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Photograph of Ella D’Arcy. The Bookman, Dec. 1895. Public Domain.

Ella D’Arcy


More so than any other writer, Ella D’Arcy’s writing career is closely connected to The Yellow Book (1894-97). Her short stories appeared in all but three of its thirteen volumes and, as sub-editor to Henry Harland (1861-1905), she was an important figure in its production. As an occasional reader for manuscripts submitted to The Bodley Head, her input helped shape the offerings of one of the best-known publishers of decadent and New Woman literature. D’Arcy was born Constance Eleanor Mary Byrne D’Arcy in Pimlico, a middle-class neighbourhood of London, to Irish parents: Anthony Byrne D’Arcy, a corn dealer, and his wife Sophie. She was one of nine children and once described herself as having come from “suburban grocers” (Letter to John Lane, 20 April 1895). Her father died in 1873 and her mother in 1891.

D’Arcy was educated in Germany, France, and the Isle of Jersey, and initially sought a career as an artist, studying at the Slade School of Fine Art for two years until her failing eyesight forced her to abandon her studies. She, however, used her art training when she turned to writing short stories, by often using aestheticized settings to describe her characters. She initially published stories, some under the name of Gilbert H. Page, in well-known magazines such as Good Words, All the Year Round, Argosy, and Temple Bar, before publishing “The Elegie” in Blackwood’s Magazine (1891).

D’Arcy’s career and reputation as a writer were nearly inseparable from The Yellow Book. When she sent her story “Irremediable” to editor Henry Harland, he immediately selected it for the inaugural volume and asked her to work as his sub-editor. D’Arcy’s writing, its blunt realism in many ways at odds with Harland’s bohemian idylls, impressed him to the point that he paid her extremely generously, on par with the male contributors and only below the already famous contributors such as Henry James. As sub-editor, she acted as copyeditor and reader, took dictation from Harland, and worked on the layout of the letterpress portion of the magazine. When Harland and Lane were on one of their frequent trips out of the country, she was responsible for the preparation of the magazine for publication. When publisher John Lane (1854-1925) wanted to trim operating costs for the second volume of The Yellow Book, Harland arranged to pay her salary as his sub-editor out of his own pocket (Beckson and Lasner 413).

Next to Henry Harland, D’Arcy was the most published author in The Yellow Book. Her stories—sometimes acerbic, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic—tend to revolve around male egoists who insist that the women they meet conform to their aesthetic ideals. The women in her stories are either victims of this aestheticized egoism or manipulators of the male characters’ folly. Prior to its celebrated appearance in the avant-garde Yellow Book, “Irremediable” was rejected by several periodicals, including Blackwood’s, for (as the editor noted with some alarm) its disrespectful attitude towards marriage (Mix 234). The story is about a young man, who, fresh from a soured romance, meets a simple country girl, on his holidays. Imagining her as a figure in a painting and as the antidote to the sophisticated woman who broke his heart, he begins a romance with her. When summer is over and he is prepared to end his fling, he is taken aback when she protests that he had been deceitful to her by leading her on. She insists upon marriage to save her reputation. He complies and soon realizes that they are unhappy and that they despise each other, but that they are trapped in this marriage for the rest of their lives.

Due to the critical success of “Irremediable,” D’Arcy, well into the twentieth century, was seen as unsympathetic to women, both the female characters in her stories and the other women who contributed to The Yellow Book. Critics as early as Osbert Burdett in The Beardsley Period (1925) proclaimed that D’Arcy “shows less sympathy for her women than for her men” (235) and Benjamin Fisher IV, who wrote extensively on D’Arcy in the 1990s, wondered, “One might wish, for example, to know more about the shaping of D’Arcy’s attitudes toward women, who are portrayed with little sympathy in her fiction” (240). Sarah Maier, on the other hand, noted that “D’Arcy’s concern for the plight of women in society is analogous to the situations of women that we find in Thomas Hardy’s fiction” (41). D’Arcy also had her female admirers in her lifetime. George Egerton (1859-1945) reportedly told John Lane how much she admired “The Elegie” and Evelyn Sharp (1869-1955) wrote in an article reminiscing about The Yellow Book that D’Arcy “was a writer of real genius” (“A Group of the Nineties”).

Another notable story by D’Arcy is “The Pleasure-Pilgrim.” Published in Volume 5 of The Yellow Book (July 1895), it is a story about a naive young man who falls for an experienced woman and cannot be convinced that she genuinely loves him. In a grand gesture to prove her love, the young woman shoots herself when she is rejected. In this story, D’Arcy satirizes the foolish insistence on virginity and innocence as the only desirable traits in a woman. Some reviews found D’Arcy’s characters unconvincing, one proclaiming that no young woman would act so freely; the review in The Chicago Daily Tribune described “The Pleasure-Pilgrim” as an “outlining of an Englishwoman’s notion of what an American girl really is” (“With the Novelists”). But D’Arcy wittily defended her story, writing to Lane: “Should [the Americans] tell you that no young American girl ever behaved like Lulie Thayer, refer them to Mr. Le Gallienne, and his Paris experiences” (Letter to John Lane, 5 April 1895).

While stories like “The Elegie,” “Irremediable,” and “The Pleasure-Pilgrim” concern the tragedies that unfold because of a couple’s incompatibility, D’Arcy also wrote stories that did not centre around ill-fated romances. “White Magic” (Volume 3) is about two friends who, on a lark, exploit the superstitious natures of young people to make them fall in love using deliberate misunderstandings that echo Shakespeare’s comedies. “The Villa Lucienne,” from “Two Stories” (Volume 10), is a story of a haunted house. “Poor Cousin Louis” (Volume 2) is both a cutting and sad depiction of a terrible old man who, in his old age, is abandoned by everyone but mercenary relatives. D’Arcy’s final story for The Yellow Book, “Sir Julian Garve” (Volume 13), is about a restless gambler in Monte Carlo.

D’Arcy set her stories in places she knew well from her own travels. Nicknamed “Goblin Ella” by Netta Syrett (1865-1943) for her tendency to disappear from London and then reappear without warning (Syrett 99), D’Arcy often took up residences in France, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland, all of which served as settings for her stories. Her closest attachment was to the Channel Islands—Alderney, Guernsey, Herm, Jersey, and Sark. D’Arcy spent a great deal of her time travelling between the islands and many of her stories are set in them. Some of her stories, such as “Poor Cousin Louis” and “White Magic,” described local superstitions and rituals so well that The New York Times compared her favourably to George Washington Cable as a writer of local colour fiction (Fisher, “American Reception,” 245).

While in later life D’Arcy underplayed her contributions to The Yellow Book, her letters to John Lane place her in the centre of the magazine’s daily production. She also served as a manuscript reader for Lane, giving him very thoughtful and positive accounts of submissions to The Bodley Head. She was a fixture at Harland’s weekly Friday night gatherings at Cromwell Road, where writers mingled with artists, actors, and journalists. Her closest friends at the time were some of the writers and contributors to The Yellow Book—Netta Syrett, Evelyn Sharp, and Victoria Cross (1868-1952)—who are all mentioned often in her correspondence.

When Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was arrested, the newspapers reported that he was carrying a yellow volume, mistakenly thought to be The Yellow Book (see Critical Introduction to Yellow Book vol. 5). The fallout for The Bodley Head and The Yellow Book was immediate—the windows of The Bodley Head offices were broken by rioters and a list of Bodley Head authors demanded the firing of art editor Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), who was associated with Wilde because of his illustrations for Salome and who was seen as the firm’s symbol of degenerate decadence (Lane 6). Lane wired The Bodley Head offices and ordered that the Beardsley illustrations be removed from the upcoming volume of The Yellow Book. In an amusing but biting letter to Lane, D’Arcy described how she and office manager Frederick Chapman, who normally refused to speak to her, had to work out new art contents and a new cover, and get the magazine to the printers by the deadline:

Oh, this is a weird world, and I’m inclined to give up Art and Literature altogether, (since they seem inseparable from Decadence,) and go back to the comfortable prosaic circles of suburban grocers from which I so (foolishly) came. But I’m wandering from the story. On this Tuesday, and at this interview it never occurred to me the cover and title-page were also to be suppressed. I understood your orders to refer only to the four Beardsley drawings. So I set to work to hunt up blocks to replace these, and still, was confident, we’d get the book out without much delay. It was not until the next day, Wednesday, that, (when all this affair of the new blocks had been arranged, as I thought satisfactorily), that Chapman launched at me the stupefying news the cover-design too, was condemned! Then I gave up everything in despair, sat down and mingled my tears with Chapman’s, and the junior clerks gaily floated a fleet of paper boats upon the seas that we shed. (Letter to John Lane, 20 April 1895)

Unlike her often amicable friendship with Lane, D’Arcy’s relationship with Henry Harland was complicated and contentious. Years later, Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913), who wrote for The Yellow Book under the name of Baron Corvo, insinuated in his roman à clef Nicholas Crabbe that Harland and D’Arcy had been lovers in the 1890s (Rolfe 33). There is no evidence for this, but D’Arcy was close to the Harlands, even as they each, in their own ways, exasperated her. When the couple was away from London, D’Arcy would sometimes stay in their home, preparing the next issues of The Yellow Book. She called Harland “The Chief,” but was often irritated by his wife Aline. Netta Syrett in The Sheltering Tree describes the couple as “more like spoilt children . . . [who] bickered in public” when one of them was out of humour, although she conceded they could both be very charming and hospitable (77). D’Arcy also had a low tolerance for Harland’s infatuations with some of the women writers of The Yellow Book, particularly Olive Custance (1874-1944), whom she nicknamed “Wild Olive” and who wrote “such letters,” passionate and suggestive, to both Lane and Harland, as she exclaimed to Lane in mock horror. When Harland started to promote a young Irish writer named Ethel Colburn Mayne (who published under the pseudonym Frances E. Huntley) (1865-1941), whose boulevardier stories seemed antithetical to D’Arcy’s satirical naturalism, D’Arcy removed Mayne’s story “The Only Way” from Volume 9. When Harland learned about Mayne’s removal from the author’s list, he fired D’Arcy as sub-editor. She appealed to Lane:

There’s been the most unholy row! The Chief somehow got wind of my proceedings, and but that the Channel mercifully flows between him and me, I should not now be alive to write you this tale. How he heard I can’t imagine, At first I thought you must have cabled to him; but then I saw that was impossible. Why should you? You’re not such an admirer of Miss Mayne’s rubbish, as to waste money cable-gramming about her. No—I suppose he wrote to Chapman or the printers, to know why he didn’t get Revise, and so the secret came out. But it came out too late for him to change anything! The book could not be unmade, so he has taken comfort in sending me abusive wires. Poor dear Chief! he must have spent a small fortune over them. Now, he won’t write a letter at all to me; but has informed me on a peremptory post-card that I “may consider myself relieved of the duties of Sub-Editor, and he will seek for a less untrustworthy person”! Ah, I can see the Cromwell Road blocked with the crowd of needy females all struggling for that high salaried post! (Letter, April 23, 1896)

However Lane may have responded to her letter, he did not or could not change Harland’s mind. D’Arcy was out as sub-editor and Ethel Colburn Mayne took her place, although Harland continued to publish D’Arcy’s stories.

According to Fraser Harrison, D’Arcy’s work as sub-editor helped open The Yellow Book to accepting more women contributors than any other literary magazine of the time (25). While Anne Windholz disputes this by arguing that she had found no evidence of this support in D’Arcy’s letters (121), there are instances in D’Arcy’s correspondence where, if a woman writer writes in a manner she approves of, she is outspoken in her praise. She wrote a lengthy letter to Lane praising Gertrude Atherton’s (1857-1948) novel Patience Sparhawk and she thought very highly of work by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) (D’Arcy 36). While she was not reticent about writers whose style she did not care for (she deferred her opinions on contributor Alma Strettell (1853-1939) to Lane because she could not see anything worthy in her writing), her friendships with writers like Syrett, Sharp, and Cross—whom she called “the weirdly beautiful V.C.” (Letter to John Lane, 25 July 1895)— were based on mutual respect of their talents. D’Arcy, Syrett, and Sharp spoke of each other highly in their later reminiscences.

D’Arcy’s most notable book is a collection of her stories, Monochromes, which included “The Elegie,” “Irremediable,” “Poor Cousin Louis,” “White Magic,” “The Pleasure-Pilgrim,” and one of her earliest published stories, “The Expiation of David Scott,” which had first appeared in Temple Bar. Monochromes was published by The Bodley Head in 1895 as one of their signature Keynote editions. Her follow-up collection of stories, Modern Instances, was published in 1898 by The Bodley Head. She also published a novel that same year, The Bishop’s Dilemma, and, in 1924, a translation of André Maurois’ biography of Shelley, Ariel, both also for The Bodley Head, but these books did not sell very well. In 1930, she wrote a biography of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) but could not get it published, likely because the poet was considered too controversial.

D’Arcy may have been so closely associated with The Yellow Book that when the magazine folded, interest in her work faded accordingly. She also ventured into translations of French poetry, which were far from the biting stories on which she had built her reputation. D’Arcy suffered debilitating writer’s block which may have contributed to her lack of output. Syrett, charging her with laziness (D’Arcy’s work for Harland disputes that description), remembers locking her in a room so that she would finish a story for The Yellow Book (98). D’Arcy suffered from poverty her entire adult life and often was forced to move to ever cheaper rooming houses. She eventually settled in Paris in her later years, where she died in 1937.

Before her death, she gave a series of interviews to then Master’s student Katherine Lyon Mix, with whom she shared a considerable amount of her knowledge about the daily workings of The Yellow Book as well as the people involved in the magazine, both on the publishing side and the literature side. Mix published her thesis in 1960 as A Study in Yellow: The Yellow Book and Its Contributors. Unfortunately, D’Arcy’s tendency towards modesty and towards underplaying her contributions to the magazine left a lasting legacy in which she was seen as peripheral to Harland, Beardsley, and Lane in the production of the magazine. Letters written to Lane during her tenure as sub-editor reveal that D’Arcy occupied a much more prominent role in the magazine’s day to day operations. D’Arcy’s reputation as a writer also suffered from critical interpretations that cast her as a misogynist woman, writing stories where an idealistic young man is destroyed by a designing woman. This criticism, largely aimed at “Irremediable,” offers a very limited reading of the story itself, and ignores the richness and variety of her work and her criticisms of the male aesthete in the 1890s.

In 1990, Alan Anderson published thirteen of D’Arcy’s letters to John Lane. In the following years, Benjamin F. Fisher IV wrote several articles on D’Arcy that contributed to a renewal of scholarly interest in her. Since then, there has been more scholarship that has shed new light on D’Arcy’s work as sub-editor of The Yellow Book and on the feminism in her essays that had been previously overlooked. Anne Windholz argues about D’Arcy’s centrality in the production of The Yellow Book as well as her precarious position, beholden to both Harland and Lane. Sarah Maier discusses three D’Arcy stories, showing how D’Arcy’s female characters are forced to construct themselves against a misogynist aesthetic ideal. Kate Kreuger discusses D’Arcy’s skill at parody. Heather Marcovitch looks at how D’Arcy uses humour in her narrative strategies to undermine sympathy towards her male characters. Most recently, Jad Adams discusses D’Arcy as an early modernist in his book Decadent Women: Yellow Book Lives. D’Arcy’s correspondence with John Lane is housed in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

© 2023 Heather Marcovitch, PhD, Continuous Instructor of English, Red Deer Polytechnic, Red Deer, Alberta, Canada

Selected Publications by Ella D’Arcy

  • Ariel (trans.), 1924.
  • “At Twickenham.” The Yellow Book, Volume 12, January 1897, pp. 313-332.
  • The Bishop’s Dilemma. The Bodley Head, 1898.
  • “The Elegie.” Blackwood’s Magazine 150, November 1891, pp. 613-38.
  • “An Engagement.” The Yellow Book, Volume 8, January 1896, pp. 379-406.
  • “The Expiation of David Scott.” Temple Bar 90, December 1890, pp. 516-52.
  • “Irremediable.” The Yellow Book, Volume 1, April 1894, pp. 87-108.
  • “A Marriage.” The Yellow Book, Volume 11, October 1896, pp. 309-342.
  • Modern Instances. The Bodley Head, 1898.
  • Monochromes. The Bodley Head, 1895.
  • “The Pleasure-Pilgrim.” The Yellow Book, Volume 5, April 1895, pp. 34-67.
  • “Poor Cousin Louis.” The Yellow Book, Volume 2, July 1894, pp. 34-59.
  • “Sir Julian Garve.” The Yellow Book, Volume 13, April 1897, pp. 291-305.
  • “Two Stories [“The Death Mask” and “The Villa Lucienne].” The Yellow Book, Volume 10, July 1896, pp. 265-285.
  • “The Web of Maya.” The Yellow Book, Volume 7, October 1895, pp. 291-318.
  • “White Magic.” The Yellow Book, Volume 3, October 1894, pp. 59-68.
  • “Yellow Book Celebrities.” ELT: English Literature in Transition 1880-1914, vol. 37, no. 1, 1994, pp. 33-37.

Selected Publications about Ella D’Arcy

  • Adams, Jad. Decadent Women: Yellow Book Lives. London: Reaktion, 2023.
  • Anderson, Alan, ed. Ella D’Arcy: Some Letters to John Lane. Edinburgh: Tragara, 1990.
  • Beckson, Karl. Henry Harland: His Life and Work. The Eighteen Nineties Society, 1973.
  • Beckson, Karl, and Mark Samuels Lasner. “The Yellow Book and Beyond: Selected Letters of Henry Harland to John Lane.” ELT: English Literature in Transition 1880-1914, vol. 42, no. 4, 1999, pp. 401-32.
  • Burdett. Osbert. The Beardsley Period. The Bodley Head, 1925.
  • Fisher, Benjamin Franklin, IV. “The American Reception of Ella D’Arcy.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 28, no. 3, Fall 1995, pp. 232-48.
  • Fisher, Benjamin Franklin, IV. “Ella D’Arcy, First Lady of the Decadents.” University of Mississippi Studies in English, vol. 10, 1992, pp. 238-49.
  • Harrison, Fraser, ed. The Yellow Book: An Illustrated Quarterly. An Anthology. St. Martin’s, 1974.
  • Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen and Dennis Denisoff. “Critical Introduction to The Yellow Book Volume 5 (April 1895).” Yellow Nineties 2.0.
  • Kreuger, Kate. “Decadency, Parody, and New Women’s Writing.” Decadence and Literature, ed. Jane Desmarais and David Weir, Cambridge University Press 2019, pp. 169-83.
  • Lane, John. Aubrey Beardsley & The Yellow Book. Bodley Head, 1903.
  • Maier, Sarah E. “Subverting the Ideal: The New Woman and the Battle of the Sexes in the Short Fiction of Ella D’Arcy.” Victorian Review, vol. 20, no. 1, Summer 1994, pp. 35-48.
  • Marcovitch, Heather. “White Magic, Black Humour: Ella D’Arcy’s Narrative Strategies.” Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens, vol. 96, Fall 2022.
  • Mix, Katherine Lyon. A Study in Yellow: The Yellow Book and Its Contributors. University of Kansas Press, 1960.
  • Rolfe, Frederick. Nicholas Crabbe or, The One and the Many: A Romance. Chatto and Windus, 1958.
  • Sharp, Evelyn. “A Group of the Nineties.” Manchester Guardian, 19 January 1924.
  • Syrett, Netta. The Sheltering Tree. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1939.
  • Windholz, Anne M. “The Woman Who Would Be Editor: Ella D’Arcy and the Yellow Book.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 29, no. 2, Summer 1996, pp. 116-30.
  • “With the Novelists.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Yellow Nineties 2.0.

MLA citation:

Marcovitch, Heather. “Ella D’Arcy (1857-1937),” Y90s Biographies. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2023,