Monday, August 21, 2023

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“SHADOW WORLDS: A History of the Occult and Esoteric in New Zealand” by Andrew Paul Wood (Massey University Press, $NZ55) ; “AT THE SHORT END OF THE SONNENALLEE” by Thomas Brussig [translated from the German by Jonathan Franzen and Jenny Watson] (HarperCollins 4th Estate, $NZ 25:20 paperback)

            I’ll begin this review with a clear verdict.  Writing about “alternative” cults and religions in New Zealand, Andrew Paul Wood is both respectful and sceptical. He categorises as occult and esoteric all the (most often small) groups that propose spiritual and religious ideas outside New Zealand’s mainstream (the mainstream being mainly Christianity, but also Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism).  Wood concedes that some occult and esoteric groups have been harmless, and indeed some have contributed to the common good. But he is also aware of a malign streak in certain occult and esoteric groups, especially those that have promoted racism or white supremacism. Wood is critical of what is patently fraudulent or fabricated in some groups, many of which draw upon claims of ancient wisdom which have in fact been concocted very recently. He also calls out the charlatans who have misled their own congregations. As a piece of scholarship, Wood’s Shadow Worlds is very thorough, covering many groups (some of whom you have never heard before) and built on close research. In other words it is an admirable piece of work and contributes much to an understanding of New Zealand history.

            Given that Pakeha came to New Zealand little more than 200 years ago, it is inevitable that Wood has things to say about Pakeha misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Maori beliefs and religions.  Vigorous attempts were made by missionaries and government to stamp out tohunga and at the same time many Maori adopted syncretic religions, mixing Biblical stories with Maori lore. However Wood’s focus is not on these, but on the esoteric systems that were brought by (and for) colonising Britishers. His introduction advises us that “occulture” in the 19th century was very much a reaction against materialist Enlightenment thought and industrial modernism. There was a feeling that magic and enchantment were being drained out of the world. Thus in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a number British settlers, while still professing to be Christian, embraced Freemasonry, Gnosticism in its various forms, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, the Golden Dawn and other occult systems.

Beginning with Theosophy (Chapter 1) and its first promoter Madame Blavatsky, Wood declares that it “offered a heady cocktail of spiritualism, reincarnation, lost continents and Eastern metaphysics attractively packaged for Western tastes” (p.31). It flourished in Victorian New Zealand in part because one could keep one’s religion, Protestantism, while also adopting pseudo-Hindu and frankly early “science fiction” ideas of what the Cosmos was. Not that all Protestants agreed with this. When an Anglican minister was ordered back to England because he had joined the Theosophists, he was able to retain his status as a member of the Anglican clergy. Says Andrew Paul Wood “The more cynical might argue that Theosophy and the Church of England were actually quite similar in that neither required you to believe in anything at all.” (p.64) Yet many of the great and the good, such as Edward Tregear, became Theosophists, and some of them promoted a more enlightened form of education.  

Not as influential, indeed very small in numbers, were the adherents of  the pompously entitled Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Chapters 2 and 4) which – along with Rosicrucianism – was devised from forged and hoaxed documents purporting to be of ancient antiquity. Back in Britain some eminent literary people, such as W. B. Yeats, had joined the Golden Dawn. In New Zealand the cult was most popular in the 1890s, and once again some eminent public figures were initiated. A Temple of the Golden Dawn was built in what is now Havelock North, which seems to have been a magnet for esoteric groups at that time. However the Golden Dawn split and withered away when an American broke from it and set up his own Builders of the Adtyum, emphasising prophecy by tarot cards. In turn, this morphed into the Higher Thought Temple which stood on a prominent street in Auckland until it was sold off in 2014 “due to diminishing adherents”.

Later came to New Zealand the Swiss Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy. As Wood correctly notes, Steiner’s system has in the last few decades fallen into some ill repute, in that there is a clearly racist undertone in much of Steiner’s writing – like so many of his era, he categorised the worth of human beings according to a hierarchy, with white Europeans at the top. Yet at the same time, many of Steiner’s theories on education were very progressive and are still embraced as a model by many teachers. The fact is that Steiner’s more esoteric teachings are now disregarded while there are still many Steiner schools in New Zealand (and elsewhere). This seems to be a case where a movement has tacitly ditched its original esoteric teachings while preserving something practical and useful. In a very limited sense only, a parallel could be drawn with Freemasonry, which had [and has] esoteric rituals purporting to be of great antiquity, but whose members basically treat it as a fellowship and supporter of public enterprises.

From the 1890s to the 1920s there was in New Zealand, as in Britain and elsewhere, a fashion for Spiritualism. Along with séances, ectoplasm (i.e. regurgitated cheese cloth) and Ouija boards, the great attraction of Spiritualism was its claim that devotees could contact the dead. The movement flourished during and after the First World War when there were so many grieving over those who had been lost in battle. Spiritualism became registered as a church in New Zealand in 1923 and it still survives, albeit now with diminished numbers. However the movement was not helped by the visit, in the 1920s, of the convinced Spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The creator of the most rational and evidence-based fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, was himself extraordinarily gullible. Conan Doyle fell for the notorious Cottingley Fairies hoax (later admitted to be a hoax by the young hoaxers) and in New Zealand he showed his audiences “spirit photographs” which audiences readily realised were simple double-exposure trickery. Newspapers and most audiences laughed. Of Conan Doyle, Wood writes “It is unfortunate, perhaps, that the author lacked his celebrated creations’ perspicacity and deductive skill.” (p.200) And yet Wood does note that, for all their mummery, Spiritualists had a good record of being involved in promoting women’s suffrage, campaigning for prison reform, and petitioning for free schooling. He concedes that in its recent version “Spiritualism New Zealand, with its focus on healing, personal responsibility, karma and universal brotherhood, is an earnest force for good in the world” (p.218). However, he then moves into the charlatanism of the notorious TV series Sensing Murder in which mediums cruelly raised people’s hopes by claiming to be able to solve murders (which in fact they were never able to do).

More recent, and having less impact, have been Rosicrucianism and The Order of the Temple of the East, both essentially anti-Enlightenment and anti-Modernism, gnostic in their teachings, and having their origins in 18th century German mysticism although, like so many esoteric movements, Rosicrucians like to believe their origins are from ancient times.

In the course of his wide survey, Wood chronicles some movements that had very limited impact and fizzled away in short time. There was, for example, an inter-war group called the Empire Sentinels, which seems to have been little more than an imitation of the Scout movement, but with some magic thrown in. It didn’t last. The funniest story (in Chapter 6), set in Christchurch in the 1890s, concerns a Temple of Truth, a formidable building run by a self-made American prophet who at first attracted big audiences until he was exposed as a multiple bigamist, an embezzler and a man with a long criminal record in his country of origin. So-called Druids barely took off the ground in New Zealand. [Like so many esoteric movements their beliefs, far from being of ancient vintage, were of recent concoction.  – for the genesis of modern Druidry, see Professor Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe, reviewed on this blog].  There were also groups that claimed to be building their beliefs out of science. As told in Chapter 9, Herbert Sutcliffe, in the mid-20th century, taught something which he called Radiant Living. Andrew Paul Wood basically gives it a clean bill of health, as the Radiant Living movement mostly concerned itself with exercise, eating healthy food and promoting outdoor living. There was a little mysticism throw in, and cranky predictions concerning the weather, but on the whole it did no harm. Famously, the young Edmund Hillary was a member of Radiant Living.

In a chapter called “The Age of Aquarius”, Wood gives a general survey of the explosion of new cults that came in the 1960s, with communes, cliquey little travelling theatrical groups like BLERTA and Red Mole,  Hari Krishna, Moonies, Scientology, mind-bending drugs – indeed a veritable deluge landing on younger people who turned away from mainstream Christianity but who still wanted to cling to something. Wood largely passes no judgement upon these groups, most of which have now faded from prominence.

Wood does however spent much time (basically Chapters 8, 11 and 13) on neo-Paganism, Satanism and Witchcraft. The influence of Aleister Crowley and his “Thelema” mysticism (“Do as thou wilt is the whole law”) gained much notoriety in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, but there was very little with connection to New Zealand. There was the odd person of New Zealand birth who claimed to be a witch, such as Rosaleen Norton who spent nearly all her life in Sidney. The exhibitionist Lorna Jenks, who rebranded herself “Anna Hoffmann”, hung around Auckland in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and she may or may not have dabbled in the occult. Some immigrants from England tried to promote Morris Dancing as a connection with pre-Christian paganism. Then there was the mode, especially appealing to some feminists, for Wicca, a witchcraft which purported to be reinvigorating ancient feminine power and authority. In reality, the beliefs and rituals of Wicca were all devised in the 1950s by the American Gerald Gardiner. More challenging, however, and certainly more unsavoury were the masculine cults, popular among some Pakeha gangs, which adopted a bastardised version of pagan Scandinavian mythology and taught white supremacism. As Wood notes, in Germany’s Nazi era, Scandinavian and German mythology was misused in the same way to promote the idea of racial superiority. The Pakeha gangs were following the same song book. As for out-and-out Satanists, they seemed to come in two varieties: those who used Satanism to ridicule or irritate Christians and those who really believed in Satan as a sort of alternate god. Wood says wisely: “Neopagan revivalism is, for the most part, a pastiche founded in a quasi-anthropological approach to extant cultural mythology and folkloric traditions, whereas Satanism’s source material is almost entirely based on literary fiction, historical hoaxes and theological calumnies.” (p.352)

Very well researched and informative as it is, there are some passages that are heavy reading. As another reviewer has already noted, Wood does have a tendency to give us all the details, not only of figures who are directly relevant to his narrative, but also of the people who were simply related to these figures. It is almost as if he couldn’t jettison some of his scrupulous research, even if it was irrelevant. I am of course carping here, as this is only a slight blemish on a very interesting book.

I must also add some closing comments. Arthur Conan Doyle was a very intelligent man, yet he fell for the nonsense of Spiritualism. W. B. Yeats was undoubtedly a great poet – one of the 20th century’s greatest – yet he too participated in nonsense, the Golden Dawn… as did quite a number of eminent fin de siècle literati. Of course Wood is right in noting that much of 19th and 20th centuries esoteric movements sprang up as a revolt against science, materialism, modernity and the Enlightenment. But I have an added suggestion. Many (not all) occult and esoteric cults appealed to people of the upper crust or those who aspired to be in the upper crust. This was particularly true of the Golden Dawn. It didn’t exactly attract hoi polloi. Its members were well-to-do and perhaps hoping to become a new sort of aristocracy. What was being promoted here was exclusivity – the comforting feeling that the unwashed were not included. This, by the way, was made explicit in Yeats’ pamphlet “On the Boiler”, where he suggested that those dumb Irish Catholic peasants should be put back in their place and the country should be ruled by an elite. To be exclusive, to be part of an elite, to know something [esoteric] that the general public didn’t know – such snobbery was the inspiration of many an occult movement. The mainstream churches were too open to the public and too open about what they taught. They were not elite enough.

Andrew Paul Wood has enlightened me about many things. I thank him.

Personal Footnote: With some pleasure, I note that the first name mentioned in this book is  one of my elder brothers, Bernard Reid, who died two years ago. On his opening page, Wood remarks that he may deal with magic but “I do not mean magic in the sense of conjuring tricks, but for an excellent history of that in Aotearoa, consult Bernard Reid’s Conjurors, Cardsharps and Conmen. ” (p.14). For the record, for many years Bernard was a professional magician and illusionist, working in the United States for much of his career. I can fairly say he was regarded highly by the Magic Circle, who are, of course, professional magicians who are sworn not to make public how they perform their tricks. I personally enjoy good magic shows, always seeing them as a battle of wits – aware that it is trickery, will I be able to work out how a trick was done? I have no skills whatsoever as a magician. One thing I learned quickly from Bernard is that most professional magicians tend to be anti-religious and scornful of esoteric cults. Bernard certainly was. Much of this has to do with magicians’ understanding of the trickery involved in such esoteric groups as Spiritualism. One of the last conversations I had with Bernard was where we were trying to puzzle out how such an intelligent man as Arthur Conan Doyle could believe in fairies and “spirit photographs”. I must get around to reviewing on this blog Bernard’s Conjurors, Cardsharps and Conmen.

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            It’s very rare to come across a novel that is at once very funny and extremely sad. Thomas Brussig knows what sad is. He grew up in East Germany – the Communist “German Democratic Republic” which fell apart in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was toppled. The Communist state was totalitarian, restrictive, censorious, feeding Communist ideology to school children and adults alike and of course filled with the Stasi, the local spies whose business was to seek out and punish anyone who uttered the least peep against the regime or said anything in favour of the West. When this state eventually fell apart, it was calculated that one in every seven citizens had been suborned to spy for the Stasi. Nobody could ever be sure which neighbours were reporting to the Stasi.

            So how could such a state be seen as funny? Simple. Thomas Brussig focuses on a bunch of East German teenagers, in the early 1980s, living in the Sonnenallee (“Sun Street”), a street right next to the Berlin Wall and its formidable armed guards, traps and barbed wire to prevent people escaping to the West. While going through the motions of adhering to the Communist regime, saying by rote the slogans they have been taught and marching in approved displays, the teenagers know how to get around it all with a hearty subversion and a code of their own. And that’s where the fun comes in.

            Living in a (typically) very cramped apartment, teenager “Micha” (Michael) hears his parents speculate on which of their neighbours are Stasi – they must be the only ones who get plumbers to come quickly when needed. Micha’s mother dutifully subscribes to the regime’s official newspaper, not because she reads it but because she wants to display her loyalty to the state, even though she doesn’t really believe in it. Micha knows how to dodge or hoodwink the “Designated Precinct Enforcer”, that is, the plainly stupid official thug who monitors everybody in the apartment block. Micha knows there are desirable goodies in the West because every so often his uncle Heinz, who lives in West Berlin, manages to come over with what he regards as contraband goods.

But more than anything, Micha is fixated on Miriam, the most beautiful and desired girl in his class, whom all the boys behold enviously. Micha longs for her. Micha believes she has written him a love note, but before he gets to read it a gust blows the letter over the Wall and into the “death strip” where it is forbidden to go on pain of being shot. Micha’s inept attempts to retrieve the letter, and Micha’s gauche attempts to woo Miriam are the fuel of much of the comedy – crushing her toes in a dancing class; watching wistfully as other boys try to pick her up ; seeing a boy from the West dancing perfectly with her. Oh the teenage angst of it!

Of course the other longed-for treasures are banned rock records from the decadent West. Micha’s buddy Frizz makes desperate attempts to get hold of the latest contraband Rolling Stones records, with farcical results. Meanwhile Micha’s other buddy Mario falls in with a red-haired existentialist girl who tries to get him to subscribe to a system of shutting East Germany down bit by bit. Be it noted that these urban  kids are contemptuous of more naïve kids from the rural areas who believe ardently any propaganda the regime pumps out. They refer to them as coming from “the Valley of the Clueless, the area where there was no reception for Western television”.

I agree with Jonathan Franzen’s comment in his preface that “the events in the book are a little too funny to be true, its plot turns a bit too neat.” I also agree that, despite their constricted lives, the adult and teenaged characters make up a credible and likeable community, concerned with one another. Humaneness in a horrible situation. And it is very funny.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.     

THE EIGHTEEN NINETIES – A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century” by Holbrook Jackson (First published 1913)


    The book had been sitting unread on my shelves for years – a battered old Pelican paperback (a subsidiary of Penguin Books) printed in the late 1930s. I assumed that it had also been written in the 1930s. Only when I looked more closely did I realise that it was a reprint of a book first published in 1913.

Why did I now pluck it from the shelf and read it? Because it was called The Eighteen Nineties, subtitled A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century, and I had just read and reviewed on this blog Matthew Sturgis’ biography of AubreyBeardsley, one of the key artists in England’s 1890s. I wanted to get another perspective on that era.

The Eighteen Nineties was written by a now-forgotten figure, Holbrook Jackson (1874-1948), who was reasonably influential in his own time, or at least so the standard sources (Wikipedia et al.) tell me. Holbrook Jackson, as I learned, was essentially a journalist. He was originally part of the Fabian Society but left it as he became more interested in the arts than in politics and economics. Over the years he edited various art- and -literature focused publications. For a while he seems to have been attracted to the cranky Social Credit ideas of C.H. Douglas. He was very prolific in his output and wrote more than 45 books and pamphlets, especially in his later years when he became interested in book collecting. He wrote about book collectors, typefaces, valuable old books and so forth. I remember the late craft printer Ronald Holloway once directing me to Jackson’s The Anatomy of Bibliomania (published in 1930), in which Ron revelled. Jackson was apparently adept at devising epigrams, my favourite being “The poor are the only consistent altruists; they sell all they have and give it to the rich.” Yet, forsooth, he was still a journalist at heart and journalism tends to decay and become irrelevant more quickly than most other forms of writing. So, I thought as I began to work my way through The Eighteen Nineties, how much would I find Holbrook Jackson’s commentary outmoded, old-fashioned, the product of a dated perspective on the arts? And how much would I find his commentary still accurate, shrewd, valid, even witty in places? 

Jackson would have been in his late thirties when wrote The Eighteen Nineties. And of course the 1890s were little more than a decade before he was writing. Doubtless he would have had to apply some tact, given that many of the artists and authors he wrote about were still living. Despite the English 1890s being a heyday of imperialism, colonialism, wars and social unrest, Jackson mentions these things only peripherally. Literature, art and drama in England are his focus, although there are necessarily many frequent allusions to contemporary French writers and poets who, after all, largely influenced English Impressionism, literary Realism and “Decadence” in both literature and art.

            In twenty-one trim chapters, Holbrook Jackson guides us through some major figures of the day. One of the great merits of his survey is that he quotes at length what others had to say in the 1890s themselves. In some chapters, Jackson is more brief than in others, especially when he can summarise an artist or author with a few pithy phrases. Thus it is in “The Incomparable Max” (Chapter 7) where Jackson describes Max Beerbohm as “the spirit of urbanity incarnate” and sees Beerbohm as more conservative than the dandy-s and “decadents” of his era whom Max satirised and almost mocked, but with a delicacy that did not belittle them. Thus too in his all too brief chapter called “The Discovery of the Celt” (Chapter 10) where he skips quickly through the work of W.B. Yeats, Edward Martyn, George Moore, Douglas Hyde and the Irish Literary Theatre, before giving a hasty wink at Scots and Welsh authors. “The Minor Poet” (Chapter 11) defends a number of minor poets, but sees only Ernest Dowson as genuinely memorable. A curious chapter on Francis Thompson (Chapter 12) characterises the poet as a genuine mystic, uncaring about the life of poverty he lived because of all the opium he took, which raddled his brain. Jackson, largely on the strength of Francis Thompson’s most enduring poem “The Hound of Heaven”, sees Thompson as allied to 17th century religious poets like Herbert, Crashaw and Traherne more than to his contemporaries.

Oddest chapter of all is the chapter on John Davidson (Chapter 13), Scots son of an Evangelical minister, unco dour, lifelong plagued with depression, prolific author of (forgotten) novels, endless pamphlets and nine collections of poetry, influenced by the thinking of Nietzsche and eventually (probably) a suicide. Jackson sees Davidson as a man of great ability, but a prophet who was not quite sure of what he was aiming at and always ill at ease with the world. The strangest thing is that Holbrook Jackson begins this chapter by declaring that ”The Eighteen Nineties had no more remarkable mind and no more distinctive poet than John Davidson”. [Personal note – I’m not saying Davidson was of no account. I recall that, many years later, T. S. Eliot crowned one of Davidson’s best-known poems, “Thirty Bob a Week”, as a classic. It is.]

There are three other chapters that seem to be in a rush. The chapter on Rudyard Kipling (Chapter 17) is very ambiguous in tone. Jackson praises Kipling for his vital, lively, colloquial verses and his vivid evocations of a distant land (India), far removed from the wan verses of the “decadents’; but he chastises Kipling for his less appealing and more propagandistic verses. While Jackson takes it for granted that British Imperialism is a great and righteous enterprise, he condemns “jingoism”… but over a century later its hard to see “jingoism” as separable from imperialism. When he turns to painting and “British Impressionists”(Chapter 20) he notes that George Moore said that “Everyone must go to France. France is the source of all the arts” and English impressionists followed this advice as they rebelled from the staid styles of the Royal Academy; but Jackson then falls into naming a plethora of artists who can more-or-less be linked to impressionism – Whistler of course, but also Walter Sickert, John Singer Sargent, Nicholson, Orpen, Augustus John, William Rothenstein… one’s head spins. One is also amazed that in his closing chapter “In Black and White” (Chapter 21), considering the art of pen and pencil sketches in magazines,  Jackson crowns the cartoonist Phil May as the genius of the era. [Not that Jackson ever uses the word “cartoon” or its derivative as it was not yet used to mean a drawing in a magazine. Jackson uses the term “caricature”. ]

So far, the chapters I have noted are good journalism of their day, even if often “boosting”, as important and influential, creative people who are now forgotten or regarded as insipid, dull, unimportant footnotes. Not that it’s fair to task too much somebody who was reporting on his time and place. What is highly-praised now will doubtless be ridiculed or forgotten in a century or so.

The chapters with which Jackson seems more engaged are those that discuss five things – the “decadence”; the revival of drama; a new realism in literature; and the arts and crafts movement that included the revival of artistic book publication.

His opening chapters “Fin de siècle 1890-1900”, “Personalities and Tendencies” and “The Decadence” take us through the general scene – the emergence of “the New Woman” (whatever that might have meant then); the rise of polite socialism (the Fabian Society);  The Yellow Book; the impact of Oscar Wilde; the huge influence of French writers and poets (Baudelaire, Huysmans, Gautier etc.) and of Walter Pater; and the attraction of either Catholicism or Mysticism for many English poets. Then come two chapters which are explicitly about Oscar Wilde (Chapter 4) and Aubrey Beardsley (Chapter 5), as if they are the stars of the show. Of Oscar Wilde he remarks “Throughout the whole of his life he tried to live up, not to his blue-and-white china, but to an idea of personality; and the whole of his philosophy is concerned with an attempt to prove that personality, even though it destroy itself, should be the final work of art.” In other words, Wilde’s view was an elevated form of egotism. Jackson then turns to “The New Dandyism” (Chapter 6) which he interprets as not so much a revolt against convention as a revolt against boredom and often produced by young men who wallowed in sordor but hardly ever dirtied their hands. As Max Beerbohm remarked, he had encountered “the lurid verses written by young men who, in real life, know no haunt more lurid than a literary public-house.” Later Jackson criticises the precious prose and redundant recherche words employed by the decadents. And (Chapter 8) “Shocking as a Fine Art” reasonably separates the foolish habit of attempting to “epater la bourgeoisie” (shocking the middle-classes for no particular reason) from the real and justified shocks delivered in the realism of Zola or Ibsen.

The revival of drama he connects with a chapter (Chapter 14) on George Bernard Shaw called “Enter G. B. S.”, wherein he is able to discuss all the plays Shaw had written in the 1890s and 1900s. This means the best plays Shaw ever wrote, save for a few later plays like Pygmalion and Saint Joan which had not yet been penned when Jackson was writing.  Jackson heaps praise upon Shaw as supplanting Victorian melodrama or inane domestic farce. At the same time, while obviously seeing Shaw as a reformer of society and something of a radical, Jackson also sees Shaw as, in the end, a sort of religious man malgre lui, with a philosophy leading towards a transcendent view of humanity. The praise is, I suppose, justified in the context that this book was written; but a century later, readers might be more aware of, and likely to criticise, Shaw’s habit of turning his plays into formal lectures with neat, somewhat propagandistic, conclusions. The following chapter “The Higher Drama” (Chapter 15) looks at the influence in England of the plays of Ibsen, translated and staged by the likes of William Archer, and how they were at first loathed by the general play-going audiences and the popular critics. Oscar Wilde’s plays were popular, if a little subversive, but Shaw’s first plays were very earnest and more likely to attract only Fabians and other intellectuals. Gradually, however, and influenced by foreigners like Ibsen, Strindberg and Hauptmann, British playwrights such as George Moore [better known as a novelist] began to put hard realism on the stage. It is, however, a little disconcerting to find Holbrook Jackson praising Arthur Wing Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones as among these new realists, when Pinero and Jones are now universally regarded as fusty Victorian relics.

    In “The New Fiction” (Chapter 16) Jackson sees Emile Zola as encouraging English novelists to write more frankly, even if Zola’s novels were censored and expurgated in their first English translations. Now there were novels about the slums (like Arthur Morrison’s A Child ofthe Jago), about severe poverty (like George Gissing’s The Nether World), about unmarried mothers and prostitution (like George Moore’s Esther Waters, which was regarded as scandalous) and about all the horrors of society. As so often happens when a critic tries to cover a whole decade of literary achievement, this chapter collapses into a profusion of authors’ names (most of them now forgotten). Apart from the new realism in 1890s novels, Jackson also notes new genres that were popping up, “scientific romances’ [now called science fiction] (H. G. Wells); exotic travel (Kipling) and Scottish regionalism (J. M. Barrie].

    As for Jackson’s beloved arts and crafts, they are caught in “Art and Life” (Chapter 18) and “The Revival of Printing” (Chapter 19). William Morris, in Jackson’s view, is the hero of craft, both designer and poet, broadminded and (unlike Ruskin) not repelled by Impressionism even if it was not his own style. Jackson sees Morris as a crusader for a utopian society with great art and design available to the general public. As for his chapter on printing, Jackson reveals a specialist’s enthusiasm for new fonts, attractive binding, imaginative end-papers and illustration as created by Morris’s Kelmscott Press, by the Vale Press, the Essex House Press and the Doves press.

It is in his survey of the “decadence”, the revival of drama, a new realism in literature and the arts and crafts movement that Holbrook Jackson is at his best, because he is most involved as both advocate and critic. For a reader in the early 21st century, there are some delicacies of expression that now seem rather twee or inhibited. For example Jackson never directly mentions Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality but instead speaks of “serious rumours about his private life and habits”. And he speaks of a publisher  as standing “courageously for the ideas and art of the decadence at its darkest hour” (meaning when Wilde was under arrest). Obviously, too, he sometimes champions writers and artists who are now regarded as being back-numbers and of no particular merit. But then trying to pick winners is a very imprecise enterprise. Besides, the great majority of people whom Jackson mentions do still have some recognition. While the pages packed only with names (and no real commentary) are pure journalism, Jackson at his best is a real critic. Even now Jackson’s The Eighteen Nineties is still at least a good primer to a busy decade.

Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Looking for paintings to consider, appreciate, enjoy, or be challenged, I walk into an art gallery with high hopes. I have been in this gallery many times over the years, and have strong memories of admiring the works of many artists, New Zealanders or not New Zealanders: those canvases that really say something to me – abstract or representative, portrait or landscape or seascape or domestic scene or crowd scene, historical or modern, confronting or soothing, of current styles or of styles now discarded, of this century or of earlier centuries. I look forward to seeing for myself what the paintings have to say, of relating to them, of admiring the structure of a painting, of how it is devised, of deciding how it does or does not connect with objective reality, of understanding how it creates its own reality, of understanding how derivative or original the painting is and whether it really matters because a derivative painting can be an absorbing painting in its own right. I do not treat paintings as puzzles. I treat them as works to be considered, absorbed, enjoyed and interpreted in my own terms. I hope that others will interpret them in their own terms.

But here’s the rub. After viewing a current “exhibition”, a collection of mediocre daubs, I find myself thwarted at every turn. I am not permitted to appreciate and interpret paintings for myself. Instead, placards tell me, often at length, what I am supposed to think about them. Instead of allowing the paintings to speak for themselves, we have a room of “themes” wherein every painting, old or new, is interpreted in sexual terms, be the painting ancient or modern, secular or religious, probably revealing the obsessions of the people who wrote the placards. An ideology is being pushed here, not an appreciation of art. And in the process many paintings are verbally sneered at by the placards or belittled and presented as something that we should not enjoy… or we’re hopelessly out of touch if we do.

This sort of verbose, ideologically-driven signalling is not unique to New Zealand. It is becoming a plague in the galleries of many countries as curators and their minions set about imposing their ideas on the art on display. The tone is bullying and the assumption patronising. People who enter the gallery are assumed to be infantile and incapable of making their own judgements on works of art.


So what information should ideally be attached to paintings on display in an art gallery? I suggest all that is required is the artist’s name, the dates of the artist’s birth [or birth and death if the artist is deceased], the country of origin of the artist and the painting with perhaps a very brief note on what “school” the artist belonged to. Possibly there could be a sentence or so on the circumstances in which the artist painted, or a sentence explaining a mythic or historical image.  In other words, something making no judgement on the work – for surely viewers will be aware that the painting has some merit or it wouldn’t be hung in the gallery in the first place. Otherwise, we are mired in the in the modish ideological placards that hector you about what you should think.


Footnote: For the record, nine years ago on this blog, I wrote a similar think-piece, called You Will Appreciate This Painting as You are Told, but it dealt with the case of one single specific painting.



Monday, August 7, 2023

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“WIFEDOM – Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Lifeby Anna Funder (Penguin-Random House; $NZ40 )



There’s one thing that has to be said clearly about Australian author Anna Funder. She really does admire the literary work of George Orwell (pseudonym of Eric Blair). In fact she goes out of her way to say how much she admires him. “I’ve always loved Orwell – his self-deprecating humour, his laser vision about how power works, and who it works on,” she says. And “in his work, if not his life, Orwell is on my side. He delved into the living conditions of the colonial oppressed in Burma, of northern English miners, of British tramps and French dishwashers. His desire to expose hidden people from under society’s hypocrisies that keep us blind to them is so admirable, and so exciting. The project of good writing (to reveal to us the world we thought we knew) is perfectly combined with a political project (to reveal the world we thought we knew so we can change it).” But, after reading all Orwell’s works and all six of the most authoritative biographies that have been written about him; after delving into all the relevant archives; after interviewing very old witnesses to Orwell’s life; after travelling through Spain and other places with Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair; and especially after reading the few surviving letters written by Orwell’s wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, to her friend Norah, Anna Funder has come to see Orwell as a deeply flawed man in many ways.

What triggered this view was her coming across, in Orwell’s notebooks, a [third person] passage Orwell wrote denouncing women as slovenly, demanding, and insatiable about sex. After this discovery, she found more and more examples of Orwell’s misogyny, and she focused on the way the biographers (all male) had managed to blot out of their narratives the importance of Eileen O’Shaughnessy in influencing Orwell’s work. Eileen becomes “invisible”, as the book’s title says. Anna Funder comments “Orwell’s work is precious to me. I didn’t want to take it, or him, down in any way. I worried he might risk being ‘cancelled’ by the story I’m telling. Though she [Eileen], of course, has been cancelled already – by patriarchy.” Married and with three children, Anna Funder does not practise misandry but she is very much of the era of the MeToo movement. She discusses it with her teenaged daughters [in a way, dare I say, that sounds just a bit too neat for her theme] and this morphs into reflections on Mrs Orwell’s position as unrewarded house-keeper, drudge and unpaid secretary to Orwell. 



Eileen O’Shaughnessy came from a very well-to-do upper-middle-class Anglo-Irish family. Eric Blair-Orwell came from a shabby lower-middle class family, even if he did go to Eton (on a scholarship). Eileen won a scholarship to Oxford in 1934 and seemed to be doing well there, but she gave up on both academe and her own writing when she failed to get a First.  Anna Funder says, perhaps not too convincingly: “In any event, from this point forward her efforts to put writing at the centre of her life are displaced. She will not write academic work on literature. She will not persevere with the poetry she has been writing. Now, her literary talents will be sublimated into helping other people realise theirs.” Orwell did not go to university. He went straight from school to being a policeman in Burma, which was then one of Britain’s imperial possessions. Orwell was well into his literary career before he met Eileen. He was already a controversialist in journalism, and he had already written and published Down and Out in Paris and London, Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter and other titles.

George Orwell and Eileen O’Shaughnessy met in 1935 and married in 1936, she aged 30, he aged 33, and by mutual agreement in their marriage vows, they deleted the word “obey” from the traditional promise to the “love, honour and obey”. This should have been an equitable marriage. Eileen, when they married, was fully aware that George had diseased lungs  - the tuberculosis that would gradually kill himbut she herself was often physically feeble and in the end she died (in 1945) of uterine cancer. To this reader at least, it is ironical that both of them were chain smokers, rarely without cigarettes in their mouths, and this can’t have induced good health.

The couple spent much of their marriage living in a rather primitive and cramped cottage in the countryside. At first this seemed idyllic – at least for the first six months or so – but Eileen soon became aware that George would suddenly proclaim that he was very ill if Eileen wanted to visit friends or go to London. In that respect, Orwell was very controlling and possessive. Also, writes Funder, “While [George] writes, Eileen deals with the ‘dreadful’ resident Aunt (there for two months!) [George’s aunt], the flood, the cesspit, the shop, the house, the garden, his illnesses, the chickens, the goat and the visitors.” When the latrine backs up, it is Eileen who has to take a bucket, dig out all the excrement, and bury it. It is Eileen who has to walk miles to get provisions . It is Eileen who runs the small – and totally unprofitable – shop attached to their cottage. And all the time they are short of funds, often living “hand to mouth”. Orwell is bailed out a number of times by wealthy patrons – the novelist L. H. Myers (once admired by intellectuals but now forgotten) and the left-leaning aristocrat Richard Rees.


Anna Funder’s first major criticism of Orwell is that he used his wife as unpaid secretary, typist and housekeeper for years without ever admitting how much she influenced his work. Apparently she worked harder than he in keeping their various homes together (they had to move to various flats and apartments in London over the years) and she was often the one bringing in the only income they had. She organised both his hospital care and their going to North Africa for his health [Morocco] where he wrote Coming Up for Air. On the outbreak of war, for the first two years it was Eileen who earned all their income, working for the censorship board of the Ministry of Information. Orwell was rejected for military service because of his health (though he later joined the Home Guard). Funder says “It’s impossible to know exactly what kind of censorship Eileen was involved with in Senate House [which housed the Ministry of Information]. Possibly Orwell was inspired and informed by her work there, erasing certain truths so that some unalloyed version of the nation could replace them. He probably took the building as his model for the Ministry of Truth (i.e. lies) in Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Eileen typed up all George’s drafts and often discussed with him what he had written, though George never acknowledged her contributions. Funder credits Eileen with inspiring Orwell to write an animal fable which became Animal Farm. Says Funderthe book has a perfect structure and a tone foreign to all Orwell’s other works: of close and sympathetic observation of character foibles, of humour and whimsy. The animals are not stupid or paranoid or grim, they’re just themselves – seen. Once again, as after his marriage, Orwell’s friends are astonished at the change in his work. Richard Rees can’t understand how Orwell has discovered in himself a ‘new vein of fantasy, humour and tenderness’. His publisher Fred Warburg is stunned by its brilliance.”

Anna Funder’s second major criticism of Orwell is that he wrote Eileen out of his non-fiction works, even when they recorded events in which both she and he had been involved. This is especially true of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, his account of his time in the Spanish Civil War, in which she was as involved as he was. Funder has already chastised the (male) biographers who overlook women, and in effect make women disappear. Concerning Orwell’s upbringing and how his left-wing interests were nurtured, she asks the rhetorical question “How is a woman made to disappear?” Then she answers her own question:  Orwell’s biographers start with fundamental omissions, such as his cultural and intellectual inheritance, which came through his mother’s side. …. you would not learn that his mother, Ida, was a Fabian socialist and suffragette, educated in England. Nor that her sister, Nellie, had been on the London stage, demonstrated for women’s suffrage with the Pankhursts (and been imprisoned for it), and belonged to the Women’s Freedom League which advocated against censorship, for equal pay and to revolutionise the relations between the sexes.”

But it is Homage to Catalonia that most enrages her. Orwell rushed off to Spain to fight against Franco, but it was Eileen who had to kit him out, deal with his literary correspondence, and type up his Road to Wigan Pier etc. Orwell joined the militia of the POUM  - the Spanish branch of the (anti-Stalinist) International Labour Party – and served at the front, but it is largely a quiet front with little fighting. Eileen wangled a way of getting to Spain. She was in Barcelona and sent goods to Orwell as well as typing up all the dispatches he sent to her which would form the basis of Homage to Catalonia.  And Eileen became a major figure in organising the POUM.  However, like other POUM comrades, she unwittingly befriended some Communist spies who infiltrated the POUM and passed essential documents over to the Communists, who were planning to “liquidate” the POUM.

Nowhere in Homage to Catalonia does Orwell mention his wife’s important role in POUM. Eileen visits George at the front. Orwell doesn’t mention this either. Eileen gradually understands that the Communists are about to eliminate the POUM in Catalonia. George doesn’t mention her foresight because to do so would be to reveal her importance in office. After leave in Barcelona, George goes back to the front and is badly wounded when a bullet passes through his throat. Eileen immediately takes care of him. “She arrived within forty-eight hours of the injury. She was with him ‘every minute’ for the days at Lérida and at Tarragona. She nursed him, travelled with him, dealt with the doctors and organised his transport to the Sanatorio Maurín.” With extreme violence, and having suborned the Barcelona’s armed police, the Communists arrest or kill members of the POUM. In the midst of this bloody coup, it is Eileen who manages to get George and herself safely back to England… where once again she is his slavey typing his drafts of Homage to Catalonia in a nasty little cottage. She takes him to hospital when he begins coughing blood copiously.

In exasperation, Anna Funder writes: “After I had pieced together Eileen’s time in Spain I still puzzled over how I could have read Homage to Catalonia twice before and never understood she was there. Eileen had worked at the political headquarters, visited him at the front, cared for him when wounded, saved Orwell’s manuscript by giving it to [an English contact] McNair, saved the passports, saved Orwell from almost certain arrest at the hotel, and somehow got the visas to save them all. How is it that she remains invisible? I scanned through the electronic text of the book. Orwell mentions ‘my wife’ thirty-seven times. And then I see: not once is Eileen named. No character can come to life without a name. But from a wife, which is a job description, it can all be stolen.

Anna Funder’s third major criticism of Orwell is his crass and promiscuous sex-life with undertones of misogyny. Orwell, she says, was genuinely disgusted by his time as a British policeman in Burma, coming to understand that imperialism was a massive fraud. But he made free use of the available Burmese brothels. When he returned to England, he spent some time searching for a girlfriend or a wife, which led to a series of brief liaisons. Apparently he once nearly forced himself upon – and wounded – a young woman. In his Down and Out in Paris and London, he omitted the fact that his Aunt Nellie regularly gave him money. He also failed to mention that he spent some time sharing a flat – and a bed – with a prostitute. In months before he set off north to research The Road to Wigan Pier, he shifted his residence simply to prevent Eileen, whom he was then courting, from knowing that he was regularly sleeping with two other women at that time. When he was, with Eileen, in Morocco for his health, he spent a night with a Moroccan girl. Back in England, he made advances to Eileen’s friend Lydia, who hastened to avoid him. With many potential partners, he claimed that he had an “open marriage” and that Eileen didn’t mind his having a sexual dalliance. This was far from what Eileen really thought. When he gained a position as a broadcaster of talks at the BBC, he gained a reputation for attempting to seduce numerous women who worked there. Orwell was able to hold down a role as literary editor for the Tribune for only 16 months. When he had yet another affair with a secretary there, Eileen threatened to leave him.

A very retrograde reader might think this was just laddish behaviour, but Anna Funder sees something more sinister in his sexual behaviour. It appears that Orwell’s sexual intercourse with women was always perfunctory, as if he didn’t really like women. He often rolled over after coition saying “That’s better” as if he was getting over an unpleasant duty. Funder suggests misogyny. Worst story of all involves Eileen. Her much-loved elder brother  Laurence died in the evacuation of Dunkirk. This made Eileen go into deep and sustained depression, even though she was “still working full time to support them as well as keeping the house, provisioning it and doing the cooking. And in the midst of her deep sorrow, George attempts to start an affair with an old flame who had never given in to him.

Perhaps straining her theories a bit, Anna Funder suggests that Orwell might have been essentially homosexual, but loathing the fact. She implies that Orwell was immediately attracted to male company in the International Brigades in the Spanish war.  She declares “He’s going ‘down and out’ again, into another, all-male world, where intimacy is with men and sex means prostitutes.” She also notes that the poet and novelist Stevie Smith, who didn’t like Orwell at all, wrote a novel called The Holiday in which she presented a thinly-disguised version of Orwell as a homosexual. But while Funder’s theories of Orwell’s misogyny might be accurate, it is really hard to reasonably categorise him as homosexual.

There was, however, one final major display by Orwell of callousness to Eileen. Orwell, who believed he was sterile, wanted to have a son. Eileen agreed that they could adopt. With Eileen doing all the paper work, it was Eileen who picked up and brought home the boy they called Richard Blair, when he was three weeks old… and of course it was Eileen who did most of the baby-care. But by now, in 1945, she was a very sick woman. She had always had problems with menstruation and excessive bleeding and now her uterine cancer was catching up with her. Yet six months after the baby was adopted, Orwell decided to go over to Europe to witness the retreat of Germans from France. Eileen was seriously sick. Now aged 39 she arranged for a hysterectomy, but she did not have the funds to get the best care. And she died in the surgery after taking a cheaper option which she could afford. Orwell knew of the pitiful state she was in, and had no real reason to be in Europe at the time. He had left his wife when she most needed his support.

Anna Funder provides an “aftermath’ to this story – Orwell getting help from his sister Avril to raise his adopted son; Orwell retreating to the Scottish island of Jura where he does not flourish, does quite a few foolish things, but does get on with writing 1984; Orwell looking for another wife to inspire him as Eileen did;  and finally Orwell, virtually in his death-bed, marrying Sonia Brownell and making her his literary executor before he dies in 1950, five years after Eileen.

But Eileen, the “invisible wife”, has been the focus of Funder’s story, and for her  Eileen’s tragedy has to do with ingrained male blindness. Taking the word Orwell invented, she says “Patriarchy is the doublethink that allows an apparently ‘decent’ man to behave badly to women, in the same way as colonialism and racism are the systems that allow apparently ‘decent’ people to do unspeakable things to other people. In order for men to do their deeds and be innocent of them at the same time, women must be human – but not fully so, or a ‘sense of falsity and hence of guilt’ would set in. So women are said to have the same human rights as men, but our lesser amounts of time and money and status and safety tell us we do not. Women, too must keep two contradictory things in our heads at all times: I am human, but I am also less than human. Our lived experience makes a lie of the rhetoric of the world. We live on the dark side of Doublethink.”

Knowing that her depiction of Orwell has been largely negative, Funder spends some time wrestling with the old problem of how much we can separate the author from the work the author produces. Is it reasonable for a reader to think less of a book because the author was an unpleasant or even reprehensible person? Despite her ire that Orwell never acknowledged the contributions Eileen made to his work, Funder concludes sensibly enough that Orwell’s polemics, novels and non-fiction should still be taken seriously. Fair enough. At the same time, Funder inserts a made-up conversation where Eileen sits with Orwell as they discuss editing Orwell’s essay on Salvador Dali and she is plumbing the depth of vileness in Orwell’s own mind.

Which brings us to a major flaw in Wifedom – Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life. I am sure that Funder’s research is accurate, but this book is written in a variety of styles. Sometimes it is straight historical reportage, sometimes the author’s speculations, and sometimes deliberate fictionalisation of events. We are not always sure whether we are reading verifiable fact or fiction. To give one example, after Funder has told us about Eileen’s terrors at what is happening in Barcelona, Funder cuts to this: “That same dawn Orwell is at the front. He stands ‘head and shoulders’ above the parapet, a black silhouette against the pale world. It’s the changing of the guard. He’s lit a cigarette, is regaling the boys with stories of his exploits in the brothels of Paris, of how cheap it was, actually, to install the ‘little trollop’ in his hotel. The bullet goes clean through his neck.” Apart from the verifiable fact that Orwell was shot through the throat, how can Funder possibly know what Orwell was saying to his comrades and how he was saying it? At another point, to cover the fact that she has just made something up, Funder says : “Something – not this, but essentially this – must have happened.” This is not the most reliable way of presenting real people. A hard reality, then, is that at least some of this book is fiction. And, though Eileen O'Shaughnessy was doubtless a great inspiration to Orwell in the nine years they were together, it is also true that Orwell was already a literary figure before they had met, had already produced a number of books, and was already on his way to forming his views on imperialism, socialism, fascism and communism. Eileen did not "make" him.

In spite of which, Wifedom – Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life remains a thoughtful book which throws much light on Eileen O’Shaughnessy and her husband… and my immediate reaction to it is to go back and read or re-read the books by the husband. I apologise that on this blog over the years I have so far reviewed only one of Orwell's novels - Keep the Aspidistra Flying - but I will get around to re-reading and reviewing others in due course.

One final note - nine times out of ten, professional authors are very anti-social creatures, withdrawing from family and friends and demanding silence and no distractions as they set about writing. To write is to be disciplined and focussed (unless the writer is a hack) and that often means leaving it to others to tidy up, produce meals etc. If one is to chastise George Orwell for his behaviour towards his wife then one might as well chastise at least half the novels you have admired.


Snarky and unpleasant footnote. To the annoyance of some on the left, it could be argued that Franco should have awarded the Communists with medals when the Spanish Civil War was over. After all, by smashing up the united front against Franco, the Communists helped Franco to win the war. Reading of the Communists liquidating the POUM and others in Barcelona reminded me of this.

Pedantic footnote. In the end-notes, Anna Funder quotes in full a poem Eileen O’Shaughnessy wrote in 1934 called “End of the Century, 1984”. Some have attempted to see this poem as an inspiration for George Orwell’s novel “1984”, but when one reads the poem, it is clear that poem and novel have nothing in common. Written in 1934, Eileen's poem was called “End of the Century, 1984” only because 1934 was the 50th anniversary of her college which was being celebrated, and her poem was speculating what the college would be like in another 50 years.

Silly footnote. There is one genuinely funny anecdote in Funder’s Wifedom – Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life. It concerns a disastrous dinner party Eileen and George had with H. G. Wells … but you’ll have to look it up for yourself.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.  

AUBREY BEARDSLEY – A Biography” by Matthew Sturgis (First published 1998)

I have never been fixated on the late-19th-century phenomenon known as “the decadence” in the arts, but in the 12-or-so years that this blog has been a going concern, I have given accounts of works from the “the decadence” a number of times. On this blog you will find analyses of  Joris-Karl Huysmans’ dandy novel A Rebours  (Against the Grain) and his lurch into Satanism La-Bas ( Down There), French works which inspired “decadent” British writers. You will also find Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurian, a call to pure aestheticism. Then there is Chad Adams’ Madder Music, Stronger Wine – The Life of Ernest Dowson, a wrenching biography of the dissolute, self-destructive “decadent” poet. And there is an account of the very camp writer Frederick Rolfe, who styled himself Baron Corvo, A.J.A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo . There is also George Moore's self-conscious and dandy-ish memoir Confessions of a Young Man, where Moore seems to be dabbling in "decadence" before opting for Zola-esque grim realism. Stretching a point I could also include Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, even if it is written more in a spirit of fun, although Beerbohm himself was a son of the “decadence”. Oddly, though, I have never reviewed a biography of Oscar Wilde, the best-known author of British “decadence”, even if I have read the three biographies of him that sit on my shelves. But I have reviewed here Thomas Wright’s interesting tale of the books Wilde read, called Oscar’s Books and I have corralled together what I think are the best short poems of Oscar Wilde’s Poetry . In short, while in no way an expert on fin-de-siecle art and literature, I am reasonably well-versed in it.

            But, for some reason, I never got around to reading a biography of the artist who for many was the essence of English “decadence”. I refer to Matthew Sturgis’s Aubrey Beardsley – A Biography, which had sat, unread, on my shelves since I acquired in it the year it was first published, 1998. Only last month did I find the time to sit down and read it, and I’m glad I did. Not only is Matthew Sturgis very even-handed in his judgements, but he presents Aubrey Beardsley “in the round”, delving into all sides of his connections and personality, all the changing phases of his art, all his passing enthusiasms and all the judgements, fair or unfair, that were made upon him. In short, this account of Aubrey Beardsley seems to me to be definitive.

            The arc of his life is very simple. Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) died in his 26th year – that is, like John Keats and Wilfrid Owen, he died when he was 25. His whole professional career as an artist was crammed into six years. It is interesting to note that he came from a shaky middle-class family – his father, Vincent Beardsley, was a ne’re-do-well who lost money more than he made it and who often deserted the family, sometimes leaving them to survive on the charity of wealthier relatives. Aubrey’s mother Ellen was the backbone of the family and Aubrey always got on very well with his sister Mabel who also had artistic leanings but who made her career as an actress.  For various reasons Aubrey and Mabel were sent to Brighton to live with a wealthy grand-aunt. When the boy was about seven he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, the disease that would life-long plague him and that eventually killed him. Because Aubrey was lean, horsey-faced and with long bony fingers, it has often been assumed that he was very tall. In fact this was an illusion. Matthew Sturgis reports that he was average height – about 5 foot 8 inches.

            For somebody who was physically weak and clearly a bit of an introvert, it is interesting to note that he got on very well at the Brighton Grammar School to which he was sent. Even the athletic types liked him and enjoyed the school plays he wrote and produced as well as the school-boyish poems he wrote for the school magazine and the caricatures that he often drew. One of his school-time pals was Charles Cochran who, many years later, became a well-known theatrical impresario. But when Aubrey left school aged 16, he had to go back to London and support his mother and sister as a clerk in an insurance company. Often his tuberculosis worsened and he took to his bed, avidly reading French literature (especially Balzac). For a short while he abandoned his drawing and took to writing but, while still toiling as a clerk, he discovered the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and switched back to drawing.

In this biography, Matthew Sturgis give a very comprehensive account of the art movements that were vying with each other in England in the 1880s and 1890s. On the one hand, there was the persistence of the Pre-Raphaelites, now championed by Burne-Jones and [in a way] William Morris. On the other, there was the influence of French Impressionism which, in England, was championed by the (very quarrelsome) American-born James McNeill Whistler. Beardsley was at first attracted to the Pre-Raphaelites and, at the age of 18, approached Burne-Jones, who was very encouraging about his sketches.

Beardsley tried to work out an aesthetic of his own. He was very influenced by the critical writings of Whistler, of Oscar Wilde, and of George Moore, but he was even more interested in the work of French writers – Huysmans, Baudelaire, Verlaine. He took on as one of his icons – appearing in much of his artwork -  the image of the sad Pierrot. As Sturgis writes, the revival of the Pierrot figure “became in the hands of the late nineteenth-century poets and dramatists a symbol of the alienated artist consigned to life’s margins and consoling himself with doomed love and art.” (Chapter 3) But Sturgis also notes that Beardsley struggled to find his own style “The varied elements of Beardsley’s interest – Burne-Jones and Whistler, Mantegna and Pierrot, medieval romances and French novels, church furnishings and opera boxes – struggled to adjust themselves. As yet they remained disparate. He sampled them in turn , but lacked the artistic personality and the technical ability to synthesise them into something new and personal.” (Chapter 3)

It was only when he took evening classes at the Westminster School of Art that he began to find his own style and he was greatly encouraged by Fred Brown and Walter Crane to use the pen rather than the pencil and to concentrate on lines – thus the beginning of Beardsley’s very linear, black-and-white art. He was rebuffed by William Morris but, interested by Japanese motifs, he at last found his own style: what he called the art of “large black blots”. He understood that the people he depicted were, like him, thin, angular and morbid. In the 1890s, new methods of reproducing black-and-white images in newspapers and magazines chimed perfectly with Beardsley’s aesthetic. Aged about 20 he began to get commissions to illustrate books. His first commission was for an edition of Malory’s  Le Morte d’Arthur. His illustrations were widely admired (but panned by William Morris), yet Beardsley never completed the commission.

Now able to earn a reasonable income, he gave up clerking and got paid-and-regular work at a cheap newspaper called the Pall Mall Budget but, says Matthew Sturgis, what he was required to contribute were simply school-boyish caricatures, unlike his more serious work. But then came the commission that made him famous – or infamous. The publisher John Lane asked him to illustrate an edition of Oscar Wilde’s banned play (banned in England – not in France) Salome, which included his notorious image of Salome kissing the decapitated head of John the Baptist on a platter. Just as they had condemned the works of Degas, the “philistines” condemned such blasphemous images. Other critics saw Beardsley’s work as leaning too much on Burne-Jones and Japanese style. Sturgis remarks that, when Beardsley thought himself into the Salome project, he “placed his figures on stark white backgrounds and dispensing almost entirely with the fringed border effect, used only a few lines to describe forms and evoke the fall of drapery.” (Chapter 5) You could say that Aubrey Beardsley was one of the first to understand that less could mean more.  

It was only at this time that Beardsley first met Oscar Wilde who, with typical self-aggrandisement, described Beardsley as “the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance.” (quoted Chapter 5) What is interesting here is that, despite the way Beardsley has been paired with Wilde, Beardsley genuinely disliked Wilde and tried to avoid him. This had little to do with his sexual orientation. As Sturgis has remarked earlier, Beardsley had been introduced to the homosexual group headed by Robbie Ross, and he was interested in “the camp argot with which [this] circle expressed their views. He was attracted to the homosexual milieu, with its extravagant phraseology, it self-deprecating wit, and its obsession with surface. Without committing himself sexually, he learnt the language and studied the pose.” (Chapter 4) But Sturgis says Beardsley could just as well be regarded as asexual. His tuberculosis meant he had recurrent bouts of weakness, no sexual intercourse and it is clear that he died a virgin. [Sturgis emphasises this in Chapter 6]. When it came to Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley found him to be a patronising, self-obsessed show-off. Of course, once his fame was established, Beardsley mingled with Wilde’s group and got to know the likes of Max Beerbohm, Sickert, Steinbock et al. But he always steered clear of Wilde and (the sometime pornographer) Frank Harris. Very slyly, Beardsley included mocking images of Wilde in the illustrations of Salome. Says Sturgis  Wilde was au fond a sentimental romantic. Beardsley looked through the purple haze of sentimentality, and adopted the cynic’s view. Illness had made him old beyond his years, and his mind was attracted to the sharp lines of wit and reason. As a mutual friend noted ‘Oscar loved purple and gold, Aubrey put everything down in black and white’.” (Chapter 5) Quite apart from his “serious” artwork, Beardsley also circulated a crude caricature of Wilde, mocking him as a charlatan who stole his ideas from other people’s books.

In 1894, Beardsley and his friend Henry Harland proposed to John Lane a new serial publication of art and literature to be called The Yellow Book, with Beardsley as art editor and Harland as literary editor. It was specifically agreed, at Beardsley’s insistence, that Oscar Wilde would always be excluded from it. However John Lane refused to run an essay by Max Beerbohm mocking Wilde. By this stage, Beardsley was as much feted for his designs of street posters as for his illustrations. Once again, the “philistines” denounced The Yellow Book as decadent, ugly or obscene, but the first run sold out so that additional runs had to be printed. It made Lane, Harland and Beardsley comfortably off and Beardsley now became a celebrity (Sturgis calls it “the Beardsley boom”). The artist was lionised, but kept faith with his old insurance company friends by inviting them to his soirees. Now he sometimes affected dandyish style. (Oscar Wilde kept out of all this and made scathing comments about Beardsley in his private correspondence.) Meanwhile comic journals like Punch and newspapers had a field day, referring to him with such witty names as “Awfully Weirdsley” etc.

Beardsley and his sister Mabel were captivated by a season of Wagner operas in London, and he declared that he was going to write a novel about Venus and Tannhauser – but the novel (eventually called Under the Hill), half dandy-and-baroque erotic posturing with a touch of pornography, was never finished. Though (or because) he was a virgin, Beardsley’s brain became fevered with sex and many of the sexual or erotic images he now produced were, says Sturgis, deliberately provocative, making a direct attack on Victorian attitudes to sex. “Beardsley’s campaign was insidious: sex pullutated from every stroke of his pen. It was sex not allied to conventional beauty but to unconventional ugliness.” (Chapter 6) Beardsley refuted the suggestion that his work was satirical and insisted that he was depicting reality. His notoriety boosted his fame.

Many British literary figures had earned money by undertaking lecture tours in the USA (Dickens, Thackeray, Wilde). A lecture tour was mooted for Beardsley as his work had become known in America. But he was too ill to undertake such a tour. He and his sister Mabel consoled themselves by attending the premieres of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. (Beardsley might have loathed the man, but he admired the work.) Unfortunately, this was shortly before Wilde’s reputation collapsed as his private life was exposed. In 1895 Wilde was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel for sodomy. Unfortunately for Beardsley, Wilde was arrested with a copy of “a yellow book” (it was a French novel) but this was mis-reported in the press as The Yellow Book, so Beardsley was again paired with Wilde in the popular imagination as “he inherited a deleterious and enduring association with a type of criminalised vice which, though it may have amused his imagination, had never dictated his actions.” (Chapter 7)  Fearing for his own reputation, John Lane cancelled Beardsley’s art work for the 5th issue of The Yellow Book and sacked him as art editor (The Yellow Book continued for another nine issues before it ceased to be published.). Despite this, Beardsley still got many commissions and he did work for another periodical, The Savoy, published by Leonard Smithers (a very dodgy publisher and bookseller who thrived on under-the-counter pornography).

Taking a long break in France, Beardsley indulged in much drunkenness and some flirting with women, including one serious – but chaste – liaison. Sometimes he smoked opium and he ran into other English “decadents” including Ernest Dowson who disgusted him with his “shambolic manner, lack of dress sense, and apparent ignorance of personal hygiene”. Beardsley complained “that it was unfair to inflict such a shabby and malodorous figure on a smart restaurant.” (Chapter 8) He stayed for a while in Paris, working hard at illustrations for a de luxe edition of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, but by mid-1896 he was rapidly becoming an invalid and had to be escorted back to London. Even though he was very ill, he completed with dispatch his illustrations for an edition of Lysistrata and for Juvenal’s Satire Against Women. These were the most priapic, most sadistic, most overtly erotic images he every produced, the most notorious being the illustration for Lysistrata showing three sex-starved men brandishing their gargantuan swollen penises.

By this stage he was being eaten away by tuberculosis and was bed-ridden for months. He made a will, leaving everything to his sister Mabel. Yet he still worked feverishly, although most of his projects were unfulfilled. He now suffered much haemorrhaging and was repeatedly sent to coastal residences where the air was meant to do him good. To an interviewer he said “How can a man die better than by doing just what he wants to do most? It has been bad enough to be an invalid, but to be a slave to one’s lungs and to be… sniffing sea breezes and pine breezes with the mistaken idea that it will prolong one’s existence, seems to me to be utter foolishness.” (Quoted Chapter 8)

He returned to France seeking warmth and sea air. In Paris his work was greatly admired, with not one whiff of “scandal”, and he met with such bohemian-decadents as the crazy Alfred Jarry. At Dieppe he bumped into Oscar Wilde, released from prison and now living under a nomme de guerre. They seem to have spoken cordially. He moved south to Menton and still worked on some projects, including an illustrated version of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, but the ending was near.

Beardsley had always been interested in churches and their decoration, but his interest in churches was not only aesthetic. He was always religious and worshipped in High-Church  - or “Anglo-Catholic” - Anglican churches. For years he was mentored by the High-Church Anglican priest Alfred Gurney. But as his end approached, he did what so many British “decadents” did (Oscar Wilde, his nasty boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas, Lionel Johnson, John Gray, who became a Catholic priest, and others). He converted to Catholicism and was received into the Catholic Church by the Jesuit priest David Bearne. For some time he resided in the village of St. Germaine-en-Laye, frequently ministered to by another Jesuit priest Fr. Henri. Given the nature of some of his artwork, some were sceptical of Beardsley’s conversion, but Sturgis declares “The sincerity of Beardsley’s conversion is beyond doubt. It was attested to by those who knew him well; even Lionel Johnson, a fellow convert who might have been disposed to doubt, was convinced.” (Chapter 9) It is probable that his sister Mabel was a great influence on Aubrey. She had become a Catholic a year or so before he did. In his new state of grace, Aubrey Beardsley regretted some of his work and sent letters to his publishers begging that all his “obscene” images be destroyed. His pleas were ignored.

Beardsley died on 16 March 1898. He was lamented most in France and in Germany, where his work had been acclaimed and applauded. Back in England, many obituaries of him were still chastising. It is pleasant to learn that the pornographer Smithers went bankrupt and lost all his copyrights. Mabel died in 1912. W. B. Yeats – who was on the fringes of the “decadence” that Beardsley knew - wrote a sequence of poems on her called “Upon a Dying Lady”. Ellen Beardsley outlived both her children and died in 1932.

That is the story of Beardsley in a rather cramped nutshell. But what of the really important thing – the art? There is always something precious in fin-de-siecle “decadent” art (as opposed to the more robust Impressionism). In Beardsley’s art there are always those over-dressed women of the court or the ball, often those enticing bare breasts, those sad Pierrots, those men in buttons-and-bows costumes that would be impossible to wear in reality, those dwarves and cherubs and (let alone the ropier erotic stuff) those grotesques. A little of such images goes a long way. And yet the penmanship is superb. The clear lineation is dazzling. The starkly contrasted black and white is genius. Let’s be magnanimous. In his chosen style, Beardsley was unique and a great artist. And the fact that he achieved all he did in a mere six years, under the debilitating curse of tuberculosis, says much for his fortitude and dedication to his craft.

Obnoxious Footnote: I have on my shelves a copy of Aubrey Beardsley’s unfinished novel Under the Hill, as presented by Paris-based Olympia Press, long-time purveyors of soft porn for intellectuals. A hack writer “completes” the novel in this edition. I read it some years ago, expecting some titillation. But my tits weren’t -illated. It was overwritten and fearfully boring. Yesterday’s scandal often ends up as today’s yawn.


Pedantic Footnote: In the 1950s, John Betjeman wrote a witty poem called "The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel". It depicts Wilde talking languidly with Robbie Ross before the police burst in and arrest him. However, it makes the mistake of having Wilde reading The Yellow Book at the crucial moment, and this is exactly NOT what he was reading, as Sturgis's biography of Aubrey Beardsley attests.