L’Eau Savante: Aspects of Erotic Writing in Aubrey Beardsley
Part I

This paper by Annette Lavers, a pioneering scholar of Beardsley’s literary output, is published here for the first time from the author’s typescript which she shared with Simon Wilson in 1998. Lavers is a former Fielden Professor of French Language and Literature at the University College London. It should be noted that although at this time Lavers had briefly examined the original manuscript of Under the Hill, for this paper she was referring to the 1907 Smithers edition, with its different chapter divisions. Translations of French phrases are provided by Simon Wilson in square brackets.

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L’Eau Savante: Aspects of Erotic Writing in Aubrey Beardsley

Part I

‘Dear Aubrey, he knows France so well! He has been to Dieppe, once’. Thus Oscar Wilde, not usually a cruel man, deflating the pretensions of the young upstart who had reached the pinnacle of fame with illustrations of his own Salome, at his expense, as he saw it, since it obscured with schoolboy smut the mystical character of his play, significantly written in French. The prestige of France and French literature, then at their apogee, came from having provided a major impulse for the revitalizing movement which, although labelled ‘decadent’ was, in fact, as Burdett has pointed out, healthier than the true decadence in taste and morals during the Victorian era.

Not that France lacked its literary watchdogs. Flaubert, Baudelaire and their publishers had endured trials (1857) for Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal; their humdrum lives had not exposed them to hard labour but they had been heavily fined. However, Zola had been able to publish La Terre (1887) – to be found on Salome’s bookshelves alongside Les Fleurs du Mal – whereas, as Havelock Ellis put it in an article in his defence in the first volume of the Savoy, ‘amid general acclamation, the English publisher of such garbage was clapped into gaol’. French books thus could to some extent compensate for a limited contact with France and the French, and Beardsley’s drawings provide ample evidence of his extensive readings, classical, contemporary, and even obscure.[1] Moreover, Dieppe was far from a negligible meeting-point for the creative milieux of both countries – and even beyond, since this is where the young Diaghilev, an enthusiastic admirer, arranged to meet Beardsley, whose influence on the modern continental sensibility, through the Ballets Russes, was thus further extended.

Yet when I read, in the early Sixties, Beardsley’s ‘romantic novel’ The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser,[2] and when I came across the name of the philter-like perfume which Tannhäuser breathes in Venus’s boudoir, ‘L’eau Lavante’ (‘washing water’), I attributed this lapse to the obvious, surprising in a text where the French inspiration is so erudite despite being worn so lightly, to Beardsley’s inadequate command of the language. Shortly after that, however, the 1966 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum allowed me, thanks to Brian Reade, to consult the manuscript, and to discover that what had been interpreted by the editors as an L was in fact an S.[3] The scent secretly distilled for Venus alone, the ‘faint amatory perfume breathed out from the couches and cushions’, which recalls Baudelaire’s poems on perfumes and lovers,[4] was in fact called ‘L’Eau Savante’ (‘wise, experienced’).[5] This changed everything! What had seemed tautological was in fact one of the many inspired touches which  demonstrate a literary gift, persistently belittled – no doubt from professional envy – by Beardsley’s friends, yet a crucial component of the impression his text makes on the reader. More than this: such a name, confirming the meaning of another passage on the revealing powers of water, provided an important key both to the erotic impulse in the book and to what one has to call its philosophy.

Folder of the original manuscript of Under the Hill held at The Rosenbach, Philadelphia EL4.B368u MS.

The full title harks back to the medieval legend: ‘Under the Hill or the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, in which is set forth an exact account of the manner of state held by madam Venus, goddess and meretrix, under the famous Hörselberg, and containing the adventures of Tannhäuser in that place, his journeying to Rome, and return to the loving mountain’. Yet it is Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser which provides the indispensable sub-text. Not only because it supplies the motivations which in Venus and Tannhäuser are not absent as critics alleged, but taken as read (why is Venus under the hill, why does Tannhäuser leave her, why does he come back), but because, despite being shorn of the final repudiation of earthly values in Wagner’s work, Beardsley’s tale endorses the impassioned defence of pleasure and erotic fusion which, in the opera, prompts the knight Tannhäuser to scoff at the idealistic and guilt-ridden portrayal of love given by his fellow minstrels. Beardsley is certainly more consistent than Wagner, who, after making it plain that his heroine Elizabeth responds to Tannhäuser because of his emotional authenticity, solves the problem of his Christian conclusion with the convenient deaths of hero and heroine, as well as an evocation of physical love as magic fantasmagoria from hell.[6] Tannhäuser’s sin is unforgiveable not only because he has been seeking pleasure but because he has worshipped a counter-deity: the Church has always known that a lover in the grip of passion deems religious salvation well lost and lives in the here and now.

Aubrey Beardsley, Title page to The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser. Print, 1895 (made), Victoria and Albert Museum, London, E.1409-1983

So Beardsley is justified in claiming, in his dedication to an imaginary prince and cardinal, that his book is about love, a word whose meaning has since his time been amputated again, this time not by guilt but by the birth of the word sex. He alludes to the long tradition in which love is ‘accounted a shameful thing and ridiculous’. But in this pastiche of former pleas to rich patrons, written just when art for art’s sake has become the new religion, begging the indulgence of a catholic maecenas for an unbridled erotic tale is psychologically truthful. Having experienced censorship for his own drawings culminating in his unjust dismissal from the Yellow Book, Beardsley couldn’t but endorse the basic premise of the Tannhäuser story, namely the fact that Venus is a goddess in exile after her defeat by the ‘pale Galilean’ denounced by Swinburne. Venus and Tannhäuser are both exiles and make the most of the situation, with reactive abandon. Priapusa (a major figure of the Venusberg and a significant feminine) is a motherly fardeuse, since the pallor of exile has to be compensated for by the painting of Venus’s face, a ‘sorrowful work which was accomplished; frankly, magnificently and without a shadow of deception’.

Beardsley shared his heroes’ precarious fate. Condemned to a peripatetic and insecure existence, whose stress restarted his illness and exacerbated his misgivings about his recognition as artist, let alone, as he wished, as man of letters, his situation between two friendly sources for financial help, Smithers (a figure one is happy to see rehabilitated) who wanted his drawings even, and perhaps especially, if they were erotic, and Raffalovich who only wanted his soul, adds poignancy to this apparently fanciful dedication. One recognises under the humour a serious plea for an unexpurgated view of his own self, and a dignified account of his plight: the ‘humble […] scrivener and limner of worldly things’ asks for his tale the protection of a patron he praises for his ‘care for letters and very real regard for the arts’, his ‘great kindness and liberality’, adding ‘How deeply thankful I am for your past affections you know well’.

Sydney Starr, Marc André Raffalovich, c. 1889. Wiki Commons.

I have in the past[7] argued that this situation, which uncannily dramatised Beardsley’s own dual tendencies, made him continue his tale in his own life when he converted under Raffalovich’s influence, finally sending his famous last letter begging Smithers to destroy Lysistrata and ‘all bad drawings’ (he never mentioned Venus and Tannhäuser, also in Smithers’s possession). The colossal erections in Lysistrata may be a sign not only of the sexual frustration of the characters, or the sexual frustration of the author, but also of the latter’s frustration at his circumstances. Yet this response was perhaps internally necessary too. For despite his mentor’s broad-mindedness, inspired by the humanism of the Jesuits, Beardsley’s own tendencies drove him towards a much more austere tradition illustrated by their seventeenth-century Jansenist enemies, all the way back to their patron saint, Augustine. Beardsley was an admirer of the Jansenists Racine and Pascal, who had both experienced ‘conversions’ from worldly existence, and he wrote in relation to the latter a kind of spiritual testament: ‘Pascal is the great example to all artists and thinkers. He understood that to become a Christian, the man of letters must sacrifice his gifts, just as Magdalen must sacrifice her beauty’.[8] This potentially suicidal reaction points to a deep sense of guilt (hence the choice of a myth where the pope himself refuses to absolve the sinner), all the more devastating when the roots of an artist’s inspiration, as in the case of Wagner’s hero, are found in an eroticism which shapes his very life-instinct. It is astonishing that Beardsley managed to write a work which largely escapes such masochistic condemnation, while including problematic aspects which give it broader significance.

But this can only be seen in the complete text, without which Beardsley looks like ‘an author who is all technique and no humanity’ (according to the normally sympathetic Burdett), and Venus and Tannhäuser like a ‘slight adventure’, ‘simply an uninterrupted succession of decors’ (according to Praz, who had not read it).[9] Its meaning was lost for two reasons, one being bowdlerization (six unprintable chapters out of ten disappearing, together with their amusing titles, whose meaning would otherwise have been sadly enigmatic!) and the other, much more devastating, the disappearance of all mention of the Tannhäuser subject, owing to the unresolved situation with John Lane. Helen replaced Venus but could not shoulder the burden of her role as divine prostitute. Priapusa became a meaningless Mrs Marsuple. As for the Chevalier Tannhäuser, he becomes the Abbé Fanfreluche, a disastrous choice which at one stroke reduces this tragic character and its author to mere decoration despite the phonetic rendering of the initials AB in French, which preserves some of its autobiographical connotations (even more obvious in the manuscript, where he sometimes appears as the ‘Abbe Aubrey’).

Aubrey Beardsley, The Abbé (1895), reproduced from the Savoy, January 1896, p. 157

The petit abbé de cour, the emblem of the eighteenth century even at the time, points to Beardsley’s inspiration, but to speak of Venus and Tannhäuser as a spoof of eighteenth-century erotic novels is misleading. Their stereotypical periphrases and stock characters do not threaten a society whose conservatism provides the base for ingenious sexual adventures. Venus and Tannhäuser is their exact opposite since one is struck not only by the brilliance of its style and its vision of an original and coherent world but, under the perfectly controlled provocation, by an unmistakable seriousness. The uniqueness of this fable is found in the contrast between its breathtaking sexual outspokenness and the variety of the stylistic modes – humorous, confessional, poetic, oneiric – with which it coexists. The mixture of patronage and reluctant admiration which greeted Beardsley’s literary prowess thus also comes from the unease caused by a transgressively hybrid text, imposed by a particularly authoritative narrative voice.

Roland Barthes’s uncompromising view was that the distinction between ‘well written’ and ‘badly written’ is meaningless: either something is ‘written’ or, in literary terms, it doesn’t exist at all. A simple glance shows that Venus and Tannhäuser is indeed ‘written’. By this I mean not some fin-de-siècle touches but the most diverse stylistic effects, and innumerable phrases which justify Beardsley’s obsessional search for le mot juste. On his first evening, for instance, Tannhäuser sees ‘spotted veils that seemed to stain the skin with some exquisite and august disease’ or paintings on the legs which ‘show through a white stocking like a sumptuous bruise’. Sporion, the dissolute beau of the ‘bacchanal’ danced at Venus’s supper, has ‘unquenchable palms and a troubled walk’, and leads a rout of dandies whose ‘cultured flesh’ seeks the decadent’s traditional contact with the primitive. Tannhäuser is cheered up in the gardens by the sight of ‘the dearest ladies implicated in a glory of underclothing’ in a gender-bending scene. The mysterious passage Lane reprinted as ‘The Woods of Auffray’ describes a lake as a kind of hymen, ‘a reticent, romantic water that must have held the subtlest fish that ever were’, with its ‘unruffled calm’ and ‘deathly reserve’ which he dares not break with a pebble. Wagner’s Rhinegold shows its kinship with the Venusberg when Beardsley describes ‘the mystery of its prelude that seems to come from the very mud of the Rhine, the abominable wantonness of the music, the black, hateful sounds in Alberich’s lovemaking, the extravagant monstrous poetry, the splendid agitation of it all’. Throughout the story, descriptions of costumes and decors with what the neo-surrealist writer Pieyre de Mandiargues called a ‘frénésie du détail’ [obsession with detail] are so programmatic that one can imagine Beardsley drawing them as he did other frozen tableaux illustrating his tale, with the same ease as Racine who used to declare, after refining a plot, that his tragedy was finished, confident in his own power to supply the as yet unwritten few hundred lines of peerless verse. The original announcement for Beardsley’s ‘novel’ had in fact mentioned some twenty drawings, including a whole chapter without any text at all – one drawing already existed, showing a distraught Tannhäuser returning to a maternal Venusberg after being damned by the Pope, the Father of Fathers.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Return of Tannhauser to the Venusberg, 1895. Wiki Commons.

For a personal characterology transcending the subject was one of the permanent features of Beardsley’s graphic work, and a major cause of the accusations of perversity levelled at him, since it perforce introduced a distance between text and illustrations. But literary authorship unified his inspiration, since text and icon in this case energised each other. The toilette scenes, where care of the body is a preparation for social seduction, where a variegated audience, as in past etiquette, attends an essentially intimate ritual, is the very symbol of his art in that sense. They are found in all his successive manners, including that in Venus and Tannhäuser, where it serves as an introduction to the world under the hill. The style also links text and pictures in the tale. One senses again, as in Lysistrata but in different modes, in the stifling profusion of stippling and cross-hatching, in the omnipresent enumerations, in the obsessive citation of works of reference real and imagined, and of course the sexual repertoire, Beardsley’s testing of extremes and of his power to control both inner world and society. Sex and humour bring the necessary breathing space, as well as the omnipresence of French, sometimes subtly distorted, as in the evocation of ‘fêtes galantes et folies bergères’. French, for him, is also the language of sex, the language of a blasé boulevardier. Repetition generates amusement, as in the evocation of Dieppe’s casino and its ‘petits chevaux’, their ‘petits couillons’ and ‘petits derrières’ not to forget the ‘little losings’ of the gamblers. And one has to laugh at the name of the architect of Venus’ boudoir, Le Con, not only anatomically appropriate (=the female organ) but an obvious graphic and phonetic reminder of that of Le Vau, the famous seventeenth-century architect who built Fouquet’s palace, the prototype of Versailles.

[to be continued]

Notes by Annette Lavers

[1] The mysterious text on the drawing Portrait by Himself, ‘Par les dieux jumeaux, tous les monstres ne sont pas en Afrique’, is the opening line in Cyrano de Bergerac’s comedy Le Pédant joué (1645, published 1654), which Beardsley must have discovered in his peregrinations in second-hand booksellers, unless he sought his work because Cyrano, with Swift, is the main follower of Lucian’s True History, for which he did five drawings. ‘De Bergerac’, in Chapter V of The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, is the author of the ballet Les Bacchanales de Sporion, perhaps because Venus, in his comedy, is described as a goddess  ‘qui comme putain court l’aiguillette’. [An ‘aiguillette’ (smart punctuation needed) is an ornament on military uniform, but also means a thin slice of flesh as in ‘aiguillette de canard’ – a thin slice of duck breast. An ‘aiguille’ is a needle. So this translates as either ‘who like a whore runs after the military’ or possibly ‘… runs after prick.’ Or both.] Cyrano is also well-known as one of Molière’s sources, and Molière is also mentioned (with his character Cathos) in that same chapter, and described in a way which corresponds to his portraits and shows him as the pictorial source of the Messenger in the drawing The Mysterious Rose Garden.

[2] The unexpurgated text was published by Leonard Smithers in 1907 under that title, but an expurgated version of three chapters appeared in volumes 1 and 2 of The Savoy (1896) under the title Under the Hill, another title being necessary after Beardsley’s dismissal by Lane from his editorship of the Yellow Book since Lane was originally to publish the tale – he did in fact reprint the Savoy text in 1904. Although bowdlerized, it includes interesting additions which not only add to the stylistic interest (for instance the footnotes which mimic eighteenth-century fiction) but sometimes have a confessional, and even, as will be seen, hidden erotic nature. Later editors have therefore invariably conflated the two versions, and some of them attempted a continuation and conclusion of the story as indicated by its title. John Glassco’s Olympia Press sequel is a betrayal of Beardsley’s work inasmuch as its clearly instrumental character makes it pornographic – and he adds the sadism which is significantly absent from the original, in the forms favoured by his culture – but his pastiche is sometimes adroit and he has grasped the timelessness of the Venusberg. Beardsley’s work is in fact self-contained and in no need of a continuation whose content and tone would be, to say the least, extremely problematic. The final paradox produced by the complicated copyright situation was the 1927 American edition where the illustrations are by another artist, and not only mediocre but very traditional.

[3] I have been unable to consult the manuscript again, but existing reproductions of Beardsley’s writing (e.g. in words like ‘Lysistrata’, ‘Jesus is our Lord and Judge’, ‘My dear Smithers’) show that his ‘L’s are linked to the next letter, and his ‘S’s are not, as in the case of ‘L’Eau Savante’. This new reading, however, is simply a minor aspect in the present article, which does not depend on it.

[4] cf Baudelaire, ‘La Mort des Amants’: ‘Nous aurons des lits pleins d’odeurs legeres’. [‘The Death of Lovers’: We shall have beds full of light odours].

[5] ‘Savante’ can have erotic connotations in French (cf ‘caresses savantes’, [knowing caresses] or Paul Valery ‘Je sais ou je vais/Laisse-toi conduire’) [I know where I’m going / Allow yourself to be led] – a reference to an ars amandi [arts of love].

[6] Wagner modified several times the first version of his opera, incorporating new ways of rendering sexual passion after writing Tristan and Isolde, and adding a Bacchanal which he describes in Beardsleyesque terms: ‘Numerous sleeping Cupids are hurdled together in a confused tangle like children who, tired after play, have fallen asleep’, etc.

[7] See Lavers, ‘“Aubrey Beardsley, Man of Letters”’.

[8] Maas, Duncan, and Good, p. 249.

[9] The case of Mario Praz is singular. While he stated that ‘the accessible version is very much expurgated’, he did not try to read it, yet went out of his way to depreciate its seriousness, distinction, and even meaning, ending up with a frankly ridiculous misunderstanding of the dedication – a failure in sympathy which reflects on his book, which sometimes descends from a work of interpretation to a simple bibliography.