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Title: A Peep into the Past
Author: Beerbohm, Max, Sir
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Peep into the Past" ***

                         A PEEP INTO THE PAST

_This Edition is limited to 300 copies printed from type on Japan
Vellum, and the type distributed._


                         A PEEP INTO THE PAST

                             MAX BEERBOHM

                           PRIVATELY PRINTED


This hitherto unpublished essay was written by Max Beerbohm for the
first number of _The Yellow Book_, but it was held over to make way
for his famous _Defence of Cosmetics_, which duly appeared in April,
1894. Whether this change was made because of the impending Wilde
scandal it is, of course impossible to say with certainty, but the
probabilities favour this explanation. The Wilde case did not come
to the ears of the general public until the spring of 1895, just one
year after the founding of _The Yellow Book_, but literary London was
aware of what was happening long before that date, and already in
1894 Wilde’s friends were very anxious about the recklessness of his
behaviour. It is significant that Oscar Wilde, the archetype of the
Decadent Nineties, did not contribute either to _The Yellow Book_ or
_The Savoy_, which were the literary organs of that whole movement. It
is difficult not to see some connection between the remarkable absence
of Wilde’s name from these periodicals and the fact that this brilliant
essay on him was never published.

The essay itself is one of the deftest and cleverest pieces of writing
which Max Beerbohm has ever achieved. In it one can see how from the
very beginning of his career Beerbohm was destined to be the satirist
of the period with which he is associated, although he never displayed
any of the qualities――or defects――of the Decadents. No cartoon of his
is more devastating and illuminating than this solemn buffoonery of
Wilde in terms of a domesticity as preposterous as Wilde’s own pose
of diabolism. At the same time Wilde had no more devoted admirer or
faithful friend. It is characteristic of the good nature of Max’s
satire that it does not necessarily imply disapproval. It is just his





                         A PEEP INTO THE PAST

Oscar Wilde! I wonder to how many of my readers the jingle of this name
suggests anything at all? Yet, at one time, it was familiar to many and
if we search back among the old volumes of Punch, we shall find many a
quip and crank out at its owner’s expense. But time is a quick mover
and many of us are fated to outlive our reputations and thus, though at
one time Mr. Wilde, the old gentleman, of whom we are going to give our
readers a brief account, was in his way quite a celebrity; today his
star is set, his name obscured in this busy, changeful city.

Once a welcome guest in many of our Bohemian haunts, he lives now a
life of quiet retirement in his little house in Tite Street with his
wife and his two sons, his prop and mainstay, solacing himself with
many a reminiscence of the friends of his youth, whilst he leaves
his better-known brother, William, to perpetuate the social name of
the family. Always noted for his tenacious memory, it is one of the
old gentleman’s keenest pleasures to regale a visitor from the outer
world with stories of the late Mr. Frank Niles, Mr. Godwin, the
architect, Mr. Robert Browning or the Earl of Lytton, who was not the
only member of the upper ten thousand to honour Mr. Wilde with his
personal friendship. “All, all are gone, the old familiar faces” and
with the quiet resignation of one who knows that he is the survivor of
a bygone day, Mr. Wilde tends more and more to exist in its memory or
to solace himself with the old classics of which he was ever so earnest
a student, with his Keats and his Shakespeare, his Joseph Miller and
the literal translations of the Greek Dramatists. Not that he is a mere
_laudator temporis acti_, a bibliophile and nothing more. He still
keeps up his writing, is still the glutton for work that he always
was. He has not yet abandoned his old intention of dramatising Salome
and the amount of journalistic matter that he quietly produces and
contributes anonymously to various periodicals is surprising. Only last
year an undergraduate journal called the _Spirit Lamp_ accepted a poem
of his in which there were evidences that he has lost little of his old
talent for versification.

Mr. Wilde is an early riser. Every morning, winter and summer at 4:30
A. M. his portly form――(he is in appearance not unlike Sir William
Harcourt and still stands six foot three in his slippers)――may be seen
bending over the little spirit-kettle, at which he boils himself his
cup of hot cocoa. Donning his work-a-day clothes, he proceeds at once
to his study and commences work, continuing steadily to breakfast,
which he takes in company with his wife and sons. Himself most regular
in his habits, he is something of a martinet about punctuality in his
household and perhaps this accounts for the constant succession of
page-boys, which so startles the neighbourhood. Breakfast over, the
master of the house enjoys his modest cigarette――no costly cigar nor
precious meerschaum ever passes his lips――he is a strict believer in
simplicity of life as the handmaiden of hard work. He never nowadays
even looks at the morning papers, so wholly has he cut himself off from
society, though he still goes on taking in the Athenaeum, in the hopes
that it may even now do the same to him. So without dawdling over the
perusal of news, he immediately resumes work and does not desist until
the stroke of twelve, when punctually he folds up his papers, wipes
his pen, puts away his books of references and starts for an hour’s
walk up and down the King’s Road, Chelsea. With his tall, bowed figure,
carefully brushed silk hat and frockcoat which though old-fashioned
was evidently cut by a good tailor, old Mr. Wilde is well-known to all
frequenters of the thoroughfare. The trades people, too, know him well
and often waylay him as he attempts to pass on.

After early dinner, the time is passed pleasantly in reading Ruskin to
his two youngsters; after that more literary work, a light supper, a
glass of grog and bed-time. But not always rest! Often, his good lady
tells me, has she woken at three or four in the morning to find her
husband still sitting up in bed or pacing up and down the bedroom in
parturition of that same joke of which he sketched for her the outline
as they were retiring to rest. Yes, and it is in this indomitable
perseverance, this infinite capacity for taking pains, this “grit,”
as they call it in the North, that lies Mr. Wilde’s secret. True that
the whole body of his signed works is very small――a book of parodies
upon Rossetti, a few fairy-tales in the manner of Hans Anderson, an
experimental novel in the style of Poe, a volume of essays, which
Mr. Pater is often obliged blushingly to repudiate, a French play
written in collaboration with Mr. Louÿs and one or two English ones
in collaboration with Mr. G. R. Sims. But surely we must judge an
artist, not so much by his achievement as by his methods of procedure
and though such a story as the The Theory of Mr. W. S. (I came across
a copy of it lately at an old book-stall in Vigo Street) occupied only
the extreme middle of no more than forty pages, the author has given
me his word that it took him six months hard unremitting labour to

After all, it is not so much as a literary man that Posterity will
forget Mr. Wilde, as in his old capacity of journalist. The visit
to America, that is still so fresh in the old gentleman’s memory,
doubtless influenced his style in no small degree and many an old
pressman can testify to the great vivacity and humour of their
colleague, though they may envy the indomitable vitality which enables
one so far past his meridian to continue “producing.” Perhaps the most
startling feature of his career was the manner in which, putting his
broad shoulder to the wheel, he was able so late in life to strike out
into dramatic writing――a branch that he had never till then attempted.
When Mr. Sydney Cooper contributed to the last Academy but one a
picture of a hunt scene, everyone was surprised, but that Oscar Wilde
should have written a four act play and got it produced by a London
manager, fairly beat all records of senile enterprises. We critics were
really touched and――who will blame us for it?――agreed to withhold those
criticisms which we should otherwise have been forced to make upon
the production. It was a pretty occasion and anyone who was present,
as I was at the first night, will look back with affection at its
memory. The play itself a chapter of reminiscences――the audience good
natured and respectful――the hearty calls of “Author”――and finally his
appearance before the curtain, bowing with old fashioned grace to the
Public, whom he has served so faithfully. Those of us who had known him
in the old days, observed that he seemed for the moment dazed and noted
with feelings of pity that in his great excitement he had forgotten to
extinguish his cigarette, an oversight that the Public was quick to
pardon in the old gentleman.

Not long ago, wishing to verify one or two facts for an article I was
writing upon the life of the Early Victorian Era and knowing that Mr.
Sala was out [of] town, I paid a visit to the little house in Tite
Street. I found everything there neat and clean and, though, of course,
very simple and unpretentious, bearing witness to womanly care and
taste. As I was ushered into the little study, I fancied that I heard
the quickly receding _frou-frou_ of tweed trousers, but my host I
found reclining, hale and hearty, though a little dishevelled upon the
sofa. With one hand, readjusting the nut-brown Georgian wig that he
is accustomed to wear, he motioned me with a courteous gesture of the
other to an armchair.

The old gentleman was unaffectedly pleased to receive a visit from
the outer world, for, though he is in most things “a praiser of past
times,” yet he is always interested to hear oral news of the present,
and many young poets can testify to the friendly interest in their
future taken by a man who is himself contented to figure in their past.
As it was, when I had enriched myself from the storehouse of his still
unclouded memory, we fell to talking about things in general, and I
was struck by the quaint humour which still pervades his talk as well
as by the delightfully old-fashioned way in which he rolls out his
well-rounded periods. Many a modern conversationalist, I thought, might
do worse than take a hint or two from his style. Nor has he lost any
of that old Irish readiness for which he was once famed. It is said
that a dinner given once at which many were present, Mr. Whistler, then
quite a young boy, perpetrated some daring epigram and Wilde, beaming
kindly across the table, said, to encourage him, “How I wish I had said
that!” Young impudence cried, “You will, Sir, you will.” “No. I won’t,”
returned the elder man, quick as thought and young impudence relapsed
into silence abashed. Since then, the old journalist has contracted
a strange habit of chuckling to himself inordinately at whatever he
says and to such a degree has this habit grown upon him that at the
last dinner-party he ever attended it was decided that he had the rare
faculty of keeping a whole table perfectly serious, whilst he himself
was convulsed with laughter. I think, however, it is only one of the
mannerisms of age and certainly I found him as amusing as ever he was
and as prone to utter those bulls which are an Irishman’s privilege
and are known in England by the rather pretentious name of paradox.
One instance will suffice. After we had chatted together for a while
somebody entered to say that an old lady had called for the character
of her new page-boy and as my host with his passion for literary work
seemed anxious to write it, I felt I had better take my leave. Just
as I was leaving the room I observed that the weather had become very
sultry and I feared we should have a storm. “Ah, yes,” was the reply,
“I expect we shall soon _see_ the thunder and _hear_ the lightning!”
How delightful a perversion of words! I left the old gentleman
chuckling immoderately at his little joke.

                                                      MAX BEERBOHM.

                   *       *       *       *       *

 Transcriber’s Notes:

 ――A facsimile of author’s manuscript precedes the text content.

 ――Text in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_).

 ――Punctuation and spelling inaccuracies were silently corrected.

 ――Archaic and variable spelling has been preserved.

 ――Variations in hyphenation and compound words have been preserved.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Peep into the Past" ***

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