Which poisonous yellow book?

Sepia photo of Oscar Wilde holding a book that has been digitally coloured yellow

The secret of Raoul, Dorian and Oscar

“’Zola,’ said Mr Gorby thoughtfully, taking down a flimsy yellow book rather tattered. ‘I’ve heard of him; if his novels are as bad as his reputation I shouldn’t care to read them.” Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), Chapter 6


“I prefer books … in yellow covers.” The blackmailer Mrs Cheveley in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, Act II

A single object recurs in the life of Oscar Wilde: a yellow book.

He called a book that made a deep impression on him during his Oxford years his “golden book”.

Wilde read a yellow book during his honeymoon with bride Constance.

Cover of the literary journal The Yellow Book

Cover of the literary journal The Yellow Book

Wilde reportedly had a yellow book with him when he was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel and rumour spread that it was the literary journal The Yellow Book. This criminal association was enough to get illustrator and art editor Aubrey Beardsley sacked from the journal, although Wilde had never written for it.

But was Wilde reading The Yellow Book at the time, or a book with a yellow cover, and why is the colour so significant?

During the Victorian era, two kinds of books were commonly presented in yellow dust jackets: sensation novels (The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, etc.) and—horror of horrors—French fiction. Up until Wilde’s arrest, the journal The Yellow Book had deliberately traded on the association of yellow with the French literary and art movement of the Décadents. Aubrey Beardsley said in a letter to Robbie Ross in December 1893 that The Yellow Book “will look like the ordinary French novel”. There was such a strong association between the colour yellow and the avant-garde arts of the 1890s that the period is sometimes called The Yellow Nineties.

Wilde was an admirer of the Décadents and French literature in general (particularly Flaubert and Balzac), and may well have been reading a French novel at the Cadogan Hotel. His admiration for French writers didn’t endear him to the conservative majority in England.

The Wilde trial and the auction of Wilde's belongings as depicted in the Police News

The Wilde trial and the auction of Wilde’s belongings as depicted in the Police News

Joris Karl Huysmans

Joris Karl Huysmans

During Wilde’s trials, prosecutor Edward Carson used The Picture of Dorian Gray as evidence against Wilde. Carson argued that the characters in Wilde’s novel behaved immorally and that therefore Wilde himself must be immoral (one wonders why Shakespeare wasn’t cross-examined over the bad behaviour of Iago and Macbeth). Carson paid particular attention to a book within the story that influences the character Dorian and questioned Wilde as to the identity of that ‘poisonous’ book. Carson suggested that it must be the notorious À rebours by the French Décadent writer J.K. Huysmans, and then took Wilde to task over the content of that book—not a fair line of questioning, considering Wilde was not its author. It was enough, however, to further prejudice judge and jury against Wilde.

To give you some idea of the distaste with which conservative, Francophobic English people viewed French literature at the time, here’s an extract from a review of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“Dullness and dirt are the chief features of Lippincott’s this month. The element in it that is unclean, though undeniably amusing, is furnished by Mr Oscar Wilde’s story of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ It is a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Décadentsa poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction—a gloating study of the mental and physical corruption of a fresh, fair and golden youth … Dorian goes on enjoying unfading youth year after year, … defiling English society with the moral pestilence which is incarnate in him …” Daily Chronicle, 30 June 1890.

Sadly, the Francophobia of the Victorian English has robbed us of an accurate inventory of Wilde’s reading. I’ve been going through the auctioneer’s list of books taken from Wilde’s library when he was arrested. We know from his letters, reviews and essays that Wilde revered several French writers, but we can’t catalogue the individual books he owned because the auctioneer has listed them thus:

“Lot 22: French Novels, &c., 2 parcels, 40 vols.
Lot 23: A ditto Lot, 2 parcels, 40 vols.
Lot 24: Dumas’ Works, 23 vols.
Lot 25: M. Zola’s Works, &c. 23 vols.
Lot 26: French Novels, &c. 40 vols, 2 parcels
Lot 27: French Novels, &c. 40 vols., 2 parcels.”

From Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons, Volume 1, Poets and Men of Letters, edited by A.N.L. Munby

Lots 71, 72, 73, 77, 81, 83, 86, 87, and 114 in the auction catalogue are described with equal vagueness. Apparently all the prospective buyer needed to know was that these novels were French!

Which book poisoned Dorian Gray?

“[Dorian’s] eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. … ‘Le Secret de Raoul par Catulle Sarrazin. What a curious title.’ It was the strangest book 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. … It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. … For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the memory of this book.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (from the 1890 Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine version, reinstating the title of the imaginary book, Le Secret de Raoul, which was removed by Lippincott’s editor).

In court and beyond it, Wilde insisted that the book that had influenced his fictional character Dorian was an invention, had never existed, although he admitted certain books may have provided inspiration. Academics and critics have identified several possible sources that the imaginary book may have been based on.

1. The 1873 edition of Walter Pater’s book of art history, Studies in the History of the Renaissance

Wilde called this his “golden book”. Mentioning in De Profundis that he had read Pater’s Renaissance during his first term at Oxford University, Wilde referred to it as “that book which has had such a strange influence over my life”. Lord Henry Wotton, an Epicurean who urges others to indulge their senses without acting on those impulses himself, could be seen as a caricature of Pater, with whom Wilde had grown disenchanted. Passages within Dorian Gray echo the cadences and philosophy of Pater’s writing, sometimes quoting or rephrasing Pater.

To a contemporary reader, an Oxford professor’s book of art history and criticism seems an unlikely candidate for corrupting youth, but Walter Pater’s Renaissance evoked a passionate response from young men and outrage from Victorian moralists. When you say ‘the Renaissance’, I think of the greatness of Leonard da Vinci and Michelangelo and a flowering of reason and education that foreshadowed the Enlightenment. The Victorians, however, seemed to have focused on the crimes of the Borgias and the homoeroticism of Pater’s writing. Pater was so cowed by the outcry that he removed a section from the next edition of his book.

2. J.K. Huysmans’ À rebours (Against Nature/Against the Grain)

Wilde first read this book during his honeymoon. Chapter 9 of Dorian Gray is, on one level, an homage to Huysmans’ novel, with Dorian taking on the obsessions of Huysmans’ anti-hero Des Esseintes. Des Esseintes escapes the contemporary world through a series of aesthetic experiments in which art triumphs over life.

3. The imaginary book ‘Le Secret de Raoul by Catulle Sarrazin’ may have been an insider’s literary joke, alluding to:

  • Gabriel Sarrazin, a French writer who contributed to Woman’s World while Wilde was the editor
  • Catulle Mendès, another French writer Wilde knew
  • Rachilde (Marguerite Vallette), whose gender-bending novel Monsieur Venus features a character called Raoule de Vénérande.

Reading the works of French Décadent authors such as J.K. Huysmans and Rachilde today, it’s clear that they’re transgressive, but harder to see them as ‘evidence’ worthy of mention during a criminal trial. Unfortunately for Wilde, the fact that he was arrested with a yellow (and therefore most likely French) book to hand only enhanced his criminality in Victorian eyes.

© JD Ellevsen 2013

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You might also like my posts Peeping inside Oscar Wilde’s home, Oscar Wilde’s library reconstructed on LibraryThing and At Oscar Wilde’s tomb.


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