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Reference group
Contributors to the Yellow Book (act. 1894–1897) were the publisher, editors, writers, and artists responsible for the Yellow Book (1894–7), a literary and artistic quarterly that achieved—both at the time and subsequently—a reputation as a defining publication of the fin de siècle in Britain. Although the Yellow Book's reputation for daring, decadence, and self-conscious modernity is undeniable, its popular identification as a wholly or primarily scandalous publication is more open to question.

The Yellow Book's editor and presiding spirit was the American-born writer Henry Harland, who had moved to London from Paris in 1889. He was joined and supported, as art editor, by the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whom Harland had met while both men were being treated for respiratory illness by the London physician Edmund Symes-Thompson. The Yellow Book had its origins in discussions held during the summer of 1893, when Harland, together with his wife, Aline (1860–1939), spent a holiday at St Marguerite-sur-Mer, on the Normandy coast, with the painters Dugald MacColl, Charles Conder, and Alfred Thornton (the latter two becoming contributors to the periodical), as well as Beardsley, Beardsley's mother and sister, and others. According to Harland the decision to go ahead with the periodical was taken with Beardsley on 1 January 1894 during discussions after lunch at Harland's flat at 144 Cromwell Road, London. On the following day they approached John Lane, co-founder of the London publishing house the Bodley Head. Lane agreed to publish the new work and its first contributor—the author Henry James, of whom Harland was a great admirer—was commissioned later that day.

The founding principles of the Yellow Book were that literature and art should be treated independently and given equal status, that mere topicality should be avoided, and that serialization should be eschewed in favour of independent literary works: short stories, critical essays, poems, and ‘prose fancies’. Although the 22-year-old Beardsley envisaged the Yellow Book as a vehicle for self-consciously modern work that might be ‘a little risqué’, Harland and Lane had rather different personal agenda. Harland was eager to use his influence to establish relations with his own literary heroes—notably James, Edmund Gosse, and Richard Garnett—as well as to encourage young talent. Lane meanwhile saw an opportunity both to promote authors already on the Bodley Head list (including Richard Le Gallienne and George Egerton [see Dunne, Mary Chavelita]) and to woo others (such as Hubert Crackanthorpe, George Moore, and Pearl Craigie) away from rival publishing houses. Ties of friendship and personal connection drew in other contributors to the periodical. The writer Netta Syrett, for example, was a friend of Beardsley's sister Mabel, while the Cambridge contemporaries Stanley Makower (1872–1911) and Oswald Sickert (1871–1923) came to Beardsley's attention through Oswald's elder brother, the artist Walter Sickert.

In March 1894 Harland and Beardsley issued a prospectus to promote their imminent publication. With characteristic hyperbole, the prospectus claimed ‘it is expected that THE YELLOW BOOK will prove the most interesting, unusual and important publication of its kind that has ever been undertaken’ and would ‘depart as far as may be from the bad old traditions of periodical literature’. One aspect of this innovation was its editors' attitude to their contributors who ‘will employ a freer hand than the limitations of the old-fashioned periodical can permit’, with Harland and Beardsley at liberty ‘to publish any and all of ourselves that nobody else can be hired to print’. The prospectus also included a list of forty-four authors and illustrators who were promised as contributors; while the work of many did feature, that of several others, including Walter Pater and Ernest Rhys, did not. (A full list of contributors between 1894 and 1897 is provided in Lasner, 17–62.) Finally, the Yellow Book's editors and publisher asserted their intention ‘to provide an Illustrated Magazine which shall be beautiful as a piece of bookmaking, modern and distinguished in its letter-press and its pictures, and withal popular in the better sense of the word’ (‘Prospectus’, quoted in Mix, 77–8) . The Yellow Book was indeed a handsome production. Cloth-bound and numbering 250 octavo pages, each issue was priced at five shillings, at a time when many novels cost 3s. 6d. and most illustrated weeklies could be had for sixpence. Thirteen volumes of the periodical were published between April 1894 and April 1897, with new issues each January, April, July, and October.

Equally, certain aspects of the periodical, not least its appearance, were calculated to shock and surprise. Its distinctive design—yellow and bookish—was intended to resemble, in Beardsley's phrase, ‘the ordinary French novel’, at a time when many thought that there was nothing ‘ordinary’ about French novels. The uncompromising realism, the grim naturalism, and the self-conscious decadence of much modern French fiction had made it a byword for licence and daring. Controversy also surrounded Aubrey Beardsley's involvement with the Yellow Book. His arresting illustrations for the English translation of Oscar Wilde's notorious play Salome, published by the Bodley Head in February 1894, had quickly gained him a reputation as the English standard-bearer of ‘decadent’ art. As a result, his numerous and distinctive contributions for the new venture (he designed the cover for the prospectus, as well as for the first four issues) gave the Yellow Book what was considered to be a distinctly decadent appearance. This was supported by several early literary contributions, notably from Arthur Symons, Max Beerbohm, and Theodore Wratislaw. The first issue, which appeared on 15 April 1894, included ‘Stella maris’, Symons's poem about a London street-walker, and the young Beerbohm's facetiously paradoxical essay ‘A defence of cosmetics’. It was these pieces, in conjunction with Beardsley's cover and four other illustrations for the first issue, that provoked much of the outrage that greeted the Yellow Book's arrival, notwithstanding other contributions from ‘respectable’ authors and scholars, such as Garnett and George Saintsbury, and the artists Robert Anning Bell and Frederic Leighton, Baron Leighton (then president of the Royal Academy of Arts). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the critical reaction—while disturbing some of its more staid authors, Henry James among them—did little to damage the periodical's commercial prospects. Indeed the first issue ran through four printings, an achievement never subsequently repeated. On the evening of 15 April 1894 the periodical's editors and publisher marked the Yellow Book's arrival with a dinner at the Hotel d'Italia, Old Compton Street, London, attended by contributors to the first issue, among them Arthur Waugh and John Davidson (though others such as James, Gosse, and Crackanthorpe were not present) and by some of the periodical's future authors and artists, among them Lionel Johnson and Philip Wilson Steer.

In spring 1895 the Yellow Book's popular association with the decadent strain in 1890s culture plunged the periodical into crisis following the arrest and trials of Oscar Wilde. Although, as a matter of deliberate policy, Wilde had never been invited to contribute to the Yellow Book (lest his outsized artistic personality should come to dominate the whole), many assumed that he was a regular contributor on account of his links with Beardsley and the Bodley Head, as well as the periodical's general reputation. Indeed, the quarterly was even referred to as ‘the Oscar Wilde of periodicals’. The situation was exacerbated when the press reported that Wilde had been carrying a yellow-bound book when he was arrested and escorted from the Cadogan Hotel, Knightsbridge, on 5 April. Although this was in fact merely a French novel (Aphrodite by Pierre Louÿs) many supposed it to be an issue of the Yellow Book and a crowd gathered to throw stones at the Bodley Head office on Vigo Street.

At the point of crisis John Lane was away in America. On 8 May a group of Bodley Head authors, led by the poets Alice Meynell and William Watson (the latter also a Yellow Book contributor), petitioned him to remove Beardsley from his post at the periodical. Lane complied. Beardsley's cover design and illustrations were withdrawn from the fifth number even as it was going through the press. Lane himself took on the role of art editor. Beardsley, together with Arthur Symons, subsequently established a rival periodical, The Savoy (1896–7), with the support of the maverick publisher Leonard Smithers. They encouraged the view that Harland's periodical declined sharply in quality with their departure. It became an oft-repeated mot that the Yellow Book had turned grey overnight. In fact the periodical outlasted The Savoy, continuing for nine more issues, not without distinction.

Harland's gifts as an editor—his generosity, his infectious enthusiasm, his attention to detail—were attested by many. He worked from a tiny study at the back of his Cromwell Road flat, aided by his wife and several young editorial assistants: Ella D'Arcy [see D'Arcy, Constance Eleanor Mary Byrne], Ethel Colburn Mayne, and Edmund Trelawny Backhouse (1873–1944), a friend of Beerbohm's from Oxford. Harland fostered a sense of literary community among the contributors with regular Saturday evening ‘at homes’. Though many of the Yellow Book's contributors have sunk into well-merited obscurity, Harland, supported by Lane, did encourage a fair amount of original talent. This is less noticeable in the poetry and non-fiction contributions where, despite the presence of a few significant voices (Symons, Davidson, and Charlotte Mew, among the poets; Beerbohm among the essayists) there were rather too many minor talents. Some, like the poets William Watson, Stephen Phillips, Arthur Benson, Olive Custance [see under Douglas, Lord Alfred Bruce], Austin Dobson, and Norman Gale, were more or less celebrated in their day but have since fallen off the literary map; other poets have only their fleeting appearance in the Yellow Book to mark them out at all.

It is as a showcase for prose fiction that the Yellow Book stands up best. Between 1894 and 1897 Harland published early works by Arnold Bennett, John Buchan, Baron Corvo [see Rolfe, Frederick], George Gissing, and H. G. Wells, and was delighted at the success of another regular contributor, Kenneth Grahame. Women writers also found a ready welcome in the Yellow Book: in addition to those already mentioned, these included Ada Leverson, Evelyn Sharp, Edith Nesbit, Ella Hepworth Dixon, Vernon Lee [see Paget, Violet], Ménie Muriel Dowie, Nora Hopper, Graham R. Tomson [see Watson, Rosamund Marriott], and Victoria Cross [see Cory, Annie Sophie]. Both their involvement and their contributions did much to promote the claims of the so-called new woman, a contemporary social type perceived as being financially independent, socially emancipated, and sexually engaged.

The influence of French realism and naturalism was very apparent in many of the periodical's stories. According to one critical estimate the Yellow Book
not merely encouraged but developed a new kind of short story—psychologically ambiguous, ironic, wry, heedless of conventional plot structure, and likely to focus self-consciously upon authors as characters or upon the process of storytelling itself for its subject. (Lasner and Stetz, 42)
Humour is in rather short supply, despite the contributions of Ada Leverson, Max Beerbohm, and Beerbohm's friend Reggie Turner. It lurks, though, behind some of Harland's self-referential editorial ploys. For example, he commissioned the critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton to review the first issue in the second, and in later numbers Harland himself wrote mischievous criticisms of the periodical under the pseudonym the Yellow Dwarf. Harland was also the periodical's most frequent contributor, publishing at least one piece in each of its thirteen issues.

There were several reasons for the Yellow Book's demise in April 1897. Originally conceived as new and different, the periodical inevitably lost some of its novelty over time. Moreover, its literary editor Henry Harland grew increasingly irritated at the extent to which John Lane used the periodical as a mere vehicle for the Bodley Head. Harland's health, too, was in decline (he died in 1905), while, for his part, Lane became aware that the Yellow Book had ‘ceased to pay dividends’.

Other Yellow Book contributors included: Laurence Alma-Tadema; Maurice Baring; Ellen Clerke; Ernest Dowson; Eva Gore-Booth; Frederick Greenwood; Katharine de Mattos; Henry Woodd Nevinson; Edgar Prestage; Walter Raleigh; Charles Roberts; John Mackinnon Robertson; Thomas Baron Russell; Frederick Simpson; Frank Swettenham; Henry Duff Traill; and William Butler Yeats.

Matthew Sturgis


H. Harland, ed., The Yellow Book, 1–13 (1894–7) · K. L. Mix, A study in yellow: the Yellow Book and its contributors (1960) · M. S. Lasner and M. D. Stetz, The Yellow Book: a centenary exhibition (1994) [exhibition catalogue, Harvard U., Houghton L., Cambridge, Massachusetts] · S. J. Hills, The Yellow Book, 1894–1897: notes for an exhibition at Cambridge University Library (1994) · M. S. Lasner, The Yellow Book: a checklist and index (1998) · J. G. Nelson, The early nineties: a view from the Bodley Head (1971) · K. Beckson, Henry Harland: his life and work (1978) · M. Sturgis, Passionate attitudes: the English decadence of the eighteen nineties (1995) · E. C. Mayne, ‘Reminiscences of Henry Harland’, Bound for the 1890s, ed. J. Allison (2006) · The letters of Aubrey Beardsley, ed. H. Maas, J. L. Duncan, and W. G. Good (1970) · G. Glastonbury [A. Harland], ‘The life and writings of Henry Harland’, Irish Monthly (April 1911) · Kitcat, ‘Henry Harland in London’, The Bookman (Aug 1909)