Dr. Robert Hickson 14 August 2020
The Vigil of the Assumption of Mary
Saint Eusebius (d. 357)
Saint Maximilian Kolbe (d. 1941)
“Publisher’s 1950 Note: A Christmas Garland was, when it was first published [in 1912], acclaimed by many writers as the best book of prose parodies in the English language. We venture to think that it still holds this pride of place. A parody on a certain M**R*C* B*R*NG [Maurice Baring] is now included.” (London: William Heinemann, 1950)
“Despite the last sentence in the foregoing [Rapallo, 1912] note, I did, in recent years, write one other parody, ‘All Roads–‘. It amused and pleased my old friend, the brilliant, the greatly gifted Maurice Baring. Had he not liked it [Baring was to die on 14 December 1945], I would not include it in this later  edition.” (Max Beerbohm’s own 1949 Rapallo Postscript to the 1950 Heinemann London edition—my emphasis added.)
Maurice Baring [d. 1945] had already variously presented his own subtle and multiple talents in writing charming parodies, and it may be seen even in his set of what he called “diminutive dramas.” One may see it, for example, in the deft ironic domestic discourse between an earnest, sometimes shrewish, wife and her meditative, ironical philosopher husband, such as Socrates. That little drama is to be found (and to be read aloud and likely further cherished) in the drama of “Xantippe and Socrates” which is still to be highly recommended to everyone. One may see its subtle presentation in the final chapter of a larger collection in Baring’s 1925 versatile book, entitled Diminutive Dramas (London: William Heinemann LTD., 1925—in Chapter XXIII, on pages 177-183, will be found that timely and timeless little gem, “Xantippe and Socrates.”)
As a literary gift to his friend Maurice Baring, Max Beerbohm decided to tell a tale about a young man in the British diplomatic service in Rome who, with the help of a haunting young woman he never spoke to, overcame his longstanding displeasure with Christmas. He was then never to see her again.
Here is how Beerbohm’s narrator, partly aware of Baring’s earlier biography, begins his tale:
Michael Forster reached Rome in the first week of December and drove straight to the Embassy. Every one there was very kind to him. It was rather like being a new boy at a public school and not being bullied. All the same, he could not help wishing himself back at Copenhagen, or at Berne, where he had felt life-sized. Rome dwarfed him. She seemed to say to him, “If you want monuments, look around you! You will know that though you are twenty-five years old you are nobody—and never will be anybody though you live to be a hundred.” But at any rate he was not dreading the advent of Christmas.
Year after year, he had dreaded it ever since his childhood.1
Beerbohm’s hyphenated title, “All Roads–”, may well evoke the saying that “All Roads Lead to Rome”—and maybe also implicitly to the Catholic Faith. However, Beerbohm is more enigmatic when, right under the parody’s title is a chapter heading, namely “Chapter V.” as if there are earlier parts of the prose parody, as well as later ones, too. But let us pass on now to some other and more vivid matters.
After describing an ambiguous (partly unhistorical) set of incidents with Michael’s specially cherished German governess, “Fräulein Schultz” (57, 58), “and though he forgot all about her soon after she went to be a governess somewhere else, he never lost his dislike of Christmas.” (58—my emphasis added)
Nonetheless, “he was glad to be transferred to Rome” (58), but it was:
Not that he had yet felt any definite wavering in regard to the Church in which he had been baptised and confirmed. He was still a Protestant. But he had long since ceased to protest day in, day out, and the prospect of seeing a Christmas passed over lightly was one of the things that cheered him on his journey south….and it was a blow to him when one day Sainson, the Second Secretary, said, “Of course, the Chief will be giving the usual beano [noisy, festive] dinner on Christmas night.” (58—my emphasis added)
“Michael, at this news,” realized that he lacked a born and “real vocation for diplomacy, but he did manage to think out a plausible excuse, and on Christmas night, after he had dressed, he slipped out and dined in an obscure little restaurant in the Via Golfango.” (58—italics in the original)
A new character now comes into the tale, “a friend of his family,” the one who had recommended to him the little restaurant and he will now introduce him to a remarkable woman in her seventies:
When he [Michael] was half-through his meal [Pierre] Frénard himself came in and joined him at his table. Later, while they sat over their coffee, Frénard said he thought of going on to Mme. Yakovlev’s [still on that Christmas night].
Michael asked, “Who is Mme. Yakovlev?”
Frénard laughed and said, “Oh, she’s one of those women who know everybody. Fancy anyone not knowing her. You had better come with me. This is one of her Soirs. She has two a week….”
“Tell me about her,”said Michael.
“There’s not much to tell,” answered Frénard….“Her father was very poor, an Irish landowner, living mostly at home in a tumble-down castle, but sometimes travelling. From one of his journeys he brought back a bride—a young Turkish lady, a niece of Mustapha Pasha. There was one child of the marriage, a daughter; she was christened Clara. Both parents died when she [Clara] was twelve years old. She was then brought up by an aunt in Scotland. The aunt had been a devout Catholic, but there was some kink in her, and she was now a Presbyterian. The girl was not at all happy with her. She ran away when she was sixteen [four years later] and became a postulant in an Ursuline Convent near Glasgow. But she found she had no real vocation.” (59-60—my emphasis added)
After the narrator presents a wide range and variety of her mixed international life (60), we are then told that “Sergius Yakovlev, her third husband, was a trusted adviser of [Tsar] Alexander the Third….She and he [Sergius] are said to have been quite happy while he lived. Anyhow, she never married again. She settled in Rome….She was seventy-three last June. She knows a great deal but seldom says very much. What she says has point.” (60—my emphasis added)
Later at Mme. Yakovlev’s salone, “Michael was piloted by Frénard to Mme. Yakovlev and presented to her. Somehow he had expected her to be tall, but she was quite short.” (61) She asked him a question about a certain “Septimus Forster whom she had known in Algiers” (61), but:
Before he could think of an answer, he had to make way for another fresh arrival. He felt that he had not made a good impression. But afterwards Frénard told him that Mme. Yakovlev had liked him very much. (61-62)
Michael was now suddenly to glimpse the haunting young woman who was to influence him so greatly:
In one of the groups [of “fresh arrivals”] nearest to him he saw a young woman whose face was familiar to him, though he was sure he had never seen her before, and though she was unlike any one he had ever seen….She seemed utterly remote from the group she stood in….How was she here? How could she be? That she was a musician, and an exquisite one, Michael was sure. Her eyes and her hands proclaimed that. (62)
As part of Beerbohm’s deft artfulness, our minds are then presented with a contrasting human form, the robust Jorton himself, another family relation and indeed another “fresh arrival”:
While Michael gazed and wondered, the vast bulk of Professor Jorton suddenly interposed itself between him and the unknown [young woman], and he was affectionately hailed in the booming voice of the famous Alpine climber and Egyptologist, who was an old friend of the [Michael Forster] family and one of his Godfathers. That Jorton should be here was natural enough, for in spite of all his peaks and papyri he was the most social of men, and no capital city was complete without him. Michael felt sure he could learn from Jorton something about the identity of the young woman. (62-63—my emphasis added)
Now we are to hear a part of Professor Jorton’s biographical report on young Eleanor d’Urutsia:
“I don’t wonder that you’re struck by her. Eleanor d’Urutsias don’t grow on every bush….She married out of the schoolroom, as it were. She was only sixteen when young Fernand d’Urutsia came over to London….He was quite poor, and so was she, but they were ideally happy. He died on the first anniversary of their wedding, at Qualva, a fishing-village near Biarritz. It was feared that she would lose her reason. But she is ‘of the stuff that can affront despair.’ She withdrew into solitude for three years—no one knows where. Probably in some conventual [religious] institution, for she became passionately dévote when she was received into the Roman communion. She is now twenty years old….She is very musical. She used to sing charmingly. She plays her own accompaniments. I hope she will sing to-night. Shall I present you to her?”
“Ah, not to-night,” said Michael. “Not here in this crush.” (63—my emphasis added)
But Michael Forster could not keep his eyes off her, and he began to have some affectionate illusions: “With his eyes fixed on her again, he knew in his heart that somehow, mysteriously, not yet, but not a long while hence, his life would be linked with hers.” (64—my emphasis added)
How will Max Beerbohm now deftly, and even elegiacally, present the three concluding paragraphs of his tale, while keeping in mind the large corpus of Maurice Baring’s prose and verse?
After speaking with some of the new arrivals, Michael became more at ease as he spoke to an international set of expressive visitors:
Then he was aware that something was happening. There was movement in the group around Mme. [Eleanor] d’Urutsia, and a murmur of excitement throughout the room, and then a deep hush, as she passed slowly to the pianoforte.
Michael had known that if she sang it would be unlike any singing that he had heard. But he had not known how utterly unlike it would be. The song itself [touching upon the Nativity] was one he had often heard, and had not cared for—Weber’s setting of Bérenger’s “Noel.” She transported it into some sphere of unconjectured beauty in which one could only hold one’s breath, and marvel as best one might. (64—my emphasis added)
The last paragraph of the nuanced prose parody is well worth our repeated savoring and our poignant ironical reflections which distil some of Maurice Baring’s own deeply elegiac themes and also his noble perceptions of human sorrows:
The [musical] notes came and went without melancholy as one knows it, without gaity as one could recognise it, but with an ethereal mingling of both these moods. And they seemed to come not from in the room. One seemed to hear them wafted from a great distance, across the waters of a great lake. This made Michael all the more certain in his heart that his future was indissolubly one with the future of Eleanor d’Urutsia. As it happened, he never saw her again. But she had entirely conquered his dislike of Christmas. He was destined to love it ever after. (65—my emphasis added)
In his own 1935 novel Darby and Joan, Maurice Baring has memorably said, first through the words of a Catholic priest, that “the acceptance of sorrow is the secret of life.” (Our Lady must have deeply known that intimate wisdom– also at that first Christmas.)
Let us consider what Maurice Baring himself wrote in 1935, in Darby and Joan:2
“One has to accept sorrow for it to be of any healing power, and that is the most difficult thing in the world.”
“I didn’t think about it in that way. I don’t think I rebelled against it, because I thought my father was happier dead and at peace, than alive and in pain; but I was just stunned. Apart from that, I have not experienced real sorrow; only disappointment and disillusion.”
“A priest once said to me, ‘When you understand what accepted sorrow means, you will understand everything. It is the secret of life.’”
For our sake now at the end of Max Beerbohm’s warm, often comic, partly exaggerated parody of a friend’s writing and literary style, we may now appreciate, a little, what comes from Maurice Baring’s own sincere heart and its depth.
Such are also the graceful and subtly allusive developments in Max Beerbohm’s interwoven 1950 Christmas Garland, especially his artful parody, “All Roads–” by M**R*CE B*R*NG.
© 2020 Robert D. Hickson
1Max Beerhohm, “All Roads–”, one of eighteen portraits in A Christmas Garland (London: William Heinemann, 1950), page 57—my emphasis added. Henceforth, all references will be to this text of “All Roads–” and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this brief essay and commentary. Moreover, G.K. Chesterton has a parodic portrait entitled “Some Damnable Errors about Christmas” starting on page 47; and Hilaire Belloc is also parodied by Beerbohm in a portrait merely entitled “On Christmas”–by “H*l**r* B*ll*c starting on page 147. Baring, Belloc, and Chesterton are together once again!
2Maurice Baring, Darby and Joan (London: William Heinemann, 1935), page 178—italics are in the original.