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A Birthday Letter

From “The Yellow Dwarf


I was vastly diverted (as no doubt were you) by the numerous
and various results that followed the appearance of my letter about
books and things in the October number of your Quarterly.
May we not reckon amongst these, for instance, the departure
of Mr. Frank Harris for South Africa, and the reorganisation by
Mr. William W. Astor of the entire staff of the Pall Mall
And I love to think it was with a view to soothing
the hurt I had inflicted upon a whole Tribe of Pressmen,that a
compassionate Government nominated a representative Pressman
to the post of Laureate.

I was diverted, too, by the numerous and various guesses that
were hazarded at my identity. Perhaps it will be kind if I
” make a statement ” upon this subject. Roundly, then, one and
all the guessers were at fault. I am not Mr. Max Beerbohm,
nor Professor Saintsbury, nor Mr. Rider Haggard ; still less, if
possible, am I Mrs. Humphry Ward ; and least of all, sir,
yourself. I’m reluctant to deprive you of the glory, but I mauna
tell a lee. I can’t deny—I wish to gracious I could—that you
tampered a little with my proofs, expunging choice passages,
appending footnotes, and even here and there inserting a comma


                        12 A Birthday Letter

or a parenthesis in the text ; that, I suppose, is the Editor’s
consolation. But beyond that, you had no more to do with the
composition of my letter, than I myself had to do with the funny
little explosive paragraph in the Saturday Review, which attri-
buted it to you. It was sweet, by the bye, to hear the Saturday
pathetically complaining of anonymity. Are the ” slatings “
in its own columns invariably signed ? Do tell me, àpropos of
this, and if the question be not indiscreet, what is the secret of
the Saturday Review’s perennial state of peevish animosity towards
yourself? Is it possible that in the course of your editorial duties
you have ever had occasion to reject a manuscript offered by a
member of its staff?

If, as a matter of fact, the elevation of Mr. Alfred Austin
to the Laureateship was determined by words of mine, I can-
not but rejoice. All things considered, a more appropriate
selection could scarcely have been made. Equally to ” Press
and Public,” in this age of the Pressman’s ascendency, a Press-
man Laureate should be a gratifying spectacle. For me, the
choice always lay between Mr. Alfred Austin and Sir Edwin
Arnold— on the one hand the Bourgeois Gentilhomme, on the
other hand the Tartufe, of the kind of scribbling that now-
adays has come to take the place of Literature. Talk of
Mr. Swinburne, of Mr. Morris, of Mr. Meredith, of Mr.
Watson, always seemed to me beside the mark ; these gentle-
men are Poets ; what have they in common with ” Press and
Public” ? And how precipitantly and perfectly did Mr. Austin
prove his mettle, vindicate his qualifications for ” the job.” I
allude, of course, to that singularly pure example of journalese,
Jameson’s Ride. Most people, to be sure, write it (and some
even pronounce it) Raid—Jameson’s Raid. But Mr. Austin


                        From “The Yellow Dwarf” 13

knows his readers (which is more than I do), and boldly
and obligingly he spells it Ride; thus incidentally ranging
himself with the advocates of Orthographical Reform. I was
disappointed to observe that a subsequent performance of the
Pressman Laureate’s was a celebration of the virtues of Alfred
the Great.
Why this backsliding ? Why not Alfred the
Grite ?

And now, sir, can you, can any sane Christian man, can Mr.
George du Maurier himself, explain the success of Trilby ? That
the book should have had a certain measure of success, nay, a
considerable measure of success, were, indeed, explicable enough.
It is the production of a gentleman who for years and years has
charmed and amused us by his drawings. Curiosity to see what
he could turn out in the way of a novel illustrated by himself,
might account for an edition or two. (Imagine a volume of
black-and-white sketches published to-morrow from the pencil of
Mr. Edmund Gosse, with legends in prose and verse by the
artist. I, for one, should not sleep till I possessed it.) And
then the book itself is an amiable, sugar-and-watery sort of book
enough, and that ought to account for a few more editions. But
the furious, but the uncontrollable, but the unprecedented success
of Trilby—explain me that.

One has always known that to command an immediate success
in English-speaking lands (their inhabitants, as Mr. Carlyle
vigorously put it, being mostly—what they are), a novel must
either discuss a ” problem,” or attain a certain standard of silliness,
vulgarity, and slipshod writing, or haply do both : and if there are
exceptions to this rule, they only prove it. Well, one can hardly
accuse Trilby of discussing a ” problem.” And as for silliness,
vulgarity, and slipshod writing—honestly, does Trilby, in point of
these qualities, surpass just the usual slipshod, vulgar, and silly


                        14 A Birthday Letter

English novel, which perchance sells it five or ten thousand
copies, and mercifully stops at that ?

Oh, Trilby is slipshod, vulgar, and silly enough, in all conscience.
The question I propound is exclusively a question of excess.
Trilby is slipshod, vulgar, and silly ; and Trilby is exquisitely
tiresome and irritating, into the bargain. I have read it. Yes,
though loth to appear boastful, yet with a natural pride in my
perseverance, I may pledge you my word that I have read it.
Laboriously, patiently, doggedly, I have plodded through its four
hundred and forty-seven mortal pages—four hundred and forty-
seven ! I have learned in suffering what I am fain to teach. It
is true, from his title-page, the humane and complimentary
author warned me of what I must expect :

    ” Aux nouvelles que j’apporte
    Vos beaux yeux vont pleurer.”

But I was foolhardy, and pressed on. My “beaux yeux” did
indeed weep much and often, for sheer weariness, for sheer
exasperation, for sheer disgust sometimes, before I had reached the
last of his ” nouvelles.” The very first of them was rather a
staggerer. Fancy a fellow-man, at this hour of the afternoon, as
the very first of his “nouvelles,” informing you that “goods
trains in France are called la Petite Vitesse.” But if we once
begin to cry “Fancy” over Trilby, we shall never have done.
The book fairly bristles with solecisms and ineptitudes. Fancy
any gent but a commercial gent blithely writing of ” Botticelli,
Mantegna, and Co.” Fancy any scholar but a board-school
scholar writing, “Not but what little Billee had his faults.”
Fancy any author but an author of the rank of Mr. Jerome
Jerome writing, “It was the fashion to do so”—that is, to wear
long side-whiskers—”it was the fashion to do so, then, for such of


                        From “The Yellow Dwarf” 15

our gilded youth as could afford the time (and the hair).” And
fancy this—on page 13, ominous number—this dark, mysterious
intimation that the exciting parts are coming : ” He never forgot
that Impromptu, which he was destined to hear again one day in
strange circumstances.”

Yes, Trilby is slipshod enough, vulgar enough, silly enough, in
all conscience. But upon my soul, I cannot see that it is more
slipshod, or vulgarer, or sillier, than the common run of con-
temporary English novels. Indeed, on the whole, I should say it
was, if anything, a shade less silly, a shade less vulgar and slipshod,
than the novels of Miss Marie Corelli, for example, or those of
” Rita.” Why, then, should it excel them as it does in
popularity ?

I think Trilby’s advantage is an advantage of kind, rather than
of degree. I think the silliness of Trilby is a more insidious kind
of silliness, its vulgarity a more insidious kind of vulgarity, its
slipshod writing a more insidious kind of slipshod writing, than
the feeble-minded multitude have been baited with before, in a
novel. The writing, for instance, if you will study it, resembles
no other form of human writing quite so much as that jauntily
familiar, confidential, colloquial form of writing which all lovers
of advertisements know and appreciate in the circulars of Mother
Seigel’s Syrup
. Nay, do you rub your eyes ? Listen to this
excerpt :

” It is a wondrous thing, the human foot—like the human hand ;
even more so, perhaps ; but, unlike the hand, with which we are so
familiar, it is seldom a thing of beauty in civilised adults who go about
in leather boots and shoes.

” So that it is hidden away in disgrace, a thing to be thrust out of
sight and forgotten. It can sometimes be very ugly indeed—the
ugliest thing there is, even in the fairest and highest and most gifted


                        16 A Birthday Letter

of her sex ; and then it is of an ugliness to chill and kill romance, and
scatter love s young dream, and almost break the heart.
“And all for the sake of a high heel and a ridiculously pointed toe
—mean things, at the best !

” Conversely, when Mother Seigel——”

Ah, no—I beg your pardon—it is ” Mother Nature.” But
doesn t one instinctively expect “Mother Seigel ” ? And wouldn’t
the effect have been better if one had found ” Mother Seigel”? And
hadn’t the author of Trilby a sound commercial inspiration when he
selected the style of Mother Seigel’s circulars as the model on
which to form his own ? No doubt the selection was unconscious;
but there it stands ; and I cannot but believe it has had much to
do with the book’s success. When we remember that the over
whelming majority of people who read, in these degenerate days,
belong to the class of society one doesn t know, that they are
destitute of literary traditions, that they have received what they
fondly misname their ” education ” at the expense of the parish
and that they come to Trilby hot from the works of Mr. All Kine,
surely we need not marvel that the Mother Seigel style of
writing is the style of writing that “mostly takes their hearts.”

The peculiarly insidious kind of silliness which, hand in hand
with its sister graces, a peculiarly insidious kind of vulgarity, and
a peculiarly insidious kind of slipshod writing, is presumably a
super-inducing cause of Trilby’s popularity, one would have diffi-
culty in characterising by a single word. One feels it everywhere;
everywhere, everywhere, from first line to last ; but the appropriate
epithet eludes one. Is it a sentimental silliness ? A fatuously
genial silliness ? A priggish silliness ? A pruriently prudish silli-
ness ? Yes, yes ; it is all this ; but it is something else. The
essential flavour of it is in something else. If you will permit
me to use the word, sir, I would suggest that the crowning


                        From “The Yellow Dwarf” 17

quality of the silliness of Trilby is WEGOTISM. I mean that the
author s constant attitude towards his reader is an attitude of
Me-and-Youness. “Me and you—we see these things thus ; we
feel thus, think thus, speak thus ; and thereby we approve our
selves a couple of devilish superior persons, don’t you know ?
Common, ordinary, unenlightened persons wouldn’t understand
us. But we understand each other.” That is the tone of Trilby
from first line to last. The author takes his reader by the arm,
and flatters his self-conceit with a continuous flow of cheery,
unctuous, cooing Wegotism. Conceive the joy of your average
plebeian American or Briton, your photographer, your dentist,
thus to be singled out and hob-a-nobbed with by a ” real gentle-
man ” ; made a companion of the recipient of his softly-mur-
mured reminiscences and reflections, all of them trite and obvious,
and couched in a language it is perfectly easy to understand.
” Botticelli, Mantegna, and Co.” ! Why, that phrase alone,
occurring on page 2, would make your shop-walker’s lady feel at
home from the commencement.

I have mentioned the priggishness of Trilby. Were there ever
three such insufferable prigs as Taffy, the Laird, and little Billee
?—No, no ; I don’t mean three ; two, two ; for Taffy and the
Laird are one and indistinguishable.—Were there ever two such
insufferable prigs as Taffy-the-Laird and Little Billee ? And isn’t
their priggishness all the more offensive because they are vainly
posing the whole time for devil-may-care, rollicking good fellows ?
I personally know nothing about the Latin Quarter ; but you,
sir, are regarded as its exegetist. May I ask you for a little
information ? In your day, in the Latin Quarter, wouldn’t the
students amongst whom they dwelled have risen in a mass and
“done something” to Taffy-the-Laird and little Billee? I
have heard grisly stories. I have heard that students in the


                        18 A Birthday Letter

Latin Quarter, especially students of Art, are sometimes not
without a certain strain of unrefinement in their natures. I
have heard that they devoutly hate a prig. I have heard that,
though you may be as virtuous and proper as ever you like in the
Latin Quarter, you were exceedingly well-advised not to seem
so ; that if you would ” do good,” you must indeed do it ” by
stealth,” and not blush merely, but suffer corporal penalties, if you
” find it fame.” I have heard of prigs being seized at midnight
by mobs armed with cudgels ; of their clothing being torn from
their backs, and their persons embellished with symbolic pictures
and allusive texts, in paint judiciously mixed with siccatif, so that
it dried in before soap and water were obtainable. Tell us, sir,
why didn t “something happen” to Taffy-the-Laird and little
Billee ?

Though I may seem to address you in a gladsome spirit,
believe me, it is with pain that I have brought myself to write
unkind things of Trilby. Its author is a highly distinguished
gentleman, whose work in his own department of art, everybody
with an eye for good drawing, and a sense of humour, should be
thankful for. But the fact of the matter is that the art of writing
must be learned ; must be as thoroughly and as industriously
studied and practised and considered as any other art. They
understand this in France ; but in England people imagine that
any fool can write a novel—” it’s as easy as lying.” That is why
English novels, for downright absolute worthlessness, take the
palm amongst the novels of the world. It is no shame to a
highly distinguished draughtsman that, trying his hand in the
art of fiction, he should have achieved a grotesque artistic failure.
You or I would probably achieve a grotesque artistic failure, if
we should try our hands at a cartoon for Punch. The shame is
to the public, which has hailed an artistic failure as an artistic


                        From “The Yellow Dwarf” 19

Sometimes, for brief intervals, one forgets how elemen-
tally imbecile our Anglo-Saxon Public is ; and then things like
the success of Trilby come to make us remember it, and put on

And now, hence loathed melancholy, and let me turn to the
more inspiriting business of congratulating the YELLOW BOOK
upon the completion of the second year of its existence, and the
beginning of the third. I have followed your adventurous career,
sir, from the first, with sympathy, with curiosity, with amusement.
You have made a sturdy fight against tremendous odds. From the
appearance of your initial number until quite recently, you have
had all the newspapers of England, with half-a-dozen whimsical
exceptions, all the dear old fusty, musty newspapers of England
arrayed against you, striving in their dear old wheezy, cumbrous
way, to crush you, treating you indeed (please don’t run your pen
through this) as the book-émissaire of modern publications. You
have survived ; and many of your erstwhile enemies have become
your lukewarm friends. (I wish you joy of ’em ; I’m not sure you
weren’t better off without ’em.) That is surely a merry record.

It was always droll, the hysterical anger the YELLOW BOOK
provoked in those village scolds, the newspapers. I remember
reading with peculiar glee an article which used to be inserted
periodically in the columns of the Pall Mall Gazette, before its
reformation, in which you were compared at once to the Desert
of Sahara and the Family Herald ; my eye, what a combination !
The real truth is that in spite of many faults (I’ll speak of them
again in a minute), in spite of many faults, the YELLOW BOOK
has been from the commencement a very lively and entertaining
sort of YELLOW BOOK indeed ; in literary and artistic interest, and
in mechanical excellence, far and far and far-away superior to any

The Yellow Book—Vol. IX. B


                        20 A Birthday Letter

other serial in England—though that, to be sure, you may object,
isn’t saying much. Consider, for an instant, your first number
alone : the printing of it, the paper, the binding, the shape of its
page, the proportion of text and margin ; the absence of advertise-
ments, so that we could approach its contents without being
preoccupied by a consciousness of the merits of Eno’s Fruit Salt
and Beecham’s Pills ; and the pictures, and the care with which
they were reproduced, and then—and then the Literature ! There
was Mr. Henry James, a great artist at his best, in The Death of
the Lion ;
there was Mr. Max Beerbohm, with his delicious, his
immortal Defence of Cosmetics, that unique masterpiece of affec-
tation, preciosity, and subtle fooling ; there were Mr. Hubert
Crackanthorpe and Mr. Edmund Gosse, Professor Saintsbury and
Mr. Richard Le Gallienne, Mr. William Watson and Dr.
Garnett, Mr. George Moore and Mr. John Davidson ; and there
was Miss Ella D’Arcy, with her Irremediable, a short story which
has since made a long reputation. Wasn’t it a jolly company ? I
shall be grateful if any one will tell me of a single number of any
other periodical one quarter so fresh, so varied, so diverting. I
protest it was a thing that England ought to have been proud of.
And yet, what happened ? Oh, nothing which, taking one
consideration with another, you might not have expected. All
the newspapers of England, with two or three cool-headed
exceptions, went into paroxysms of frenetic rage. The foolish old
things pulled horrid faces, called naughty names, hissed, spluttered,
shook their fists, and in short, did all that could be done, by mere
mouthings and gesticulations, to frighten the tender infant to
death in its cradle. The noise was deafening, the spectacle far
from pretty, but the infant seemed to like it. He smiled, and
crowed, and flourished, and—may live to be hanged yet.

Why were the newspapers so vexed, you wonder ? Partly, I


                        From “The Yellow Dwarf” 21

surmise, because, like the wicked fairies in the fairy-tales, they hadn’t
been invited to the christening ; partly because you, sir, had perhaps
declined offers of ” copy ” from some of their enterprising young
men ; but chiefly, chiefly, because the YELLOW BOOK, was new,
and daring, and delightful, and seemed likely to please the intelli-
gent remnant of the public, and to become a power in the land.
The old story of envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.
” For was there ever anything projected that savoured of newness
or renewing, but the same endured many a storm of gainsaying or
opposition.” Fortunately, however, there was neither murder nor
sudden death. The YELLOW BOOK smiled and flourished, and
from season to season has continued to smile and flourish—till now,
here am I, giving it a Reader’s benediction on its third birthday.

At the same time, however, I must beg leave to accompany my
benediction by a few words of wholesome counsel. Brilliant as
your first number was, brilliant as on the whole all your numbers
have been, each and every one of them, if the truth must be told,
has contained more than a delicate modicum—yea, even an
unconscionable deal—of rubbish. Why do you do it, sir ? As
a concession to the public taste ? Bother the public taste !
Because better stuff you can’t procure ? You could hardly
procure worse stuff than some of the stuff I have in mind.
I won’t specify ; ‘twould be invidious to do so, and labour
lost besides, for I know your habits of mangling people’s proofs.
But examine your own conscience and your tables of contents
vous verrez! Against certain evil editorial courses, sir, do
let me warn you. Don’t publish rubbish because it is signed
by “a name ;” and don’t do so, either, because it is written by a
friend, or a friend’s friend, or a friend’s
young lady, or a friend’s maiden aunt. Don’t in a word permit yourself to be “got at.”
Cultivate your discoveries. Cultivate that admirable Baron Corvo,


                        22 A Birthday Letter

whose contributions to your seventh volume no pressman noticed
and no reader skipped ; those exquisitely humorous renderings
of an Italian peasant’s saint-lore, which read almost as if
they had been taken down verbatim from an Italian peasant’s
lips. Cultivate Mrs. (or Miss?) Mary Howarth, whose Nor-
wegian story The Deacon many of us thought the most
notable thing in your Volume VIII. Cultivate Mr. Stanley
Makower ; and the ” C.S.” and the ” O.” whom you have
cultivated too little of late—cultivate them. Cultivate Mr.
Marriott Watson (despite his tendency to stand on tip-toe
and grope for rare words in the upper ether) ; cultivate Mr. Kenneth
Grahame ; and if I do not say cultivate Mr. Henry Harland, it’s
because I rejoice to see that you’ve never shown the faintest
disposition to neglect him. And drop, drop—ah, how I should
like to tell you whom to drop ; but you wouldn’t print it.

One word more, and I’ll have done. Don’t make your volumes
too thick. Your last ran to upwards of four hundred pages ; it’s
too much ; it discourages people ; stop at three hundred, or at two
hundred and fifty. And, if you want to be really kind, reduce
your price. Five shillings a quarter for mere Literature is more
than flesh and blood can bear. Reduce your price to three-and
sixpence or half-a-crown. Five shillings ? Lord-a-mercy, sir, do
you think we are made of money ?

Your obedient servant,

P. S.—And—abolish your ” Art Department.” What on
earth can any one want with pictures in a Literary Magazine ?
Believe me, they only interrupt. It ain’t the place for them.
They don’t hang sonnets and stories between the paintings at the
Royal Academy.

MLA citation:

The Yellow Dwarf [Henry Harland]. “A Birthday Letter.” The Yellow Book, vol. 9, April 1896, pp. 11-22. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.