Max Beerbohm

Say, shall these things be forgotten
In the Row that men call Rotten,
Beauty Clare ?—Hamilton Aïdé.

I SUPPOSE that there is no one, however optimistic, that has not
wished, from time to time, that he had been born into some
other age than this. Poor Professor Froude once admitted that
he would like to have been a prehistoric man. Don Quixote is
only one of many who have tried to revive the days of chivalry.
A desire to have lived in the eighteenth century is common to all
our second-rate litterateurs. But, for my own part, I have often
felt that it would have been nice to live in that bygone epoch
when society was first inducted into the mysteries of art and, not
losing yet its old and elegant tenue, first babbled of blue china and
white lilies, and of the painter Rossetti and of the poet Swinburne.
It would have been a fine thing to see the tableaux at Cromwell
House or the Pastoral Plays at Coombe Wood, to have strained
my eyes for a glimpse of the Jersey Lily, clapped holes in my
gloves for Connie Gilchrist, and danced all night long to the
strains of the Manola Valse. The period of 1880 must have been


276 1880

It is now so remote from us that much therein is hard for
us to understand, much must remain mobled in the mists of
antiquity. The material upon which any historian, grappling with
any historical period, chiefly relies is, as he himself would no
doubt admit, whatever has already been written by other
historians. Strangely enough, no historian has yet written of
this most vital epoch. Nor are the contemporary memoirs, though
indeed many, very valuable. From such writers as Montague
, Frith, or the Bancrofts, you gain little peculiar know-
ledge. That quaint old chronicler, H. W. Lucy, describes
amusingly enough the frown of Sir Richard (afterwards Lord)
Cross or the tea-rose in the Premier's button-hole. But what can
he tell us of the negotiations that preceded Mr. Gladstone's return
to public life, or of the secret councils of the Fourth Party, whereby
Sir Stafford was gradually eclipsed ? At such things as these
we can but guess. Good memoirs must always be the cumulation
of gossip, but gossip, alas, was killed by the Press. In the tavern
or the barber's shop, all secrets passed into every ear, but from the
morning paper little is to be culled. Manifestations are made
manifest to us, but the inner aspect of things is sacred. I have
been seriously handicapped by having no real material, save such
newspapers of the time as Punch, or the London Charivari, The
, The Lady's Newspaper, and others. The idea of excava-
tion, which in the East has been productive of such rich material
for the historian, was indeed suggested to me, but owing to
obvious difficulties had to be abandoned. I trust then that the
reader may pardon any deficiencies in so brief an excursus by
reason of the great difficulties of research and the paucity of
intimate authorities.

The period of 1880 and of the four years immediately succeed-
ing it must always be memorable to us, for it marks a great


By Max Beerbohm 277

change in the constitution of society. It would seem that
during the five or six years that preceded it, the " Upper Ten
Thousand," as they were quaintly called by the journals of the
day, had taken a somewhat more frigid tone. The Prince
of Wales had inclined for a while to be restful after the revels of
his youth. The continued seclusion of Queen Victoria, who
during these years was engaged upon that superb work of intro-
spection and self-analysis, More Leaves from the Highlands, had
begun to tell upon the social system. Balls and entertainments,
both at Court and in the houses of the nobles, were notably
fewer. The vogue of the opera was passing. Even in the top
of the season, Rotten Row, so I read, was not intolerably crowded.
Society was becoming dull.

In 1880, however, came the Dissolution and the tragic fall of
Disraeli, and the sudden triumph of the Whigs. How great
was the change that came upon Westminster thenceforward must
be known to any one who has studied the annals of the incompar-
able Parliament of 1880 and the succeeding years. Gladstone,
with a monstrous majority behind him and revelling in the old
splendour of speech that neither the burden of age nor six years'
sulking had made less ; Parnell, pale, deadly, mysterious, with his
crew of wordy peasants that were to set at naught all that had been
held sacred by the Saxon—the activity of these two men alone
would have sufficed to raise this Parliament above all others.
What of young Randolph Churchill, who, despite his halting
speech, foppish mien and rather coarse fibre of mind, was yet
the most brilliant parliamentarian of the century ? What pranks
he and his little band played upon the House ! How they fright-
ened poor Sir Stafford and infuriated the Premier. What of the
eloquent atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, pleading at the Bar, striding
forward to the very mace, while the Tories yelled and mocked at


278 1880

him, hustled down the stone steps with the broadcloth torn to
tatters from his back ? Imagine the existence of God being made
a party question ! I wonder if such scenes can ever be witnessed
again at St. Stephen's as were witnessed then. Whilst these
curious elements were making themselves felt in politics, so too
in Society were the primordia of a great change. The aristocracy
could not live by good-breeding alone. The old delights seemed
vapid, waxen. Something new was wanted. And thus came it
that the spheres of fashion and of art met, thus began the great
social renascence of 1880.

Be it remembered that long before this time there had been
in the heart of Chelsea a kind of cult of Beauty. Certain
artists had settled there, deliberately refusing to work in the
ordinary official way, and " wrought," as they were wont to put it,
" for the pleasure and sake of all that is fair." Swinburne,
Morris, Rossetti, Whistler, Burne-Jones, were of this little
community—all of them men of great industry and caring
for little but their craft. Quietly and unbeknown they produced
their poems or their pictures or their essays, read them or
showed them to one another and worked on. In fact, Beauty
had existed long before 1880. It was Mr. Oscar Wilde who
first trotted her round. This remarkable youth, a student at the
University of Oxford, began to show himself everywhere, and even
published a volume of poems in several editions as a kind of decoy
to the shy artificers of Chelsea. The lampoons that at this period
were written against him are still extant, and from them, and
from the references to him in the contemporary journals, it would
appear that it was to him that Art owed the great social vogue she
enjoyed at this time. Peacock feathers and sunflowers glittered
in every room, the curio shops were ransacked for the furniture of
Annish days, men and women, fired by the fervid words of the young


By Max Beerbohm 279

Oscar, threw their mahogany into the streets. A few smart women
even dressed themselves in suave draperies and unheard-of greens.
Into whatever ballroom you went, you would surely find, among
the women in tiaras and the fops and the distinguished foreigners,
half a score of comely ragamuffins in velveteen, murmuring
sonnets, posturing, waving their hands. " Nincompoopiana " the
craze was called at first, and later " Æstheticism."

It was in 1880 that Private Views became necessary functions
of fashion. I should like to have been at a Private View of the
Old Grosvenor Gallery. There was Robert Browning, the poet,
button-holing a hundred friends and doffing his hat with a courtly
sweep to more than one duchess. There, too, was Theo
Marzials, poet and eccentric, and Walter Sickert, the impres-
sionist, and Charles Colnaghi, the hero of a hundred tea-fights,
and young Brookfield, the comedian, and many another good
fellow. My Lord of Dudley, the virtuoso, came there leaning
for support upon the arm of his fair young wife. Disraeli, with
his lustreless eyes and face like some seamed Hebraic parchment,
came also and whispered behind his hand to the faithful Corry.
What interesting folk ! What a wonderful scene ! A chronicler
of the time thus writes of it :

" There were quaint, beautiful, extraordinary costumes walking
about—ultra-æsthetics, artistic-æsthetics, æsthetics that made up their
minds to be daring, and suddenly gave way in some important point—
put a frivolous bonnet on the top of a grave and glowing garment that
Albert Dürer might have designed for a mantle. There were fashion-
able costumes that Mrs. Mason or Madame Elise might have turned
out that morning. The motley crowd mingled, forming into groups,
sometimes dazzling you by the array of colours that you never thought
to see in full daylight..... Canary-coloured garments flitted cheerily
by garments of the saddest green. A hat in an agony of pokes and


280 1880

angles was seen in company with a bonnet that was a gay garland of
flowers. A vast cape that might have enshrouded the form of a Mater
Dolorosa hung by the side of a jauntily-striped Langtry-hood."

Of the purely aesthetic fads of Society were also the Pastoral
Plays at Coombe Wood, and a very charming fad they must
have been. There was one specially great occasion when Shake-
speare's play, " As you like it," was given. The day was as hot as
a June day can be, and every one drove down in open carriages
and hansoms, and in the evening returned in the same way. It
was the very Derby Day of æstheticism. " To every character
in the play was given a perfectly appropriate attire, and the brown
and green of their costumes harmonised exquisitely with the ferns
through which they wandered, the trees beneath which they lay,
and the lovely English landscape that surrounded the Pastoral
Players." It must have been a proud day for the Lady Archibald
Campbell, who gave this fête, and for E. W. Godwin, who
directed its giving. Fairer to see than the mummers were the
guests who sat and watched from under the dark and griddled elms.
The women wore jerseys and tied-back skirts. Zulu hats shaded
their faces from the sun. Bangles shimmered upon their wrists.
And the men of fashion wore light frock-coats and light top-hats
with black bands, and the aesthetes were in velveteen, carrying

Nor does it seem that Society went entirely to the æsthetes
for instruction in life. There was actively proceeding, at this
time, an effort to raise the average of aristocratic loveliness, quite
independently of the æsthetes. The Professional Beauty was,
more strictly, a Philistine production. What exactly this term,
Professional Beauty, signifies, how any woman gained a right to
it, we do not and may never know. It is certain, however, that


By Max Beerbohm 281

there were at this time a number of women to whom it was
applied. They received special attention from the Prince of Wales,
and hostesses would move heaven and earth to have them at their
receptions. Their portraits were exhibited in every shop. Crowds
assembled before their door every morning to see them start for
Rotten Row. Mrs. Langtry, the incomparably beautiful, Mrs.
Wheeler, who always appeared in black, and Lady Lonsdale, after-
wards Lady de Grey, were all of them famous Professional
Beauties. We may doubt whether the movement, symbolised by
these ladies, was quite in accord with the dignity and elegance
that always should mark the best society. Any effort to make
Beauty compulsory robs Beauty of its chief charm. But, at the
same time, we do believe that this movement, so far as it came of
a real wish to raise a practical standard of feminine loveliness for
all classes, does not deserve the strictures that have been passed
upon it by posterity. One of its immediate consequences was the
incursion of American ladies into London. Then it was that
these pretty little creatures, " clad in Worth's most elegant con-
fections," first drawled their way into the drawing-rooms of the
great. Appearing, as they did, with the especial favour of the
Prince of Wales, they had an immediate success. They were so
wholly new that their voices and their dresses were mimicked
partout. The English beauties were very angry, especially with
the Prince, whom alone they blamed for the vogue of their rivals.
History credits the Prince of Wales with many notable achieve-
ments. Not the least of these is that he discovered the inhabitants
of America.

It will be seen that in this renascence the keenest students of
the exquisite were women. Nor, however, were men wholly
idle. Since the days of King George the noble art of self-
adornment had been sadly neglected by them. Great fops, like


282 1880

D'Orsay, had come upon the town, but never had they formed a
school. Dress, therefore, had become simpler, wardrobes
smaller, fashions apt to linger. In 1880 arose the sect that was
soon to win for itself the title of " The Mashers." What exactly
this title signified I suppose no two etymologists will ever agree.
But we can learn clearly enough from the fashion-plates and
caricatures of the day what the Mashers were in outward
semblance, from the lampoons what was their mode of life.
Unlike the Dandies of the Georgian era they made no pretence
to any qualities of the intellect, and, wholly contemptuous of the
aesthetes, recognised no art save the art of dress. Much might be
written about the Mashers. The Music Hall was unknown to
them, but nightly they gathered at the Gaiety Theatre. Nightly
the stalls were fulfilled with row after row of small, sleek heads,
surmounting collars of monstrous height. Nightly in the foyer
were lisped the praises of Kate Vaughan, her graceful dancing, or
of Nellie Farren, her matchless fooling. Never a night passed
but the dreary stage-door was surrounded by a crowd of fools
bearing bouquets and fools incumbent upon canes. A strange
cult ! I used to know a lady whose father was actually present at
the first night of "The Forty Thieves," and fell enamoured of one
of the coryphées. By such links is one age joined to another.

There is always something rather absurd about the past. It is
easy to sneer at these Mashers, with their fantastic raiment and
vacuous lives. It is easy to laugh at all that ensued when first
the mummers and the stainers of canvas strayed into Mayfair.
To me the most wonderful moment of the pantomime has always
seemed to come when the winged and wired fairies begin to fade
away and, as they fade, clown and pantaloon tumble on joppling
and grimacing. The social condition of 1880 fascinates me in
the same manner. Its contrasts are irresistible.


By Max Beerbohm 283

Perhaps, in my study of the period, I may have fallen so deeply
beneath its spell that I have tended, now and again, to exaggerate
its real importance. I lay no claim to the true historical spirit. I
fancy it was a red-chalk drawing of a girl in a mob-cap, signed
" Frank Miles, 1880," that first impelled me to research. To
give an accurate and exhaustive account of the period would need
a far less brilliant pen than mine. But I hope that, by dealing,
even so briefly as I have dealt, with its more strictly sentimental
aspects, I may have lightened the task of the scientific historian.
And I look to Professor Gardiner and to the Bishop of Oxford.

MLA citation: Beerbohm, Max. "1880." The Yellow Book 4 (Jan. 1895): 276-83. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2011. Web. [Date of access]. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV4_beerbohm_1880.html