In The C. O. Jones Compendium of Practical Jokes(1982) Richard Boston narrates some entertaining anecdotes concerning the humorist Max Beerbohm. Most of those involving the ‘ alteration ‘ of books remind us of the hilarious alterations made in the ‘50s and 60s by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell on books borrowed from Islington Public Library, where they are still displayed. It is possible that the two men got their idea from Beerbohm.
One joke, according to Boston, was played on ‘a volume of exceptionally solemn poems by a dullard called Herbert Trench ‘. Boston doesn’t identify the collection, but since it contained a ‘ romantic dialogue between Apollo and a mariner ‘ it was definitely Apollo and the Seaman(1908).This is what Beerbohm did.
‘With a sharp knife and painstaking care Max scraped out the aspirates at the beginning of every word beginning with ‘h’ spoken by the mariner, and substituted an apostrophe. The result was that a speech intended to be of a classical dignity was turned into straight Cockney. Max then sent the book to the author, commenting that he had notpreviously come across this edition of the book.
The work had been done so carefully that it appeared to be perfectly genuine. At first Trench was horrified. When he tumbled, he was offended. Max made it up by explaining to Trench that he considered him to be a true poet —-‘Otherwise there wouldn’t be any fun in making fun of you’.
Some lines altered by Beerbohm may have appeared thus:
Apollo: “ And whence did that craft hail, sailor,
Of which you seem so fond ?”
Seaman: “ It was some ‘ arbour of the East
Back o‘ beyond, back o’ beyond.
Beerbohm also targeted George Bernard Shaw.
Discovering a book of photographs of the dramatist as a young man, Max carefully altered them all for the worse: making the nose bigger in one, giving the eyes a squint in another, and so on. He then had these re-photographed and sent them to various friends with the request that they should send them to Shaw as though from a fan, asking for the photograph to be signed and returned. Shaw was much perplexed.
Today, such laborious processes would be made much easier through the use of such applications as ‘ PicMonkey ‘ and ‘Photopad’, which Beerbohm would doubtless have relished using.
Beerbohm continued this literary subversion up to the end of his long life.
‘He would spend days, weeks, months, sometimes years, in ‘improving‘ books, making a subtle change to the title-page here, altering an illustration caption there, or writing forged dedications or messages to the author such as the one found in Max’s copy of Ibsen’s plays. It reads, in Ibsen’s handwriting and Norwenglish:
For Max Beerbohm
critic of who
the writings fills
with pleasures me. H. Ibsen.
In Beerbohm’s copy of Queen Victoria’s More Leaves from the Journal of a Life in the Highlands “all the illustrations are subtly and delicately altered and the text has comments in the Queen’s handwriting and characteristic literary style. Thus under a picture of the Queen’s dog, Sharp, is written: ‘ Such a dear, faithful, noble friend and companion, and for whom Albert had the greatest respect also. Victoria R.”
At the beginning of the book there is a dedication :
For Mr Beerbohm the never- sufficiently-
to-be-studied writer whom Albert looks
down on affectionately,
I am sure…
From his Sovereign. Victoria R.I.
The joke here is that although Beerbohm had his work published during the latter part of Victoria’s reign, there is no evidence that the Queen was a great fan. As for Albert, he died in 1861, many years before Max’s work appeared in print.
In addition to altering books and photographs, Beerbohm built up a library that included such bizarre works as ‘The Love Poems of Herbert Spencer’ and a slim volume entitled ‘The Complete Works of Arnold Bennett.’ Spencer, of course, was a very serious social philosopher, while Bennett was a very prolific novelist. When visitors to the library pulled out these volumes they discovered them to be wooden dummies. Here, Beerbohm was possibly influenced by Charles Dickens, whose library contained many anomalies, such as The Wisdom of our Ancestorsand Malthus’ Nursery Songs, both of which were dummies or had blank pages.