Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Shadow of Enoch Soames

In 1916, Max Beerbohm published an account of his lunch in a Soho café on 3 June 1897 with the neglected decadent poet Enoch Soames, the author of Fungoids and Negations. His companion repined about the neglect of his work and wondered if he would ever be appreciated. A fellow diner, overhearing this, offered to let him travel in time to consult the catalogues of the British Library exactly one hundred years later. Soames accepted the pact, and met Beerbohm later to tell him what he found. Dolefully, the poet reported that the only reference he could find suggested he was merely a fictional character in a Beerbohm story.

The stranger seems to have selected the date he offered Soames rather maliciously. Had the woebegone writer asked to be wafted a few years further on, he would have been highly gratified. For, since that melancholy episode in 1997, attention to Soames’ work has grown considerably. In 1999, A Bibliography of Enoch Soames (1862-1897) was compiled by Mark Samuels Lasner, and in 2001, Enoch Soames – The Critical Heritage was published by the distinguished booksellers Maggs Brothers. There are even signs of an Enoch Soames Society.

However, a curious episode relating to Enoch Soames has continued to receive too little attention. The story is told in The Devil in Woodford Wells, A Fantastic Novel (1946) by Harold Hobson. We need not be misled by the book’s sub-title, for the author tells us in the second sentence of the book that his story is a true one. Doubtless it was described as a fantasy due to some wartime exigency when it was composed. Mr Hobson is on record as confirming that Max Beerbohm himself approved this further account relating to his Nineties friend.

The author begins by telling us that he is an ardent enthusiast of Beerbohm, and has lectured on him several times: he is just about to deliver a further radio talk about him. And then he relates an encounter on Thursday 5th June, 1941 at the British Museum Reading Room. This was closed to most readers because of the war: but anyone who had work of national importance could still be admitted to a special wartime reading room. As a journalist writing for American newspapers, our narrator qualified. However, on this day he arrived there just at the moment when another man, who gave his name as Soames, was being turned away. The rebuffed figure wore a hat, “slightly raffish, a hat that suggested a harmonious blending of Irving and a rural dean”. He also had a muffler.

Hobson encounters this Soames again shortly afterwards, and makes his acquaintance. They visit a bookshop, and go back to the narrator’s home, in Woodford Wells, where the poet is invited to dine with him, is introduced to his wife and daughter, and regales them with a story he has written.

After this, matters become both murkier and more fantastical, until we understand at the end precisely why this new episode in the biography of the fated decadent versifier must remain in a literary limbo. If the account has not quite all the elan and dark fin-de-siecle glamour of Mr Beerbohm’s original composition, nonetheless it is an affectionate homage.

The author, Sir Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a miner’s son from South Yorkshire educated at home by his parents owing to childhood polio, a condition that he did not allow to limit his later life. A voracious reader, he earned a scholarship to Oxford, and afterwards began writing theatre reviews, leading to his appointment as drama critic for The Times in 1947. He was a champion in particular of avant-garde theatre.

The Devil in Woodford Wells would seem to have been written as a light diversion. Kate O’Brien, in a review in The Spectator, praised the book’s “agreeable and cultivated writing” and said it conveyed its “easy-going pleasure most infectiously”. It is also one of that select number of works to involve cricket and the fantastic: E R Eddison’s A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), Frank Baker’s Embers, A Winter Tale (1947) and L P Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) are also club members. This delightful memoir, with a tinge of Chesterton and even of Buchan, as well as Beerbohm, certainly ought to attract new readers.

Mark Valentine

Picture: Enoch Soames by William Rothenstein

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