Hello from the other side of the sometimes mystical and always awkward line between life and death. I know it’s been some time since I’ve published anything, but when Mr. Kline approached me about his project, I saw it as an opportunity not only to dust off my talents, but also to use the new IBM Selectric automatic writing machine I’ve heard so much about. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and time constraints forced me into my time-tested writing methods. While my feet might never return to trammel the streets of London, it feels refreshingly good to return my pen to the page.
As I have said before, “the artist is the creator of beautiful things.” I should have added, “The researcher tramples on those beautiful things with the ugly boots of hindsight worn upon the feet of dullards.” This paper is nothing more than a few conjectures without merit, strung together in a dry and witless style. To allege that I was involved in the writings of the “Yellow Book” is outright absurd. I took great pains to distance myself from that publication and you will note that none of the works were my creation. Yes, I have certainly had a working relationship with Aubrey Beardsley. I invented Aubrey Beardsley! But did not 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 taint my words like the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybooks.
Therefore, I ask you not to judge me by this work, but rather, judge the writer by it. The lowest mode of critisicm is, after all, autobiography. If you are truly taken in by Kline’s clumsy attempts at assaulting my character, then perhaps it is a reflection on you, the reader, and your own personal insecurities.
While I wish I had the time to answer to each fraudulent claim and misrepresentation individually, I’m told this must be sent to the publisher before the passing of the full moon. Therefore, bear in mind, I may actually only have skimmed the entire piece, failing to be engaged by any passage at all… and therefore suggest you do the same.
— Oscar Wilde
Sometimes the best way to understand a writer is to write a page in his philadelphia phillies t shirt. We can face the same obstacles, the same characters, and the same passion about 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 his works. Because of 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 is perhaps even more interesting than his literature. It is, however, that literature which has made his life so interesting.
There in a passage in Dorian Gray that introduces a notable object, “a book bound in yellow paper, the cover slightly torn and the edges soiled” (Wilde 95). Even at first mention, the book piqued my curiosity. As my reading progressed, this piece of literature becomes the root of the change of Dorian’s character. I wondered what significance the book had, not just to Dorian, but to Wilde. Did Wilde have a “yellow book” of his own? Is the book yellow with age, or does this color have a deeper symbolism? I had no idea of the depth of information I would find in researching an untitled, tattered book.
The beginnings of my research led to some interesting discoveries. Among them, a periodical published quarterly in London in the late 19th century, The Yellow Book. First, let me explain the periodical itself. While its existence was short-lived, it helped propel a “shift in British society away from a homogenised masculine elitism” (Fraser 187). A less favorable description is offered by the Westminster Gazette, that claimed it would take only “a short act of Parliament to make this kind of thing illegal” (qtd. in Bobst 2). The first volume was published in 1894, so I knew it certainly couldn’t be the same book Wilde mentioned three years earlier. But wait! Wilde might have been involved. The Art Editor was Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley illustrated Wilde’s Salome. Beardsley once even offered to translate Salome, after the translation by Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas 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 Earnest. Even more oddly, when Wilde was arrested later that year, the publication of 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, The Savoy (Amphagorey 1).
So, even though there is no simple relationship between the two yellow books, is the mention of the yellow book in Dorian related to the yellow periodical? I had to know more about its origin. Why the title The Yellow Book? Allegedly it was Beardsley himself who thought up 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 J.K. Huysmans and first published in 1884. Its title, literally “Against the Grain,” gives only a subtle hint of the risqué content within. An excerpt from the English translation by Three Sirens Press:
“This room, where mirrors hung on every wall, reflecting backwards and forwards from one to another an infinite succession of pink boudoirs, had enjoyed a great renown among his various mistresses, who loved to bathe their nakedness in this flood of warm crimson amid the aromatic odours given off by the Oriental wood of the furniture” (Hyusmans 1).
Is it possible that this is the book that is mentioned in Wilde’s writing? Could this ‘verbal pornography’ really send someone into such depths of personal despair? I think it’s more likely that both The Yellow Book and A Rebours are descendants of a more mythical, or even symbolic, yellow book.
Beardsley once said that Wilde’s writings were excluded from the publication in the “interest of propriety” (qtd. in McGrath 1). This is the point in my research where I felt that things weren’t making sense. The Yellow Book was exceptionally progressive, and the writings it contained expressed points of view that were shared by many 19th century British authors, including Wilde. It was not famous so much as notorious. In fact, the success of the periodical was due in large part to its controversial content. Why not encourage Wilde to contribute? My research lead me to wonder, at first, if Wilde was directly involved with the publishing and perhaps even financing of the project, and his supposed ‘exclusion’ from the publication was really just a publicity stunt executed so well that it has become historical fact. The editor of The Yellow Book was Henry Harland, the American expatriate who had been published previously 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). Is it possible that Wilde didn’t want his own fame to overshadow the work of these men?
Further research into the periodical reveals that the publisher of The Yellow Book was John Lane, who fired Beardsley after only four issues (Elliot 33). While Lane was concerned most with avoiding more controversy, the success of the publication rapidly diminished with Beardsley’s departure, and The Yellow Book‘s circulation dropped as quickly as it peaked. Perhaps it was just a fluke, published by an unwitting publisher. If this is true, then it should have been John Lane who prohibited Wilde’s contributions. But then why is it Beardsley that went on the record against Wilde? Did the two of them have bad blood? Or was this all a charade put on for the public, who loved to keep up on 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 proposing that Wilde was affiliated with The Yellow Book‘s publishing team, and others, including Mary Beth McGrath, saying he was on such bad terms with Beardsley that the two of them never spoke to each other(1).
I was hoping to find, thorough my research, a definitive answer. Perhaps a yellow book in Greek or Roman mythology, or something tying 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 think, surprisingly, what I found was much more interesting than any conclusive answer about an old book. Maybe the reader of Dorian Gray is best left guessing, wondering about the tattered book with the yellow cover, and imagining what contents could be so sinister as to destroy a man’s life. The reader’s imagination could put far more vile things in the tattered book than any writer’s pen. I suspect that this was Wilde’s true intention, to allow the book to be a reflection of the reader as much as it is a reflection of the writer. Ultimately, this is true not just of Dorian’s book, but also of the book I waited so long to receive. After all this, I find myself returning to the preface, where “[T]here is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” (Wilde). It is the readers that define the morality of the literature within.
Amphagorey, Rachel. “Aubrey Beardsley” 12 Nov. 1998.
Bobst Library. “Part 6, The Artist’s Studio.” Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces. The New York University Library. 22 March 2006.
Elliot, Bridget. “New and Not so ‘New Women’ on the London Stage: Aubrey Beardsley’s Yellow Book Images of Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Rejane.” Victorian Studies (Autumn 1987): 33. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost. UWWC Library, West Bend, Wisconsin. 21 March 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, J.K. A Rebours. New York: Three Sirens Press, 1951. Ibiblio. 26 June 2003.
McGrath, Mary Beth. Beardsley’s Relationship with Oscar Wilde. 1991.
Soylent Communications. “Henry Harland.” NNDB. 2005.
Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Fifth Edition). Harper Collins. August 2003.
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