August 21, 2004


The Crime (Max Beerbohm, August 25, 1920, New Republic)

On a bleak wet stormy afternoon at the outset of last year's spring, I was in a cottage, all alone, and knowing that I must be all alone till evening. It was a remote cottage, in a remote county, and had been "let furnished" by its owner. My spirits are easily affected by weather; and I hate solitude; and I dislike to be master of things that are not mine. "Be careful not to break us," say the glass and china. "You'd better not spill ink on me," growls the carpet. "None of your dog's-earing, thumb-marking, back-breaking tricks here!" snarl the books.

The books in this cottage looked particularly disagreeable--horrid little upstarts of this and that scarlet or cerulean "series" of "standard" authors. Having gloomily surveyed them, I turned my back on them, and watched the rain streaming down the latticed window, whose panes seemed likely to be shattered at any moment by the wind. I have known men who constantly visit the Central Criminal Court, visit also the scenes where famous crimes were committed, form their theories of those crimes, collect souvenirs of those crimes, and call themselves criminologists. As for me, my interest in crime is, alas, merely morbid. I did not know, as those others would doubtless have known, that the situation in which I found myself was precisely of the kind most conducive to the darkest deeds. I did but bemoan it, and think of Lear in the hovel on the heath. The wind howled in the chimney, and the rain had begun to sputter right down it, so that the fire was beginning to hiss in a very sinister manner. Suppose the fire went out. It looked as if it meant to. I snatched the pair of bellows that hung beside it. I plied them vigorously. "Now mind!--not too vigorously. We aren't yours!" they wheezed. I handled them more gently. But I did not release them till they had secured me a steady blaze.

I sat down before that blaze. Despair had been warded off. Gloom, however, remained; and gloom grew. I felt that I should prefer any one's thoughts to mine. I rose, I returned to the books. A dozen or so of those which were on the lowest of the three shelves were full-sized, were octavo, looked as though they had been bought to be read. I would exercise my undoubted right to read one of them. Which of them? I gradually decided on a novel by a well-known writer whose works, though I had several times had the honor of meeting her, were known to me only by repute.

I knew nothing of them that was not good. The lady's "output" had not been at all huge, and it was agreed that her "level" was high. I had always gathered that the chief characteristic of her work was its great "vitality." The book in my hand was a third edition of her latest novel, and at the end of it were numerous press-notices, at which I glanced for confirmation. "Immense vitality,'' yes, said one critic. "Full," said another, "of an intense vitality." "A book that will live," said a third. How on earth did he know that? I was. however, very willing to believe in the vitality of this writer or all present purposes, vitality was a thing in which she herself, her talk, her glance, her gestures, abounded. She and they had been, I remembered, rather too much for me. The first time I met her, she said something that I lightly and mildly disputed. On no future occasion did I stem any opinion of hers. Not that she had been rude. Far from it. She had but in a sisterly, brotherly way, and yet in a way that was filially eager too, asked me to explain my point. I did my best. She was all attention. But I was conscious that my best, under her eye, was not good. She was quick to help me: she said for me just what I had tried to say, and proceeded to show me just why it was wrong. I smiled the gallant smile of a man who regards women as all the more adorable because logic is not their strong point, bless them! She asked--not aggressively, but strenuously. as one who dearly loves a joke--what I was smiling at. Altogether, a chastening encounter; and my memory of it was tinged with a feeble resentment. How she had scored! No man likes to be worsted in argument by a woman. And I fancy that to be vanquished by a feminine writer is the kind of defeat least of all agreeable to a man who writes. A "sex war," we are often told, is to be one of the features of the world's future--women demanding the right to do men's work, and men refusing, resisting, counter-attacking. It seems likely enough. One can believe anything of the world's future. Yet one conceives that not all men, if this particular evil come to pass, will stand packed shoulder to shoulder against all women. One does not feel that the dockers will be very bitter against such women as want to be miners, or the plumbers frown much upon the would-be steeple-jills. I myself have never had any sense of fitness jarred, nor a spark of animosity roused in me, by a woman practising any of the fine arts--except the art of writing. That she should write a few little poems or pensées, or some impressions of a trip in a dahabieh as far as (say) Biskra, or even a short story or two, seems to me not wholly amiss, even though she do such things for publication. But that she should be an habitual, professional author, with a passion for her art and a fountain-pen and an agent, and sums down in advance of royalties on sales in Canada and Australia, and a profound knowledge of human character, and an essentially sane outlook, is somehow incongruous with my notions--my mistaken notions, if you will--of what she ought to be.

"Has a profound knowledge of human character, and an essentially sane outlook," said one of the critics quoted at the end of the book I had chosen. The wind and the rain in the chimney had not abated, but the fire was bearing up bravely. So would I. I would read cheerfully and without prejudice. I poked the fire and, pushing my chair slightly back, lest the heat should warp the book's cover, began Chapter I.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2004 11:51 AM

Interesting, Orrin, that you choose to quote the passages in which Beerbohm sneers at women's desire to be taken seriously in what was then, and what today mostly remains, a man's world ... but you omit the conclusion of the piece in which he finds that the woman in question is, indeed, a better writer than he, and he's so infuriated by this humiliation that he's reduced to throwing her pages into the fire.

That dénouement rather reminds me of the campus leftists who steal right-wing newspapers and drown out conservative speakers with catcalls. They've got no substantive argument to offer, so they resort to attempting to destroy what they cannot refute.

The sad thing is that the works of women authors of a hundred or more years gone, if the likes of Beerbohm did in fact manage to destroy any trace of them, will never appear on the Internet so that the unprejudiced can make up their own minds about them.

"But that she should be an habitual, professional author, with a passion for her art and a fountain-pen and an agent, and sums down in advance of royalties on sales in Canada and Australia, and a profound knowledge of human character, and an essentially sane outlook, is somehow incongruous with my notions — my mistaken notions, if you will — of what she ought to be."

Exactly. As Nicole Hollander once had her comic-strip character Sylvia acidly observe while watching some smug TV pundit pontificate on the proper place of the "delicate sex": "Women need to be protected .. from making too much money."

Of course, Beerbohm forgot to add the Reutersesque sneer quotes around "mistaken." I'm sure he didn't consider himself so.

Posted by: Reginleif at August 21, 2004 12:16 PM

I wonder who the female author was, and if she is any more remembered today than Beerbohm....

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 21, 2004 1:38 PM

Reginleif has come to the right place. We are all firm believers in barefoot pregnant and on the farm, here.

I for one am rather partial to the GOR series of novels, by John Norman. (Our club song is "Under My Thumb", and we all grieved when the last canton in Switzerland buckled and gave women the franchise.)

Posted by: tictoc at August 21, 2004 2:51 PM

Oh man, how bad was GOR? You could hit any page at random and have a 86% likelyhood he was talking about slavegirls. That guy had the grand mother of all small organ complexes.

Every so often he'd write a paragraph or two on hacking rival men to death, and it'd be a relief. I would love, LOVE to know what kind of Norman Bates-like life story produced that freak.

Posted by: Amos at August 21, 2004 11:39 PM

He's a professor of philosophy, married with children:

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 22, 2004 1:43 AM


We try never to step on someon's punchline, unless we're making fun of it. You're supposed to go read the whole thing and many of the folks here--like you--do.

Posted by: oj at August 22, 2004 9:06 AM