The Yellow Book: a Nineties Nostalgia
A Nineties Nostalgia
"You poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that.
Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to anyone. It does harm.”
“My dear boy, you are really beginning to moralize. You will soon be going about like the converted, and the revivalist, warning people against all the sins of which you have grown tired. You are much too delightful to do that.... As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that.
Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”
From The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
Lord Henry Wotton, deliciously relevant as usual.
In my most recent "superbly sterile" diversion from reality I, indeed, particularly enjoyed immoral and disgusting readings.
Among the most recent and most revolting:
- The Necrophiliac and Murder Most Serene, Gabrielle Wittkop
- Exquisite Corpse, Poppy Z. Brite
- Hogg, Samuel R. Delany
- Blue of Noon, Georges Bataille
Concerning titles, narrative delicacies all about necrophilia and death; the past months have been an intimate reanimation exercise of all the ancient feelings I experienced in my adolescence, when I initiated my education to horror and vulgarity with the Divine Marquis.
Fictional horrors became a dark stimuli against acedia, a secretly enjoyed search for repugnance provoking my newly adult morals, a call for a stir from langueur and what I am aware being a profound quarter of life crisis.
"I am fine, thanks"; I guess my disposition's frequency is tuned with the contemporary collective unconscious: a braked freedom under a sombre London sky, the affliction in memory of those we lost and, perhaps, for losing ourselves meanwhile.
In my usual contemplative anemonia for the fin de siècle, I wondered and, actually, I already have quite some knowledge about social and intellectual commotions in the Nineties (1890s, of course).
In these months of wokeness and significant loss of personal liberties, I have got a personal nostalgia all about welcoming and challenging different perspectives, critical thinking against preposterous PCness, welcoming scandal against cancel culture, pure enjoyment for any artistic expression freed from political agendas: "Art for Art's Sake" they called it, will we ever have it back?
Let me explore dusty London bookshops in search for what has been "ars gratia artis".
Let me "poison" you with a forgotten book.
Let my vain Self fantasize about the time where you judged a book from its cover (as you absolutely should!).
The cover was Yellow.
These times were the Yellow Nineties.
The above picture is totally me in the past months.
A "Beardsleyan" genesis
September 2020: last glimpse of summer before yet another prolonged period of captivity; I wrote about my day at the Aubrey Beardsley - Tate Britain Exhibition (link to article HERE).
I recall contemplating with pure wonder Beardsley's drawings, in admiration of his talent, relishing the Beauty permeating the exhibition rooms.
I took a sit in the adjacent gloomy room, Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova's 1923 silent film Salomé endlessly projected on the dark walls, ad nauseam, hypnotically, points of view...
Mesmerised and delighted, I could not stop thinking about a biographical episode of Beardsley's life.
Beardsley was walking away from the unveiling of the monument to the poet John Keats in Hampstead Church in July 1894.
Haldane Macfall, art critic and historian, recalled the episode in writing:
"A slender, gaunt young man broke away from the throng, and, hurrying across the graveyard, stumbled and lurched awkwardly over the green mounds of the sleeping dead. This stooping, dandified being was evidently intent on taking a short-cut out of God's acre. There was something strangely fantastic in the ungainly efforts at a dignified wayfaring over the mound-encumbered ground by the loose-limbed, lank figure so immaculately dressed in black cut-away coat and silk hat, who carried his lemon-yellow kid gloves in his long white hands, his lean wrist showing naked beyond his cuffs, his pallid, cadaverous face grimly set on avoiding falling over the embarrassing mounds that tripped his feet.
He stooped and stumbled so much and so awkwardly amongst the sleeping dead that I judged him short-sighted; but was mistaken - he was fighting for breath."
Still seated in the dark room, I transcended the memento mori aesthetic fascination with death and serpentine bodies; there was "more" this time, a profound lesson to learn from the artist.
The story of Beardsley has moved me: a fragile young man animated by the feverish urgency to make a name for himself against a lifelong tuberculosis, which sentenced him to death at just 25 years old.
Among Robert Greene's books I show off as a proper "I am remote and I am Machiavellian" WFH background, I have got a little framed postcard with Aubrey Beardsley's The Cave of Spleen.
That would be my reminder of embracing all the flamboyant chaos within me, never forgetting the pleasurable appreciation of futile, vain, art, echoing Aubrey Beardsley's restlessness to acquire recognition, dedicating a whole existence to Beauty.
In preparation for the exhibition, I read extensively about Beardsley, acquiring knowledge on the "Beardsleyan" genesis of The Yellow Book.
The Yellow Book was the leading quarterly literary periodical of the British 1890s (1894 to 1897).
Published by The Bodley Head Publishing House by Elkin Mathews and John Lane, it was edited and conceived by the American Henry Harland and Aubrey Beardsley (who, in particular, acted as art editor).
"In one of the densest and soupiest and yellowest of all London's infernalest fogs, Aubrey Beardsley and I sat together the whole afternoon... We declared to each other that we thought it quite a pity and a shame that London publishers should feel themselves longer under any obligation to refuse any of our good manuscripts...And then and there we decided to have a magazine of our own...and the next day we had an appointment with Mr. John Lane."
Henry Harland, magazine's literary editor, on conceiving The Yellow Book on New Year's Day, 1894
The animated conversation on the bigotry of late Victorian's literary and periodical market, the increasing hesitancy of editors to accept their manuscripts and illustrations served as a basis to initiate a collaborative endeavour resulting in an avant-garde periodical which would contain a wide range of literary and artistic genres, poetry, short stories, essays, book illustrations, portraits, and reproductions of paintings, granting equal prestige to both writers and artists.
Beardsley proposed to engage John Lane as a preferred publisher. Beardsley, Harland and Lane met the following day at the Hogarth Club.
Harland recorded in writing the meeting's outcome:
"At one o'clock precisely the three of us sat down to luncheon.
At five minutes after one he had consented to back our publication with Beardsley as art editor and myself as editor.
At exactly half past one we had arranged over the telephone with Mr Henry James for the publication of our first piece of fiction.
Thus was The Yellow Book conceived in fog and darkness, but brought forth in sweetness, light and joy".
Yellow & Naughty
Beardsley is also supposed to have chosen of a suitable name for the magazine: The Yellow Book.
At the time, the colour was knowingly associated with illicit French erotica, which used to be carefully wrapped in yellow paper.
"I have never read a Blue Book. I prefer books... in a yellow cover."
From "An Ideal Husband", 1895 stage play by Oscar Wilde
The periodical's prospectus was issued in March 1894; listing relevant contributors, this advertisement attempted to test the appetite of the public, advance orders and attract distributors.
The prospectus of the anticipated Volume I depicted a highly-feminine "beardsleyan" lady wondering in the darkness (assumption made noting the black background and the lamp post switched on) without a chaperone, observing a collection of books displayed outside a bookshop whose owner, a caricature of Charles Elkin Mathews (publisher and bookseller) in a ludicrous Pierrot's attire, beholds the audacious lady with a baffled gaze.
The prospectus proclaimed that the aim of The Yellow Book would be:
"To depart as far as may be from the bad old traditions of periodical literature and to provide an illustrated magazine which shall be beautiful as a piece of bookmaking, modern and distinguished in its letter-press and pictures"
Exploring the web, I was able to find a PDF copy of the prospectus which you can download using the link below:
The following website has been an fantastic source which aided my research while providing me with the opportunity to have a look to all The Yellow Book volumes, which can be found as HTML, XML, PDF and FlipBook using the hyperlink below:
The first volume of The Yellow Book was published by The Bodley Head on 16th April 1894.
The issue contained a broad spectrum of literary and artistic materials: Henry James' The Death of the Lion, Max Beerbohm's A Defence of Cosmetic (ah, that's among my personal favorites, a manifesto on the value vain artificiality as both intellectual exercise and explicit flamboyancy against the brutality of nature), Arthur Waugh's Reticence in Literature, Arthur Symons' poem Stella Maris, three plate illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, John Davidson's evocative poem London:
"Athwart the sky a lowly sigh
From west to east the sweet wind carried;
The sun stood still on Primrose Hill;
His light in all the city tarried:
The clouds on viewless columns bloomed
Like smouldering lilies unconsumed.
'Oh sweetheart, see! how shadowy,
Of some occult magician's rearing,
Or swung in space of heaven's grace
Dissolving, dimly reappearing,
Afloat upon ethereal tides
St. Paul's above the city rides!'
A rumour broke through the thin smoke
Enwreathing abbey, tower, and palace,
The parks, the squares, the thoroughfares,
The million-peopled lanes and alleys,
An ever-muttering prisoned storm,
The heart of London beating warm."
The provocative new publication was saluted with strong antagonism, quite unusual even for the Victorian press.
"The cover may be intended to attract by its very repulsiveness and indolence" - The Times
"(...) Act of Parliament to make this kind of thing illegal" - The Westminster Gazette
"Detestable in matter and unreadable in style" - The St James's Gazette
Upon its publication, Oscar Wilde dismissed The Yellow Book as "not yellow at all".
He wrote to Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas):
"It is dull and loathsome: a great failure - I am so glad"
Heavy criticism, sure, which made The Yellow Book - Volume I a succès de scandale.
Highly advertised, tremendously controversial, the Volume I went through three printings to satisfy demand, with the entire first edition of seven thousand books sold out in just five days.
A "Wilde" relationship, a wilder scandal
Quite early throughout the planning of this new publishing venture, Harland, Beardsley and Lane agreed on one author who shall not contribute to The Yellow Book: Oscar Wilde.
Lane strongly disliked Oscar Wilde while Beardsley recalled being poorly treated and patronised by the author when designing the illustration for Salomé.
According to Wilde's feedback, Beardsley realised illustrations deemed as "too Japanese", quite contrasting with his "Byzantine" vision for the play.
The publisher of the play, The Pall Mall Budget, rejected the macabre drawing which Beardsley based around the play’s last scene, in which Salomé contemplates the severed head of John the Baptist.
"J’ai Baisé Ta Bouche, Iokanaan."
Also, it seems that Wilde grown preoccupied about Beardsley illustrations' distinctive style which may subordinate the entire play.
Grudge-bearing, Beardsley filled his illustrations with distorted caricatures of Wilde.
A funny exercise: find Wilde's caricature in each of the drawings below!
Despite the savage criticism, the Yellow Book was an absolute success.
Then a "Wilde" scandal upset The Bodley Head while in preparation for Volume V.
The reports told about Oscar Wilde carrying a "yellow book" (purportedly the French novel Aphrodite by Pierre Louÿs, having a yellow cover) during his arrest at the Cadogan Hotel in London, 1895.
The poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel (1937) by John Betjeman describes the episode:
“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew Where felons and criminals dwell: We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”
He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book. He staggered — and, terrible-eyed, He brushed past the plants on the staircase And was helped to a hansom outside.
Soon after, an irate (and certainly homophobic) mob gathered and rioted in front of The Bodley Head office in Vigo Street.
Aubrey Beardsley was regarded as being a close friend of Oscar Wilde although the two became estranged quite some time before the arrest.
Due to Beardsley's associations with Wilde through his illustrations of Salomé, poetry contributor William Watson demanded Beardsley to be fired as art editor.
Upon his return from New York, Lane realised that the publishing house' reputation had been tarnished by the alleged association with Oscar Wilde; thus Beardsley was fired and his illustrations excluded from any upcoming issues.
Sally Ledger writes in Wilde Women and The Yellow Book: The Sexual Politics of Aestheticism and Decadence:
"As far as the newspapers were concerned, Wilde was accompanied to his trial by The Yellow Book, and such media reports cemented in the cultural imagination of the 1890s an association between The Yellow Book, aestheticism and Decadence and, after April and May 1895, homosexuality".
Following the mortifying dismissal of Aubrey Beardsley, The Bodley Head continued publishing The Yellow Book until 1897 which, deprived of its Beardsleyan decadent aesthetic, became a more conventional literary periodical.
In 1896, John Lane opened a branch of The Bodley Head in New York, changing his business from a literary to a general publishing house.
No publisher would dare replicating a literary endeavour after the fashion of The Yellow Book, right?
Wrong assumption: where a late Victorian London saw the scandal, Leonard Smithers, "Publisher to the Decadents", consummate in the field of pornography and immoral literature, saw an opportunity to enhance his recognition as a decadent publisher.
"A new kind of magazine, which was to appeal to the public equally in its letterpress and its illustrations."
"A manifesto in revolt against Victorian materialism."
Smithers appointed Arthur Symons, British poet and critic, as literary editor and Aubrey Beardsley as principal illustrator.
The title of the magazine, The Savoy, is presumably inspired to the area south of the Strand, in the vicinity of Smither's office; the glamorous Savoy Hotel was also featured in Oscar Wilde's trials for being the infamous location of his romantic rendezvous.
The first issue of the Savoy was published on 11th January 1896.
In the editorial note, Smithers attempted to distance the magazine from The Yellow Book and any associations with Oscar Wilde:
"We have not invented a new point of view. We are not Realists, or Romanticists, or Decadents.
For us, all art is good which is good art."
The cover, by Aubrey Beardsley, depicted a striking Pre-Raphelite beauty in a pastoral landscape; in an earlier version (below), the naughty cupid urinated over a copy of The Yellow Book.
The volume also contained Chapters I, II, III of Under the Hill, an erotic novel by Aubrey Beardsley, based on the legend of Tannhäuser.
The first volume of The Savoy was deemed as a success; the Sunday Times reviewed the issue as a:
"Yellow Book redeemed of it puerilities."
The Savoy featured work by authors such as W. B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm, Joseph Conrad, Aubrey Beardsley and William Thomas Horton.
Only eight issues of the magazine were published: two quarterly (January, April) and six monthly (July to December).
Throughout the issues, Aubrey Beardsley's health deteriorated; he left UK for France in April 1897.
Converted to Roman Catholicism prior to his death, Beardsley asked Smithers to “destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings...by all that is holy all obscene drawings."
Smithers certainly ignored Beardsley's request, continuing to sell reproductions of his illustrations.
Leonard Smithers died on the day of his 46th birthday on 19th December 1907, completely bankrupt, overdosed from drink and Dr J. Collis Browne's Chlorodyne.
"The colour of The Yellow Book was an appropriate reflection of the 'Yellow Nineties', a decade in which Victorianism was giving way among the fashionable to Regency attitudes and French influences; For yellow was not only the decor of the notorious and dandified pre-Victorian Regency, but also of the allegedly wicked and decadent French novel."
(Stanley Weintraub, 1964, The Yellow Book: Quintessence of the Nineties)
Although The Yellow Book was not as "naughty" as the cover and its prospectus advertised, its contributors certainly embodied the principles of Aestheticism and Decadence.
Unchained from any politics or moral values, only galvanised by the desire to make vain art, "art for art's sake", these authors acted as representatives of a variety of movements such as impressionism, feminism, naturalism, dandyism, symbolism and classicism, completely embracing the scandal as a bad reputation, after all, would be far better than the oblivion of conformism.
In 1913, Holbrook Jackson, describing the impact of The Yellow Book, explained:
“It was newness in excelsis: novelty naked and unashamed.
People were puzzled and shocked and delighted, and yellow became the colour of the hour, the symbol of the time-spirit. It was associated with all that was bizarre and queer in art and life, with all that was outrageously modern”
My Yellow Collection
Moving towards the conclusion of this article, I am glancing at my London flat's library with a smile.
I see and proudly own yellow pieces.
Among my most precious and beloved pieces of antiques, I have got three copies of The Yellow Book, resulting from book hunts in Cecil Court (and vintage bookshops nearby):
- Volume I, April 1894, fourth edition
- Volume II, July 1894, third edition
- Volume XI, October 1896
Mr/Ms Fry, you owned this Volume precisely one hundred years before I was even born; whoever you are, wherever you are, I will guard this book with profound love and care.
This is, to me, the emotional moving faculty of each piece of antique: bellissimo!
Mirroring the style of The Yellow Book, The Yellow Book - a selection (Spring Books, 1950) collects the most relevant pieces of prose, poetry and illustrations from the issues I to XIII of The Yellow Book.
Decadent London (Anthony Clayton, Historical Publications, 2005) has been an invaluable source of research for this article; it was an honour meeting Mr Clayton in person at Treadwell's Books in early 2020 and attending two of his online lectures.
Some further yellows in my London library:
Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890's (Academy Chicago Publishers, 1981)
Philippe Jullian "light-yellows":
- D'Annunzio (The Pall Mall Press, 1972)
- Oscar Wilde (Paladin Books, 1971)
Finally, my latest and currently-reading yellow:
- Isis (by Auguste Villiers de L'Isle Adam, Snuggly Books, 2019)
A casual finding resulting from an ongoing slight obsession with Jean Lorrain.
But this is another story.
Absolutely Yellow, of course.