Aubrey Beardsley, the author: ‘Under the Hill’

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian.

Aubrey Beardsley, who died on this day in 1898, is well known as one of the most talented, and most daring, of the artists of the 1890s, with his exquisite, highly imaginative, and frequently risqué, black and white drawings. However, Beardsley also aspired to be a ‘man of letters’, and for several years worked on a ‘Romantic novel’, a preoccupation of his last years, later known as ‘Under the Hill’. This erotic novel was originally entitled ‘The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser’, and was based on the ancient German legend of Tannhäuser, a poet composer on a quest for spiritual enlightenment.

The book cover of ‘Under the Hill’ by Aubrey Beardsley RESERVE–828.912-BEA

‘Under the Hill’ encapsulates many of the features of the modern Decadent style of the period with its emphasis on art and artifice over nature, the affected tone and style of the writing, a sensibility of immorality and excess, the intense attention to detail and the lavish setting. As the writer Stephen Calloway observes, “in English literature there is nothing quite like ‘Under the Hill’ “. The absence of plot is also typical: in this 1904 edition the hero of the piece, the Abbé Fanfreluche arrives, Helen (Venus in other editions) is lavishly dressed and assisted in her toilette by her attendants and Helen and Fanfreluche sit together at a banquet. There is much satirical wit and humour in the text, combined with inventive, meticulously detailed descriptions. In this passage, Beardsley seems to take great delight in the description of the flamboyant and exotic attire of the banquet guests with a torrent of sumptuous details:

There were masks of green velvet that make the face look trebly powdered; masks of the heads of birds, of apes, of serpents, of dolphins … There were wigs of black and scarlet wools, of peacocks’ feathers, of gold and silver threads, of swansdown, of the tendrils of the vine, and of human hair; huge collars of stiff muslin rising high above the head; whole dresses of ostrich feathers curling inwards; tunics of panthers’ skins that looked beautiful over pink tights; capotes of crimson satin trimmed with the wings of owls; sleeves cut into the shapes of apocryphal animals; drawers flounced down to the ankles, and flecked with tiny, red roses; stockings clocked with fêtes galantes, and curious designs; and petticoats cut like artificial flowers.

‘The Toilet of Helen’, illustration from ‘Under the Hill’ by Aubrey Beardsley RESERVE–828.912-BEA

Beardsley’s illustrations for his novel perfectly complement the style of his text with their exuberant intensity of decoration and abundance of different, exquisite textures similar to highly wrought pieces of embroidery or tapestry. The illustrations are similar in style to Beardsley’s illustrations for ‘The Rape of the Lock’, published in 1896, and both sets of illustrations are representative of Beardsley’s later rococo style inspired by his love of the eighteenth century. Beardsley’s illustration of ‘The Abbé’ is a masterpiece of this style. The image shows the opening scene of the story with the Abbé entering the gateway to the Venusberg. Beardsley altered the name of this character several times from the Abbé Aubrey to the Abbé Fanfreluche and finally to the Chevalier Tannhäuser.

‘The Abbé’, illustration from ‘Under the Hill’ by Aubrey Beardsley RESERVE–828.912-BEA

The work was initially intended to be published by John Lane in 1894 with 24 illustrations, although this publication never materialised. Beardsley later produced some new illustrations which appeared alongside parts of the text under the new title of ‘Under the Hill’ in the first number of ‘The Savoy’ magazine in January 1896. We hold a copy of the 1904 edition of ‘Under the Hill’ (RESERVE–828.912-BEA), an expurgated version which was published by John Lane, alongside “other essays in prose and verse” by Beardsley and some drawings. In 1907, the more adventurous publisher Leonard Smithers produced an unillustrated edition of the ‘complete’ work (which remained unfinished on Beardsley’s death), and more complete versions were privately printed at various dates afterwards. We also hold a 1908 edition of ‘Under the Hill’ in French, and a 1966 edition of a version of the text completed by John Glassco, which was originally published in 1959 by Olympia Press.

‘The Fruit Bearers’, illustration from ‘Under the Hill’ by Aubrey Beardsley RESERVE–828.912-BEA

All the editions of ‘Under the Hill’ that we hold, including issues of ‘The Savoy’ (no. 1-8) and other works illustrated by Beardsley, are available to view on request in the Special Collections Reading Room.

Further reading and references

Stephen Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley. London : V&A Publications, 1998. Special Collections open access reference: 741.6092-BEA/CAL or available to loan from the University Library at 741.942-BEA/CAL (3rd floor).

Matthew Sturgis, Passionate attitudes : the English decadence of the 1890s. London : Pallas Athene, 2011.

‘High art and low life : ‘The Studio’ and the fin de siècle’ : incorporating the catalogue to the exhibition High art and low life: The Studio and the arts of the 1890s, Victoria and Albert Museum, 23 June – 31 October 1993. [London?] : Studio International, 1993.

Detail from ‘The Toilet of Helen’, illustration from ‘Under the Hill’ by Aubrey Beardsley RESERVE–828.912-BEA

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