Aubrey Beardsley

Enoch Soames:
The Critical Heritage


The Calumny of Beerbohm
The Anxiety of Influence
New Light on Soames
Enoch’s Castle
In Praise of Christian Diabolism
Iconographia Fungosiana
Strange Growths
A Letter to the Editor
List of Illustrations
Le Diaboliste Catholique
Portrait Study of Enoch Soames
En Attendant
Crème de Menthe and Nicotine
A Man of Letters
Enoch Soames, Esq.
The Bad Homburg

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The Arms of a PoetEnoch Soames - The Critical Heritage
Reputed variant of the front cover of John Lane's edition of Fungoids

Strange Growths

An investigation into the history and present location of four copies of “fungoids”

As many book collectors are aware, on 3 June 1997 the British Library commemorated the centenary of the mysterious disappearance of Enoch Soames, arguably the most significant English poet of the 1890s. His short and tragic life was recorded by Max Beerbohm in a poignant chapter of Seven Men (1919). The crowning masterpiece of Soames’s literary career was Fungoids, published in 1894.
     The fact that no copy of the first (and only) edition of Fungoids is to be found in any known library has led to the general assumption that none has survived. It had long been our ambition at Maggs Brothers to locate and present a copy to the British Library on the occasion of the centenary of Soames’s disappearance, and although our hopes were frustrated, and the time and considerable expense involved in our research led to no definite result, we nevertheless feel that our lengthy investigations into the history of four known copies—the Preston Telegraph copy, the Widener copy, the Sun-Yat-Sen copy and the Mrs. Robinson copy—give grounds for continuing hope.

1 The Preston Telegraph copy.
Enoch Soames’s first biographer Max Beerbohm informs us that Fungoids received its only review in the Preston Telegraph. The daring modernity of the verse proved somewhat daunting to the paper’s literary- critic-cum-gardening-correspondent Ebenezer Capstraw, whose lukewarm review singularly failed to penetrate the virtual reality, if one may so call it, of Soames’s semiotically-described parallel universes. In accordance with long-established tradition, Capstraw immediately sold the volume to a Manchester second-hand bookshop, where it was bought some years later by C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian. Scott, whose fine mind enabled him to form a true estimate of Soames’s worth, intended to devote a long article to the now-vanished poet. Had he done so, Soames’s fame would doubtless have been assured, but unfortunately the outbreak of the Boer War and the Manchester Guardian’s campaign of opposition to it (the War, that is) forced a severe curtailment of the paper’s literary pages. Scott’s copy of Fungoids has not been seen since his death in 1932; however we are assiduous in our visits to northern bookfairs and booksellers in the Manchester area, and even after many years of false trails and disappointment we are convinced that this remains a promising line of enquiry.

2 The Widener copy.
While it has long been known that Sangorski’s finest binding, of the Rubaiyat, was lost with the Titanic in 1912, it is less well-known that another exquisite Sangorski binding of Fungoids was also on board. Young Harry Widener had, on a whim, picked up a second-hand copy in the Charing Cross Road, without ever having heard of the author. He was particularly impressed by the title poem of the collection, which begins, with the now celebrated lines:

         The honey-laden mushroom cringes By Byzantium’s violet fringes.

 Having commissioned an elaborate binding for the volume, Widener collected it from Sangorski the day before he boarded the Titanic at Southampton for his return to America. Neither he nor his precious volume was among the survivors, although his grieving family hoped for years that the book might be salvaged and placed in the Harvard library they had built in his memory. Before the recent exhibition at the National Maritime Museum of objects recovered from the fated ship, there was a rumour—alas unfounded—that part of the binding had indeed been salvaged. Although the search has, so far, been fruitless, excavations of the sea-bed continue, closely monitored by the distinguished marine biologist Dr. Christine Maggs.

3 The Sun-Yat-Sen copy.
We were informed some years ago by a client of ours, a prominent Hong Kong businessman with excellent mainland connections, that a copy of Fungoids was in the possession of China’s then Paramount Leader, Deng Xiao Ping. We were naturally sceptical at first, but extensive personal investigations in Soho and Beijing, undertaken not without risk, have given credence to what might, at first, seem an unlikely sequence of events. Sun Yat Sen, the father of Chinese nationalism, was living in exile in London in 1896. Young, charming and educated, he had the entrée to both fashionable and intellectual society and was introduced to Enoch Soames by Max Beerbohm. It was in the course of a convivial evening in Soho, in the company of Leonard Smithers and Frank Harris, that Soames gave Sun Yat Sen an inscribed presentation copy of Fungoids. The volume was in Sun’s pocket when he was kidnapped in the street two days later by agents of the Chinese Imperial Government and held prisoner in the Chinese legation in London. International outcry and the representations of the Foreign Office led to his release after ten days; however, not all his possessions were returned to him, and his copy of Fungoids was forwarded to the aged Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi in Beijing. It was inher- ited by the last Emperor “Henry” Pu Yi, and was one of the few belongings he was able to keep with him in his last years as a gardener. Shortly before his death, Pu Yi gave the volume to Mao Tse Tung, in a futile attempt to gain more favourable living conditions.
     Fungoids was greatly prized by Mao, who, as a poet himself, was able to appreciate the delicate, virtually impenetrable nuances of the English writer. However an animated ideological debate broke out as to whether Soames was to be regarded as a petit-bourgeois deviationist running-dog, or as a heroic brain-worker who put his talents at the disposal of the masses. As we now know, Mao’s more favourable view prevailed. A casualty of the argument was the former State President Li Xiao Chi, who remained blind to Soames’s merits and apparently paid with his life for his obtuseness.
     In a celebrated episode of the Cultural Revolution a heroic Red Guard saved an armoured truck from rolling over a cliff by blocking it with his body: the truck, once thought only to have contained copies of the Little Red Book, is now known to have been transporting Mao’s copy of Fungoids to his summer residence. Deng Xiao Ping, as the inheritor of Mao’s power, also inherited his library, which we believe has recently passed to Jiang Zemin, now the President of China. Approaches have been made to the Chinese Government to see if a purchase or extended loan of this important copy of Fungoids might be possible, and we are awaiting a reply.

4 The Mrs. Robinson copy.
Mrs. Robinson (always known only by her surname) was a celebrated fortune-teller in the 1880s and ’90s who numbered Oscar Wilde and the young Winston Churchill among the clients who visited her comfortable consulting rooms in Mortimer Street. Her prognostications were generally optimistic, which probably accounts for her considerable popularity. Enoch Soames is known to have consulted her shortly after the publication of Fungoids in early 1894 and received a favourable prediction for its success. He gave her on this occasion a copy inscribed to “The Sibyl of Mortimer Street” (as Mrs. Robinson was generally called). Unfortunately the fierce symbolism of the verses was somewhat beyond her, and when, some years later, a client idly picked up the volume she had left on an occasional table in her consulting room, she willingly gave it to him. Thus it was that the young Winston Churchill had a copy of Fungoids among his books when he sailed to South Africa in 1899 to report the Boer War for the Morning Post. It was with him when he was captured by the Boers in the armoured train ambush on 15 November, but he inadvertently left it behind in his Pretoria prison cell when he achieved his celebrated escape on 12 December. Our research indicates that it was taken home by one of the prison guards and may now be in the possession of one of that guard’s numerous descendants. We are employing the leading firm of South African private detectives to pursue this enquiry on our behalf, and await their next report with impatience.

*     *     *

As we are going to press, we have received a tantalising report from California that the original proofs for Fungoids may have been found in the botanical section of the Huntington Library. It seems that the great Dr. Rosenbach himself sold them to Henry Huntington, founder of the library, art gallery and gardens which bear his name, and that because of their title they were placed with the botanical books and manuscripts. It can be imagined with what anxious anticipation we await confirmation of this report.
     Our researches have revealed for each of these copies a fate hardly less dramatic and astonishing than that which befell Enoch Soames himself. It is certainly to be hoped that with four parallel investigations continuing, one at least of these volumes may be found in time for the bicentennial exhibition, which will open on 3 June 2097.

Enoch Soames