Woolf writes a return letter to Beerbohm, saying his had arrived as she was preparing to attend Thomas Hardy’s funeral. Her reply is rather unctuous. One detects a sycophantic note in her words: “I look upon you as one, perhaps the only one, who is withdrawn far, far above us, in a serene and cloudless air, imperishable, aloof. And then suddenly you let down a ray from your sky and it rests – behold! – upon me.” Hall asks, “It’s all a bit too much, is it not?” But perhaps Woolf’s appreciation of Beerbohm is legitimate. In her essay on “The Essay” (1922; collected in The Common Reader, 1925) Virginia Woolf writes:
“What Mr. Beerbohm gave was, of course, himself. This presence, which has haunted the essay fitfully from the time of Montaigne, had been in exile since the death of Charles Lamb. Matthew Arnold was never to his readers Matt, nor Walter Pater affectionately abbreviated in a thousand homes to Wat. They gave us much, but that they did not give.”
True, of course. One of the essay lineages I favor begins with Montaigne and after several bifurcations leads to Lamb (and Hazlitt, whom Woolf also praised) and on to Beerbohm (and later, Joseph Epstein). Their charm seems bound up with humor, whether rarified wit or locker-room raunch. This is a quality Woolf pitifully lacks. To her credit, she comprehends Beerbohm’s fundamental stance as an essayist:
“He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man.”
The same thing is often said of Montaigne. Woolf singles out Beerbohm’s “A Cloud of Pinafores” and writes: “[It] has in it that indescribable inequality, stir, and final expressiveness which belong to life and to life alone. You have not finished with it because you have read it, any more than friendship is ended because it is time to part. Life wells up and alters and adds. Even things in a book-case change if they are alive; we find ourselves wanting to meet them again; we find them altered.”
This is Woolf at her finest -- celebratory, without a trace of her customary snobbery.