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From the New York Times: Review of The Yellow Book

The Yellow Book ; An Illustrated Quarterly. Vol. I.
London : Mathews.

On Monday the great world did Messrs. Mathews and Lane,
publishers, the honour to creak on its hinges: for it had been
foretold that on that day a new planet—a star of modernity, a
yellow asteroid, in fact—should swim into the ken of the nation
which hitherto had sat in a most lamentable darkness. Never
was the way of a magazine made so plain before it as The
Yellow Book
‘s judicious advertisements planted and injudicious
interviews watered. The new periodical was to be ‘beautiful
as a piece of bookmaking, modern and distinguished in its
letterpress and its pictures, and popular in the best sense of
the word.’ We should like to know, by the way, what the pro-
moters take to be the best sense of the word ‘popular,’ and how
they imagine that anything concerned with art or letters can be
at once popular (in the ordinary sense of the word) and dis-
tinguished. But the world took the cue submissively, and
awaited the advent of The Yellow Book in an attitude of
reverent expectation. Now we have it: you can see men going
home from their labour in the city, bearing the work deferentially
under their arms: it flames from the forehead of many an
‘occasional table’ in Brixton and Bayswater. For the great
world likes to be told what it must admire, especially when it
is told to admire something new. It stands to reason that a
quarterly, which boasted its intention of throwing aside the
‘traditions of periodical literature’ as ‘old’ and ‘bad’, was
assured of a welcome from the obedient suburban populace,
which since it cannot be the apostle of The Newness is content
to be its acolyte. ‘We needs must love the highest when we
see it;’ but Brixton and Bayswater never see anything. Only
they admire, and sometimes buy the highest—or the latest—
when they are told to do so.

And now The Yellow Book shines—we beg its pardon, glares
—in every self-respecting and ‘cultured’ household. In
audacity of tone, its cover is the highest thing we have ever
seen. But how does the publisher’s preliminary boast accord
with his final accomplishment? The thing was to be ‘beautiful
as a piece of bookmaking, modern and distinguished in its letter-
press, and its pictures, and popular in the best sense of the word.’
Our duty is to submit that The Yellow Book is not beautiful
as a piece of bookmaking. It is bizarre, eccentric, uncomfort-
ably heavy to the hand—it weighs half as much again as a book
of its size should weigh—and is no more than clearly, usefully
printed. The paper is smooth with a smoothness whose surface
is broken by every touch of the finger: glazed to a polish that
almost distresses the eye. The type strikes us as too small for
the size of the page; the leading and spacing give an erratic,
scattered, unsatisfactory appearance where we expect solidity
and completeness. The dropped words at the foot of each
column of type, and the advertisements of the reproducing agents
who have processed the pictures irritate the eye exceedingly.
The title-page which comes after the contents lists consists of a
thin, unimpressive rivulet of print, beside a study of a young
lady playing a piano in the middle of a wind-blown field: a
young lady whose hair and gown seem to be of the same
material as the instrument. We can only express our humble
uninstructed amazement at the audacious vulgarity and the
laborious inelegance of the cover, leaving the reader to judge
whether this be a beautiful piece of bookmaking or not. It
may be ‘popular in the best sense of the word,’ of course.

The pictures, too, were to be modern and distinguished. All
pictures which have been lately executed are modern; indeed,
they could not be otherwise. And we have no wish to suggest
that several of the sketches and studies to be found here are
not distinguished in their humble way. Sir Frederic Leighton‘s
for instance, are drawn in his usual formal, academic, and frigid
style. But Mr. Joseph Pennell‘s Le Puy en Velay is admirable
in tone and line; admirable in the effect of dignity which the
artist has attained at the slenderest expense of his resources.
We are greatly taken by the Portrait of a Lady by Mr. Charles
W. Furse. Mr. Sickert and Mr. Rothenstein show, as they
have so often shown before, that they are clever always and
scarcely care to be more than clever. But what shall be said
of Mr. Aubrey Beardsley, who contributes four sketches
besides the title-page and the design for the cover? His
women—he mostly draws women—are of a surprising angularity,
a surprising height, and surprisingly bedraped. They resemble
nothing on the earth, nor in the firmament that is above the
earth, nor in the waters under the earth; with their lips of a
more than Hottentot thickness, their bodies of a lath-
like flatness, their impossibly pointed toes and fingers, and their eyes
which have the form and comeliness of an unshelled snail.
Mr. Beardsley does appreciate the grace of a long fluent line,
and can indicate the sweeps and folds of his drapery in such a
manner that the unreality of his work sometimes strikes one
less than the occasional accident of its grace. But his
smudginess! the clamant hideousness of his tones! The sense
of proportion and harmony seems to have departed from him
utterly. Yet he, too, is modern and distinguished and, we
suppose, ‘popular in the best sense of the word.’

The letterpress of The Yellow Book is quite as modern as the
drawings, rather more distinguished and not in any sense of
the word so popular. But we do not see where the ‘old bad
traditions of periodical literature ‘ have been cast aside. We
will not say that anyone of the stories and essays that we find
here might have appeared in an ordinary magazine, because
the editors of the better magazines would probably have held
by the ‘old bad tradition’ of rejecting nonsensical and hysteri-
cal matter. But on the other hand they would also have held
by the’ old bad tradition’ of accepting Mr. Henry James‘s story
—and it is a story for once—or Mr. George Saintsbury’s clever
fantasia on wine and women, which might have been of an
airier, friskier diction to its own advantage. Mr. James has
been charged with having fal1en into a Dodotage, but his satire
has the sting of a commendable bitterness, it is in fact a whole-
some stinging criticism on the pseudo-literates of modern
society. Mr. Garnett’s essay is on the love-story of a curious
courageous mercenary who was a sonneteer in the intervals of
business: and nothing could be lighter and more reticent in
style or more judicious in sentiment. But reticence and good
judgment are neither old nor bad: although Mr. Arthur
Waugh travails through some twenty pages, attempting to
prove that reticence is but the tune of the passing time and that
we have none of it. ‘The Fool’s Hour’ is the first act of an
artificial comedy by Mr. George Moore and ‘John Oliver
Hobbes.’ The dialogue is vastly amusing at points, but it leads
one ‘no forrader’ towards the core of the drama. There are other
stories, but we can only praise ‘Irremediable,’ by Miss Ella
d’Arcy, which is clever and well written, in spite of an occasional
and needless brutality of phrase—interjected, we imagine, in
the cause of The Newness. The verse is not at all distinguished.
It is nice to be able to assume that Mr. Richard Le Gallienne is
an angel: the opening of ‘Tree-worship’ irresistibly recal1s the
bad old scholastic problem about angels and needle-points. But
angels are not necessarily poets, although they may and ap-
parently do compare a tree to ‘a sponge of living light’ and
perform other modern, distinguished and, in the best sense
of the word, popular freaks with the English language. Mr.
Gosse, too, is always frequent and free with his views on’ The
Poet’ and his habits: but that does not prove that Mr. Gosse
can write poetry any more than his contributions to this mis-
cellany prove it. We have left Mr. Max Beerbohm‘s ‘Defence
of Cosmetics’ to the last because it is the most astonishing and
amusing of all the contributions to this misarrangement in
orpiment. When anyone, modern and distinguished or other-
wise, talks about the ‘tangled accrescency of man’s emotions,’
when he describes woman as the ‘resupinate sex’ and a par-
ticular lady as ‘fair but infelix,’ when one finds that the centre
of his argument is the ‘secernment of soul and surface,’ and
that he mingles with his most precious phrases such words as
‘ripping,’ ‘spiflicate,’ ‘ensorcel’—in the sense of enchant—’trip
the cock-a-whoop,’ and ‘damned flutterpate,’ it is kindest to
leave him alone. This sort of thing may be modern and dis-
tinguished and ‘popular in the best sense of the word.’ But it
is also silly.

‘It’s not the hen that cackles the most that lays the largest
egg.’ The Yellow Book has been boomed into notoriety and
an unintelligent circulation. But the best of its contents might
be met in any of the old, bad magazines. The worst of them
will be taken as something rich and strange, something to be
admired by reason of their frenzied eccentricity. The publisher
has already given the keynote of the criticisms he would like to
have. Honesty compels us to strike a discordant strain. But
the thing will probably be accepted as the Evangel of The
Newness. O ye unwise among the people …

MLA citation:

Review of The Yellow Book, vol. 1, The National Observer 21 April 1894, pp. 588-89. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.