Decadent Women

Yellow Book Lives by Jad Adams

(Reaktion Books) 2023 ISBN 9781789147896



Three myths need to be abolished about the Yellow Book.  Oscar Wilde was published in Yellow Book– he wasn’t and he kept it at a distance; Aubrey Beardsley designed every cover – only the first four issues of Yellow Book and then for vol 5 he was dismissed; and very few women were published in Yellow Book.  The last statement is the most annoying as over a third of the writers were women.

Jad Adam’s book is the first to document the female contribution to a journal that began to be associated with the blanket term decadence.  Yellow Book was quickly castigated as unacceptable, being wrongly linked with the scandal round the trials of Oscar Wilde, and then rapidly dropped in fashionable society.  Yet from 1894 to 1897 it was London’s most chic publication that new writers clamoured to be in.

In the ‘fin de siècle’ period (19th to early 20th century) Jad Adams examines eleven female contributors to the Yellow Book.  Only two names Charlotte Mew (a poet praised by Thomas Hardy and others) and Olive Custance (her married name was Lady Alfred Douglas, who was Bosie the lover of Oscar Wilde) were known to me.  As well as writers there were also women illustrators and female staff working on the magazine.  Often in Decadent Women it’s the stress and power struggles between the women v men and other females that prove to be as involving as the poetry or stories.  Yet all these dramas and intrigues are superseded by the story of the writers after the Yellow Book ceased publication.

Adams calls that period ‘Commence de Siècle’ covering the fate of them all well into the 20th century.  On the whole this is depressing news given women’s continual obstacles to being published or properly appreciated.  Take Netta Syrett’s first celebrity success with her 1901 play A Modern Love Story, with its resonant anger, concerning the monotony of a young person’s life then, is illuminating.  She received very few productions of her subsequent plays.  Where they any good or just too critical of social mores?

Quite a few writers died very young.  And the ones that reached a good old age ended up forgotten writers in nursing homes.  One great exception is the suffragette and author Evelyn Sharp.  Dawson describes her book Rebel Women as “perhaps the best representation of the life of suffragette foot soldiers.” She had stories in six volumes of the Yellow Book and outlived all the other Yellow Book women.

Gabriela Cunninghame Graham, Olive Custance, Ella D’arcy, Mabel Dearmer, Menie Muriel Dowie, George Egerton, Leila Macdonald.  Ethel Colburn Mayne, Charlotte Mew, Evelyn Sharp and Netta Syrett: that’s the roll call of the Yellow Book women and Dawson has admirably researched their lives.  But he leaves their actual achievement not fully explored in Decadent Women.  I could have done with more examples of their writings: though that would have meant a much longer book or a separate volume being a Yellow Book anthology.

Still what we do have is a fascinating subject for further research.  And further reading as I suspect that a great deal of the novels, poetry, plays and essays of these women is now in the public domain and available to read on the internet.  Which makes me ask the question why the author couldn’t have included a few online links on his select bibliography page? For example George Egerton wrote a novel called The Wheel of God that’s described by Adams as “among the earliest examples of novels in which a woman character interacts with the world not necessarily in relation to men.”

Perhaps that novel’s on the Gutenberg website and to be read as an important achievement arriving out of, or just before, Egerton’s liaison with the Yellow Book? I shall see as I hope to track this down and the other Yellow material touched upon in this delightful, serious and un-gossipy book.

Alan Price©2023