September 27, 2004

Under the Hill

I am grateful to the Cypher Press—publishers of ‘beautiful, pointless books’—for presenting an on-line edition of Aubrey Beardsley’s collected literary remains, including his unfinished novel, Under the Hill. Much better known, of course, as an illustrator and graphic artist, Beardsley’s way with prose was scarcely less idiosyncratic, elegant & perverse than his graphic style. Under the Hill, also known as The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, was published, posthumously, in a number of more-or-less bowdlerised versions during the first decade of the last century. I happened to pick up a copy of a reprint of the Olympia Press edition (in which the tale is infelictously continued to completion by another hand) from the Wise Owl bookshop in Bristol, ca. 1995…

'The Abbé', illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.

Some little excerpts might hint at the flavour of Beardsley’s writing: affectedly camp, yet somehow richly lovely, its decidedly pornographic subject-matter notwithstanding:

His hand, slim and gracious as La Marquise du Deffand’s in the drawing by Carmontelle, played nervously about the gold hair that fell upon his shoulders like a finely-curled peruke, and from point to point of a precise toilet the fingers wandered, quelling the little mutinies of cravat and ruffle.
*
Priapusa’s voice was full of salacious unction; she had terrible little gestures with the hands, strange movements with the shoulders, a short respiration that made surprising wrinkles in her bodice, a corrupt skin, large horny eyes, a parrot’s nose, a small loose mouth, great flaccid cheeks, and chin after chin.
'The Toilet of Venus', illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.
It is always delightful to wake up in a new bedroom. The fresh wall-paper, the strange pictures, the positions of doors and windows—imperfectly grasped the night before—are revealed with all the charm of surprise when we open our eyes the next morning.
*
In the afternoon light that came through the great silken-blinded windows of the Casino, all the gilded decorations, all the chandeliers, the mirrors, the polished floor, the painted ceiling, the horses galloping round their green meadow, the fat rouleaux of gold and silver, the ivory rakes, the fanned and strange-frocked crowd of dandy gamesters looked magnificently rich and warm. Tea was being served. It was so pretty to see some plush little lady sipping nervously, and keeping her eyes over the cup’s edge intently upon the slackening horses.
'The Fruitbearers', illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.

Besides Under the Hill, the Cypher Press site also presents Beardley’s handful of published poems, some juvenalia, and other odds & ends of prose including a few wittily barbed letters to his critics, of which I particularly liked the following:

Sir,
No one more than myself welcomes frank, nay hostile, criticism, or enjoys more thoroughly a personal remark. But your art critic surely goes a little too far in last week’s issue of St. Paul’s, and I may be forgiven if I take up the pen of resentment. He says that I am ‘sexless and unclean.’
As to my uncleanliness, I do the best for it in my morning bath, and if he has really any doubts as to my sex, he may come and see me take it.
Yours obediently,
Aubrey Beardsley
'Venus', illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.

The images above were also lifted from the Cypher Press site. For more information about Beardsley’s life and works, this page at ‘The Victorian Web’ looks like a good-starting point. And to find more of Beardsley’s graphic works, one could look here, or here.

Posted by misteraitch at September 27, 2004 03:29 PM | TrackBack