Almost three decades after its initial publication my novel, The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley, has been re-issued as an e-book. A novelist is rarely given the opportunity to revisit and revise past work, and I am grateful to the editors at Lume Books for giving me free rein to do so, and for asking me to write about the novel and the artist who inspired it. The reappearance of The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley coincides with the first major exhibition of Beardsley’s work to be seen in fifty years, opening at Tate Britain.
For a fiction writer, there is nothing more exciting than meeting your characters. Sometimes they appear in a flash and you know instantly who they are and what they’re up to. At other times, the path to find them is more circuitous. That was the case with this novel.
I did not know that I was looking for Aubrey Beardsley until I found him – or, more accurately, he found me. It was the 1980s. I had written three contemporary novels and a play, and I was trying to decide what to tackle next. I didn’t know if it would be a play or a novel. All I knew was that I wanted to leave the modern world behind and enter the nineteenth century.
I have always been interested in gay history and initially I thought Oscar Wilde would be the lead character in whatever this new work was going to be. Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’ was one of the seminal events of the late-nineteenth century, a textbook example of the government-sanctioned persecution that criminalised gay men up until the 1960s. Wilde’s case was well known, but no one had written in any detail about everyday gay life during that period.
As I dug deeper and began to connect the dots, a shadowy picture began to emerge of the subterranean gay world that had flourished in England before gay men even knew what to call themselves. The word ‘homosexual’ did not exist. ‘Sodomite’ and ‘pervert’ were the most common pejoratives applied to gay men (it was inconceivable to the Victorians that women could be lesbians). But amongst Wilde’s circle of educated gay friends, newly minted words like ‘invert’ and ‘Uranian’ were being used to identify and de-stigmatise themselves. When Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour for sodomy, these first stirrings of what today we might call ‘gay consciousness’ or ‘queer identity’ came crashing to an end. They wouldn’t resurface until several decades later. Once again, ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ dared not speak its name.
The effect Wilde’s trial and prison sentence had on gay life was devastating at the time and lasted for generations. It was said that on the day of his arrest in 1895, the boat trains to Europe were packed solid with panicked gay men fleeing England to escape arrest and prosecution. What a fantastic play that would make, I thought (I still think so). But by that time, Aubrey Beardsley had introduced himself and given me an entirely new perspective on the world of Wilde and how I might write about it.
I had come across references to Beardsley in many of the books written about Wilde. The 1890s were, after all, dubbed The Beardsley Period. The facts of Beardsley’s life were not nearly as well-known as Wilde’s, but their fates, as I discovered, were inextricably intertwined.
In the public’s imagination, Wilde still remains the major stand-alone victim of the era’s homophobic injustice. But the truth is, when Wilde fell, he took others with him. And of all the people whose lives were compromised or utterly ruined by the scandal surrounding Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley was the one who lost the most. At age twenty-three, after a meteoric rise to fame, his artistic career and social life came to a swift and catastrophic end because of his association with Wilde. After that, the only work Beardsley could get was from Leonard Smithers, a publisher with a lucrative sideline in pornography. Beardsley’s erotic drawings – the ones museums and art historians still don’t quite know what to do with – were mostly done for Smithers. Two years after his public humiliation and fall from grace, Beardsley was dead.
That was all fascinating and dramatic enough, but when I read Beardsley’s final agonised letter, written on his deathbed, imploring Smithers to destroy ‘all obscene drawings’, I finally knew it was Beardsley, not Wilde, who would be the focus of my work.
What were the circumstances that drove Beardsley to create those ‘obscene’ drawings and then beg Smithers to destroy them? I was determined to find out.
To understand Beardsley, I had to understand his work. Though most of his drawings had been reproduced in books, I visited every museum and library in the US and UK that owned Beardsley drawings or other materials associated with him. It was thrilling to hold and examine an original Beardsley drawing or poster, and to page through copies of The Yellow Book and The Savoy, the famous art-and-literature magazines he created and contributed to. The young artist with his hawk-like nose, severely cut bangs and center part in his hair stared out at me from photographs that had never been seen by anyone other than librarians and museum curators.
But how to bring this fascinating man to life? How to write about someone who suffered from tuberculosis but somehow managed, against overwhelming odds, to create work of such unique and unforgettable brilliance that it came to define an era? And then there was the public crash-and-burn of his career because of Wilde – how did Beardsley react and respond to that?
Many people assume that Beardsley was gay and think that he and Wilde were lovers. That was not the case. Beardsley was fiercely ambitious and used Wilde as a stepping stone to further his career. He actively promoted himself for the job of illustrating Wilde’s banned play, Salome, knowing that it would make him famous (or infamous, as it turned out). How ironic, then, that Beardsley’s career should implode because of Wilde, the man whose attention he initially sought and whose celebrity helped Beardsley make his name.
I saw Beardsley’s short, tempestuous life as a battle for artistic freedom in a world of stultifying convention and repressive condemnation. In that sense, his is the story of many great modern artists. But because of that final letter begging Smithers to destroy ‘all obscene drawings’, it was also apparent that Beardsley was conflicted about his artistic legacy. He wanted to renounce the sexual side of his work for the sake of his soul. His conversion to Roman Catholicism was another clear indication that he was struggling with issues of faith and redemption.
Such rich material! Such a fascinating era! Such an amazing cast of characters!
It took five years of research before I felt I was finally ready to write anything. Those years were marked by the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic and a massive upsurge in public homophobia, with repressive Thatcher-era legislation like Section 28 being enacted in the UK and anti-gay rights battles being waged in cities and states throughout the Reagan-era US. Almost a century had passed since Wilde’s trial, but what, really, had changed? Gays were still the scapegoats and targets of conservative wrath and subject to every form of dehumanising discrimination imaginable.
Beardsley’s story appeared first as a play called, simply, Beardsley. In the play, I evoked Beardsley’s creative imagination by having Pierrot, subject of so many of his drawings, serve as his silent alter-ego. The play focused on Aubrey’s fraught relationship with Wilde; Wilde’s trial and its repercussions on Beardsley’s career; and Aubrey’s sex-vs-salvation relationships with the pornographer Smithers and his pious patron Andre Raffalovich, who dangled the reward of a monthly allowance as he worked to convert Beardsley to Catholicism.
Beardsley had productions in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and London. But I still had so much to say about Beardsley’s life, work and world. There were so many juicy period details that couldn’t be fit into a play. (As, for instance, the grotesque pseudo-medical treatments Beardsley was forced to endure because of his incurable TB.) I wanted to write about Beardsley’s life from the inside out, have him narrate his story in his own voice. That is how The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley came to be written. The novel gave me the opportunity to stretch the canvas, widen the scope and create a richer, fuller portrait of the fin-de-siècle world in which Beardsley lived and worked. The novel is written in the first person, in the form of letters to a French priest, Père Coubé, who helped to convert the dying Beardsley to Roman Catholicism. I prefaced every chapter with a drawing that illustrated Beardsley’s virtuosic and constantly evolving style, or a rare photograph that captured a period or person in his life. It is a novel written in a hybrid form that I call ‘autobiographical fiction’. What this means, in essence, is that I took the bare biographical facts of Beardsley’s life and fleshed them out – most dramatically, I think, in the scene where Beardsley and Wilde meet again, in Dieppe, after Wilde has been released from prison. They are both ruined men, former celebrities turned into penniless pariahs. The fact is that they did meet, or at least saw one another, but nothing more than that is known. Imagining this final encounter and what they might have said to one another was one of the most difficult and emotional scenes I have ever written.
The day after I finished the novel, a friend called to say that she had just seen some Beardsley drawings for sale in a frame shop in Brooklyn. I was dubious. It was too great a coincidence. Beardsley drawings never came on the market, and I knew where all of his work was located. But I was curious, of course, and went over to Brooklyn to have a look. When I got there, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, sitting in the shop window, were two artist’s proofs, ‘A Platonic Lament’ from Salome and ‘Galatea’, a drawing that had never been published in Beardsley’s lifetime. All the owner of the shop knew was that these prints taken from the original plates had been found in a box in a house on Long Island. They were beautifully framed and the asking price was $200 each. I had $400 to my name but I didn’t think twice and bought them immediately. I mention this incident as an example of the strange synchronicity that can sometimes collapse time and connect a writer more intimately to his subject.
I couldn’t be happier with this new electronic edition of the novel, and I suspect Beardsley would approve of it, too. He was, after all, a man of letters as well as an artist with a golden pen, and his work was always created with reproduction in mind. In this edition, the brilliant Beardsley drawings and rare photographs are still in place but I have condensed the novel to focus more exclusively on Beardsley and the primary characters in his life. So, in a sense, this is an entirely new novel.
Aubrey Beardsley was one of the most original, daring and transgressive artists of his time. I hope that this revised edition of The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley will help introduce readers to a fascinating personality whose imagination burned with a fierce, hard flame that may have been buffeted by the cold winds of fate but was never extinguished.
The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley is available here.