George Bernard Shaw dubbed him “the incomparable Max,” but hardly anyone remembers the English humorist Max Beerbohm today, especially on this side of the pond. A caricaturist lavishly feted in his heyday, Beerbohm (1872-1956) deployed his evanescent wit best in prose: Stylistically the missing link between Oscar Wilde and Lytton Strachey, he shot to fame while still an undergraduate. (His 1894 essay “A Defence of Cosmetics,” published in the scandalous Yellow Book‘s debut issue, was pilloried by critics as the epitome of decadence.)
Beerbohm’s precociousness—he succeeded Shaw as the Saturday Review‘s drama critic at the age of 25—and eerie imperturbability (“When you are alone with Max,” Wilde once inquired, “does he take off his face and reveal his mask?”) stemmed partly from his upbringing. As the half-brother of the flamboyant impresario Herbert Beerbohm Tree (producer-cum-star of Wilde’s plays), he moved in cosmopolitan circles from childhood on; as an adult, the impeccable dandy graced London high society, numbering Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh among his fans. But his closest friends exemplified the gay Nineties—loyal Wildeans Robbie Ross and Reggie Turner, the brilliant illustrator Aubrey Beardsley—which led to inevitable speculation about his sexuality. (He lived with his doting mother until he was 38, when he married an actress and moved permanently to Italy.) Author N. John Hall, following the historian Rupert Hart-Davis, concludes that the fastidious Beerbohm likely remained celibate all his life (call it the Henry James syndrome), despite his mildly romantic feelings toward women.
“It is Oxford that has made me insufferable,” boasted the young Max. While his arch, ironical manner, with its elaborate flights of fancy, absurd classical tags, and quaintly archaic diction, indeed seems Oxonian, it also owes much to Lamb and Hazlitt. Beerbohm tells of a friend who “felt of a sudden his hat assume plumes and an expansive curl, the impress of a ruff about his neck, the dangle of a cloak and sword. I, too, have my Elizabethan, my Caroline moments.” Hélas! then, that such moments grew increasingly rare. By his fifties he’d stopped writing, despite becoming Sir Max in 1939 and giving popular BBC radio talks in his old age. In the first biography of Beerbohm in 40 years, Hall’s sound research and well-marshaled quotes bring his subject back to life: the “ex-Arcadian” and exquisite personality whose work, if minor, still repays reading.