Saturday, November 05, 2005

BOOK: James Nelson, "Publisher to the Decadents"

James G. Nelson: Publisher to the Decadents: Leonard Smithers in the careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. 0271019743. xvi + 430 pp.

Leonard Smithers was a London publisher who was active during the 1890s. I heard about him in Hesketh Pearson's biography of Oscar Wilde, and in Matthew Sturgis's biography of Aubrey Beardsley. Among other things, he published Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol and the literary magazine The Savoy with contibutions by many of the English decadent authors. Beardsley worked for him as art editor of The Savoy, as well as the illustrator of several of his books. Indeed Smithers's role in Beardsley's career is very important: after the Oscar Wilde scandal of 1895, Beardsley had lost his job as art editor of another magazine, The Yellow Book, and no publisher except Smithers would give him work. But nevertheless, in these mentions I usually had the impression that Smithers tends to come across as a somewhat shady character, chiefly a publisher and seller of pornographic books, and as for his his relationship with Beardsley, this often looked a little exploitative, with Smithers squeezing every last bit of work out of Beardsley even though the latter was practically on his deathbed, and Smithers sometimes late in paying him, etc. Anyway, after all this, I was glad to see that here is a whole book about Smithers and his role in English publishing in the 1890s, and after reading it, I am also very glad to see that Smithers wasn't quite so bad as he perhaps appears from some of the mentions in other people's biographies. He did have his faults, but in many ways he comes across as almost a sympathetic character.

I guess that technically this book could be called a biography, but it has a strong emphasis on Smithers's publishing career, and contains very little information about any other aspects of his life; e.g. almost nothing of his youth or his early career before he took up publishing (he worked as a lawyer in Sheffield for some time), and fairly little about his family; similarly, his last years are told fairly briefly because his publishing business was in a permanent slump by then. But then all of this this is not really a big deficiency, because after all he is interesting because of his publishing career, not because of his personal life, and there probably isn't much information about his personal life anyway.

Smithers's publishing career started with collaborations with Richard Burton, resulting in translations of Catullus and of Latin Priapic epigrams. After Burton's death, Smithers published new editions of several of Burton's works, although this involved a lot of bickering with Burton's widow, who wanted the new editions to be expurgated while Smithers wanted to be as faithful to Burton's texts as possible. Perhaps the best known of these republications is a 12-volume “Library Edition” of the Arabian Nights. I found this chapter of the book very interesting, as I had previously been only very vaguely aware that Smithers and Burton had collaborated at all.

During Smithers's first years as a publisher, he worked together with a bookseller, printer, and pornographer named H. S. Nichols, and together they published a number of more or less clandestine pornographic titles. Their books were usually finely produced and very expensive, aimed at a rather narrow segment of wealthy customers (see Smithers's statement of his production values, pp. 43–4; see also pp. 106–7; for instance, he usually printed his books at the Chiswick Press, one of the best printers in London at the time, p. 108; and despite his undoubted business skills, he was often willing to follow his enthusiasm for some project even when it might have made better business sense to avoid it: indeed several people described him as unbusinesslike, pp. 108–9). Part of the reason for this was also that it gave them excuse, in case they should get in trouble with the law, that their books were intended for discerning readers with a scientific interest in the subject matter, and were not intended to corrupt the morals of the wider public (pp. 41–2). In fact Burton had adopted a similar approach when he first published his translation of the Arabian Nights some ten years earlier; his erudite notes, together with the exotic source of the subject matter, were an excuse to invoke anthropology and ethnology and to claim that his publication partly has the nature of a scientific work. Of course this is in a way true, but at the same time it is surely hypocritical to say that readers of such books as Burton's Arabian Nights weren't mostly reading them for the sake of the stories and the titillation rather than in order to study the anthropology of the middle eastern cultures. Interestingly, the attitude of the public towards publications of this sort had grown more severe rather than more tolerant in the period between Burton's original publication of the Nights and the year 1894 when Smithers published his edition (pp. 41–2). Incidentally, Burton seems to have made a fair amount of money from his edition of the Nights (p. 12) — the books sold for far more than they cost to manufacture. (Of course, the cost of the years and years of work that he spent translating them were probably not factored in this calculation.) This example showed that it might be possible to make money by publishing books like that, and may have encouraged Smithers to take up his publishing career.

The most important part of Smithers's career, however, was in the second half of the 1890s. After the Wilde trial of 1895, the public was in a furore against the young authors of the ‘decadent’ movement, and most publishers didn't want to publish any more of their work for fear of public backlash. Smithers was a rare exception, and his support made possible the continued career of such people as Dowson, Beardsley, as well as other less well-known authors.

During 1896 he published a literary magazine titled The Savoy. It was condemned by many critics, e.g. as being full of “the abnormal, the bizarre”, but in fact most of its contents were innocent enough (p. 74): the public and the critics were probably lashing out at the mere sight of the names of some of the contributors, rather than honestly evaluating the contents. (I remember reading in Matthew Sturgis's biography of Beardsley, ch. 6, p. 223, that he at some point made a small experiment: at the time when many reviewers were criticizing or even mocking his work, he published two drawings in The Yellow Book under pseudonyms, and a few other drawings in the same issue under his own name; the reviewers were quite critical of the latter but fairly kind towards the ones published under pseudonyms.)

This book points out in several places that, not long after the decadent 1890s were over, memoirists and commentators took to exoticizing and romanticizing the period and its leading personalities — in the spirit, I guess, of that Italian saying: even if it isn't quite true, at least it makes a good story. It's good to keep this in mind in case I eventually decide to read any of these memoirs. See pp. 94, 284–5, and also pp. 241–2, where the following books are mentioned: Bernard Muddiman's The Men of the Nineties (1920), Osbert Burdett's The Beardsley Period (1925), Richard Le Gallienne's The Romantic Nineties (1926), and J. Lewis May's John Lane and the Nineties (1936). The exaggerations of memoirists like these have also helped to establish the unfairly negative image of Smithers that is evident in many publications throughout the 20th century (pp. 284–5).

Occasionally Smithers also did some ‘vanity publishing’, i.e. when an author was willing to pay most of the costs of a publication (p. 104). For example, he published two books by Aleister Crowley in 1896, very finely produced, at Crowley's expense (pp. 104–5; Aceldama and White Stains).

There is an interesting discussion on pp. 170–2 about whether Smithers was exploitative towards Beardsley (as has sometimes been claimed), pushing him to work despite his ill health, or involving him in his drinking and carousing again despite Beardsley's ill health. But the fact is that “Beardsley loved to have a good time when his health permitted, and work was his life's blood” (p. 172). He was aware that the years of working with Smithers gave him the opportunity to produce and publish much of his finest work.

Smithers also worked with Wilde after the latter's release from prison; he published Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol and two plays. However, in later years their relationship took a sad turn. The ballad sold well, but the plays didn't; Wilde found himself unable to write any new work; desperate for money, he sold a partial scenario for a new play several times to different people, including Smithers, and in the resulting complications acted rather dishonourably towards the latter (pp. 220–3).

But the end of Smithers's career was also sad. His books were sold at high prices, but they were also expensive to produce, and too many of them failed to sell enough copies. This led to liquidity problems, debts, and finally to the bankruptcy of his publishing business in 1900 (pp. 258–61). After that he went back to publishing and selling pornography and pirated editions (e.g. of many of Wilde's works); p. 263. His health also deteriorated, and the resulting pain drove him to drinking and drugs, which of course only made his decline faster (p. 208). Eventually his wife left him and he died in extreme poverty in 1907.

Smithers was not only a publisher but also a bookseller. One of his catalogues advertises a copy of Thomas à Kempis “most tastefully and appropriately bound in human skin”. :-) P. 52.

There's a photograph of Smithers's wife, Alice, on p. 92. Donald Olson in his fictionalized biography of Beardsley, The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley, describes her in a memorable phrase as “a broad good-natured ex-trollop” (ch. xv, p. 340 in the 1994 Black Swan edition), and by looking at the photo I can't help thinking that the phrase is somehow apt, although, judging by Nelson's book, Alice Smithers was in fact genuinely fond of her husband and faithful to him despite his faults (p. 280 in Nelson's book), and calling her an ex-trollop is probably quite unkind and false. Good-natured may be closer to the mark; cf. Sturgis's biography of Beardsley, p. 285.

There was apparently a fair amount of snobbishness and elitism in the literary circles of that time. Smithers, an unpretentious man “who relished good food and drink, congenial company and conversation” (p. 94), was often the target of contempt. See the interesting comparison on p. 93 — other publishers such as Lane or Matthews would certainly never be seen drinking and carousing with their authors. During Smithers's 1899 affair with the artist Althea Gyles, “[t]he response of Gyles's arty friends to her love affair with Smithers reveals just how morally straitlaced and hypocritical people such as Yeats or Symons were (or had become)” (pp. 270–3). I was never particularly enthusiastic about Yeats, nor have I read much of this work, but after what I've seen of him in this book, I must say that I'm very disappointed and I doubt that my interest in Yeats will increase any time soon.

In the end, this kind of prejudice may have also contributed towards Smithers's poor reputation in the later decades: “Smithers's story was told largely by his enemies, men who were offended by what they alleged to be his rough Yorkshire brogue, his coarse language, his unconventional behavior, and, above all, his undisguised sexual pecadilloes. [...] he didn't have quite the right manners, the required social graces,the aesthetic tone of that so very important Nineties cenacle of young writers and artists which included Yeats, Beerbohm, and Will Rothenstein.” (P. 284.)

All in all, this is a very good book, interesting and well-written; fair towards Smithers, it doesn't hesitate to dispel exaggerations and prejudices spread by early 20th-century memoirists; you can also see that the author takes an interest in book production, typography, binding, issue sizes, etc., and always describes these things when the story of Smithers's carreer reaches the point when he published a new book. At the end there's also an appendix with a list of all the books published by Smithers. This would probably be very valuable for collectors, but unfortunately not for me, because most of these books are precious rarities and therefore well beyond my means.

I only have a couple of minor complaints about the book, both related to the endnotes. It would be good to include, in the header of each page, information about the chapter (or range of pages) to which the notes on that page refer; this would make it much easier to find the note you want. Secondly, there is no explicit bibliography in this book; instead, the bibliographic information about each work cited is given in the endnote where it is first mentioned, and from there on only the title is mentioned. The problem is that it can be difficult to find the first note that refers to a given book (and therefore contains its publication details). But this is just nitpicking. Apart from that, the notes are OK; they're good and thorough.


  • Brian Reade's 1967 Aubrey Beardsley, the definitive collection of Beardsley's work.
  • Nelson's two earlier books about English publishing in the 1890s, The Early Nineties: A View from the Bodley Head (1971) and Elkin Matthews: Publisher to Yeats, Joyce, Pound (1989).
  • Various memoirs referring to the 1890s, most of them published in the first half of the 20th century. See the list from pp. 241–2 above, as well as: Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties; Will Rothenstein, Men and Memories; Edgar Jepson, Memories of a Victorian; Robert Sherard, The Real Oscar Wilde; Vincent O'Sullivan, Aspects of Wilde.
  • I also hope to eventually read more by and about Dowson, with whom I am so far fairly unfamiliar. There's Jad Adams' recent biography of Dowson, Madder Music, Stronger Wine, and the University of Birmingham recently published two books of Dowson's works (Collected Poems and Collected Shorter Fiction).
  • Many of the books, especially the poetry, published by Smithers during the 1890s might also be interesting to read. But as I said above, most of them are far too expensive. (I did get Arthur Symons's Silhouettes at an affordable price, though; see my post back in January.) Several of them were reprinted during the 1990s by the Woodstock Press in its ‘Decadents, Symbolists, Anti-Decadents: Poetry of the 1890s’ series, but unfortunately those reprints also tend to be fairly expensive. Well, at the very least, I should get around to reading Martin Secker's copious 1948 antology, The Eighteen Nineties: A Period in Prose and Verse, which has been waiting on one of my shelves for some time.

Of course, if and how and when I'll buy and/or read any of these books is an entirely open question. :-) Especially all those memoirs — on the one hand I'm curious about the period, but on the other hand if I were to go and read so many memoirs about it, I'd probably feel like some kind of ridiculous and contemptible groupie.


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