John Lane, Oscar Wilde & The Yellow Book

March 14 marks the anniversary of the birth of publisher John Lane (1854-1925), co-founder with Elkin Mathews, of The Bodley Head publishing house. In 1894, The Bodley Head began publishing The Yellow Book, a Decadent hardback quarterly literary periodical that boasted an illustrious list of contributors and promoted New Woman writers.

Not everyone was a fan. Shortly after the first issue appeared, Oscar Wilde sent a letter to Bosie: ‘The Yellow Book has appeared,’ he wrote. ‘It is dull and loathsome, a great failure. I am so glad’. Later, he expressed his displeasure to Ada Leverson: ‘Have you seen The Yellow Book?’ he inquired. ‘It is horrid and not yellow at all’. Leverson was surely more enthusiastic, since she contributed several short stories, one of which, ‘Suggestion’ is reminiscent of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Ironically, although he detested The Yellow Book and was never invited to contribute to it, a misinterpreted line from Dorian Gray led to a spurious link between Wilde and The Yellow Book. The line in question is: ‘His eyes fell on the Yellow Book that Lord Henry had sent him’. In fact, the book in Dorian Gray is fictitious and resembles Joris-Karl Huysman’s À rebours, a favourite of Wilde’s, more than any other.

When Lane arrived in New York in April 1895, he was confronted with newspaper headlines announcing: ‘Arrest of Oscar Wilde, Yellow Book under his arm’. Although the book Wilde was carrying has been identified by Margaret D. Stetz and Mark Samuels Lasner as a yellow-bound copy of Aphrodite by Pierre Louÿs, Lane realised the implications and despaired: ‘It killed The Yellow Book and it nearly killed me’, he claimed.

Without delay, Lane telegraphed his office manager and instructed him to remove Wilde’s books from sale. By then, several authors were threatening to boycott The Bodley Head, which employed Edward Shelley, a young clerk who had testified to being involved in a sexual relationship with Oscar. On 5 April 1895, The Bodley Head premises at Vigo Street were attacked by a stone-wielding mob.

When Lane removed Aubrey Beardsley, who was associated with Wilde, from his position as Art Editor of The Yellow Book, W.B. Yeats claimed this was done at the insistence of ‘a popular novelist, a woman who had great influence among the most conventional part of the British public’. This was surely Mrs. Humphry Ward, who had encouraged poet William Watson to write to Lane and threaten to change publisher unless The Yellow Book was discontinued. When poet Alice Meynell’s husband, Wilfred, applied similar pressure,Volume 5 was halted mid-production, although it did appear a fortnight later, and the publication limped along for another two years.

Lane, a pioneer of New Women’s writing, also published the contentious Keynotes, which took its name from the first in the series, a collection of short stories by Mary Chavelita Dunne, who wrote as George Egerton. Dunne, a contributor to The Yellow Book, was closely associated with the Decadent movement. Her Keynotes (1893) caused a sensation by tackling controversial themes including female sexuality, sexual freedom, alcoholism and suicide.

‘George Egerton’

The daughter of an Irish army officer, Dunne described herself as ‘intensely Irish’. By echoing Wilde’s style and quoting him in an epigram to her story ‘A Little Gray Glove’, she reinforced his association with New Women’s writing. Several passages in her story ‘A Cross Line’ imagine a dance in a ‘dream of motion’, and take much from Salomé:

She can see herself with parted lips and panting, rounded breasts, and a dancing devil in each glowing eye, sway voluptuously to the wild music that rises, now slow, now fast, now deliriously wild, seductive, intoxicating, with a human note of passion in its strain.

Dunne loathed the duplicity of Victorian society, which she summed up sardonically in a letter to her father: ‘sin as you please but don’t be found out it’s all right so long as you don’t shock us by letting us know’. Her writing was parodied in Punch as ‘She-notes’ by Borgia Smudgiton, and she was rechristened ‘Dona Quixote’, a sure indication of the anxiety she provoked with her challenging themes.

Although Dunne wrote four more short story collections: Discords (1894), Symphonies (1897), Fantasias (1898), and Flies in Amber (1905); one epistolary collection: Rosa Amorosa (1901); one novel: The Wheel of God (1898); and several plays, most notably His Wife’s Family (1907), Backsliders (1910) and Camilla States Her Case (1925); she never replicated the success of Keynotes. As a supporter of Wilde’s and a writer who emulated his style, she qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.


My profile of her was long listed for the Thresholds International Feature Writing Competition and can be read here.



Filed under Essay

5 responses to “John Lane, Oscar Wilde & The Yellow Book

  1. How interesting Dunne is! A great post on a fascinating chapter in the lives of several writers. I’ve read elsewhere that Louÿs’ Aphrodite wasn’t published at the time of Wilde’s arrest; perhaps we’ll never know which book Wilde carried under his arm that day.

  2. Pingback: A Glimpse of Oscar & his Mother | Beside Every Man

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