Friday, 17 April 2020

Never Judge a Book by its Colour

I've received a couple of questions about William Watson, one of whose poems featured here the other day, mainly along the lines of "Who he?". Well, he is now a somewhat obscure literary figure - deservedly so if the example of his work which I posted is anything to go by - who first came to my notice because he was born in Burley-in-Wharfedale, the village half way between Otley and Ilkley. Sir William, as he apparently was, nearly became Poet Laureate on more than one occasion, but didn't. He did however contribute to The Yellow Book, which is the other reason I had vaguely heard of him. The Yellow Book was a quarterly publication whose contributors included all sorts of fin de siècle luminaries such as Henry James, W.B. Yeats, H.G. Wells and so on; and has cropped up in a number of books that I have read, most recently David Lodge's 'Author, Author' which is about James. It appears that the cover colour and the name was chosen because that was the generic term at the time for salacious French novels - one such features in the story of Dorian Gray's descent into decadence - and they wanted to be cool by association. 

Note the exchange rate

As a bit of research I have dipped into an edition - the one whose cover appears above - and must report that it hasn't aged well. It opens with another terrible poem by Watson - the Lower Wharfe Valley is not to poetry what it is to wargaming - and then moves on to a pretty unreadable essay by James. I am aware that my own prose style is somewhat convoluted, full of ellipses, subordinate clauses and whatnot, but James makes me look like Ernest Hemingway in comparison. On top of that he sprinkles his work with untranslated French phrases in italics; not terribly comme il faut if you ask me.

Their marketing ploy backfired somewhat in the end. Oscar Wilde turned up to one of his trials clutching a racy novel recently arrived from Paris, but the colour of the cover made everyone assume that it was The Yellow Book itself. Given that Wilde was about to go to prison for gross indecency what they found they had actually achieved was to appear débauché by association with him.

“Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.” - Oscar Wilde

Here's a faux French phrase that might have livened up Henry James' article: A woman walks into a pub and asks for a double entendre, so the barman gives her one.

1 comment:

  1. I assume this is where the phrase ' the yellow press' comes from ?