Some books I read to learn about better books. A recent one for me was The Yellow Book: Quintessence of the Nineties (1964), ed. Stanley Weintraub, an anthology of short stories, poems, and Max Beerbohms from the short-lived London Yellow Book “magazine,” if that is the right term for a series of clothbound books.
The editors were, for texts, the American novelist Henry Harland, “a sort of lemonade Henry James”* and, for images, young wonder Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley’s involvement gave The Yellow Book a sheen of Decadence and Aestheticism, but that does not really describe the contents well.
Even Beardsley is on his best behavior (see right, for example, from the October 1894 issue). After the first year, Beardsley own work hardly appears anywhere but the cover.
Nothing shocking here, even by the standards of the time. “A Slip under the Microscope,” for example, an 1896 H. G. Wells story, is about the ethics of inadvertent cheating on a test. The cheater finally turns himself in, sacrificing his science career (the story is science fiction but not “science fiction”).
Maybe Harland’s own “The Bohemian Girl,” about a non-manic pixie dream girl who is adored by all of the English and American art students in Paris, could not be shown to Victorian pre-teens, but even she ends up marrying an engineer. Harold Frederic supplies a tale of heroic Irish martyrdom, a Scott knockoff, totally unlike The Damnation of Theron Ware. George Gissing’s “The Foolish Virgin” is a still young “old maid” in reduced circumstances – a grim and grey tale, typical Gissing.
Kenneth Grahame’s “The Roman Road” is absolutely adorable, about a child who imagines the old road through town runs all the way to Rome (which in a sense it does). He has seen the Coliseum in a woodcut:
so to begin with I plumped that down in the middle. The rest had to be patched up from the little grey market-town where twice a year we went to have out haircut…
So the boy’s Rome is full of English pubs and Wesleyan chapels. It is a story about the growth of the imagination, really. No problem associating “The Roman Road” with the author of The Wind in the Willows.
William Butler Yeats, Henry James, John Buchan, Baron Corvo, John Davidson, Ernest Dowson, Arnold Bennett, for some of the more famous names. A number of women – George Egerton, Charlotte Mew, Ada Leverson – who had just been, to me, names in someone else’s story. Hey, there’s Reggie Turner, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends. His story, “A Chef d’Oeuvre,” is about a man who spends years writing the perfect short story, an effort so agonizing it kills him. The (fictional) story turns out to be, you know, pretty good, much like the actual story. Much like most of the stories in The Yellow Book.
The Henry James stories and Max Beerbohm pieces are by far the standouts, so they are easily available elsewhere.
All of the issues are available at archive.org. A browse is some fun for students of the period.
* See The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, p. 1056, note 5.