The Confessions of AUBREY BEARDSLEY: A Novel by DONALD S. OLSON

tcab2(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

How self-indulgent. If I was his priest I’d insist ion a maximum of one side of A4.

I liked the idea hat he took up drawing as it was subversive his aunt’s puritanism.

But did they have polytechnics in those days?


Mother is merciless. ‘You gave up a headmistress-ship at the Polytechnic ?????

…was our time for fanciful reverie; finally we would see the red-tiled spire of our beloved church high on the hill, and sometimes would even run there.

Yes, there was something slightly illicit about the Annunciation, which of course only added to its charm. Though it was very High Anglican, it reverberated with that quite peculiar and almost aristocratic sympathy one associates with English Roman Catholics.

One felt almost an outlaw going there — an impression heightened by the situation of the church: it was built into a road of small brick and flint houses, and one entered directly from the street, without the hallowing prelude of a porch. The noticeboard outside had for me the glamour of a theatre bill; it listed all the mysterious ceremonies that took place within — nones, compline, confessions.

A sense of renegade superiority reigned within. The church was not old, but the steady chant of an ancient liturgy made it seem so. Architecturally it was eccentric, with a heavy wooden roof like an inverted ship’s hull, and exposed beams and plastered walls that betrayed affinities with the Aesthetic Movement of the sixties and seventies. We loved it, I’m sure, for its beauty — or what we saw as beauty then. The Pre-Raphaelites had left the artistic stamp of their respectability in the east window, where a dusky blue panel of the Annunciation by Rossetti was flanked by a couple of Burne-Jones designs executed by William Morris. I would direct my gaze towards those panels with their lead outlines and stare until I seemed to merge myself with them. Father Chapman considered the windows as ‘necessary luxuries’, splendid examples of Art serving the greater glory of God.

Father George Chapman, now deceased, was the Annunciation’s priest-in-charge, and there was some quality in him that drew people to the confessional like bees to honey. He was a tall gaunt man, who looked as though he were being consumed by his own spiritual fervour; his pale eyes had the feverish sparkle of a confirmed  …, and one believed him to be party to those secrets whispered only between the dying man and his God.

Mabel and I longed to go to confession. It was too tantalizing, the sight of all those people entering a mysterious cupboard where the sins of the world were whispered, revealed and absolved. I’d watch, fascinated, as the sweetest-looking people in Brighton made their way to that dark closet of repentance. What had they done that was wrong? Why did they feel compelled to confess? I wonder if there may not be something in the determinedly bluff and unemotional English character that secretly craves the luxurious darkness of a confessional, and the voluptuous comfort that comes from admitting guilt and casting off an accumulated load of sin.

You may not have known, Father, that Brighton was the home of the Catholic Revival in England. Yes, in churches throughout the town the oath of Royal Supremacy was being questioned and gorgeous Eucharistic vestments flaunted. The more daring churches even adopted the Eastward Position. Low churches, such as Aunt Pitt attended, were appalled, indignant and intolerant of anything that even suggested that Scarlet Whore, Rome, with all her pomp and finery. The converts to Catholicism were called perverts. Fierce words and fulminations on the subject of Popery were hurled from many a pulpit. But there in the Annunciation we would sit, Mabel and I, for hours on end, morning and evening, intoxicated by the solemn mystical odour of frankincense, the chanted refrains of ancient Latin texts, the intricate rituals of the Mass, and Father Chapman himself, who was publicly dying.

Aunt Pitt, as I have already mentioned, did not permit reading unless it was edifying or instructional. Novels and poetry were incomprehensible to her; for us, they were life, and we were aghast to think that from now on we would be without them. Of course, she was perfectly furious when she discovered that I was hiding a novel that Father Chapman had given me to read, and I had a lot to do to convince her of the story’s elevated moral tone

tcoabthat area between the Strand and Regent sing Soho, St James’s and Whitehall, that most at of our dear British Empire, was in fact nothing more than a walking whorehouse. Men, women, children: everyone was openly for sale.

The strange thing about it was not that it existed, but that it was never. talked about, never written about, and never shown in modern pictures. It did not conform to the Official Version of English Life as seen on the walls of the Royal Academy, and so it was ignored as the material of art. Yet there it was, not so far from the sacred portals of the RA itself: filthy, glamorous, lewd, pestilential, flea-bitten, pox-ridden, utterly criminal; an unseen obscene London that set my pulse hammering and my cock throbbing in nervous sympathetic excitement.

Those teeming London pavements, filled with their sweet, stink­ing, garish assortment of human characters, all going about the business of making money and spending it — all of us living in what Shelley called ‘the dream of life’! Those filthy streets, churned to mud by the incessant crush of omnibuses, drays, cabriolets, broughams, landaus, hansom cabs, fire wagons, funeral carriages; whose crossings were swept by wretched ragged children; whose edges were so variously crowded with men wearing shiny top-hats and costermongers hawking their wares; with rich elegant women unable to dress themselves without a servant’s help sweeping past shivering penniless flower-girls; where clergymen encased in starch and broadcloth rubbed shoulders with ruffians wearing moleskin waistcoats! How I loved the stew of London!

My eyes would meet other eyes — those of a smiling child-minx, no more than ten, yet powdered and rouged like a seasoned whore

— ‘Wanting a bit of company, sir?’; those of a drunken gap-toothed harridan, whispering that she’d lift her skirts in a nearby alley for a glass of gin; those of a half-starved seamstress, whose feverish orbs hopelessly cried out, ‘Save me!’; those of a clever unscrupulous maid, searching restlessly for a male conspirator.

I looked, but never bought, storing up memories to fuel my nocturnal cock-chafings. Yes, there in Pimlico, too, urged on by my friend the Fever, surrounded by my family, I continued my copious outpouring of seed; visions of whores and pretty girls from the halls danced in my head as I pounded my insatiable organ to the spurting froth of its inevitable conclusion.

We chose St Barnabas as our church in Pimlico, not because of its convenience, but because it was the most ritualistic and fashion­able Anglo-Catholic church in the metropolis. St Barnabas, where the ethereal tones of ancient Gregorian chants were heard through a fragrant cloud of incense, provided Mother with a tie to Brighton in the person of the Reverend Alfred Gurney, a former curate at one of her favourite churches there.

I suspect Mother was a little bit in love with Alfred Gurney, the vicar of St Barnabas, but who could blame her? He had a long cleft beard, tender blue eyes, and was immensely rich. He was a man of strong and sudden contrasts, a scholar in church ritual who wore riding breeches under his cassock so that he could take a quick canter in the park whenever the mood struck. He was a spiritualist, an occasional poet, a collector of drawings, and a music-lover who could describe a Wagner concert conducted by Richter with the kind of enthusiastic passion that women found irresistible. He also had the great grace to include us — Mother, Mabel and me — as guests at his sumptuous Sunday luncheon-parties. The Reverend Alfred Gurney’s luncheons were far more inspiring, I must say, than his sermons.

These feasts were held in the Clergy House next door to the church after the late service, and provided us with our first entree into London society. The other guests, all relatives or artistic friends of Mr Gurney, might include his brother Willie, his sister-in-law, his niece, the textile Halifaxes, the Reverend Gerald Sampson and his younger brother Julian, an art dilettante. Since these were all potential patrons, I began to carry with me a portfolio of my latest drawings.

One afternoon the talk at the luncheon-table turned to Rossetti, a collection of whose drawings Mr Gurney owned and proudly displayed on his walls. In years gone by, the Reverend had come to know the Pre-Raphaelite artist and his poetic sister; and that afternoon he began to tell us stories of Rossetti’s last hours — how Rossetti’s lifelong fear of being alone, for instance, was exacerbated in his final illness to the point where he would keep a friend with HIm all through the night, begging him not to leave until dawn, when finally he would be able to sleep; and how even in his last days, unable to rise from his couch, he would feebly stretch out his brush and touch a canvas with it. The luncheon guests reverentially murmured ‘How beautiful!’ to every anecdote, but my secret response was quite different. None of it sounded the least bit beautiful to me; awful, rather, pathetic and terrifying. Where healthy people get the idea that death is beautiful and ennobling, I shall never know.

Afterwards Julian Sampson sidled up to me and asked if I would show him the contents of my portfolio. ‘With pleasure,’ I said, and we found a spot some way off from the others.

Recently I heard rumours that Julian Sampson has fallen prey to one of the many devilish cults that seem to be springing up, as the century wanes, like fetid fungi on the trunk of a decaying tree; even then, eight years ago, he evinced a fascinated interest in a sub rosa world that one could only whisper about at Gurneyesque luncheon-parties. A middle-sized man of great elegance, Julian would have been remarkably good-looking were it not for the slightly degenerate Hanoverian cast to his features. The pampered son of a rich colonel and the grandson of the Comte de Meric de St-Martin, his life had been dedicated to useless pleasures of all sorts. He had studied art, and occasionally wrote on the subject, so I was honoured when he directed his gaze at my drawings.

Thanks to Mr Gurney’s collection of Rossettis, my drawings at that time showed signs of incipient Pre-Raphaelitism, and were mostly concerned with beatific subjects — at least, those drawings that I brought with me to the Clergy House. Other subjects, such as the courtesan Manon Lescaut, and the adulteress Emma Bovary, culled from my secret reading, never accompanied me.

`You have a clever hand,’ said Julian, as he examined my various celestial beings strumming lutes and bearing lilies. ‘I wonder . . He pursed his lips thoughtfully. ‘I wonder if you would be interested in a small commission from me — to do a drawing — but not of any heavenly creature.’ He laughed softly at some private joke. ‘Heavens, no, not heavenly — classical, rather.’

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