Regarding the Colour Yellow in Victorian Literature and Literary Periodicals
This week we are taking a sharp turn away from Victorian Realism and, appropriately, diving headlong into the decadence of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Last week, Dr. Martin had us explore The Yellow Nineties Online, a digital archive of Victorian periodicals such as The Yellow Book, maintained by Ryerson University students and faculty. While The Yellow Book itself is not explicitly referred to in Wilde’s novel, a yellow book indeed appears, its presence yielding a dramatic, hedonistic response from Dorian. Deanna R. will examine the corrupting influence of “the yellow book that Lord Henry” (158 emphasis mine) sends to Dorian in a separate blog post, but before she does, I want to take a moment and examine the significance behind Wilde’s choice of yellow for this particular book.
The colour yellow in relation to literature, for the Victorians, was synonymous with decadence. This association eventually grew beyond mere decadence, however, encompassing the aesthetes of the 1890s and excessive indulgence of debaucherous levels, largely due to Oscar Wilde himself. But yellow books had been making appearances in Victorian literature decades before The Picture of Dorian Gray with the intent of marking their fictional readers with an air of laziness, superficiality, and even deviousness. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel, Lady Audley’s Secret, published in 1862, mentions “yellow-paper-covered novels” (Braddon “Phoebe’s Suitor”) in relation to two characters—Lady Audley and Robert Audley—whose morals, or lack thereof, are directly linked to their enjoyment of the morally questionable novels bound in yellow. While the source of this reputation for yellow-bound novels is rather straightforward—a “yellow dust jacket generally denoted . . . risqué French fiction” (Ledger 5)—it is the brouhaha surrounding these yellow volumes in the late 1890s that is of particular interest to me.
One such yellow volume was the aforementioned The Yellow Book. A literary periodical spanning 1894-1897, The Yellow Book (henceforth TYB) was one of many 1890s publications “actively promot[ing] . . . new aesthetics” (Claes and Demoor 133). Luckily for publishers Elkin Mathews and John Lane, as well as editor Henry Harland, the aesthetics that the periodical wished to promote were evident in the ostentatious yellow cover. By the time of its inaugural issue in April 1894, works bound in yellow were expected to contain literature and artwork of a most licentious nature, and the team behind TYB aimed to oblige. Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, in an overview of TYB (found here), asserts that “the periodical was . . . to combine the avant-garde with the traditional in its visual and verbal contents” in addition to appealing to a “transatlantic readership interested in beautiful objects” (Kooistra). Koenraad Claes and Marysa Demoor also highlight TYB’s aspiration “to be a Total Work of Art,” arguing that “the aesthetic project would obviously be highly jeopardized if each issue could not be considered an artwork complete in itself, of which every single aspect was artistic” (116). This emphasis on aesthetics, particularly through the use of its yellow cover, is why TYB was “probably the most (in)famous magazine of them all” in the onslaught of periodicals that appeared in the 1890s (Claes and Demoor 133). Despite the blatant association with the risqué French novels that imbued the colour yellow with seductive depravity, TYB itself was, as Wilde pointed out, “not yellow at all” (Ledger 6).
Curiously, it was TYB’s alleged association with Wilde that subjected the periodical to intense public scrutiny for its supposedly degenerate content. At the time of Wilde’s arrest in 1895, “two newspaper men noted that the disgraced author had under his arm a large volume bound in yellow” (Ledger 5). The large volume was widely reported to be TYB, and although Wilde in fact carried a French novel under his arm, “as far as the newspapers were concerned, [he] was accompanied to his trial by [TYB]” (5). Combined with the “reinforced intertextuality by the fact that the very title of [TYB] appears” in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (see above), TYB was quickly “cemented in the cultural imagination of the 1890s” with “aestheticism and Decadence and . . . homosexuality” (5). For their part, the team behind TYB, including art editor Aubrey Beardsley, had “ruled out any involvement of Wilde in [TYB]” (6). Yet the devil is in the details, or, more specifically, the advertisements, and TYB, “for all its infamous reputation, was continuously able to draw on a far wider array of advertisers than its rivals” (Claes and Demoor 145).
Rival publications such as the Savoy had, from the outset, “considerably smaller advertisement sections” than that of TYB—“so small in fact that they are easily overlooked” (Claes and Demoor 146). TYB’s ability to attract an array of advertisers from its inception, along with the (initial) retention of those advertisers following the controversy surrounding the trials of Wilde, speaks to the salaciousness, or lack thereof, found within TYB. TYB “was clearly marketed for a larger audience” (136), and in the interest of appealing to this larger audience, TYB’s “particular image noticeably changes after 1895 . . . its contents . . . markedly more conventional” (148). The language here is important; “more conventional” implies that TYB’s content prior to Wilde’s 1895 arrest and subsequent trial was, at least to some extent, conventional. Notwithstanding the periodical’s efforts to maintain a wide readership through myriad satiating actions—dismissing art editor Aubrey Beardsley, for example—TYB “is usually portrayed as the first truly Aesthetic-Decadent British periodical because of its sensational contents” (136). Indeed, Claes and Demoor suggest that TYB “may be viewed as the avant-garde coteries’ first attempt at reaching out towards the public and making money out of that particular image” (148). That particular image—decadent, lascivious, yellow—reinforced through both the name and the visual presentation of TYB, made the publication “virtually synonymous with decadence” (Kooistra). And despite all that yellow, as Wilde so poignantly remarked, TYB was still “not that yellow at all” (Ledger 6).
Braddon, M. E. Lady Audley’s Secret. [Auckland, N.Z.]: The Floating Press, 2009. ebook
Collection. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
Claes, Koenraad, and Marysa Demoor. “The Little Magazine in the 1890s: Towards a “Total
Work of Art”” English Studies 91.2 (2010): 133-49. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. “The Yellow Book (1894-1897): An Overview.” The Yellow Nineties
Online. Ryerson University, Nov. 2012. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
Ledger, Sally. “Wilde Women and The Yellow Book: The Sexual Politics of Aestheticism and
Decadence.” English Literature in Translation, 1880-1920. 50.1 (2007): 5-26. Project
MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP]. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Norman Page. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview,
 Publisher John Lane succumbed to public pressure following Wilde’s conviction of gross indecency and fired art editor Aubrey Beardsley.