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THE SMALLEST GENIUS AND "THE WITTIEST MIND": MAX BEERBÃœHM AND LYTTUN STRACHEY By Ira B. Nadel (University of British Columbia) What was the association between Max Beerbohm and Lytton Strachey? Was it polite friendship or literary fellowship? Was its source a shared aesthetic or a mutual distrust of pretension? The connections between these two striking figures of English parody and prose are the subject of this essay which will be an excursion in biography with a detour into bibliography and a rest-stop at literary criticism. Three subjects will be of interest: the personal contact between Beerbohm and Strachey, their similar ideas about literature, and the sources of their mutual admiration. In December 1917, Strachey told Clive Bell, having just seen Beerbohm's caricatures at the Grosvenor Gallery, Mayfair, that he had "'the most remarkable and seductive genius--and I should say about the smallest in the world.'" Seven years later, Beerbohm exclaimed to William Rothenstein that '"the wittiest mind of the age'" belonged not to himself but to Strachey with the added quality of its virtue "'guarded even more strictly and puritanically than I have guarded the virtue of mind.'"! What accounts for this parallel praise which continued to the end of their careers and what does it tell us about the similarities of their writing? Lytton Strachey refused his first opportunity to meet Max Beerbohm. In the spring of 1906 while ill at Lancaster Gate, Strachey told Desmond McCarthy that he had "no wish to be infinitely bored" by spending the afternoon with the author of The Happy Hypocri te (189 7), contributor to The Yellow Book, current drama critic of the Satu rday Review and increas FrTgTy popular caricaturist.2 it was not until May 1912 that their paths--or rather reservat ions--crossed as Beerbohm spied a peculiarly dressed young man dining amid civil servants, scientists and clergymen at the Savile Club. With his brovtn velveteen jacket, soft shirt and dark red tie, Strachey distinguished himself among the conservatively attired crowd. Beerbohm thought him to be like Didymus, the doubting Apostle, but "rather an authority on French literature. "3 The publication of Emi nent Victori ans in 1918, however, initiated an exchange of letters between Beerbohm and Strachey, but until the summer of 192U their correspondence remained sporatic, although Strachey was quick to praise Beerbohm's Seven Men with a letter of congratulations when it appeared in November 1919. On 7 July 1920, however, Beerbohm wrote an amusing letter to Strachey from Rapallo outlining in a comical fashion that he had replaced his fox terrier named after Henry James (which died of distemper) with a kitten. In appreciation of the pleasure derived from Eminent Victorians, Beerbohm sought Strachey's approval for christening the cat '"Stre-chi (or rather Stre-cci)......'I hope you don't mind,'" he continued. 289 29U "1I am sure you would be amused if you heard the passing-by peasants enticing it by your hardly recognisable name.'" Strachey's response acknowledged with pleasure the honour. Two years later Beerbohm wrote to say the kitten is a "'confirmed cat'" and is '"vigorous and vagrant, but not, I am sorry to say, either affectionate or intelligent. ... He is, however, very proud of his name, and sends his respectful regards to his Illustrissimo Eponymisto Inglese.'" One consequence of the original letter was Beerbohm's request to have Strachey visit him at the Charing Cross Hotel on his next trip to London to "'professionally stare at him.'" Having learned that Strachey was writing a life of Victoria, Beerbohm had drawn "'a caricature of him in his royal connexion.'" He wanted, however, '"to verify Strachey's image.'" On 13 April 1921, Strachey visited Beerbohm whom he described to his brother James as "'polite and elaborate, and quite remote, sofar as I could see, from humanity in all its forms.'"4 Strachey's letter suggests a certain distance between the two writers, almost a separation between generations although only eight years divided the two in age (in 1921 Beerbohm was 49, Strachey 41). The caption of the caricature Beerbohm confirmed, illustrating a frustrated Lytton composing the life of Victoria with an oversized quill at a busy desk...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 289-295
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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