Betjeman, Buchan, Wilde and The Yellow Book

This is an article released as part of The FrankenPod’s exploration of Oscar Wilde and his place in the gothic literary canon.

The poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is a subtle yet insistent condemnation of the society that allowed for the prosecution of Wilde. In depicting the final moments before Wilde’s arrest Sir John Betjeman talks of The Yellow Book.

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Sir John Betjeman

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:

And Buchan has got in it now:

Approval of what is approved of

Is as false as a well-kept vow.

-Sir John Betjeman

To unpack this passage we need to know a little about the aforementioned Yellow book. The Yellow Book was a yellow clothbound publication that featured salacious and subversive stories, many of them French. Many note that a yellow book, similar to the future periodical was given to Dorian Gray by Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde in 1891.

Is it possible this could be part of the inspiration for the name of the periodical?

Well kind of. The phenomenon of the illicit French narrative was very much alive during the time Oscar Wilde was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the yellow bound book is not an invention of Wilde’s but rather a common mode of publication for these transgressive tales. It follows that if Lord Henry was to procure such a corrupting, violent and heavily sexualized book it would more than likely have been presented in this yellow bound format. The periodical The Yellow Book is named after this publication presentation phenomenon that preceded The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It was also known as “The Yellow Nineties” due to its decade of publication.

The quarterly publication is cited as running from 1894 to 1897 and came under heat when Oscar Wilde was seen to be carrying a similar book, leading to outraged crowds throwing stones at the office of the publication. That gives you a bit of a clue as to the kind of societal outrage Oscar Wilde was facing. In this time of crisis in Wilde’s life, his arrest for gross indecency, surely seeing the publication whose name could have been inspired by his prose, give way to a style of writing so distanced from his own aesthetic style would be another blow to the great author.

The implications that this has for the poem is that these tales that challenge social mores are being supplanted by John Buchan’s more tame prose.

I am not entirely sure what Wilde’s opinion of Buchan’s writing really was but Wilde, as written by Betjeman, positions himself and aestheticism as the unconventional to Buchan’s conventionally appealing writing. By the Yellow Book publishing the work of Buchan, Betjeman is implying that challenging works such as Wilde’s that have achieved hard-earned success have been pushed aside to make way for less groundbreaking potboilers. This is a gross simplification of the two author’s works but that is not a reflection on the beauty of the poem.

The poem is the essence of the societal rejection of Wilde, his fall from favour and the sense that the world of literature will continue on without him.

John Buchan and his brand of thriller are the future and Wilde’s aestheticism is the past. Literature may have suffered greatly from the loss of Wilde’s unwritten work, but what is done is done. And in 1937 when Betjeman is writing this poem the literary scene had undergone a massive transformation, he seems nostalgic but resigned to the change that sweeps through everything eventually.

LILLIE_LANGTRY_-_Cadogan_Hotel_21_Pont_Street_Chelsea_London_SW1X_9SG
Cadogan Hotel By Spudgun67 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As the poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is the creative property of Betjeman  I will not be reproducing it in full but I am providing a link to the poem in full from Poetry By Heart who has permission to reproduce the poem.

So with that, we say goodbye to Wilde for now. The world of mystery and espionage that Buchan’s work forms part of could be in our future.

The passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray which introduces the nature of the yellow book:

“His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.”

Thanks for reading

Morgan

The League of Incense – The Villa Diodati

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Lord Byron in Greek dress

This article was written to accompany The FrankenPod episode “The League of Incense – The Villa Diodati” and our continuing exploration of Frankenstein, Or the Modern Day Prometheus and it’s author Mary Shelley.

In 1816 the after-effects of a devastating eruption of Mount Tambora the year beforehand were seriously messing with weather patterns and consequently the harvest. Farmers across the globe were struggling to make ends meet and cost of food and produce skyrocketed. Byron was still travelling. He left England in disgrace and he would never go back until they transported his cold lifeless corpse back to England against his wishes. Mary, her husband Percy and her stepsister Claire were travelling too. Referred to as the Shelley Party, or Shelley and his two little wives. The two parties would cross paths between 10 June to 1 November 1816 at Lake Geneva that would be intensely documented and scrutinised.

 

Whilst Mary and her novel may be our primary point of interest, she is not the driving force behind the gathering of these remarkable people. No, it is her persistent and enamoured 18-year-old step sister, who had organised for the two parties to meet up using the kind of Machiavellian manipulation that only a strong-willed 18-year-old woman can orchestrate. Claire Clairmont had, through written correspondence, pursued Lord Byron and, he, exhausted from the constant scandal was absolutely willing to have an affair with a pretty, chaperone-less young lady who was the stepdaughter of one of the most esteemed thinkers of his age.

Their affair was short-lived and Byron unceremoniously ditched her. Claire, however, was not done with him and she began to utilize all the social capital she had at her disposal. If you haven’t caught on yet Byron is an arse. He was accused of all sorts of adulterous and licentious behaviour including a rumoured affair with his half-sister. He spent his time hopping from scandal to scandal, leaving a path of destruction in his wake. His behaviour was particularly devastating to the women he had affairs with as the scandal could ruin their lives. He was very assured of his own genius and place in the world and he thought nothing of dismissing the affections of this young woman until she introduced Percy and Mary into the mix.

Byron, like Percy and numerous other young writers of the time, was fascinated by Mary. This daughter of two literary greats must be special indeed. And Percy had previously sent Byron a copy of Queen Mab in which the older poet saw a budding poetic voice emerging. Plus Byron had dealt with his fair share of public scandal so he felt a certain affinity with the young unwed couple.

However, Byron was leaving for Geneva and Claire was not going to give up just yet. She asked for the address.

He said no.

She asked again but this time she offered to bring Mary and Percy along.

This idea appealed to Byron and an invitation was extended to the Shelley party who by this stage was essentially on the run from Percy’s creditors and the scandalous reputation they had acquired in England.

Byron was not travelling alone, his laudanum addiction provoked him to retain the services of a doctor to accompany him in his travels, one Doctor John Polidori. Literary lore and Polidori’s own account of his time with the genius poet depicts a Byron as a potential sociopath who would constantly berate and belittle his paid companion, whilst demonstrating an easy charm and playfulness with others. He enjoyed toying with the young doctor, delighting in his failures and missteps. But Polidori had a secret; he had been paid quite a large sum of money by publisher John Murray to document the trip for publication. Byron gossip was a high priced commodity, and though his motives were far from pure, it is Polidori’s notes to which we owe a large portion of what we know of the events that transpired at the on the holiday…

Listen to The FrankenPod League of Incense – The Villa Diodati now.

Or keep reading… Or both

Continue reading The League of Incense – The Villa Diodati

Strange Mechanical Grotesques, The Harlot’s House By Oscar Wilde

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot’s house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The ‘Treues Liebes Herz’ of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,

Then took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
‘The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.

But she–she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.

“The Harlot’s House” by Oscar Wilde, can be found in Selected Poems of Oscar Wilde, first published in 1911.

The_First_Quadrille_at_Almack's

I am aware that the above image is of an upper-class quadrille, but I figure that they led a charmed existence compared with the Victorian sex workers referred to in Wilde’s deathly quadrille, so I think they can take the hit on this one.

In this poem of Wilde’s, we get another dose of heady voyeurism, such as would delight Lord Henry himself. We have an unfortunately common example of Oscar Wilde fetishizing or othering the poor and underprivileged, potentially taking advantage of the terrible conditions force some of them into sex work, for the narrator’s own voyeuristic intentions. This poem seems to be moralizing in a way that, if you had read the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray alone you would have thought he was entirely uninterested in.

The main reason to attribute morality to this poem is by way of the very clear link between the voyeurism of the couple beholding the spectacle of the brothel and the woman being tempted into joining the spectacle. The spectacle of the brothel is partially obscured to the casual observer who might find the scene tantalising and irresistible. But as soon as one passes over the threshold they find that there is nothing but corruption and death on offer in “The Harlot’s House”.

The sex workers, who are often interpreted as all female due to their shrill voices, and the description of one clutching “A phantom lover to her breast”, attempt to behave seductively and succeed on a surface level but they are simply going through the motions, they have become just another cog in the machinery of industrialised Victorian England. They attempt to play and dance like their heart is in it, but the implication (if we are to be generous to Wilde) is that they have become jaded. If we are less generous to Wilde then he is simply viewing the poor and underprivileged sex workers as mere objects that imitate human form. For all Wilde’s dress reform advocacy and beliefs about female independence, he is still a Victorian gentleman whose advocacy didn’t quite breach class divides.

I have a question, and I would love input so feel free to email me thefrankenpod@gmail.com :

Is the “tune” going “false” the corruption of the narrator’s partner or is it simply the discovery of the true nature of the brothel? It seems like the illusion is shattered, but also it seems like enough time has passed for the dawn to “with silver-sandalled feet, [creep] like a frightened girl.“. We are told it happens suddenly, but they appear to be there for quite some time, at least outside. So is it merely voyeurism and disappointment, or voyeurism and corruption?

Among other references, I used this as a springboard.

Thanks for reading!

Morgan of The FrankenPod

P.S. Obligatory Frankenstein and Gothic Literature links

I think we can agree that this macabre spectacle of the brothel and the part human automatons therein is inherently a gothic spectacle with imagery such as skeletons, phantoms and ghostly apparitions used to paint the picture of the decadent and ostensibly lively Victorian brothel. The othering of the sex workers as the undead and unnatural makes them of the Creature’s kin in Mary Shelley‘s novel Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus.