by Renoir, Dufy, and Derain, Beerbohm aped so well that his imitations became individual, original.

A Christmas Garland comes with the subtitle “woven by Max Beerbohm”. And there is indeed an Arachne-like quality to these masterful imitations that Beerbohm composed with few visible flaws. He styled himself as a kind of latter day Robert Louis Stevenson, who, by his own account, “played the sedulous ape” to writers of the past. Finding himself afflicted with a “disability” in his adolescence — the inability to read any author earlier than Thackery — Beerbohm became, instead, the voice imitator of his living peers. The table of contents itself is a parody of nineteenth-century fiction’s nominal censorship, pretending to anonymize the “contributors” to this collection: “H*nry J*m*es”, “H. G. W*lls”, “Th*m*s H*rdy”, “J*s*ph C*nr*d”, “G**rge B*rn*rd Sh*w”. Each short story and poem is set around Christmas, and in each, Beerbohm positively nails his subject matter. To take just one example, consider how he renders the syntactic and psychological opacity of “late James”:

But his sense of the one thing it didn't block out from his purview enabled him to launch at Eva a speculation as to just how far Santa Claus had, for the particular occasion, gone. The gauge, for both of them, of this seasonable distance seemed almost blatantly suspended in the silhouettes of the two stockings. Over and above the basis of (presumably) sweetmeats in the toes and heels, certain extrusions stood for a very plenary fulfilment of desire. And, since Eva had set her heart on a doll of ample proportions and practicable eyelids—had asked that most admirable of her sex, their mother, for it with not less directness than he himself had put into his demand for a sword and helmet—her coyness now struck Keith as lying near to, at indeed a hardly measurable distance from, the border-line of his patience.

It's all fun and games to play the ape, but how did Beerbohm’s contemporaries feel about seeing their efforts sent up in a simian mirror? Surprisingly flattered. After hosting James for Christmas dinner, Edmund Gosse reported back to Beerbohm that his guest thought A Christmas Garland was “the most intelligent [book] that has been produced in England for many a long day”. James caveated the praise with his own sense of humor: “you have destroyed the trade of writing”. But Beerbohm got the last laugh. He modified the title page of his personal copy of James’ Terminations with a caricature that makes it appear as if an acorn, the printer’s device, dangles from the author’s mouth, and the final piece Beerbohm wrote in his life, “An Incident” (ca. 1954), recalls how he declined an invitation to walk through London with James, for he found it preferable to spend the day reading him. The jabs were mostly good natured — and Beerbohm could always return to his claim that any bullying was a front for cowardice. “I cannot conceive how any artist can be hurt by remarks dropped from a garret into a gutter”, he once confessed in a letter.