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CRITICAL INTRODUCTION

TO VOLUME 6 OF THE SAVOY (October 1896)

Published in October 1896, The Savoy’s sixth volume followed the pattern of the magazine’s previous monthly numbers: approximately one hundred pages of progressive art, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction prose, sold for two shillings. Reviews for the issue were generally positive. The Weekly Irish Times, for example, wrote: “[The volume] is strong on both the literary and artistic side, and will doubtless afford pleasure to the supporters of the present decadent movement in literature and art” (“Literature & Art” 4). Similarly, the Highland News remarked, “[The volume] can be taken up with the feeling that it is written from cover to cover: it is not the production of pot-boilers” (“Books & Periodicals” 3). Not all of the issue’s contents received the same praise, however. Arthur Symons’s “In Saint Jacques” was dismissed by The Scotsman as “a not very intelligible poem, the purport of which appears to be to explain that if he were to go into a cathedral he would not be able to pray. Devil doubt him” (“The Magazines” 8). This attack may seem like a humorous barb but is illustrative of the degree to which The Savoy, even in its sixth month of publication, was still viewed with some suspicion.

Volume 6 demonstrates a self-reflexive interest in its own history, with several pieces referring to or in conversation with the contents of previous issues. This interest is evident in Aubrey Beardsley’s cover design, “The Fourth Tableau of ‘Das Rheingold’” (Reade 357). This title is not identified in the table of contents, making its subject matter perhaps more difficult to discern – The Scotsman declared the image “not at all intelligible, though clearly drawn and beautiful in its oddity” (“The Magazines” 8). Beardsley’s illustration might have been more readily recognizable to a close reader of the magazine’s earlier issues, however. The Savoy’s second volume featured a similar pen-and-ink illustration by Beardsley entitled “For the Third Tableau of ‘Das Rheingold’” that depicted the same highly stylized characters: Wotan, also known as Odin, the king of the gods in the Old Norse tradition, and the trickster god, Loge (Fletcher 149). These tableaus were part of a planned but ultimately unfinished series of illustrations to be called The Comedy of the Rhinegold, playfully adapted from Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold (1869), the first of his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848–1874) (Sutton 5). As noted in the Introduction to Volume 1, Beardsley was particularly intrigued by Wagner’s depictions of morbid and erotic themes, and more broadly by Wagner’s attempts to create works that formally synthesized different branches of the arts (sonic and visual) into what the composer called the “Gesamtkunstwerk,” that is to say, the “total work of art,” in which the various media form a unified whole (Sutton 4). In other words, Wagner’s operas conveyed a dramatic amalgamation of imagery, music, and poetry – an intensely aesthetic experience, which Beardsley admired, and which little magazines like The Savoy sought to realize as an “organizing principle” for their construction. As Koenraad Claes argues, “by seizing strictly material features as an opportunity for artistic expression, and taking control of how they were being published and distributed, the little magazine approaches the status of a Total Work of Art” (5).

The drawing depicts Wotan and Loge above a mountaintop, presumably near Wotan’s castle, Valhalla. The figure of Loge is especially noteworthy for its stylized design, described by critics as “unprecedented in Western art” (Sutton 181). A significant departure from the rigid linework of earlier creations, the curved and undulating lines of Loge’s garments are characteristic of the provocative Art Nouveau style, which gives a dynamic quality to the figure. According to Emma Sutton, Loge’s association with deception and mischief makes him an obvious alter ego for Beardsley himself, and the cover image’s depiction of the trickster figure with flames emanating from his body might well reflect the artist’s own experience with inflamed lungs, one of the more painful symptoms of the disease of consumption (181).

The cover image was not the sole mythical allusion in the sixth volume of The Savoy, however. American poet Edith M. Thomas (1854-1925) contributes the poem “A Soul at Lethe’s Brink.” Thomas appears to have had no direct relationship with the magazine’s publisher, Leonard Smithers, or with its editor, Arthur Symons, but she may have come to the latter’s attention by way of the ex-patriate Canadian poet and anthologist Bliss Carman, whose “In Scituate” appeared in The Savoy’s fifth volume. Carman included Thomas’s “Augury” in his edited collection, The World’s Best Poetry (1904) (Thomas 269). Thomas’s contribution to Volume 6 is an apostrophe addressed by a soul to the other souls that have gathered at Lethe, the river in Greek mythology that causes those who drink from it to forget their past (“lethe, n.”). As such, the poem is reminiscent of John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” (1819), but while Keats’s narrator begins by cautioning the listener “No, no, go not to Lethe” (1), Thomas urges the listener to drink from the river’s waters and forget both “griefs too many” and “joys too fierce” (55). Though little remembered today, Thomas was very popular at the turn of the century, publishing her verse in many of the leading American magazines, including the Atlantic, the Century, and Scribner’s; her appearance in The Savoy is a good example of the magazine’s cross-Atlantic connections and a rare exception to its preference for the work of male poets.

Volume 6 features the first publication of a short story by one of the major figures of modernist literature, Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). In 1896, Conrad was an up-and-coming writer, having recently published his first two novels: Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896). He had submitted “The Idiots” to three other publications without success (Beckson 152). He was, then, pleased not only by The Savoy’s interest in the story, but also by what Smithers was willing to pay: two guineas per page, an amount substantially higher than what other magazines were paying (Nelson 60). Even so, he wrote harshly of both The Savoy and “The Idiots” to his agent, T. Fisher Unwin, noting, “I would rather wait longer and fare better. I tell you frankly that I don’t think the story would be good enough for the Cosmo[polis]” (“Letter [28 May 1896]” 31).

“The Idiots” documents the physical, psychological, and spiritual erosion of a family that struggles to raise four cognitively-impaired—or, as the text refers to them, “simple” (25)—children among the small-minded and often mean-spirited farmers and sea-weed gatherers of a coastal village in Brittany. With its depiction of spousal abuse, financial impecunity, and mental disability, “The Idiots” evokes the naturalism of Zola, Gissing, and Hardy, but it also shows Conrad’s willingness to explore themes more closely associated with fin-de-siècle decadence and grotesquery. Indeed, upon his inclusion of the story in Tales of Unrest (1898), Conrad was described by The Literary Gazette as “show[ing] himself here of the school of the Decadents” (qtd. in Atkinson 119). In keeping with much of the eugenic discourse on hereditary insanity in this period, the story traces the supposed fault for the children’s disabilities through the maternal bloodline: the mother, Susan, descends from a family with a history of madness, and she herself suffers a mental breakdown after she kills her husband, Jean-Pierre. However, Conrad refuses to fix this tragedy in strictly biological terms. The story instead paints a complex portrait of a woman struggling to raise her children with disabilities while enduring both her husband’s violent abuse and the villagers’ suspicion and scorn.

Clara Savile Clarke’s short story “Elsa” offers another dramatic portrayal of the condition of women. Clarke is not identified by name but rather as “the Author of ‘A Mere Man,’” a story that appeared in The Savoy’s second volume attributed to “A New Writer.” Like Aimée, the woman who features prominently in “A Mere Man” (and who is mentioned in passing here—the two stories appear to take place in the same fictional universe), Elsa appears ill-fitted to the domestic sphere: she describes her child as “sticky and obnoxious” and has an affair with her husband’s close friend (Clarke 72). Elsa self-identifies as “a bad woman” (74), but Clarke’s narrative emphasises that Elsa is worthy of the reader’s sympathy given that she is constantly belittled as a mother and wife. Elsa’s decision to end her affair with Leslie is similarly complicated, given that Leslie has spent much of the story decrying Bertie’s treatment of Elsa.

Apart from these works of short fiction, Volume 6 includes several notable examples of art and literary criticism, two of which return to the legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites, first taken up in William Butler Yeats’s essay on Blake in Volume 3. Olivier Georges Destrée (1867-1919), a Belgian art critic who introduced non-English readers to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, elaborates on this subject for readers of The Savoy. Through impassioned descriptions that emphasize the intricate form and “fine colour” of images in an otherwise obscure church, Destrée’s essay, entitled “Some Notes on the Stained Glass Windows and Decorative Paintings of the Church of St. Martin’s-On-The-Hill, Scarborough,” reappraises the church in terms of its decorative features and the aesthetic pleasure they produce, rather than its parochial function (83). He is most affected by two windows depicting Adam and Eve by Ford Madox Brown (though he mistakenly attributes the work to Dante Gabriel Rossetti). His attention to “the rosy colours of the flesh” (85) of these figures highlights a curious vitality that Destrée notes as being “almost disconcerting” (85). The article is accompanied by reproductions of two panels depicting the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, the originals of which adorn the church’s pulpit.

Symons’s essay in Volume 6, “The Lesson of Millais,” was prompted by the spectacle of the lavish public funeral undertaken to honour the life and achievements of the painter, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Millais was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and his early work, such as his widely celebrated depiction of the drowning of Ophelia from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was, in Symons’s view, his most effective. Tempted by the lure of social and financial success, Millais was unable, in Symons’s words, to make the “great refusal” (57). Abandoning the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he became a portraitist to the wealthy and a painter of sentimental scenes, epitomized by a painting popularly referred to as “Bubbles” (1886), which was widely reproduced in advertisements for Pears Soap. For Symons, the real Millais had died long before his funeral cortège passed through the streets of the nation’s capital; his later career served only as a reminder that “fame, when it has come, has come by a sort of divine accident, in which the mob has done no more than add the plaudits of its irrelevant clamour to the select approval of the judges” (57-58).

Havelock Ellis also returns to this volume, offering a trenchant defense of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1896). One of the most radical English novelists of the fin de siècle, Hardy was high on Symons’s list of authors he would like to contribute to his new venture, and he was able to secure Hardy’s consent to being listed in the Prospectus for The Savoy. Hardy had misgivings about the magazine’s name, however, and despite Symons’s urgings he never contributed (Beckson 123). Hardy’s change of heart does not inform Ellis’s defense of Jude the Obscure, however. While many reviewers of the period derided the novel’s immoral character, and in particular its damning portrayal of the institutions of religion, marriage, and higher education, to say nothing of the shocking depiction of fratricide committed by a child, Ellis felt it was very much concerned with the nature of morality. “Jude the Obscure,” he writes, “seems to me the greatest novel written in England for many years” (40). This was, however, very much a minority opinion; dismayed by the critical response to Jude, Hardy subsequently abandoned novel writing for poetry.

The artwork for Volume 6 also takes up themes and concerns introduced in earlier issues. As noted in the Introduction to Volume 1, this is the period in which the book re-emerges as an object of aesthetic interest in its own right, and writers, artists, and publishers took a renewed interest in the material practices of book production. Joseph Pennell’s “A Golden Decade in English Art” (Volume 1) extended this interest to the history of book and magazine illustration, drawing attention to the largely forgotten artists and engravers who produced works of unusually high quality in the 1850s and 1860s. The topic returns in this issue with the inclusion of two examples of a genre that might not otherwise have received attention as art: the book-plate. Commonly pasted on the front endpaper of a book, the book-plate (or “ex-libris” design) was commonly used by collectors to indicate their ownership of a volume; examples can be found in English books going back to the 16th century and much earlier in other countries. As Aestheticism brought a new vogue for book collecting in the 1890s, these somewhat utilitarian devices took on a new importance: having one’s book-plate designed by a notable artist was a mark of the true connoisseur. Beardsley designed book-plates for several friends and included examples of his own work in the genre and that of other artists in early numbers of The Yellow Book—it was likely at his instigation that these two images were included in this issue of The Savoy. The first is a design by an unknown French artist from the eighteenth-century used to designate books that belonged to the library of the Chateau Royal de la Bastille, the Parisian prison that was stormed by Republican sympathizers during the French Revolution. The Bastille’s prisoners were set free but the books bearing the design pictured in this volume were mostly destroyed in the ensuing riot. The spectre of the French Revolution also hangs over the second of the two book-plates, Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen’s design for Marie Antoinette, the French queen who was executed on the guillotine at the height of what came to be known as the “Reign of Terror.” Best known for his book illustrations, Eisen (1720-1778), as Robert Ross notes, was a major influence on the development of Beardsley’s late style (46). Taken together, these two images are something more than curios of the Ancien Régime. They offer an oblique commentary, through this most modest and overlooked of artistic forms, on the fate of beautiful things and people at the hands of what Symons describes in his essay on Millais’s funeral as the “mob”—a theme of particular significance for Aesthetes and Decadents in the aftermath of the Wilde trials.

The Savoy’s predilection for French history, particularly its darker and more violent episodes, is also on display in William T. Horton’s striking illustration for Theodore Wratislaw’s translation of François Villon’s “The Epitaph in Form of a Ballade.” Villon (1431-1463) was an accomplished poet who lived among the criminals and under-classes of Paris. In November 1462 he was arrested for his part in a drunken brawl that resulted in the death of a man. Villon likely had no direct part in the crime, but a previous conviction for a robbery at the Collège de Navarre seems to have prejudiced the judge against him. “The Epitaph” was written while Villon and his compatriots were waiting to be executed. It begs future generations of readers who might look back on this scene not to judge their actions too harshly: “Men, mock not us because we hang so high, / But pray that God may show us all mercy” (62). While Villon was subsequently pardoned, and hence escaped the noose, Horton’s “Ballade des Pendus” imagines the scene as if the execution had proceeded, with the bodies of the condemned hanging from the gibbet while the vultures prepare to descend. According to Nelson, Smithers may have been “grooming this young artist to replace the dying Beardsley as his chief illustrator” (98). That may well be so, but Horton’s use of canted perspectives and angular pictorial space shows him developing his own distinctive style, one that eschews Beardsley’s devotion to the past and looks forward to Vorticism and Cubism. As noted in the Introduction to Volume 2, Horton’s work also appeared in The Green Sheaf, a little magazine associated with the Irish revival and mysticism. Like its editor, Pamela Colman Smith, Horton was invited by W. B. Yeats to join the occult society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

While it features much that is familiar, Volume 6 also includes two notable artists who had not previously appeared in the pages of The Savoy. William Brown MacDougall (1868-1936) was a Scottish artist whose work was often compared with that of Beardsley. He shared not only Beardsley’s talent for the bold use of black-and-white space to produce unsettling and eerie effects, but also an interest in Nordic mythology; together with his wife, the poet and translator Margaret Armour (1860-1943), MacDougall published an edition of The Fall of the Niebelungs (1897). These shared interests fostered a friendship between the two artists and resulted in MacDougall’s work being featured in The Yellow Book. “A Woman’s Head,” MacDougall’s sole contribution to The Savoy, is a pen-and-ink drawing that shows the influence of the Art Nouveau style with which the artist had become familiar while training at the Académie Julian in Paris.

The other notable new artist in this issue is the caricaturist and popular contributor to Punch magazine, Phil May (1864-1903). Though very much in demand by magazine editors in the 1880s and 1890s, May was an unusual choice for The Savoy. Specializing in comic scenes of life among the ordinary people at the local pub, the gentleman’s club, the racecourse, and the music hall, his work is, in both tone and topic matter, somewhat at odds with the magazine’s more epicurean sensibilities. Comparing May with Beardsley, Simon Houfe writes: “They were the opposite sides of the fin-de-siècle coin, representing the robust decadence of the popular press and the exquisite decadence of The Yellow Book” (89). The contrast with Beardsley is nowhere more notable than in May’s contribution to this number. Reproduced from a water-colour drawing, “Holiday Joys” depicts a middle-class family making its way to the seaside for what promises to be an anything but enjoyable sojourn in the sun. May’s depiction of the stern-faced mother leading her disconsolate husband and an unruly gaggle of increasingly diminutive children may reflect the artist’s misgivings about men who surrender authority to their wives, but the image, like much of May’s work, is more in the manner of affectionate satire than barbed social criticism.

Volume 6’s willingness to elaborate in a self-reflective manner upon the themes introduced in past issues is perhaps most evident in Beardsley’s ominous pen-and-ink sketch, “The Death of Pierrot.” Anne Margaret Daniel describes this image as “the first of Beardsley’s sad and beautiful farewells for the magazine, showing already the coming end for the smiling clown who had ridden so proudly on Pegasus across The Savoy’s initial Prospectus and inner title pages” (188). Pierrot had previously been an important and commonly featured character in Beardsley’s works, and Beardsley often identified with his own delicate, grotesque, and consumptive reimagining of the clown (Tankard 78). “The Death of Pierrot,” then, represents the apogee for Beardsley’s embrace of the image of disease. The illustration depicts Pierrot, visibly weak with his eyes closed and his arm hanging limply from the bed, within a curtained room. The curtain’s decorative valence is beginning to sag, symbolic of the loosening, in death, of one’s scrupulous self-curation. Pierrot’s costume is draped over an adjacent chair, while the room is crowded with extravagantly dressed commedia dell’arte characters, identified in an epigraph on the adjoining page, who have come to quietly pay their respects and carry his body away. Beardsley depicts Columbina as leaning in to listen for Pierrot’s breathing, while she and Arlecchino motion for silence by each putting a finger to their lips. As Daniel suggests, this sketch “speaks more to the disappointment of the coming end of The Savoy than does Symons’ official announcement of its demise in the next issue” (189).

Beardsley’s illustration offers more than a mere elegiac gesture toward either his own anticipated death or the dissolution of The Savoy, however. While Pierrot’s deathbed is positioned off-centre and partially obscured by a curtain, his friends occupy the majority of the space and thereby direct attention away from the dying figure. This staging emphasizes not the spectacle of death, but the community that has come to bear witness to and will carry on following the clown’s passing. And this community, Beardsley’s image suggests, is not limited to those within the scene, the fellow clowns and revellers that recall the small coterie of aesthetes and decadents with whom the artist had shared his brief time on the stage. The gazes of Columbina and Arlecchino are notably directed not at their companions within the frame but outward; they gesture toward the reader of the magazine. We, too, are invited into the sanctum sanctorum wherein the select few bear witness to the tragic passing of the great wit and artist. As Beardsley stages it, Pierrot’s death is a markedly performative gesture, one that makes clowns of us all.

©2021 Emma Cuneo and Sammy Hacker, Western University.

Works Cited

  • Atkinson, William. “‘The Idiots’ in The Savoy: Decadence and the Celtic Fringe.” Conradiana, vol. 47, no. 2, 2015, pp. 113–31.
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  • —. “For the Third Tableau of ‘Das Rheingold.’” The Savoy, vol. 2, April 1896, p. 193. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv2_beardsley_rheingold
  • —. “The Fourth Tableau of ‘Das Rheingold.’” The Savoy, vol. 6, October 1896, p. 1. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018–2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv6_beardsley_cover/
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  • —. “To T. Fisher Unwin [28 May 1896].” The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume 9, Uncollected Letters and Indexes, edited by Laurence Davies, Owen Knowles, Gene M. Moore, and J. H. Stape, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 31.
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  • —. “A Soul at Lethe’s Brink.” The Savoy, vol. 6, October 1896, p. 55. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018–2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv6-thomas-lethe/
  • Unknown. “The Book-plate of The Bastille.” The Savoy, vol. 6, October 1896, p. 51. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019, https://1890s.ca/savoyv6_bastille/
  • Villon, François. “The Epitaph in Form of a Ballade.” Translated by Theodore Wratislaw. The Savoy vol. 6, October 1896, pp. 61-62. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv6-wratislaw-epitaph/

MLA citation:

Cuneo, Emma, and Sammy Hacker. “Critical Introduction to Volume 6 of The Savoy (October 1896)” Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2021, https://1890s.ca/savoyv6_critical_introduction/