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A yellow book that was not yellow at all

A yellow book that was not yellow at all

The Yellow Book was a literary and artistic periodical, which was published between 1894 - 1897. It supposedly took its name from the illicit French novels of the fin de siècle, which often dealt openly with sexual content. These novels were wrapped in yellow paper to alert readers to their lascivious content. Here you see Aubrey Beardsley’s front cover design for the first issue of The Yellow Book (repeated on the second edition). There is something lewd and bacchanalian about the masked carnival-goers, perhaps even something sinister.

The Yellow Book was one of the leading journals of the fin de siècle: its contributors were distinguished authors and artists, including: W.B. Yeats; Max Beerbohm; Ella d’Arcy; H.G. Wells; Henry James; Walter Sickert; and John Singer Sargent. Different to other periodicals and journals, it was issued clothbound and it contained no advertising (aside from publisher’s lists). It was priced at 5 shillings (roughly the equivalent of £20 today). Although it has a reputation for being shocking, the content is often fairly conservative, and certainly not radical. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) famously (and dismissively) declared that the publication was “not yellow at all”.

Beardsley (1872-1898), a leading proponent of the Aesthetic Movement and critic of what he perceived to be Victorian prudishness, was the periodical’s first Art Editor. It is his drawings – including the cover design – which helped the journal to garner its shocking reputation as he was interested in depicting the macabre, the extraordinary, and the sexually-titillating.

Beardsley had illustrated Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) and when Wilde was arrested in 1895, the two men became unfortunately linked in the public consciousness. Wilde was carrying a copy of Aphrodite by Pierre Louys when he was arrested for indecency with men: a yellow book. The media mistakenly reported that it was The Yellow Book and so it came to be associated not only with decadence but also with homosexuality. The periodical’s offices were attacked, Beardsley was sacked and all traces of his involvement were removed after volume 5.

Reference: 19th C. Coll. 820.5 YEL, The Yellow Book: an illustrated quarterly (1894), 19th Century Collection, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Potential research ideas

The Yellow Book could prompt research into the Aesthetic Movement. You could, for example, look at the literary landscape to find out what else was being created in the late-Nineteenth Century and to determine how mainstream, or otherwise, the literature and art of the Aesthetic Movement was. How accurately can it be described as having been a ‘movement’? The Aesthetic Movement prioritised the visual and sensual qualities of art and design over practical and moral considerations but you might explore how well illustrations served narratives. For example, to what extent does Beardsley’s cover illustration for The Yellow Book represent the journal’s content? The trial of Oscar Wilde caused a sensation. You might compare and contrast real world events and social mores with what was happening in the creative arts. Remember, it is not only journalism that can help you answer this question, you might want to look at advertisements too. You might want to think about what the Aesthetic Movement was a response to. Was it’s cult of beauty a revolt against industrialisation? Victorian sensitivities? Or something else? At the time, the Aesthetic Movement was characterised by people thought of as bohemians and mavericks. Do you know who its key figures were? Would we agree with this perception today? Where do its proponents stand today and what legacy have they created?

Selected background reading

  • Blankenship, R.M., 2012. “Art for art’s sake: art as sexual disease in the trials of Oscar Wilde.” Colonial Academic Alliance Undergraduate Research Journal, vol. 3. [Online] Available at: https://scholarworks.wm.edu/caaurj/vol3/iss1/4. (Accessed 6 July 2020). – Arguing for a new-formed model of sexuality and the spread of sexuality in Victorian minds.
  • Kaplan, M. B., 2004. “Literature in the Dock: The Trials of Oscar Wilde.” Journal of Law and Society, vol. 31, no. 1. [Online] Available at: jstor.org/stable/1410445. (Accessed 6 July 2020). – Exploring the literary and sexual dimensions of the Wilde scandal.
  • Mix, K.J., 1960. A study in yellow: the Yellow Book and its contributors. London: Constable; Lawrence, Kan.: U of Kansas P. – Focuses on Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm and other contributors.
  • Adut, A., 2005. “A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 111, no. 1. [Online] Available at: jstor.org/stable/10.1086/428816. (Accessed 6 July 2020). – Exploring inconsistent Victorian attitudes towards homosexuality and the effects of disruptive publicity on norm enforcement.
  • Nadelhaft, J., 1975. “Punch and the Syncretics: An Early Victorian Prologue to the Aesthetic Movement.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 15, no. 4. [Online] Available at: jstor.org/stable/450016. (Accessed 6 July 2020). – Defining the Aesthetic Movement and looking for its origins.

What can I find here in Special Collections?

  • Pope, A., 1902. The rape of the lockIllustrated by A. Beardsley. London; New York: Lane. RB 821.53 POP, Rare Books, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186. – The 18th-century satirist, Alexander Pope’s long poem, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley.
  • Wilde, O., 1898. The ballad of Reading Gaol. 6th London: Leonard Smithers. 19th C. Coll. 821.89 WIL, 19th Century Collection, Newcastle University Special Collections GB 186. – Written following Wilde’s release after serving two years’ hard labour in prison for gross indecency with other men.

What can I find elsewhere?

Interested in 19th-century literature and culture?

The 19th Century Collection is rich in literary works by both mainstream and lesser-known authors. It is complemented by the collection of 19th Century Novels, which comprises around 1,500 novels predominantly by authors that are relatively unknown today. Another collection that contains a significant amount of literature from this period is the White (Robert) Collection.

In the Nineteenth Century, literature was often serialised, either in the form of books in parts, or, appearing in magazines and newspapers. By looking at contemporary publications such as the Illustrated London News (held in the 19th Century Collection), you can engage with literature and illustrations alongside advertisements to understand the cultural contexts.