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The Savoy, Nineties Experiment

edited by Stanley Weintraub
Pennsylvania State University, 243 pp., $7.50

Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau; drawing by David Levine

The Savoy swaggered into precarious existence in 1895 with a name borrowed from the new London hotel. It offered thereby, a little facetiously, the same guilty plushness as the Yellow Book, then in trouble because it was assumed, mistakenly, to be the yellow volume that Oscar Wilde was carrying at the time of his arrest. The Savoy failed to supplant its rival and expired in 1896, after eight numbers, with a graceful editorial alas.

Stanley Weintraub, who two years ago edited a selection from the Yellow Book, has now made an anthology of the Savoy. Useful as it is, it perpetuates a notion of the magazine that is more dated than the magazine itself. By his eclectic choice of material, Mr. Weintraub endorses unquestioningly the Savoy’s claim to be interested in good writing of any school. He names Aubrey Beardsley as the one unifying agent. Beardsley designed the covers and most of the illustrations, characterized by androgyny and decorative excess; he also contributed four chapters of dilative prose, with the same qualities, entitled Under the Hill. But while Beardsley could preserve the magazine from respectability, always a danger, he was too frail in talent and perspective to give it substance. To say the magazine might have been called “The Beardsley,” a remark of Hesketh Pearson which Mr. Weintraub quotes with approval, is wrong as well as inept.

The editorial tendency is to flip and patronizing summaries. Beardsley is “the doomed young artist,” Arthur Symons is “a dedicated young literary jack-of-all-genres,” Leonard Smithers is “a pasty-faced pornographer.” Smithers did not actually write pornography; he published some, and with even more courage published as well some of the best writing of the time. Mr. Weintraub doesn’t avoid the inclination of literary historians of this period to fall into Ninety-ese; the men he describes are always “hitting bottom,” “dashing off a letter,” using allusions “with a vengeance,” or otherwise playing feverish, foolish roles in a pseudo-drama.

The Introduction perpetuates the literary gossip of the period and adds a few stories. It starts from the assumption that writers in the Nineties were trifling and dissolute and participated in a decade-long anecdote. Any period could be made to yield this kind of scene: It would be easy to “heighten” the fifteen years after the Nineties by offering as its principal events Yeats’s finally going to bed with Maud Gonne, Hugh Walpole’s unsuccessful advances to Henry James, Joyce’s elopement with a servant girl, and Pound’s sharing his digs one night with a burlesque queen. Such episodes have meaning in context, but ripped loose they turn history into a fragmentary series of escapades.

WHAT IS NEEDED is less anecdote, not more. The main fact about the Savoy is that it was edited by Arthur Symons at a time when he was sharing rooms, and therefore friends and ideas, with Yeats. The two extractable motifs of the magazine, neither…

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