Decadent Women: ‘Yellow Book’ Lives 
by Jad Adams.
Reaktion, 388 pp., £20, October, 978 1 78914 789 6
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Thefirst issue of the British periodical the Yellow Book appeared in April 1894, and began by announcing the death of the author. Its lead item was a short story by Henry James in which a celebrated writer, Neil Paraday, is pursued by a crew of souvenir hunters and salon-frequenting harpies. ‘The Death of the Lion’ is narrated in the first person by Paraday’s nameless, self-appointed protector, a journalist sent to poke around in his domestic life. He fails to produce the ‘personal’ (‘that dreadful word!’) exposé he has been commissioned to write. Instead, he falls under his subject’s spell and composes a slim, appreciative work of literary criticism.

This does Paraday little good. He is doomed to annihilation in what James called ‘this age of advertisement and newspaperism, this age of interviewing’. The narrator watches Paraday endure the invasive attentions of a rich hostess, Mrs Weeks Wimbush; of Guy Walsingham, a female novelist posing as a man; and of Dora Forbes, ‘an indubitable male’ pretending to be a woman writer, ‘florid and bald’, with ‘a big red moustache’ and ‘showy knickerbockers’. (‘In the age we live in,’ the narrator reflects, ‘one gets lost among the genders and the pronouns.’) The dying Paraday’s last work is abandoned on a train by an aristocrat who, having bagged the manuscript, doesn’t even bother to read it.

‘The Death of the Lion’ is characterised by swipes at avaricious magazine editors, gender-fluid and novelty-hungry authors, and an aspirational literary set. James’s aversion to such people spilled over into his response to the society with which his story, once in print, was made to consort. Notwithstanding the immediate success of the Yellow Book, and of his story in its pages, James told his brother William: ‘I hate too much the horrid aspect and company of the whole publication’ (this didn’t stop him from contributing three more pieces to the magazine).

The Yellow Book was a short-lived venture, folding in 1897 after thirteen quarterly issues, but it was briefly the leading periodical of the time. As an expensively produced, handsomely bound assembly of fiction, art, essays, poetry and drama, it was, depending on your point of view, thrillingly or fatally tainted by its association with decadence. In choosing to introduce itself via James’s story, the inaugural issue gave the strong impression that its contents and contributors were being parodied (or ‘Paraday’-ed) in advance. Everything that ‘The Death of the Lion’ appeared to condemn seemed to be eagerly embraced and endorsed by James’s fellow contributors. Among the other pieces in the first number were Richard Le Gallienne’s torrid, gothic poem ‘Tree-Worship’ (‘With loving cheek pressed close against thy horny breast,/I hear the roar of sap’); Max Beerbohm’s ‘Defence of Cosmetics’ (‘Artifice must queen it once more in the town … If men are to lie among the rouge-pots, inevitably it will tend to promote that amalgamation of the sexes which is one of the chief planks in the decadent platform’); and ‘A Lost Masterpiece’, an essayistic work of fiction by George Egerton – the pen name of Mary Chavelita Dunne, winningly known to her friends as Chav – in which a writer’s sacred reveries are suddenly destroyed by a woman with big feet. All this was interspersed with arresting illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert.

The Yellow Book proved hospitable to the new kinds of female writing (and, to a lesser extent, illustrating) that flourished at the end of the 19th century. Much of its subject matter was directed at or concerned with women; especially, and often ironically, it addressed the proper definition of delicacy. A third of its contributors were female, and women provided a great deal of the editorial labour on which the journal relied. Its presiding genius, Henry Harland, was ‘a wild Bohemian and a rakish woman-fancier’ who enjoyed coaxing novice writers into submitting their work to him, particularly if those writers were good-looking and sold their work cheaply. At a time when there was no female equivalent of the gentleman’s club, Harland and his wife, Aline, offered a congenial literary space in which men and women could joke, flirt and briefly imagine themselves free to exchange their ideas on neutral ground.

Despite James’s hostility towards his peers, he too was eager for success and preoccupied with an expanding literary marketplace. What exercised him was the rise of personality, something which he felt female writers cultivated to ‘murderous effect’. ‘When you meet with a genius as fine as this idol of ours,’ the narrator pleads in ‘The Death of the Lion’, ‘let him off the dreary duty of being a personality as well. Know him only by what’s best in him and spare him for the same sweet sake.’

One of these genius-chasing women was Egerton, whom James seems to have intended as his target when he created the male-female figure of Guy Walsingham. The journalist Mr Morrow tells the narrator that what he is after in pursuing the ‘Lion’ of the title, Paraday, is ‘the keynote’. In echoing the name of Egerton’s 1893 collection of stories, Keynotes (published by John Lane, who went on to issue the Yellow Book), James was inviting readers to consider the nature of her psychologically penetrative fiction, and the related methods of the contemporary press. In some ways, Egerton does indeed behave like James’s most rapacious female assassins of male talent. ‘Now Spring Has Come’, her transparently veiled account of an affair with Knut Hamsun, explains her response to reading his work:

When the book was finished I was consumed with a desire to see and know the author. I never reasoned that the whole struggle might only be an extraordinarily clever intuitive analysis of a possible experience. I accepted it as real, and I wanted to help this man. I longed to tell him in his loneness that one human being, and that one a woman, had courage to help him.

The narrator’s indomitably naive way of responding to a text as purely autobiographical is never discounted or shown to be fallacious in Egerton’s story – though the way in which it is set up here makes it sound as if that will be the moral of the tale. What does turn out to be false is her conviction that she can help the male author with whom she so raptly identifies. This story, like James’s ‘The Death of the Lion’, records an increasing sense that ‘immediate exposure of everything’ is ‘just what the public wanted’ from fiction: a more or less covert form of self-expression simply waiting to be unmasked.

When Egerton’s narrator finally gets to meet the man whom she compares with ‘an American bison or a lion’, she doesn’t mention her earlier conviction that she can help him, nor does she try to find out what he is really like. Instead, she spends the whole time talking about herself, while he speaks only to express his admiration of her – and ‘I fancy he learned a good deal about me in a few hours.’ It’s easy to poke fun at such narcissism, but Egerton’s authorial boldness, innovation and pragmatism are remarkable. Her early stories bear the imprint of her travels: set in Sweden and Norway, they show the influence of a northern sensibility. Egerton was a pioneering translator of Scandinavian writing, having absorbed the work of Strindberg and Ibsen and their sense of the New Woman’s fatally compromised position. She experimented with male voices too. In ‘A Little Grey Glove’, perhaps the funniest and most touching of her works, the speaker is a rich man on the lookout for a wife, pursuing ‘the Eternal Feminine in a Spirit of purely scientific investigation … Nothing in petticoats escaped me.’ The more women he meets, the less he understands – ‘but I think they understood me.’ This is the second story in Keynotes to feature a skilled female fisherwoman who gets the better of a male character (her fishing hook lodges itself in his earlobe). It has what may even turn out to be a happy ending.

The overwhelming impression of Egerton’s stories, however, is that ‘there never was a marriage yet in which one was not a loser; and it is generally the more gifted half who has to pay the heavier toll.’ The women in Keynotes stamp and rage against their stupid, impotent or drunken husbands; they dream of escape or of lost suitors; but there is rarely a convincing prospect of sexual freedom or of life changing for the better. In the final story, the domineering husband, an Englishman who has roamed northwards, dies – and we’re told that his exhausted widow may wake ‘perchance, to a brighter dawn’. Egerton’s female characters are not writers, but they are sometimes readers of the same writers she read – Ibsen, Strindberg and Nietzsche – and they can hold their own in discussing them. This aspect of the stories anticipates Egerton’s subsequent role in the Yellow Book and the mixed salon associated with the journal, one that fostered collaborative publication by men and women working together at every stage of the creative and editorial process. It’s a shame that their collective efforts seem for the most part to have ended unhappily, with many women reduced to begging or angrily striving to defend their own work to an indifferent or hostile audience.

It might seem odd that we have decadence to thank for an early manifestation of the cult of impersonality: a repudiation of the instinct to trace any work of writing, music, sculpture or painting back to the private life of its maker. It is also entirely characteristic of the mixed-up sympathies of this period that it should have personalised or even professionalised such a cult in the figure of the ‘impersonalist’, a character identified as ‘new’ in one periodical in 1885 (and ‘recently applied to a particular method in art’), whose attitude is opposed to that of the ‘realist’, ‘idealist’ and ‘naturalist’. But it may well be that the dominant late 19th-century tendency to emphasise personality – the pervasive hunger for raking up the individual, autobiographical origins of art – would be just the thing to provoke a counter-movement, decades before modernism laid claim to its own version of impersonality.

Jad Adams’s Decadent Women is a densely and perhaps excessively populated compendium of the female writers associated with the Yellow Book, alternating the stories of their lives with a more or less chronological account of the journal in which they appeared. It charts a period in which ‘educated girls of any character’, in the words of Netta Syrett, who was one of them, ‘were asserting their right to independence if they could prove themselves capable of earning their own living. Or for that matter, even if they couldn’t or didn’t.’ The result of such assertions often proved, as Ménie Muriel Dowie, another Yellow Book contributor, put it, ‘rather a grotesque little mess of trying to rearrange life’.

Many other male and female voices of the 1890s claimed to represent and understand women, explaining them to themselves. Men might do so while impersonating women, or women under the guise of being men. James’s Mr Morrow would have us believe that the male ‘bid for success under a lady’s name’ amounted, by the mid-1890s, to a ‘movement’. It is true that the third number of the Yellow Book began with a piece of writing headed ‘By a Woman’ concerning the live topic ‘Women – Wives or Mothers?’ whose author was in fact a man, the 64-year-old journalist and former editor of Queen magazine, Frederick Greenwood. He used his assumed persona to argue, with a strange mixture of archness and urgency, that all women were ‘predestined’ to be either wives or mothers, and that the female population was growing too rapidly and constituted a social problem, perhaps even a crisis. Men could adopt women’s voices to cash in on a market for new definitions of female identity as well as to tell women that they had gone too far.

In the end, what emerges as the crucial differentiating factor between Adams’s authors isn’t gender but money. The consequences of (say) Charlotte Mew’s poems being left unpublished or unremunerated (since publication was not always accompanied by payment, even when it had been promised) were potentially catastrophic – as can’t be said of the compositions of Bosie Douglas or his wife, Olive Custance, or not before they had both burned through their vast inheritances. (Mew’s inclusion in this study is puzzling, not least because she wasn’t really a Yellow Book writer. Adams’s somewhat coy explanation is that she ‘refused to stay out’.) There were authors for whom writing was an amusement and authors for whom it was – or would, they hoped, become – a profession that might just about confer a measure of precarious independence.

The productivity rates of some of the hardest-pressed authors in this book are astonishing. Egerton wrote the six stories that comprise Keynotes in ten days. Syrett wrote every morning and completed a novel a year, 38 in total, which even she thought ‘too much’ – but ‘circumstances have forced me to write.’ On top of all this she produced twenty children’s books, as well as drama and journalism, helped to found a club for female writers and was among the earliest members of the international authors’ society PEN. She was also a schoolteacher – until she was sacked for writing a play about a woman who has an affair – and supported numerous friends and relatives with the slender profits from her work. During the final decade of her writing life she produced fifteen books. When, in her late seventies, she was respectfully addressed as ‘Miss Syrett’, she retorted in the true style of an unrepentant New Woman: ‘Yes, I am “Miss”, but I am not a virgin.’

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