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Swimming Deep in the Yellow Book with an introduction by Oscar Wilde
Greetings from the other side of the sometimes mystical and always tricky line between life and death. I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but when Mr. Kline approached me about his project, I saw it as an opportunity to not only dust off my talents, but also use the new IBM Selectric automatic typewriter . I’ve heard so much about it. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and time constraints forced me to my tried and true writing methods. Although my feet may never return to treading the streets of London again, it is refreshingly good to put my pen back on the page.
As I said before, “an artist is a creator of beautiful things.” I should have added: “The researcher treads on those beautiful things in the ugly boots of hindsight worn on the feet of buffoons.” This paper is nothing more than a few baseless conjectures, strung together in a dry and nonsensical style. To claim that I was involved in the writing of the “Yellow Book” is completely absurd. I have taken great pains to distance myself from that publication and you will note that none of the work is my creation. Yes, I certainly had a working relationship with Aubrey Beardsley. I invented Aubrey Beardsley! But didn’t Christ himself have a working relationship with harlots and thieves? Alas, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. Beardsley’s drawings and Kline’s writing mar my words like the mischievous scribbles a precocious boy makes in the margins of his notebooks.
Therefore, please do not judge me by this work, but judge the writer by it. The lowest form of criticism is, after all, autobiography. If you’re really taken with Kline’s clumsy attempts to attack my character, then maybe that’s a reflection on you, the reader, and your own personal insecurities.
While I wish I had time to respond to each false claim and misrepresentation individually, I have been told that this must be sent to the publisher before the full moon passes. So, mind you, I may have actually just skimmed through the entire piece, failing to engage in a single paragraph…and so I suggest you do the same.
— Oscar Wilde
Sometimes the best way to understand a writer is to write a page in their shoes. We can face the same obstacles, the same characters and the same passion for art and writing. Writing about literature is never easy; however, when I think about the best ways to research a writer, the most obvious is to read their works. Due to shipping delays and backorders, the first words I read about Wilde were not his writings, but his biographies. The more information I found, the more I thought that Wilde’s life might be even more interesting than his literature. However, it was literature that made his life so interesting.
There in the passage inside Dorian Gray which represents a significant object, “a book bound in yellow paper, the covers slightly torn and the edges soiled” (Wilde 95). At the very first mention, the book piqued my curiosity. As my reading progressed, this piece of literature became the root of the change in Dorian’s character. I wondered what significance the book had, not only for Dorian, but for Wilde as well. Did Wilde have his own “yellow book”? Is the book yellowing with age or does this color have a deeper symbolism? I had no idea the depth of information I would find researching an untitled, scrappy book.
The beginnings of my research led to interesting discoveries. Among them, a periodical published quarterly in London at the end of the 19th century, The Yellow Book. First, let me explain the periodical itself. Although its existence was short-lived, it helped to initiate “a shift in British society away from homogenized male elitism” (Fraser 187). A less favorable description offers Westminster Gazette, who argued that it would only take “a short Act of Parliament to make such a thing illegal” (qtd. in Bobst 2). The first volume was published in 1894, so I knew it surely couldn’t be the same book that Wilde had mentioned three years earlier. But wait! Wilde may have been involved. The art editor was Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley illustrated the Wildes Salome. Beardsley once even offered to translate Salome, after Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas’s translation failed to win Wilde’s approval (Amphagorey 1). On Valentine’s Day, 1895, Beardsley attended the premiere of Wilde’s play, The importance of being serious. Stranger still, when Wilde was arrested later that year, publication The Yellow Book stopped abruptly. After Wilde’s release from prison more than two years later, both men lived in the same town in the south of France (McGrath 1), where Beardsley lived until his early death at age 25, writing for another controversial publication, Savoy (Amphagorea 1).
So although there is no simple relationship between the two yellow books, the yellow book is mentioned Dorian related to yellow periodicals? I had to find out more about his background. Why the title The Yellow Book? Beardsley himself is said to have come up with the title (Bobst 1). Several books were published in France in the mid-19th century with bright yellow covers, including the most famous, A Rebours, written by JK Huysmans and first published in 1884. Its title, literally “Against the Grain”, gives only a subtle hint of its risky content. Excerpt from the English translation by Three Sirens Press:
“This room, in which mirrors hung on every wall, reflecting back and forth from one to the other an endless series of pink boudoirs, enjoyed a great reputation among his various mistresses, who loved to bathe their nakedness in this flood of warm crimson amidst aromatic scents which emits the oriental wood of the furniture” (Hyusmans 1).
Could it be the book mentioned in Wilde’s writing? Can this ‘verbal pornography’ really send someone to such depths of personal despair? I think it’s more likely that both The Yellow Book and A Rebours are descendants of the mythical, or even symbolic, yellow book.
Beardsley once said that Wilde’s writings were excluded from publication “in the interests of propriety” (qtd. in McGrath 1). This is the point in my research where I felt things didn’t make sense. The Yellow Book was extremely progressive, and the writings they contained expressed views shared by many 19th-century British authors, including Wilde. It wasn’t so much famous as notorious. In fact, the magazine’s success was largely due to its controversial content. Why not encourage Wilde to contribute? My research led me to initially wonder if Wilde was directly involved in publishing and perhaps even financing the project, and his alleged ‘exclusion’ from the publication was actually just a publicity stunt executed so well as to be historical fact. Editor of The Yellow Book was Henry Harland, an American expatriate who previously published under the pseudonym Sidney Luska. Harland had very little financial success (Soylent 1) and Beardsley came from a family with little wealth and even less income (Amphagorey 1). Could it be that Wilde did not want his own fame to overshadow the work of these men?
Further research of the magazine reveals that publisher no The Yellow Book it was John Lane, who dismissed Beardsley after only four issues (Elliot 33). While Lane was most concerned to avoid further controversy, the publication’s success quickly declined with Beardsley’s departure, and The Yellow BookHis circulation declined as quickly as it peaked. Maybe it was just a fluke posted by an unwitting publisher. If this is true, then John Lane should have been the one to ban Wilde’s contributions. But then why did Beardsley go on the record against Wilde? Did the two have bad blood? Or was this all a charade for the public, who loved to follow every detail in the lives of their new celebrities? Beardsley actually drew several unfavorable caricatures of Wilde, attacking his skills in French and his knowledge of the Bible (Bobst 1). Many of my sources seem to disagree on this point…some suggesting that Wilde was associated with The Yellow Book‘s publishing team, and others, including Mary Beth McGrath, saying that he was on such bad terms with Beardsley that the two never spoke to each other(1).
I was hoping to find a definitive answer through my research. Perhaps the yellow book in Greek or Roman mythology, or something that ties the book directly to Satan. Instead, I found a wealth of information about Oscar Wilde and those he associated with in the last ten years of his life. I mean, surprisingly, what I discovered was much more interesting than any definitive answer about the old book. Maybe a reader Dorian Gray it is best to leave it to guesswork, to wonder about the tattered book with the yellow cover and imagine what content could be so sinister as to destroy a man’s life. A reader’s imagination could put far more disgusting things into a tattered book than the pen of any writer. I suppose that was Wilde’s real intention, to allow the book to be a reflection of the reader as much as the writer. After all, it’s not just about Dorian’s book, but about the book I’ve been waiting so long to get. After all this, I return to the preface, where “[T]here there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” (Wilde). It is the readers who define the morality of the literature therein.
Amphagorey, Rachel. “Aubrey Beardsley” November 12, 1998
Bobst Library. “Part 6, The Art Studio.” Reading Wilde, Interrogative Spaces. New York University Library. March 22, 2006
Elliot, Bridget. “New and Not-So-‘New Women’ on the London Stage: Aubrey Beardsley’s Yellow Book Pictures of Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Rejana.” Victorian Studies (Fall 1987): 33. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost. UWWC Library, West BendWisconsin. March 21, 2006
Fraser, Hilary, Stephanie Green, and Judith Johnston. Gender and the Victorian Periodical (Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Huysmans, JK A Rebours. New York: Three Sirens Press, 1951. Ibiblio. June 26, 2003
McGrath, Mary Beth. Beardsley’s relationship with Oscar Wilde. in 1991
Soylent Communications. “Henry Harland.” NNDB. in 2005
Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Fifth Edition). Harper Collins. August 2003
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