Beerbohm’s caricature of Oscar Wilde : Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library
I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth if I didn’t admit that Beerbohm’s only novel is not exactly the easiest book to get through. It is a satirical take on Oxford, class, and weird acts of machismo with a handful of references from Edwardian times that might confuse even the most dedicated Downton Abbey viewer. But to get through it is to experience one of the truest exercises in literary style, in every sense of the term. Beerbohm was both a unique prose stylist and a master of aesthetics, with a dark sense of humor.
Beerbohm wrote one of the 20th century’s great English novels, but it’s his legacy as a great wit and extremely sharp dresser that people normally mention when discussing his life and work. Beerbohm left behind enough fiction, essays, and famously candid caricatures to create a composite portrait of English high society at the start of the 20th century. His prose style — clever, fast-paced, and sometimes on the verge of anarchy — balances humor with style, and provides a master class in using irony — the greatest weapon in Beerbohm’s arsenal — to look at high culture. In these overwhelmingly self-aware days when faux-thrift store T-shirts are sold as luxury items, Beerbohm’s ability to skewer the rich, famous, and powerful of his time with a nod and a wink seems both quaint and crucial.