[Disponible en español. Part 3 of The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895]

In July 1893, fifteen-year-old Cissy Loftus made her debut at the Oxford Music Hall (Beerbohm, Letters to Reggie Turner 42). Beerbohm was one of Cissy's most ardent admirers, and for the next few months his letters were full of his infatuation with her. Beerbohm insisted that his love for the young star had purified him. "I have become good and am really happy at last," he wrote to his friend, Will Rothenstein (Beerbohm and Rothenstein 18). Under this romantic influence, the references to Wilde in Beerbohm's letters became more critical.

That Beerbohm was distancing himself from his mentor was evidenced by his 19 August 1893 letter to Turner, in which he wrote, "Apropos of my former self, Oscar was at the last night of the Haymarket [Theatre]....Nor have I ever seen Oscar so fatuous....Of course I would rather see Oscar free than sober, but still, suddenly meeting him after my simple and lovely little ways of life since the Lady Cecilia [Cissy] first looked out from her convent-window, I felt quite repelled" (Letters to Reggie Turner 53). Repellent or not, Beerbohm still admired Wilde's writing, as another passage from the same letter demonstrated. "I have just been reading Salome again," he wrote, "terribly corrupt but there is much that is beautiful in it, much lovely writing: I almost wonder Oscar doesn't dramatise it" (Letters to Reggie Turner 53). In this uneasy alliance between homage and parody, Beerbohm undermined his professed admiration with a flippant closing paradox.

Beerbohm echoed Wilde's style more successfully (almost prophetically, in fact) in a letter to Rothenstein written in September 1893. Describing Wilde's brother, William Wilde, Beerbohm wrote, "Quel monstre! Dark, oily, suspecte yet awfully like Oscar: he has Oscar's coy carnal smile & fatuous giggle & not a little of Oscar's esprit. But he is awful-a veritable tragedy of family likeness" (Beerbohm and Rothenstein 21). The Wildean note in Beerbohm's closing sentence was unmistakable. As a member of Wilde's circle, Beerbohm might even have already heard Wilde's famous line about the tragedies of family likeness, a line that would be heard on stage in The Importance of Being Earnest almost a year and a half later: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his" (Wilde 335).

Beerbohm's harshest words about Wilde appeared in a letter he wrote to Turner in October 1893. Having heard that Wilde was complaining about Beerbohm's caricatures of him, Beerbohm lashed out with a severity that would have been unthinkable only a few months earlier. "How I wish he had written to me on the subject and how I could have crushed him....So long as the man's head interests me, I shall continue to draw it. He is simply an unpaid model of mine and as such he should behave" (Letters to Reggie Turner 73). In demoting "the Divinity Oscar" to the rank of unpaid model, Beerbohm proclaimed his independence from the influence of Wilde. The proclamation was premature, but its savagery suggested that Beerbohm was anxious to establish a separate reputation for himself.

In October 1893, having congratulated Turner on a letter of his that had appeared in the Daily Chronicle, Beerbohm wrote, "You have woken up and found yourself famous! How happy you should be. Poor Oscar went to bed and found himself infamous" (Letters to Reggie Turner 79). Beerbohm obviously was pleased with the remark, because he used it again in a letter to Robert Ross: "Poor Oscar! I saw him the other day, from a cab walking with Bosie [Alfred Douglas] and some other members of the Extreme Left. He looked like one whose soul has swooned in sin and revived vulgar. How fearful it is for a poet to go to bed and find himself infamous" (Ellman 394). Vulgarity was one of Wilde's favourite words. "With our James [Whistler]," Wilde had written in a letter to The World in 1886, "vulgarity begins at home, and should be allowed to stay there" (Danson 70). Beerbohm appropriated Wilde's accusation of vulgarity and levelled it at Wilde himself. He also connected it with the infamy that Wilde, in his provocative writings and indiscreet lifestyle, seemed coyly to be courting.

In spite of Beerbohm's increasingly critical opinion of Wilde, Wilde's stylistic influence continued to be obviously discernible in Beerbohm's writing even when he wasn't explicitly parodying Wilde. In a letter from August 1893, Beerbohm expressed a paradoxical wish fully worthy of his mentor: "Oh God-how I wish myself wholly free and able to lay vast riches at her [Cissy's] feet and marry and live with her unhappily ever after" (Letters to Reggie Turner 45). A new voice began to be heard, however, in a letter written while Beerbohm was on holiday in the country in early September. In a passage probably inspired by Wilde's insistence on the superiority of art over nature, Beerbohm wrote:

I enjoyed having fresh flowers in the garden every morning-though when one thinks of what they must have cost, apart from the expense of their carriage from the London dealers, one cannot but wish the money were spent on some more lasting object: people talk of agricultural depression and so forth, but it is a fact that every tiny humble cottage has an enclosed space around it which is filled every morning with fresh flowers. The expenditure is simply profligate. [Letters to Reggie Turner 61]

This short passage on flowers was less affected than Beerbohm's earlier attempts at Wildean satire. Worldliness was one of the characteristics of Wildean style, but the tone of Beerbohm's passage was almost naive. The voice of Beerbohm's literary persona was beginning to emerge.

The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895

Last modified 28 November 2004