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Grolier Club Exhibitions

At the Bodley Head

George Egerton

Russell & Sons. George Egerton. Photograph, albumen cabinet card, [ca. 1894].

They had little direct contact, but Mary Chavelita Dunne (1859–1945), who published as “George Egerton,” and Beardsley played important roles in each other’s careers. When her first book was published by the Bodley Head, the firm established in 1887 by John Lane (1854–1925) and Elkin Mathews (1851–1921), Beardsley was given the task of designing it. Her volume of short stories asserted women’s right to freedom, especially in love and sexuality. Not surprisingly, critics quickly linked it to the “New Women” movement, praising or damning it accordingly. Its title of Keynotes alluded to wildness and passion as the “keynotes” of women’s natures, but also to debates over women having their own latchkeys, allowing them to leave the house unchaperoned. Beardsley, who may never have read the contents first, packaged them in a memorable way that helped to create a bestseller and increased his own fame in the process. 

The Dancing Faun

Florence Farr. The Dancing Faun. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.

Ella D’Arcy’s copy, presented to her by John Lane.

Watching his sister, Mabel, throw over her teaching position and forge a stage career helped to make Beardsley sympathetic to women performers’ struggles. One contemporary who managed to succeed as both an actress and author was Florence Farr (1860–1917). Her novel about Society and the theatre, The Dancing Faun, was the second volume in the Bodley Head’s “Keynotes Series.” Despite Beardsley’s appreciation of talented professional women, he could not resist doing to Farr what he had done to “George Egerton”—i.e., creating a cover and title-page that bore no relation to the text, but instead represented self-indulgence in depicting what amused him. That meant drawing a faun with a head that was a caricature of J. M. Whistler’s, holding its leg as though grasping a huge, furry penis. This copy belonged to Ella D’Arcy (1857–1937), who wrote a “Keynotes Series” volume and was sub-editor of The Yellow Book

Poor Folk: Translated from the Russian of F. Dostoievsky by Lena Milman, with an Introduction by George Moore

Inscribed copy by George Moore to Author Symons.

Poor Folk: Translated from the Russian of F. Dostoievsky by Lena Milman, with an Introduction by George Moore

Morocco binding of Poor Folk, presented to "Violet" by Lena Milman.

Fyodor Dostoevsky. Poor Folk: Translated from the Russian of F. Dostoievsky by Lena Milman, with an Introduction by George Moore. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.

Inscribed by George Moore to Arthur Symons.

AND

Fyodor Dostoevsky. Poor Folk: Translated from the Russian of F. Dostoievsky by Lena Milman, with an Introduction by George Moore. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.

Unique morocco binding with Beardsley design, presented to “Violet” by Lena Milman.

There was no overstating the hostility of conservative British bookbuyers to “foreign” literature, especially French, though also Russian. Not until 1894 was Poor Folk (1846), the first novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881), translated into English. Its translator, Lena Milman (1862–1914), was an architectural historian and Yellow Book contributor. Poor Folk became the third title in the “Keynotes Series,” which John Lane oversaw. (From the start of their partnership, Elkin Mathews was more interested in publishing poetry.) Once again, Beardsley created a cover and title-page that drew both commentary and visual parodies, as journalists and critics seized on the offending drainpipe. The clothbound copy here was a gift from the Irish novelist George Moore (1852–1933), author of the Introduction, to the poet Arthur Symons (1865–1945). Milman presented the other copy, beautifully bound with Beardsley’s design in gold-on-leather, to “Violet” (possibly the novelist Violet Hunt, 1862–1942). 

Keynotes Series of Novels and Short Stories: Twenty-One Designs by Aubrey Beardsley, with Press Notices

Keynotes Series of Novels and Short Stories: Twenty-One Designs by Aubrey Beardsley, with Press Notices. London: John Lane, 1896.

Oscar Wilde’s prosecution for “gross indecency” led to chaos at the Bodley Head, which had been publishing Wilde’s work in the 1890s. During the 1895 trials, Edward Shelley, a young employee, testified that he had been seduced by Wilde after meeting him at the Vigo Street offices. Now sole proprietor of the Bodley Head, John Lane yielded to pressure and made a show of clearing out decadent elements by firing Beardsley from his Yellow Book art editorship. Beardsley, who was no champion of Wilde, was baffled and distraught, having lost both financial security and a high-profile position. Lane, however, continued to send occasional commissions his way. Even in 1896, this advertising booklet still blazoned Beardsley’s connection with the “Keynotes Series” which, though aimed at sophisticated readers, was distributed widely, as the cover trumpeted, through “all Libraries”—i.e., circulating libraries with paid subscribers—along with “Booksellers” and “Railway Bookstalls.”

Poster for the Keynotes Series

Aubrey Beardsley. Poster for the Keynotes Series. [London: John Lane, 1895]. Color lithograph.

Like a late-twentieth-century colorizer of old Hollywood films, Beardsley took his black-and-white design for the cover and title-page of “George Egerton’s” Keynotes (1893) and turned it into a vibrant, eye-catching advertising poster for the “Keynotes Series” with surprising contrasts of scarlet and green against yellow. Making the female marionette’s parasol a bright red, however, merely highlighted its placement and risqué status as an erect phallic object. The poster was notable, too, for shuffling the titles in the series, for which Beardsley continued to provide binding designs and title-pages, and for ignoring their chronological order of publication. By no accident, at the top of the list was the current bestseller, The Woman Who Did (1895), a shocking novel by Grant Allen (1848–1899) about a “New Woman” who refused to marry her lover, and who paid the price for standing by her feminist principles and raising her child as a single mother.