The son of a gentleman impoverished by a paternity suit, Beardsley spent his youth amid genteel deprivation and depravity. His mother trained him dramatically with a Scientific Method for learning the Expressions used on Stage, and though she primly omitted the lineaments of 'Rapture' and 'Desire', Beardsley and his sister Mabel learnt them anyway. The two never consummated their incestuous love, and he remained a virgin into his twenties, but his 'Priapic fantasies' always outdistanced his experience. 'London could not get enough of the Beardsley Woman,' he quipped, 'and Beardsley could not get a woman at all.'
Having learnt at school the 'strange discrepancy between public and pubic', he surrounded himself with what the century called 'inverts' and did nothing to correct the impression that he was one himself. In fact, his tastes were more traditional. He longed 'to prise a strong, scented charmer from my neck, pat her on the rump, and tell her to go and wait for me in my rooms'. Unfortunately, prostitutes and the odd artistic lady were as close as he came to his dream. Tubercular, he died in 1898 at the age of 25, unable to outlast the century.
In this fictional autobiography, Donald S Olson ventriloquises Beardsley through a series of letters written to a confessor, Pere Coube. We learn nothing about the Father or his reaction to the letters, and Beardsley's motive for writing to him - to achieve 'an inner cleanliness' - is utterly unconvincing. If other fictive memoirs - Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B Toklas or Peter Ackroyd's Last Testament of Oscar Wilde - are brilliant literary inventions, everything connected with the fictive premise of Olson's confessions is a problem. Beardsley emerges a hybrid creature as grotesque as any of the hermaphrodites he impishly invented.
First, there is Beardsley the consumptive invalid, regaling Pere Coube with the gushes of 'frothy pink ooze' that his lungs produced. To this brutal realist Olson adds a melodramatic bore, who complains that 'The disease had claimed me for its own - I was its lover'. And just as the disease becomes his love, Beardsley sees his love as a disease: in evening dress, his sister presents 'a broad gleaming swathe of . . . naked pink and white flesh - the colour of a haemorrhage mixed with heavy cream'.
The incongruities do not stop with the camp grotesque. Every now and then, Olson turns Beardsley into a shocked bourgeois, astonished to see two lesbians dancing in a French nightclub. In still other moments, this indifferently educated 24-year-old takes on the voice of a social historian (of Queen Victoria: 'swiftness, speed, hurry characterise her century as it draws to a close') or of an art historian describing the 'frankness and comic gusto' of his pornographic illustrations. Expressing deep disapproval of child abuse, urban poverty and anti- feminism, he strikes a politically correct note in the midst of his lubricious musings, passing effortlessly between the 1990s and the 1890s in the course of a single paragraph.
No doubt this is Olson's point - to tie our fin de siecle to Beardsley's. Maybe, one of Beardsley's doctors suggests, the fin de siecle creates a certain mal de siecle, and 'we are all of us over-excited'. And yet the parallel between our time and the 1890s is strained. Just as Beardsley was no Keats, he was no Mapplethorpe either.
Perhaps this is why Beardsley sounds like a Horatio Alger gone decadent: a poor boy who draws his way to prosperity and then loses all; a virgin who gets laid and then laid low; a nobody turned social lion and then defanged. The book is all striving and complaining and naughty thought. It conveys none of the exquisite sensibility or sensuous thrill that decadence entailed, nor the pathos arising from its struggle against the cruel limits that society enforced or mortality imposed.
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