By Jad Adams

Reaktion Books. 388 pages. £20. ISBN 978-1-78914789-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The Yellow Book has a special place in the history of nineteenth century British literature, and in any chronological survey of literary magazines. From a literary point of view it represented a change in the direction that writing was taking as the century drew to a close and new ideas and influences began to alter the shape and substance of novels, short stories, and poems. These changes were not always welcome and blistering attacks came from conservative quarters. Decadence, a word that can suggest various things, from personal waywardness to national weaknesses and failings, was soon often a term applied to whatever the speaker found objectionable. This might cover foreign influences and the increasing independence of women. Jad Adams quotes the critic Hugh Stutfield: “Decadence is an exotic growth unsuited to British soil, and it may be hoped that it will never take permanent root here. Still, the popularity of debased and morbid literature, especially among women, is not an agreeable or healthy feature”. 

It should be noted that I referred to The Yellow Book as a literary magazine. It can hardly be called a little magazine of the kind that became familiar in the twentieth century, when they came in all sorts of shapes and sizes and frequently disappeared as quickly as they appeared. The Yellow Book really was a book. I’m looking at a somewhat battered copy dated April 1895 that I found on a stall outside a second-hand bookshop around sixty years ago. It has hard covers and runs to over three hundred pages. And it was published by John Lane at the Bodley Head. An additional fact that might give an indication of who the readers were likely to be is that it cost five shillings per issue. That was quite a tidy sum at a time when a weekly wage of thirty shillings or so would have been considered acceptable.

The Yellow Book did have a relatively short life – thirteen volumes between April 1894 and April 1897 – and the reasons for its demise were inevitably financial. It was not a publication destined to achieve the kind of sales that would make a profit. There was also the effect of the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde’s arrest in 1895. Newspaper reports said that he was carrying a “Yellow Book” with the implication that it was a copy of The Yellow Book”. It was, in fact a French novel, Aphrodite by Pierre Louys, which was bound in yellow covers, but the damage had been done. Opponents of what they claimed The Yellow Book stood for - decadence -  very quickly worked up outrage and indignation against it and some of its contributors. Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations were  particularly picked on for their alleged salaciousness. Even some contributors to The Yellow Book thought it necessary to disassociate themselves from any links to Beardsley. William Watson said “Withdraw all Beardsley designs or I withdraw my books”, meaning those published by the Bodley Head. And Mrs Humphrey Ward, a popular Victorian novelist, also spoke against Beardsley. John Lane later claimed that “The Wilde scandal “killed The Yellow Book and it nearly killed me”, but that was an exaggeration. It survived for nine more issues.

The reference to Mrs Humphrey Ward brings me to what Adams is concerned to deal with – the role of women as contributors to The Yellow Book, and in some cases in its editing. He makes the point that “Women made little or no appearance in such accounts of the period as Men of the Nineties or The Beardsley Period, yet the most cursory examination of contemporary material shows that women were everywhere writing novels, short stories and poems, selling and being reviewed at the same level as the men”. And he adds that “A third of the writers of the Yellow Book…….were women”. It occurs to me to point to a couple of anthologies of Yellow Book writing to see how women were represented. The Yellow Book: A Selection, edited by Norman Denny (Spring Books, London. n.d.) has six women out of thirty contributors, and The Yellow Book, edited by Fraser Harrison (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1982) has three out of fifteen. I may have missed one or two where a woman published under a male name. Times may have been slowly changing, with the ”New Woman” asserting herself, but there were still some who disguised their identity. I also checked Poetry of the Nineties edited by R.K.R.Thornton (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1970) where there are five women (I’ve counted “Michael Field” as two) out of thirty-three contributors.

George Egerton - Mary Chavelita (Dunne) Bright -  was one woman who chose to use a male name. She was born in Australia in 1855, lived in Ireland and Germany, and was in New York for a time. She also visited Chile and worked in London as a nurse. But, “After decades of struggle in different countries and at different jobs, still earning nothing but the bare minimum to keep alive, Chavelita realised she must take her chances where she could”. She ran away with a bigamist called Henry Higginson. They went to Norway where Higginson died and Egerton had an affair with Knut Hamsun, whose novel, Hunger, she translated into English. She also became familiar with the work of Ibsen and Strindberg. When she returned to London she began to write in order to earn some money. And she did so as George Egerton, the name being partly concocted from that of Clairmont Egerton, “one of those feckless wastrels to whom she was so attracted”.  

It was as George Egerton that John Lane published Keynotes, a collection of short pieces that Adams rates highly. He refers to the critic Camilla Prince’s description of it as “literary impressionism”, and says Egerton was influenced by Hamsun: “She developed an internalised style similar to his, with similar disregard for narrative conventions.”. Her work had “distinctively  modern characteristics : subjective impressions, fragmented structures, plotlessness, capturing an impression of a floating time or  place, engaging dreams or reveries, focusing on minute details, employing a fragmented chronology and showing an interest in psychology”. Egerton’s work also raised “uncomfortable questions about sexual attraction…….why a refined, physically fragile woman will mate with a brute, a mere male animal with primitive passions”. It’s easy to see why the combination of stylistic innovations and down-to-earth subject-matter disturbed readers more used to the polite meanderings of much nineteenth century literature. Another Egerton collection of stories, Discords, “dealt with alcoholism, violence and suicide” and was “criticized from the usual quarters for portrayals of female drunkenness and frank depictions of sexuality”.

One of the advantages of Decadent Women is that Adams divides his book into two sections, the first dealing with the writers’ activities before and during their Yellow Book period, and the second looking at what happened to them in later years. It wasn’t all wine and roses. Egerton went to Norway in 1899 for what Adams refers to as “her next adventure” which was with a Norwegian student “fifteen years her junior”. He was “depressive, frequently threatened suicide, and was under the control of his parents who had plans for him”. When this relationship didn’t work out she returned to England and struck up another, again with someone fifteen years younger, Reginald Goulding Bright.  They married in 1901. Bright was “a journalist, a drama critic who was working towards becoming a theatrical agent”. Egerton tried her hand at writing plays but without any great success. Her later years saw her mostly forgotten as a writer, and Adams says that when her husband died in 1941, she was in financial difficulties, and “sold many of her books and most of her furniture. She went to live in boarding houses but was not popular” with other residents. She died in 1945. I’ve only sketched in some basic details and have omitted a great deal of information that Adams supplies.

Ella D‘Arcy was another writer who had a bright beginning but died in obscurity in 1937. Adams says that she “studied at the Slade School of Art for two years, making her one of a number of Yellow Book writers who also pursued a career as an artist, but poor eyesight made her abandon this career”.   She’s probably mostly read these days for a handful of short-stories. One of them, “Irremediable”, concerns a bank clerk who encounters a working-class girl from Whitechapel, a notorious slum area in the 1890s. An earlier unhappy relationship with a more-sophisticated woman has inclined him to link “ideas of feminine refinement with those of feminine treachery”, and he initially warms to the seemingly-more sincere and down-to-earth attentions of the girl. They marry “on his £130 a year. The story then finds him with a slatternly wife in a house ‘repulsive with disorder’ ”.  She evinces “all the self-satisfaction of an illiterate mind”, while he “pines for his bachelorhood of books and solitude”. It’s a story about class, and D’Arcy nowhere shows any sympathy with the wife. Adams says she “presents a sour view of women that is rather more complex than that proposed by the feminists such as Mona Caird, who were battling against male domination in marriage”.

D’Arcy worked as an editorial assistant at The Yellow Book for a time, but fell out with its editor, Henry Harland. She wrote a novel based on the life of Shelley but it remained unpublished. She really didn’t have much of a literary life after The Yellow Book folded, and Adams says: “At the end of the century she left London’s hissing gas lamps and fog for a new lease of life in the French capital”. There may have been other reasons for her failure to develop her writing and establish a reputation and career in the literary world. Netta Syrett, a fellow-contributor to The Yellow Book, claimed that D’Arcy didn’t prosper because of her “incurable idleness”.  There isn’t a great deal of information about her life in Paris, though she did associate with Gertrude and Leo Stein, and she worked on an unpublished biography of Rimbaud. She returned to London in 1937 after suffering a stroke. Because  of her impoverished financial state she was taken to the infirmary of St Pancras Workhouse, where she died  in September 1937.

The lure of Paris, and the attractions of French literature, come to the fore in a chapter entitled “A Paris Mystery” which deals with the strange death of Hubert Crackanthorpe, a key contributor to The Yellow Book. I have to admit to a particular interest in Crackanthorpe, having long-admired his short stories. He had married a minor and now-forgotten poet called Leila MacDonald, who had also published in the magazine. They’re side-by-side in the old copy that I have. Both were from well-to-do families. As Adams puts it: “The Crackanthorpes were the golden couple that everyone wanted to be: they were both good-looking, wealthy, upper-class, well-connected, well-travelled and talented”.  It might have seemed that nothing could go wrong.

However, in 1896 Crackanthorpe mysteriously disappeared while out for a walk in Paris. His body was recovered from the Seine some weeks later. There were rumours regarding promiscuity by both parties and suggestions that syphilis had been passed on by one or other of them and another couple with whom they were involved in some sort of sexual arrangement. Adams tells the complete story, and I’m only summarising, but suffice to say that it created something of a scandal in its day. It convinced those who disliked the decadents that their habits, and their love of Paris and French literature, could only lead to moral breakdown and its consequences. Leila MacDonald published one book, The Wanderer and Other Poems, in 1904 but otherwise appears to have completely disappeared from the literary world. She died in Paris in December, 1944.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of the range of women Adams covers in his survey of their links to The Yellow Book and their later lives. I could have looked at others whose activities pointed to their activities and involvements, and their problems getting published and acknowledged in a society still dominated by men. There was Gabriella Cunningham-Graham : “a friend of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, William Morris and Keir Hardie. She was known for speaking on international platforms for radical causes, giving lectures on socialism and mysticism, writing a major biography of St Teresa and contributing to the Yellow Book”. She claimed to have been born in Chile to a French father and a Spanish mother, and to have spent time in a convent school in Paris when she was orphaned. She was, in fact, Carrie Horsfall, a doctor’s daughter from Yorkshire, who had run away from home at sixteen to become an actress in London. Adams suggests that, before marrying the socialist politician Robert Cunningham-Graham, she may have had a relationship with an older man who took her to Chile, hence her familiarity with the country and her command of Spanish.            

Decadent Women is a valuable book from the point of view of bringing to light numerous facts about the lives of a selection of neglected writers. And in some cases hopefully arousing interest in what they wrote. Jad Adams has clearly done a lot of research to come up with some of the information he provides. There are almost forty pages of notes, a short but useful bibliography, a number of appropriate illustrations, and a list of all the women who were published in The Yellow Book. In some ways Decadent Women is almost a partial history of the journal, and as such it will find a place on my bookshelves alongside Katherine Lyon Mix’s A Study in Yellow : The Yellow Book and its Contributors (Constable, London, 1960). Both are essential for anyone who considers their subject-matter of interest.