Prancing Novelist and Black and White: Experiments in Biography
by Peter Parker
Ronald Firbank, Aubrey Beardsley and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart provided Brigid Brophy, who described herself as ‘a natural, logical and happy atheist’, with an alternative Trinity. These three short-lived geniuses are the presiding deities in Brophy’s writing: they not only became the subjects of several essays and four works of non-fiction, but are palpable presences in other books. Brophy had started her career as a writer of fiction in 1953, and her earliest work of non-fiction, Mozart the Dramatist, was not published until 1964, the same year as her fifth (and most consciously Mozartian) novel, The Snow Ball, in which several people attending an eighteenth-century-themed fancy-dress party adopt the guises (and behaviour) of characters from Don Giovanni. A similarly fruitful exchange between fiction and non-fiction occurred in the case of Firbank, whose The New Rythum and other pieces she reviewed in the London Magazine in October 1962. This article was complemented, as it were, by The Finishing Touch, which was published the following year. This novel was described by Brophy as being written ‘in a superficially Firbankian idiom’, but it in fact pays homage to Firbank in its subject-matter and its many allusions quite as much as in its language and style. One of the things that characterises Brophy as a writer is this sense that her work is all of a piece, even though the books themselves are very different in form and genre. It seems clear that she was thinking of her own career when she wrote of a novelist in her other more than superficially Firbankian novel, Palace Without Chairs (1978), that he developed ‘a technique for dealing with his imagination when it, uninvited, proffered nuclei of fictions: a few he compressed into short stories, which took a day or two to imagine and write down, but most, even more cleverly, he distorted into sometimes rather brilliant critical perceptions about other writers’ work’. As a biographer, Brophy was as keen as anyone to hunt down facts and turn up hitherto unseen documents, but it is her unusual approach to her subjects and the brilliant critical perceptions that result from her research that make her studies of Aubrey Beardsley and Ronald Firbank so outstanding and unusual.
It might seem that these two books are very different. Black and White, published in 1968, is a very brief study of an artist who was at the time extremely fashionable; Prancing Novelist, published in 1973, is a very long study of a writer who, though admired by the elect, was fashionable neither then nor now. There was, however, a great deal that Beardsley and Firbank had in common, which no-one before Brophy appeared to have noticed. Both men, in their personae as in their art, were supreme exemplars of the high-camp dandy style. Both were interested in portraying unorthodox sexuality, and both produced their work with the twin spectres of illness and mortality hovering over their shoulders. Both had oppressively close relationships with their mothers, and had sisters who played a significant role in their lives. (‘I can find no evidence they so much as met’, Brophy parenthetically remarks is Black and White; ‘but if poetic justice exists, surely Mabel Beardsley had a love affair with Heather Firbank.’). Both men died young, abroad, and as Catholic converts. Sometimes mistaken as being unserious or merely decorative, their work was in fact highly innovative and ushered in Modernism.
Brophy’s two books are not biographies in the usual sense of the word: instead they are works of polemic, a form in which Brophy always excelled. Indeed, Prancing Novelist bears the famously elaborate and nicely combative subtitle ‘A defence of fiction in the form of a critical biography in praise of Ronald Firbank’, and is a virtual vade mecum of Brophy’s recurring themes: Mozart, Freud, Beardsley, the eighteenth century, the baroque, opera, homosexuality, vegetarianism, animal rights, and the proper remuneration of writers. Both Prancing Novelist and Black and White carry ‘Brief’ or ‘Outline’ chronologies, placed at the front or back of the book, where the essential biographical data can be consulted without it clogging up the main text. Neither book follows the customary chronology of biography in the way Brophy’s other, later book on Beardsley does. Beardsley and His World, published in 1976, was presumably written along guidelines set out by its publisher, Thames and Hudson, for their series of lavishly illustrated brief lives. Even so, it begins with one of those opening flourishes of which Brophy was so fond: ‘Middle-class England in the 1870s was probably the most inhibiting and philistine environment a great artist could be born into’. Note that ‘great’: on the first page of Black and White, Beardsley is similarly stamped ‘a very great artist’, and the whole vast edifice of Prancing Novelist is constructed on the premise that Firbank was not only ‘a very good writer’ but that his writing can be held up as primary evidence that ‘works of art have and need no justification but themselves’. Far from being an insignificant sport, Firbank is for Brophy ‘the novelist who freed fiction from naturalism’. His novels were works of pure imagination rather as Beardsley’s pictures were. Sometimes felt to be interesting though minor relicts of the enervated fin de siècle, both men are instead presented by Brophy as avant-garde exemplars of ‘pure style, pure image’. When Firbank wrote in 1924 ‘I am all design’, he might well have been echoing Beardsley.
Brophy also believed that the work of both men had been underestimated, or disregarded, less as a result of their challengingly Modernist form than because of a puritanical distaste for their subject matter. As an example of this, Brophy quotes the New York Times, which declared a fortnight after Beardsley’s death at the age of twenty-five that his work was ‘already … well-nigh forgotten’. The newspaper, Brophy suggests, ‘was simply telling a lie, in the way moralistic people seem to feel justified in doing when they can see no other hope of diverting public attention from something they disapprove of’. Oscar Wilde’s patronising view that ‘dear Aubrey’s designs are like the naughty scribbles a precocious schoolboy makes in the margins of his copybooks’ was an early example of attempts to banish the young artist to the realms of infantilism; but Brophy shews how it was precisely Beardsley’s ability to remain connected to the ‘polymorphous perversity’ Freud considered characteristic of childhood that makes his work so startlingly modern. Firbank had been similarly ticked off by a schoolmasterly Evelyn Waugh for what, in an otherwise honourably praising 1929 article, he called ‘silliness [and] coy naughtiness about birches and pretty boys’.
Accusations of immaturity and silliness were often a kind of code for ‘homosexual’, and it probably didn’t much help matters that both Beardsley and Firbank, as it were, looked the part. Glancing at himself in a mirror once, Beardsley murmured ‘Yes, yes, I look like a Sodomite. But no, I am not that’. Quite what he was is unclear, but in a 1982 BBC documentary to which Brophy contributed, a lugubrious figure simply labelled ‘A Consultant Psychiatrist’ was wheeled on to provide a professional diagnosis. He solemnly opined that Beardsley ‘had not reached a mature, adult stage of sexual development […] he was a schoolboy who hasn’t grown out of his schoolboy preoccupation with obscene drawings’. He added that ‘the interest in female clothing’, which this supposed expert says was ‘the thing that struck [him] most forcibly’ on being confronted by Beardsley’s work, ‘is typically that of a transvestite’. The sad truth is that, although Beardsley once boasted that he was going to attend a fashionable restaurant ‘dressed up as a tart and mean to have a regular spree’, his frail constitution almost certainly prevented him from any kind of sexual activity, sodomitical or otherwise. Though they do not put it so bluntly, those who left their first-hand impressions of Firbank’s manner and appearance make it clear that he too looked like a sodomite, and indeed the author triumphantly twinkles across the dustjacket of Prancing Novelist in boater and spats, hands on hips, in an almost parodic pose of the Übernance. (The unlikely background to this 1904 photograph, a snowscape at the Alpine resort of Chamonix, has been removed for the purposes of design.) Taking the then refreshing, though admittedly autobiographical, view that sexual heterodoxy was not merely morally neutral but actually something to be celebrated, in both books Brophy blasts through layers of accreted dismissive prejudice.
Black and White was based on an essay Brophy had written for the Atlantic Monthly in February 1968, to which she gave the (to her) morally neutral but defining title ‘The Perversity of Aubrey Beardsley’. In Black and White, she describes Beardsley as ‘the most intensively and electrically erotic artist in the world’. The ‘obscene drawings’ so disdained by the BBC psychiatrist were not, she said, a ‘schoolboy preoccupation’ but an essential part of Beardsley’s oeuvre, in which Eros and Thanatos are held in precarious balance. Similarly, by taking Firbank’s homosexuality seriously, Brophy not only provided an unsurpassed account of his literary personality, but extended the scope of biographical-literary criticism in general. If this now seems not particularly novel or pioneering, it is worth considering what Firbank studies looked like before Brophy. Her most recent predecessor in this field, Miriam J. Benkovitz, seems to have been incapable of reading either the life or the work of her subject, writing for example that: ‘Firbank disliked [his homosexuality], if his novels are an indication.’ - to which the only response is an eloquently Firbankian row of dots, question marks and exclamation points. (Apparently undaunted by the lethal dismantling of her book in Prancing Novelist, Benkovitz unwisely went on to write a book on Beardsley, drawing forth one of Brophy’s most magisterially blistering reviews.)
Ronald Firbank, Übernance, at Chamonix in 1904
If Prancing Novelist is pre-eminently a work of close reading, then Black and White might be described as a work of close looking. In both cases, however, Brophy takes the now academically unfashionable view that the lives of those who create works of art are crucial to an understanding of that art. In the cases of both Firbank and Beardsley, she felt that it was especially crucial that they lived much of their lives in the knowledge or suspicion that they were likely to die young. ‘I never lie down at night without reflecting that – young as I am – I may not live so see another day,’ Mozart wrote to his father in April 1787, when he was just thirty-one. For Firbank and Beardsley this kind of reflection was even more acute. Beardsley was first diagnosed with what was then graphically known as consumption when he was around seven years old. ‘I shall not live longer than did Keats,’ he accurately predicted and throughout his short life carried the marks of his illness, describing himself at the age of eighteen as having ‘a vile constitution, a sallow face and sunken eyes, long red hair, a shuffling gait and a stoop’. Firbank also had bad lungs and suffered from poor health all his life. He had seen both his brothers die young, at twenty and twenty-five, and in light of this, Brophy writes, ‘the conviction of Firbank’s adult life that he might die at any moment’ begins to look less like superstition and ‘more like a rational calculation of medical probability’. She suggests that both men became the kind of artists they were because of their precarious health, that their acute awareness of their own mortality was reflected not only in the subject-matter of their work but also in the form that work took. Their ‘economy of artistic means,’ she writes, ‘was dictated by their not expecting to live long enough to go the long way round about perfecting their art’.
Et in Arcadia Ego from The Savoy, 1896
In the book’s subtitle Brophy described Black and White as a ‘Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley’ rather than a biography. It is in fact a lightning sketch wholly appropriate to its subject, whom it also resembles in being elegantly svelte – no more than 95 generously laid-out pages, many of these filled by illustrations. Sidestepping the then customary biographical starting point of birth, family and ancestry, it plunges straight into the essentials. This too is appropriate to a subject who was not granted time to dawdle. One of the symptoms of consumption, apart from coughing and spitting blood, is fever, and Beardsley often worked at fever pitch, both literally and metaphorically. The ‘terrible, biological haste’ (as Brophy puts it) that made Beardsley such ‘a prodigious worker’ was shared by Firbank, whose output of ten novels and a play in the eleven years between 1915 and 1926 should dispense once and for all any impression he may have given of being a dilettante. If the worlds of Beardsley and Firbank suggest a kind of Arcadia, in which characters inhabit enchanted groves, it is an Arcadia in which death holds sway. Beardsley’s pictures frequently feature goat-footed and vine-wreathed Pan figures, but in a drawing he did for the eighth and last edition of the Savoy magazine in 1896, a dandy picking his way through a flowery mead is confronted with an urn on a plinth bearing the legend Et in Arcadia ego. It was Brophy who recognized that Firbank’s novels, far from being (as some commentators thought) merely whimsical, could be divided into Pastorals and Tragedies. One of these tragedies, Prancing Nigger, even enacts the traditional Arcadian fall from grace when the Mouth family relocate from their paradisal rural village to the vice-ridden city of Cuna-Cuna, where they variously come to grief. What Brophy, invoking Shakespearean scholarship, calls ‘the three late tragedies’ (The Flower beneath the Foot, Prancing Nigger and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli) are all haunted by death and loss.
Alongside satyrs and putti, another frequent motif in Beardsley’s work is that of embryos, either used as sinister decorative devices or as additional characters in his fabulously corrupt charivari. Most commentators regarded these images as merely indicative of Beardsley’s unwholesome imagination: it took Brophy to point out their autobiographical significance. One of the sixty ‘Grotesques’ Beardsley was commissioned in 1892 to draw for three volumes of Bon-Mots by various authors was a repellent image of a foetus in evening dress and cape. This has been identified as a kind of reductio ad absurdum caricature of the famously precocious and exquisitely dandiacal Max Beerbohm, who published a volume titled The Works of Max Beerbohm when he was only twenty-three. But it was more than that, Brophy suggests (and in so doing alludes to Beardsley’s self-identification with the fatally tubercular John Keats): ‘It was his own precociousness Beardsley drew in embryonic form, together with his physical unviability. The essence of embryo is the vast head on the feeble, unfit-to-live body of a crustacean snatched from its shell; Beardsley is expressing the consumptive poet’s dread that his body’s unfitness will make him cease before his pen has gleaned the teeming brain inside that huge foetal skull’.
Grotesque from Bon-Mots of Lamb and Jerrold (1893)
Brophy further argues that Beardsley’s ‘genius’, like that of ‘many that are going to die young […] hurried on in advance of contemporary taste’ – and this too is true of Firbank. One of the ways in which Beardsley was in advance of contemporary taste was his unfashionable embrace of the eighteenth century, specifically in his exquisitely rococo illustrations for Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and the melancholy arcadian pierrots that Brophy suggests he derived from the paintings of his fellow consumptive Jean-Antoine Watteau. ‘Now that Beardsley’s revolution in taste has triumphed,’ Brophy writes, ‘it is hard – but necessary too if one is to honour his courage - to remember how frowned on the eighteenth century was by the nineteenth’. Similarly, she notices that in his 1915 novel Vainglory Firbank refers to ‘a sumptuous Stations of the Cross by Tiepolo’, an eighteenth-century painter more or less unknown – or, if known, more or less dismissed – at this period; and that Caprice, published two years later, features ‘an advertisement on an omnibus for a performance of La Clemenza di Tito’, Mozart’s late eighteenth-century opera, which was not performed in London after its 1806 premiere until 1957. The work of both Beardsley and Firbank was as much in advance of their time as their taste, which is why it was so often misunderstood. Even during the Beardsley Boom, Brophy was concerned that, like Firbank, this revolutionary artist might be ‘mistaken for minor’. It was the very explosion of his popularity in the 1960s, with his designs printed not only on posters, but on mirrors, mugs, vases, lamps, tea-towels and other domestic furnishings, that made it all the more urgent for Brophy to argue that Beardsley was more than a merely decorative artist. She points out that during his lifetime Beardsley was often underestimated precisely because his work was made for reproduction and thus available to all. Because Beardsley did not paint on canvas but instead had his work published using new reprographic processes, he did not create what was usually understood by the word ‘pictures’, which is to say works ‘done in oils, or at the least, colours of some sort’. He was instead deemed an ‘illustrator’, though in fact his ‘illustrations’ not only stand on their own but sometimes have only the most tenuous relationship to the text alongside which they appeared. Indeed, what remain perhaps his most famous pictures – certainly the ones that made his reputation – were those for the first English edition (1894) of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, which Beardsley more accurately called ‘decorations’. It was precisely this creation of what are undeniably pictures out of what would have been considered the restrictive materials of black ink and white paper that made Beardsley so revolutionary and modern. ‘The tension that dominates all his compositions,’ Brophy writes, ‘is entirely in the design and medium’.
The close attention that Brophy pays in Black and White to the design of what in Beardsley’s case was the page (rather than the canvas) carries over into Prancing Novelist. It is not merely what Firbank writes, but how he arranges his words on the page, another composition in black and white, of print on paper. ‘The technique of isolating a single image in space,’ she writes, ‘ Firbank learned from his cult of the black-and-white drawings of Aubrey Beardsley – round so many of which Beardsley drew frames, either elaborately decorative or of the most exactly sited ruled lines’. Also,
Firbank’s writing consists of his giving his images space to be contemplated in.
His technique is to aerate his books.
Indeed, his pages are quite visibly aerated by the deployment on them of white space.
(It is worth noting parenthetically that these three sentences on Brophy’s own page are themselves characteristically arranged into three short paragraphs in witty imitation and illustration of the technique she is describing.) Firbank’s attention to the appearance of his text is apparent in his complaint upon receiving the proofs of Inclinations, in which there is perhaps more white space than in any other of his books: ‘I wanted more capital letters & dots instead of dashes’.Firbank, writes Brophy, used rows of dots to ‘impose a rallentando that gives the reader time to contemplate the images’ ambiguity …. At the same stroke, the dots ventilate the page, by their actual airy look. Dots are almost perforation’. When in 1924 Firbank wrote (with his customary disregard of orthography) ‘I think nothing of fileing fifty pages down to make a brief, crisp paragraph, or even a row of dots!’, he was not underestimating the importance of those dots. ‘The aerated look of his pages,’ Brophy writes, ‘is a visible analogue of the aeration of his literary expression’. Beardsley, too, deployed rows of dots, used to delineate the fall or flounce of the elaborate costumes in which he decks out some of his characters, dots that indeed aerate these images, evoking by the most economical of means the physical lightness, the sheer airiness, of muslin, lace or crêpe.
Frontispiece to Ernest Dowson's play The Pierrot of the Minute (1897)
Black and White is not merely an obviously appropriate title for a book about an artist whose work was largely restricted to these two non-colours; it is also a persistent theme of the book, related by Brophy to the artist’s oncoming death. ‘For black-and-white was in itself an image, for Beardsley, of the erosion of his life,’ she observes. ‘In Beardsley the medium is, to an exceptional extent, the image. Strictly, his medium is black on white […] Black was encroaching on, eating into, the white space’ – and this is a process Brophy compares, in one of those irresistible imaginative speculations at which she specialised, to the encroachment of consumption, eating into the artist’s lungs. (‘Did he,’ she wonders, ‘actually think of his lungs, in cockney or the language of offal-dealers, as his lights?’) The deployment of black and white, Brophy suggests, had similar memento mori associations for Firbank. What seems at first to be a failure of tone, as when in The Artificial Princess a royal personage gets ‘hot and piggy’, is wholly deliberate: ‘Firbank introduces the perfect incongruous word “piggy”,’ she writes,
in the way baroque statuaries introduce the bare buttocks of a mourning boy angel among the graven allegorical person and draperies of a tomb.
Like a baroque tomb, Firbank’s design proceeds by contrasts. White marble and black marble, juxtaposed, afford each other a setting of irony. In the midst of high-life we are in the low comedy of flesh and its liability to death.
(It is not without significance that Brophy once said of her own novel The Snow Ball that it was ‘deliberately constructed as a baroque monumental tomb’.)
Many people regard Prancing Novelist as an all too monumental construction in which the hapless Firbank is merely entombed. While Black and White seems as sprightly as the talent it describes, as well tailored to its subject as a closely-fitting dinner jacket, Prancing Novelist has been criticised as far too weighty to load onto Firbank’s frail consumptive shoulders. In fact, the sheer bulk of the book is part of its point. Yes, Brophy is proclaiming, Ronald Firbank is absolutely worth this amount of critical and biographical attention. And for those who find this undeniably long book a daunting prospect, it should be pointed out that it is nevertheless broken down into carefully arranged ‘Parts’ and ‘Chapters’ and short (often very short) sections within those chapters – aerated indeed by observations that solicit the reader’s attention by being isolated in their own space.
When Brophy wrote the manuscript of Prancing Novelist in violet ink it was not merely a tribute to Firbank but an example of the imaginative empathy that illuminates every page of the book. She had immersed herself so thoroughly in the author’s life and work that even her wildest speculations, one feels, can be taken on trust. And it is what she calls her ‘irrepressible speculativeness’ that leads to those elegantly assured imaginative leaps – leaps worthy of Firbank’s beloved Ballets Russes. One mark of a good book is that it could not have been written by anyone else, and it is this that makes these two experiments in biography, characterised by the author’s energy, wit, idiosyncrasy and combativeness, so exhilarating to read.
This essay was published in Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist, edited by Richard Canning and Gerri Kimber (Edinburgh University Press, 2020).