As S. N. Behrman explains in his Portrait of Max "in 1894, Aubrey Beardsley introuced Max to Henry Harland, who was then in the process of founding The Yellow Book, and Harland thought it worthwhile to ask Max for a contribution to the first number. Max contributed a bombshell" (50). None of the magazine and newpaper critics resalized that Max's contribution, "A Defence of Cosmetics," was in fact a spoof, a send-up of both the Decadents and contemporary society. Perhaps because the young man had already established a reputation as a wit and a dandy, everyone seemed to take it as immoral and subversive, and as Behrman explains, "A well-known humorist of the time, Barry Pain, was so shaken by it that he momentarily mislaid his sense of humor. As Max had begun to frequent the Cafe Royal during his London sojourns, Pain, upon the publication of this scandalous essay, lumped Max with the other decadent denizens of that cafe and blasted it with the withering remark, in his newspaper column, "A whiff of grapeshot would do no harm there." Beerbohm welcomed the sensation his essay created, since it provided him with an opportunity to write a second piece explaining, as if to the simple-minded, the point of the joke.
Speaking with Beerbohm a half century after the appearance of the essay, his memoirist reports that his friend in fact intensely disliked cosmetics. Indeed, it
would never have remotely occurred to his sisters or his mother, Max told me, to apply it, and had they done so, he would have been saddened, even outraged. Up to that time, only women of the streets resorted to rouge. . . . Max was devoted all his life to the unassisted complexions of unfashionable English girls; the natural English female complexion of those early days aroused in him, in long retrospect, a memorial dithyramb. Over the tea and strawberries, Max enlarged on this sort of complexion. "It was a delicate rose pink, don't you know, and rouge would only have blemished it," he said. "In those days, the houses were very irregularly heated; the downstairs library might be quite warm and the hall outside freezing cold. The ladies moved from room to room, and their complexions had to guess the next temperature they would encounter. It was this act of guessing that kept their complexions suspended, don't you know, between the lovely pink, the lovely rose."[51-52]
When Behrman jokingly accused his elderly friend of "acquiring an initial reputation on false pretenses," he replied "'It was just an exercise in euphuism. Still, as far as anyone in literature can be lynched, I was" (52). Students — I can state this from personal experience — still often miss the point of this gentle satire, though none (thus far) seem to believe the author deserves some horrible fate.
Beerbohm, Max. The Works of Max Beerbohm. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1922. 107-135.
Behrman, S. N. Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm. New York: Random House, 1960.
Last modified 9 May 2008