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THE CHILD AND THE MAN IN MAX BEERBOHM By Roger Lewis (Oxford University, Magdalen College) For the Victorians, labour was a virtue. Toil would reveal the mysteries of the world and through toil would the world's mysteries be catalogued for posterity. Inhabitants of the nineteenth century were curators of the past and creators of the future. Victorians regarded themselves, says Chesterton, as the climactic chapter in a multi-voIumed novel. Beyond them lay se i ence -fi et i ο η : a state of limitless opportunity for which they would have prepared the way. "Produce! Produce! Were it but the pi ti ful 1 est infinitesimal fraction of the Product, produce it in God's name. . . . Whatsoever they hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called today; tor the Night cometh wherein no man can work."! Thus, the thunder of Carlyle. Out of his dictum came the social histories of George Eliot, the urban explorations of Henry Mayhew, the encyclopaedic volumes of John Ruskin, the detailed sprawls of Charles Uickens. The command also gives permission to invent the factory production-line and encourages the promulgation of plutocratic fortunes. Max Beerbohm, who was nine years old when Carlyle died (and who did not get born until two years after the prodigal hand of Dickens had fallen lifeless midway through a sentence of Edwin Drood), parodied the sedulousness ot his immediate ancestors by advocating, covertly, a cult of laziness. His filigree existence seemed designed strenuously to contrast with Victorian sombre high seriousness. Preachifying Beerbohm abhorred. Instead of being didactic, he played at being a dunce--Oxonian flibbertigibbet for whom intelligence was something of a nuisance--and he always affected to have nothing to impart: "Blushing, I demonstrated that the creative artist was the last person who should be employed as a teacher. Able to do the trick himself, he had no pathetic desire to see it done by others."2 The suggestion is that the artist is privy to some fraudulent device, but that at least he has enough scruples not to broadcast what it might be. Beerbohm continues, however, to describe his methods of work rather more fancifully: "The creative artist works by instinct: he knows not how, by what mystic secret of soul and hand, his work evolves itself. He does not care to know. He has no theories. He can formulate no rules."3 Work is not the reflex of effort; it has manifested itself spectrally. Beerbohm's bemusement resembles that of Kipling, who claimed that his stories were brought forth by a daemon--an incubus it was perhaps best not to i nqui re after. Notions of a numinous cloud of inspiration are at odds with the Victorian belief that conscientious effort would allow even the meek to inherit the earth. If Carlyle would have made the artist into a machine, rolling out regular productions, Beerbohm appears to regard himself as the ghost absconding from 296 297 inside that machine. Instead of punctual creation, Beerbohm teased his audience with sporadic manifestations. What his whole attitude evinces, in fact, is a peculiarly late Victorian and Edwardian trait: that of refusing to grow up. Beerbohm is a wilful child. Like Kipling, who beneath the Imperial rhetoric was still Puck of Pook's Hill, he joins Sir James Barrie as an almost sinister revenant whose superintendant is Peter Pan: "I don't want to go to school and learn solemn things. No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun."4 Such a manifesto is a revolutionary one--litérai Iy. Peter Pan (who has an American antecedent in Huck Finn) and his exaltation of the child trapped within the grown-up, connects the very end of the nineteenth century with the Romantics who commenced it. Matthew Arnold once quipped that Keats, Shelley and Byron were protracted adolescents who had not known enough. They were visionary infants who made up for the want of knowledge with a babble of luxurious language. Dying young, they remained boys forever. Had they survived, they might have matured into respectable Victorians--as Wordsworth...


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pp. 296-303
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Will Be Archived 2021
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