Decadent Women: Yellow Book Lives

  • By Jad Adams
  • Reaktion Books
  • 400 pp.

Meet the ladies behind a cutting-edge (if little-remembered) magazine.

Decadent Women: Yellow Book Lives

In a down-at-the-heels hotel in London on April 16, 1894, a party for some 50 writers, artists, editors, and literary hangers-on signaled the birth of the Yellow Book, which, for a brief moment, played an outsized role in magazine lore. It was a forerunner of publications like the Paris Review andthe New Yorker and featured editorial excellence and design pizazz. It was a magazine before its time, and as it turned out, the time wasn’t ripe for it. Expensive and avant-garde, the quarterly would fold within three years.

Decadent Women: Yellow Book Lives, by British scholar Jad Adams, chronicles the publication’s glory days and the backstory of its contributors, many of them women. Although some (mainly the men) will be familiar to American readers — including Henry James, William Butler Yeats, and H.G. Wells — names like Ella D’Arcy, Leila MacDonald, and Charlotte Mew probably won’t ring a bell. A useful tool for reading this book would be a master’s degree in Victorian literature. Those of us without one will have to rely on Google for help.

John Lane, publisher at the prestigious Bodley Head (today an imprint of Penguin Random House), published the Yellow Book. His top editor was Henry Harland, a transplanted New Yorker who wrote “authentic” novels about Jewish life under a pseudonym (until he was unmasked as a gentile), and his cutting-edge art director was 22-year-old wunderkind Aubrey Beardsley. The point was to publish a magazine to reflect the “new movement.” Writes Adams, “Lane’s passions were for poetry, beautifully crafted books and women,” all of which were on display in the Yellow Book.

Lane gave space to female authors, whom he paid less than the males if he paid them at all. Of his 137 contributors, 47 were women. Nonetheless, in keeping with the laced-up times, some adopted men’s pen names on the assumption that a masculine identity would lend credence to their work. Hence, Mary Chavelita Dunne wrote as George Egerton, Violet Paget as Vernon Lee, and Pearl Richards Craigie as John Oliver Hobbes.

The Yellow Book’s authors — male and female — tackled themes that even today are taboo in some circles: same-sex relationships, extramarital affairs, domestic violence, abortion. Some cribbed from their own lives and were labeled “decadent,” a term, according to Adams, that reflected “the dissolution of the staid and stoical Victorian values that had gradually become the consensus of correct behavior.” In other words, goodbye to “the fixed order of things: heterosexuality, patriarchy and a woman’s place in the home.” The magazine’s name and cover were yellow because it was the color of racy French novels. Based on its expensive five-shilling price, the Yellow Book was aimed at a cultural elite unlikely to be offended by its subject matter.

Adams focuses on 11 of the magazine’s most prolific women writers and makes mention of some three-dozen others. Their struggles for professional recognition are as infuriating as they are fascinating, but Adams’ narrative drowns in details. There are simply too many stories to keep straight. His stilted language doesn’t help, either. In describing a flat shared by two Yellow Book authors, Adams reports, “the building was insalubrious.” And when contributor Netta Syrett becomes depressed after her sister dies, he writes:

“There is no evidence to show that she suffered a breakdown, though it has to be suspected when such an otherwise active person becomes quiescent.”

Still, when he gets down to the nitty-gritty, the book gets juicy. Contributor Gabriela Cunninghame Graham and her husband, a socialist member of Parliament, said they met when she spooked a horse he was riding (think Edward Rochester and Jane Eyre). She claimed to be a Chilean orphan educated in a French convent school. In reality, she was a British surgeon’s daughter who ran away to become an actress; when she failed to meet success onstage, she probably turned to prostitution, more likely meeting her future husband in a brothel than on horseback. She wrote “The Christ of Toro,” about an icon in a Spanish village, for the Yellow Book but was never paid.

Egerton was such a talented linguist that, at 15, she taught German. She became a traveling companion to a married couple and ran off with the husband, settling in Norway, where the two pretended to be husband and wife. After his death, she wrote in order to stave off poverty and boredom. Her stories, published by the Bodley Head in Keynotes, did well with American booksellers and provided her entre to the Yellow Book.

Contributors Leila Macdonald and Hubert Crackanthorpe were a “golden couple” who wrote for the Yellow Book until his body was found floating in the Seine. Attractive and wealthy, she was a poet and he wrote fiction, but it did not bode well that one of his stories, “A Commonplace Chapter,” concerned an unhappy literary couple where the husband has an affair with a woman from “the higher walks of the demi-monde.” After infidelity on both sides, Macdonald asked for a divorce. Once she revealed her grounds would be that Crackanthorpe gave her a sexually transmitted disease, he vanished. When found dead weeks later, it was believed he killed himself over the impending scandal.

Although he never published in the Yellow Book, Oscar Wilde (and his homosexuality scandal) engulfed the publication. On April 5, 1895, Wilde was arrested following his failed libel trial against the marquess of Queensberry, who had publicly accused him of sodomy. At the time of his arrest, Wilde was alleged to have been carrying a copy of the Yellow Book, which connected him with the magazine, at least in the public’s mind. He was later convicted and sentenced to prison.

Under pressure from prolific and prominent contributors, Lane distanced himself from Wilde and stopped publishing his books at the Bodley Head. Beardsley’s elegant drawings — heavily associated with decadence — also had to go. Nonetheless, some of the Yellow Book’s women contributors continued to support Wilde. Ada Leverson gave him a place to live after his arrest, and Egerton said, “I don’t care a bit for an artist’s private life.” Perhaps because women had, too, been marginalized in the world of letters, they sympathized with the outcast Wilde in a way that men, who feared guilt by association, did not.

The object of Wilde’s illicit affections was the marquess’ son, Lord Alfred Douglas. In the six degrees of separation between members of the decadent set, Yellow Book poet Olive Custance, slight and boyish-looking, eloped with Lord Douglas in 1902 following her own same-sex affair with an American heiress. The couple had one son. Motherhood was not Custance’s forte, however, and not unexpectedly, monogamy meant little to either of them.

Diane Kiesel is a former judge of the Supreme Court of New York. She is an author whose next book, When Charlie Met Joan: The Tragedy of the Chaplin Trials and the Failings of American Justice, will be published later this year by the University of Michigan Press.

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