A.S.M.Hutchinson, by Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm had a talent, of course, for exactly skewering the authors he caricatured, and this 1923 drawing of the author of If Winter Comes does the trick beautifully, capturing exactly the paradox of the book’s success.

Mark Sabre, reticent hero of If Winter Comes is principled failure, holding out against the shallow values of commercial society, despite the scorn of the wife who thinks he could have made so much more of himself. In this novel the worldly and the dubious prosper (in peacetime, but especially in war) while he behaves with quiet rectitude. In peacetime his great, though modest, achievement is a schoolbook called England, which will enshrine and pass on the traditional English values. In wartime, he enlists as a private soldier, to his wife’s disgust; his war is unspectacular. He embodies the virtues of small-town, ancient England, against the values of commercialism and easy money.

Beerbohm’s cartoon is captioned:

Success! So this was she! In his youth he had often dreamed of her; but he had not imagined her quite like this. This was she! Success!

The exclamatory style parodies that of the novel in passages where Hutchinson gets excited, and the picture exactly captures the oddity of Hutchinson’s position, for his novel in praise of reticence and sensitivity became a huge immodest success (a success so huge that Ford Madox Ford tried to imitate and outdo it). A stupendous best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic, it became a play and a Hollywood film; Northcliffe’s Times took it up in a big way, and it attracted celebrity admirers like Margot Asquith. So the picture shows us a rather bemused Hutchinson, looking very much as we imagine his hero Mark Sabre, tweedy, sensitive, with a manly pipe, quite overpowered by the looming figure of popular success, glittering with jewels and offering him a pineapple. She is quite the opposite of slim sensitive Nona, Sabre’s ideal woman in the novel.

Was Hutchinson really embarrassed when his book became a best-seller? I don’t know, but the vastness of the success may have caused some difficulty for him when he published his next novel, This Freedom. The book is somewhat anti-feminist, suggesting that a woman’s place is in the home. Many books of the time conveyed a similar message without stirring up too much controversy. It was the immense fame of If Winter Comes that brought this new defence of conservative values to the notice of those who strongly disagreed with it.

Beerbohm’s caricature is included in Things New and Old (1923)

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