THE SAVOY : A MAGAZINE OF THE 1890s

                                                                                   JIM BURNS


The magazine most associated with the 1890s in Britain is The Yellow Book, which attained notoriety when Oscar Wilde was arrested and newspaper reports said that he was carrying a “Yellow Book”. What he had was, in fact, a yellow-backed novel, but most people preferred to believe that it was a copy of The Yellow Book. Panic set in at the publishers of the journal, and Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations were quickly dropped from subsequent issues. He was the artist most identified with the so-called “decadence” of the period. His illustrations sometimes suggested a mischievous mixing of the sexes, with little hints of lewd behaviour not too far away. Others were quite straightforward, but as the Wilde scandal involved what were seen as deviant sexual practices, it was safer to remove all evidence of Beardsley rather than take a chance on a misreading of his ambivalence.

On the whole, the contents of The Yellow Book were, Beardsley apart, innocuous enough. Poems, short stories, articles, illustrations. I doubt that anyone, then or now, would be likely to take offence at what was on show, unless it was because the general impression given did not fit into the framework of hearty writing which promoted healthy living, sporting prowess, patriotic sentiments, and a mistrust of foreign influences. According to some commentators, too many of the contributors to The Yellow Book displayed a disturbing interest in what was published and painted in Paris.

It may not have seemed a propitious time for someone to launch a new magazine which would feature Beardsley and certain writers, such as Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and John Gray, who were often linked to writing looked on as having the flavour of decadence. However, behind The Savoy, the title of the projected publication, stood Leonard Smithers, a man who had trained as a solicitor, worked as a dealer in rare and second-hand books, and was known to publish and sell work that others viewed as pornography. It wasn’t all he published, and it has been said of him that, with the “dramatic backlash which followed the tragic fall of Wilde”, had it not been for Smithers, “the young avant-garde and artists of the fin de sičcle” would have lacked any sort of financial and other support for their work. The Savoy was one way of helping them, though I’m sure Smithers wasn’t against making money while he was at it.

Smithers invited Arthur Symons to edit The Savoy. He was well-known in London literary circles as an advocate of the new writing, and as author of “The Decadent Movement in Literature”, an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1893. Symons’ own poems worked hard at creating an impression of dubious experiences, and a somewhat  risque lifestyle, with their references to opium smoking, absinthe, actresses, Paris (everyone knew what went on there), and bohemia. Symons’ appointment seemed to indicate that the new magazine would adopt a provocative position with regard to its contents, but the test would, of course, take place when it actually appeared.

The first issue came out in January, 1896. If it was designed to attract attention it may have done so by the inclusion of three chapters from Aubrey Beardsley’s novel, Under the Hill, with illustrations by the author. There have been various editions of this uncompleted work, and the sections published in The Savoy were expurgated. Arthur Symons did not have a favourable view of Beardsley’s literary work, and his opinion of the artist’s attempt at a novel was that it was “hardly more than a piece of nonsense”. But he was over-ruled by Smithers.

It’s perhaps worth noting that an unexpurgated version of Under the Hill was published by Leonard Smithers in a limited edition in 1907. Smithers rarely missed an opportunity to capitalise on Beardsley’s reputation, and was quite happy selling forgeries of his drawings. He had met an “impecunious barrister” in a pub one night, and discovered that the man had a talent for producing Beardsley-like illustrations, and between the two of them they built up a steady business for supposed Beardsley originals which collectors soon snapped up.

Beardsley apart, the issue opened with a long essay by George Bernard Shaw on the subject of “Going to Church”, which it seems The Times said was the best contribution, and which Stanley Weintraub, commenting much later, considered Shaw’s “most personal statement of his feelings about religion, and his best-shaped essay, foreshadowing ideas he would later put into his plays”. Was the inclusion of Shaw writing about religion designed to give the magazine an air of respectability? It’s impossible to know for sure, but in any case Shaw’s views were not usually aired to please the public.

Arthur Symons was never reluctant to print his own work in The Savoy, and in the initial issue he had a translation of a poem by Verlaine, one of his own poems, and a long article about Dieppe, a favourite location in those days for English writers and artists to escape from the constraints of their native country. Walter Sickert spent time in the port (there was an exhibition, Sickert in Dieppe at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, in 2015), and it was where Oscar Wilde first went on his release from prison. Symons was obviously happy to have been there, and stated that he had originally intended staying for a few days and two months later found he was still in Dieppe: “it is so charming in such a French way. And then life, if you will but abandon yourself to the natural current of things, passes in a dream”.

Names that are still remembered stand out from the contents page: Yeats, Ernest Dowson, Max Beerbohm, Havelock Ellis writing about Zola. But who were Rudolf Dircks, Frederick Wedmore, Selwyn Image and Humphrey James?  A quick reference to the Internet turns up information on Dircks (translator of Schopenhauer and author of a book on Rodin, among other things) and Image, who was an artist, designer, and poet, and was associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Wedmore, “art critic and man of letters”, published a lot in his lifetime, and his books can be tracked down through reprint services and second-hand book dealers. James is more elusive, though I admittedly only carried out a brief search. The point is, I think, that none of those I referred are the sort of people likely to earn a nod of recognition now, apart from possibly a few academics and specialists. I’m somehow put in mind of George Gissing’s New Grub Street, and its cast of literary characters toiling away in the “valley of the shadow of books”, i.e. the British Library Reading Room. And mostly fated to be forgotten.

Beardsley wasn’t the only artist in the first issue, and Charles Conder and Will Rothenstein both made appearances, though neither got along well with Smithers. Rothenstein took him to court in a dispute over some work he had been commissioned to produce, and which he claimed he’d never been paid for. He also disliked the publisher as a person, and was later to assert that it was Smithers who had led Beardsley into bad ways and persuaded him to turn to pornography. As for Conder, it was said that he didn’t want to be seen with Smithers because of the latter’s reputation, but he must have known and caroused with him in Dieppe if comments by Smithers about Conder’s excessive drinking are anything to go by. Conder later died in an asylum where he had been sent due to the effects of syphilis. The list of people who were published in The Savoy, and didn’t care for Smithers, could be extended. W.B. Yeats refused to allow Smithers to visit him at home. Max Beerbohm described him as a “disreputable and scandalous person”. The writers could at least claim that they dealt with Arthur Symons, rather than Smithers, when submitting work to the magazine.

The first two issues of The Savoy were successful from a financial point of view. The magazine was still a quarterly, and the second issue had more Beardsley, Dowson, Yeats, Havelock Ellis on Nietzsche, and Symons with a translation of Verlaine, and a short story, “Pages from the Life of Lucy Newcome”. The inspiration for it came from an encounter with a prostitute, Muriel Broadbent, who Selwyn Image first met at the Alhambra Theatre. Symons then took up with her, and it’s said that they were “friends and occasional lovers for several years.” Symons not only celebrated her in short stories, but also wrote a poem about her, “To Muriel: At the Opera”.

Once again, some of the minor contributors arouse interest. Vincent O’Sullivan was an American who chose to live mostly in Europe. Financially comfortable, due to family business involvements, he wrote short stories, criticism, and poetry. His situation changed when his brother made several bad investments, and he eventually died in poverty in Paris. If he’s remembered now it’s probably for some ghost stories that he wrote. His “When I was Dead” has been widely reprinted over the years, and has a place in one of the classic collections, The Supernatural Omnibus, edited by Montagu Summers.

Leila MacDonald was a young Scottish poet and if she has any reason to be recalled it may be because of her marriage to the ill-fated writer, Hubert Crackanthorpe, who had a story in the third issue. They eventually separated, took up with different partners, and the four lived together for a time in Paris. MacDonald, when suing for divorce, claimed that Crackanthorpe had infected her with syphilis and caused a miscarriage. He disappeared and his body was found in the Seine several weeks later. It was presumed that he’d committed suicide, though some doubts about it were raised at the time. MacDonald lived until 1944, but her literary career had come to an end long before that. Crackanthorpe’s excellent stories survived the years and have been anthologised. 

There was a poem by John Gray in the second issue of The Savoy. He was said to be the original for Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s famous novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, though both always denied it. Gray even sued a London newspaper, The Star, when they insinuated that he was the model for Dorian Gray. When Oscar Wilde made it clear that he didn’t have Gray in mind when writing his novel, the newspaper lost the case.  Gray eventually took orders in the Catholic Church and spent most of his life as a priest in Edinburgh.

The success of the first two issues persuaded Smithers and Symons that The Savoy should go monthly starting with the July, 1896 issue. It may have been a mistake. Was there likely to be enough good material available to fill the pages of a monthly publication?  George Moore had promised his new novel, Evelyn Innes, for serial publication in The Savoy, but failed to come through with the requisite material. Stanley Weintraub suggests that it was probably a hasty commitment and Moore, who had achieved some success with Esther Waters, later had doubts about publishing his new book in a journal linked to a notorious character like Leonard Smithers. Other writers may have had similar concerns. And would sales continue to grow sufficiently to cover production costs and payments to contributors? Smithers’ finances were never secure.

Another problem cropped up when the bookseller, W.H. Smith, refused to stock the third issue, citing the use of a William Blake illustration as likely to cause offence. On top of this problem, which obviously badly affected distribution of The Savoy, there was a less than enthusiastic response from reviewers of the new issue. It was particularly noticed that Beardsley was largely absent, as he was from the fourth. Symons continued to contribute his own work, and regulars like Dowson and Yeats were featured in both issues. One or two newcomers were present, in, in particular Ford Madox Hueffer (later to become Ford Madox Ford when the onset of the First World War brought suspicion on anyone with a German sounding name) and Lionel Johnson, a poet who died young. He had a stroke, probably as a result of his heavy drinking. His “Three Sonnets” revolved around visions of religion as found in the life of Mother Ann, founder of the Shakers, the leaders of the Anabaptists in Munster in 1534, and Hawker of Morwenstow, a Cornish Anglican priest and noted eccentric – he excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays.

It was probably inevitable that The Savoy would start to show signs of its imminent demise, and it may be that a lack of variety in the contributors had something to do with it. Symons had three items in both issues five and six, and there were contributions by his old standbys, Ernest Dowson and W.B. Yeats. It wasn’t that their work was bad, but it could be argued that one of the purposes of a magazine ought to be to publish fresh writing by new writers. True, there were appearances by one or two newcomers. Bliss Carman, a Canadian poet, resident in America, and popular in his day, had a poem in issue five, and Joseph Conrad  a story in issue six. It’s unlikely that either would have swayed readers to overlook the repetitious nature (the same names) of many of the other contributions. I was intrigued by the inclusion of Carman, who was outside the usual range of writers in The Savoy, and wondered if he was visiting London at the time and met Symons?

By November, 1896, the writing was on the wall for The Savoy, and it was announced that the December issue would be the final one. The seventh issue once more featured Dowson, Symons (an essay about Verlaine), Yeats and Havelock Ellis. Again, it wasn’t that their contributions lacked quality, but rather that the reader looking for something different may have been disappointed at the scarcity of new names. A story by Fiona Macleod (actually a pseudonym used by William Sharp), and an essay by Osman Edwards on Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian Symbolist poet, were hardly sufficient to convince anyone that the magazine offered exciting new work. Symons’ own interest in Symbolism was well known, and a few years later he published a book called The Symbolist Movement in Literature.

When the final issue appeared in December it was completely devoted to work by Arthur Symons. A poem, a short story, two essays, a translation of a Mallarme poem, and an epilogue entitled “A Literary Causerie” which suggested that there was to be a twice-yearly publication, “larger in size, better produced, and they will cost more. In this way we shall be able to appeal to that limited public which cares for the things we care for; which cares for art, really for art’s sake”. Did the use of Symons’ own work, and that of Aubrey Beardsley, who was the sole contributor of illustrations in the final issue, indicate that there were no funds to pay other writers and artists? Or perhaps they had just stopped submitting work when it was known that the magazine was closing down? Beardsley’s work was not new. He was desperately ill with tuberculosis in 1896 and died the following year.

The plan for a bi-annual publication never came to anything. Money, or the lack of it, no doubt played a large part in the failure to get it off the ground. And it was a fact that the audience Symons envisaged, one with an interest in art for art’s sake, was limited. That had been demonstrated by the limited sales of The Savoy. Stanley Weintraub said of the magazine: “It espoused no religion or party, took no stand on war, peace, taxation, socialism, imperialism, suffrage or other problems directly meaningful to a public; nor did it print reviews of current books, plays, concerts or appeal to other issues which formed a public for a periodical”. He further noted that, despite its association with “decadence”, many of the writers it published didn’t fit into that category. The Savoy never had found a suitable readership that could support its continuity.

So many of the writers and artists who appeared in The Savoy met early deaths. Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Hubert Crackanthorpe. They were what Yeats referred to as “The Tragic Generation”.  Arthur Symons did survive, and lived until 1945, though there were periods when he suffered from mental problems, and his literary career had begun to peter out from the mid-1920s. As for Leonard Smithers, he died in 1907 in somewhat mysterious circumstances. His biographer, James G. Nelson, says that when Symons arrived in London in the early 1890s he “was a handsome, well-built man, well dressed and energetic. However, through the ravages of disease, drink, and opiates, he degenerated into a mere shambles of a man during his last several years”.

There have been various accounts of Smithers death, but it does seem accurate to say that his son’s description has been accepted as true. Smithers’ body lay on a bed in a downstairs room, in which there were two empty hampers. Other than that, the house was completely empty of any kind of furniture. The death certificate stated that death was due to “Cirrhosis of liver. 3 months -  Gastritis and Haematemesis & Exhaustion 2 days”. It would seem that Lord Alfred Douglas, notorious for his role in Oscar Wilde’s downfall, paid for Smithers to be buried in an unmarked grave in Fulham Palace Road Cemetery, and so avoided the indignity of a pauper’s funeral.

Eight issues of a periodical perhaps don’t amount to a major statement, and yet The Savoy has a place in literary history because of when it was published, and the status of many of its contributors. It throws light on a period when there was something of a struggle to establish new ways of writing. It also highlights Aubrey Beardsley’s place in British art, and draws attention to Arthur Symons, who did a lot to sponsor and promote new writing. As for Leonard Smithers, he deserves to be remembered as someone who liked good art and literature along with his interest in pornography.

Selected Bibliography

This just lists the books consulted when writing about The Savoy:

The Savoy: Nineties Experiment. Edited with an introduction by Stanley Weintraub. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 1966.

Publisher to the Decadents: Leonard Smithers in the Careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson. By James G. Nelson. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 2000.

Arthur Symons: A Life. By Karl Beckson. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.

Arthur Symons: Spiritual Adventures. Edited by Nicholas Freeman. Modern Humanities Research Association, Cambridge, 2017.

Arthur Symons: Selected Early Poems. Edited by Jane Desmarais and Chris Baldick. Modern Humanities Research Association, Cambridge, 2017.

The Symbolist Movement in Literature. By Arthur Symons. Dutton, New York. 1958.

Arthur Symons: Selected Writings. Edited by Roger Houldsworth. Carcanet Press, Cheadle Hulme, 1974.

Under the Hill. By Aubrey Beardsley (completed by John Glassco). New English Library, London, 1966. Originally published by Olympia Press, Paris, 1959.

Poetry of the Nineties. Edited with an introduction by R.K.R. Thornton. Penguin Books, Harmandsworth, 1970.

Writing of the Nineties. Edited by Derek Stanford. Dent, London, 1971.

A Study in Yellow: The Yellow Book and its Contributors. By Katherine Lyon Mix. Constable, London, 1960.

The Eighteen-Nineties: A Period Anthology in Prose and Verse. Edited by Martin Secker. The Richards Press, London, 1948.

Sickert in Dieppe. By Katy Norris. Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 2015. See in particular the chapter on “The Yellow Nineties: The Decadents in Dieppe”.