Matthew Brinton Tildesley
“We are not Realists, or Romanticists, or Decadents”, wrote Arthur Symons in his editorial note to the first issue of The Savoy, January 1896, understandably wishing to distance the magazine from the furore surrounding all things decadent in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment. However, following this denial of the label, he proclaims “For us, all art is good which is good art.” This statement has more than a hint of Wilde’s epigrammatic style, not to mention the quintessential Decadent creed “art for art’s sake”. In The Savoy, Symons, along with chief illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, publisher Leonard Smithers and the contributors to the magazine, were attempting to navigate the extremely difficult route that lay between the desire to explore areas in art, literature and philosophy typified by the Decadent movement, and the weight of public opinion that condemned such behaviour.
Wilde’s flagrant display of his sexuality was part of his stance taken up in opposition to Victorian mores. As the law became more restrictive over matters of sexuality, sexuality itself became an ever more potent weapon to be used against the lawmakers. Throughout the eight issues of The Savoy we find the subject of sexuality being explored in fiction, critical works and illustrations. In order to demonstrate how The Savoy managed to navigate this most precarious route that lay between the threat of prosecution and the desire to explore areas of sexuality that would be deemed subversive or clandestine, I will be examining four novellas from the magazine: the tales of Ellen (I, 103-8), Nancy (I, 31-41 and II, 99-108), Lucy (II, 147-60 and VIII, 51-61) and Beardsley’s Under the Hill (I, 151-70 and II, 187-97).
The Tales of Three Women
Within “respectable” middle-class Victorian society, women were ideally defined according to their relationships with men: they would be classed as either daughter, maid, wife or mother. This powerless feminine ideal was championed, somewhat paradoxically, by the Monarch herself; writing to Theodore Martin, Victoria decreed that ‘The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write or join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Woman’s Rights” with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting any sense of womanly feeling and propriety’. The Saturday Review (September 1871) states that “the power of reasoning is so small in woman that they need adventitious help […] they do not calculate consequences, and they are reckless when they once give way”. The same publication stated in December 1865:
No woman can or ought to know very much of the mass of meanness and wickedness and misery that is loose in the wide world. She could not learn it without losing the bloom and freshness which it is her mission in life to preserve.
It was the preservation of this freshness that resulted in the “chaste courtship and passionless marriage of Victorian legend” . Examining prostitution across the Empire, Lawrence James remarked “it was impossible for [British prostitutes] to find any pleasure in sex … a verdict that was extended to all women in general during the second half of the century” and that for a British woman to “enjoy sex for solely physical reasons was against nature”; a woman’s place was in the home and “it was as a mother, not as a bed mate, that the mid-Victorian wife fulfilled what society took to be her highest duty”.
Throughout The Savoy there are many depictions of women that oppose this view of femininity, such as “Ellen” by Rudolph Dircks. Ellen is a café waitress and has been for two years, her age indicated in “that silent, miraculous change, so imperceptible, so profound, which works in a woman between the ages of eighteen and twenty”. However, there is more to be gleaned from this early portrait: for a girl of that age to be working in a café, she must be without a financial ward, i.e. she has no dominant male in control of her affairs. In matters of looks and behaviour, she is profoundly different from her work colleagues who display “that fictitious spirit of gaiety” and “that alert responsiveness” to flirtatious behaviour from the customers. The fact that she “rather despised these coquetries of her companions” suggests social detachment and a level of education above that of the other waitresses. (I, 103.)
Ellen is an orphan, and is portrayed as being of a social class not normally associated with waitressing - it was only the untimely death of her parents that led to her to such a station. The figure of the female orphan is one which features heavily in Victorian pornographic and erotic literature, and will be discussed later, but here the key element of Ellen’s position as an orphan is the fact that she is an independent woman.
This is stressed throughout the story and specifically contrasted with the position of married women. Whilst her desire for independence is still an undefined yearning, “she had an intuitive suspicion that she possessed qualities that would be fatal to her retaining the affections of a husband, that there would be little joy for her in the companionship which would place her in the position of a wife” (I, 104). Clearly marriage marks a change in status that would restrict her freedom - the inherently subservient “position of a wife”.
After befriending an anonymous male customer, her feelings crystallise and she articulates her desire: “I don’t want to be married the same as most girls do; I don’t like men, as a rule – at least, not in that way … besides, I think I should always be happier remaining as I am at present, working for myself, independent.” (I, 107.) This may include a hint towards tribadism, but the powerful anti-establishment message here is that an intelligent young woman is rejecting the institution of marriage as it represents an unequal partnership necessitating the surrender of her independence. Following this admission she speaks of her desire for a child, leaving an unspoken invitation for the man to be the father. The fact that he remains anonymous emphasises Ellen’s determination to be independent – even in the act of procreation, the male as an individual is insignificant and certainly not superior. The contrast between Ellen and the accepted male-defined stereotypes of daughter, maid, wife or mother could not be sharper; neither the Queen nor The Saturday Review would have been amused.
The image of a young waitress with an illegitimate child would not have been uncommon. However, throughout the tale Dircks stresses the fact that Ellen is not simply a thoughtless working-class girl. Earlier in the story, former waitresses who married customers were deemed to be “fortunate” compared to those whose sudden disappearance was “simultaneous with a break in the regular attendance of certain customers” (I, 104). Ellen appears not to approve of the illicit sexual liaison. Her distancing herself from the behaviour of others strongly suggests a difference in class, and implies a morality shaped by the concepts of reputation and scandal – a quintessentially middle-class phenomenon. However, she is not bound by conventions that she perceives as being detrimental to her own happiness and freedom. Hers is an informed choice to become a mother, without being lessened by the institution of marriage. She will remain an independent woman, and not become merely another “ruined maid”. Thus Ellen wilfully subverts the sexual stereotypes of her gender and class.
Another suggestion of the social status of Ellen may be found in the portrait following the story: Chloe, by Will Rothenstein (c. 1896).
Although the portrait has different name and author, the order of the literary and artistic contents of The Savoy suggests an attempt on the behalf of the editors to match illustrations and literary works. Rothenstein’s image of serious-faced, well-dressed young woman could be seen as a further editorial suggestion as to the character of Ellen.
The concept of suggestion is very important in terms of understanding the stance of The Savoy regarding sexuality, as overt references would result in prosecution. Just as Ellen’s possible sexual orientation is merely a suggestion, as are the sexual antics of her colleagues, the tale’s ending is open enough for the reader to make up his/her own mind as to the outcome.
In Ellen, therefore, we see The Savoy very carefully depicting a character at odds with the accepted view of sexuality, but done in such a way as to avoid public outcry. She appears insignificant enough to be able to challenge the status quo without being deemed too much of a threat, and it would be possible to surmise that her actions were seen as wrong by the would-be father of her child, and that the heinous crime of single-motherhood never took place. The reader is presented with the impression of a story into which s/he inserts his or her own details according to the reader’s own moral viewpoint. This concept of suggestion was central to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde famously stated that “What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows. He who finds them has brought them”. Dircks and the editors of The Savoy are using the same technique as Wilde for the same purpose, i.e. challenging the sexual norms set out by the middle-class moral-lawmakers.
two-part tale of Nancy Nanson’s fall from grace again leaves the sins unstated,
but also borrows from Wilde’s story in both its characters and plot. The narrative takes the form of a series of
letters between Nancy, a child prodigy of the theatre, and Clement Ashton, a
portrait-painter. In this relationship
there is an echo of the early relationship between Dorian Gray and Basil
I seem to discern some change of tone – a rather quick transition or development […] which, if it is really there, is unlikely to have escaped the eye of her correspondent, and may perhaps even have prepared him in a certain measure for a denouement which, nevertheless, when it arrived, disturbed him seriously. That, at least, is my own reading of Miss Nanson’s notes. But I am possibly wrong. (II, 99)
Wedmore is distancing himself from any specific intent. The linguistic register of the introduction absolves the author of any conclusive message. Words such as “seems”, “perhaps”, “if”, “possibly” all put the weight of interpretation onto the reader in the most playfully suggestive manner. Not only does Wedmore use Wilde’s technique of reader participation in matters of morality, but he also makes it clear to the readers that this is expected of them. Indeed, there is even a second such instruction to the reader when Ashton tells Nancy that “letters, even when detailed, generally omit much, hide some part of a thought – put the thing in a way that pleases the writer, or is intended to please the receiver” (I, 31): Wedmore’s message could not be clearer.
it is not
The Goddess Revealed
as with the novellas discussed earlier, Beardsley is using the techniques and
“reference points” of the erotic book trade to direct the reader’s imagination
towards the sexually subversive. We may
be certain of his intent, as the clandestine version of the story, to which the
he made no direct contribution, Oscar Wilde may be seen as a distinctive
“shaping influence” on The Savoy. Notions of duality in the Victorian sexual
psyche, as found in Dorian Gray,
resonate throughout the magazine, and certainly the tale of
However, this covert style of literature led to the failure of the magazine as a whole; The Savoy clearly has pretensions to a wide readership, but the very nature of its content bars it from being widely read. Nods and winks may well slip past the censor, but they also limit the magazine’s appeal to the cognoscenti. Decadence is necessarily exclusive, and so a Decadent magazine, espousing decadent, subversive sexuality, could never have mass appeal.
 B. C. Bloomfield, ed., The Savoy: An Illustrated Quarterly of 1896 in Five Volumes, 5 vols. (London: Cass, 1967) 5.
 Ronald Pearsall, The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality, 2nd ed. (Harmondsworth: Pelican-Penguin, 1971) 139.
 Pearsall 137.
 Pearsall 209-10.
 James 210.
 Here Ashton’s advice echoes that of Lord Henry, who tells Dorian “You have a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it”. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ed. Peter Ackroyd. Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) 45.
 Henry Spenser Ashbee, Victorian
businessman and collector and cataloguer of pornography, is widely believed to
be the anonymous “Walter”, author of the monumental Victorian erotic journal My Secret Life. For further details see Ian Gibson, The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry
Spencer Ashbee (
 Excerpts from The Pearl and Flossie, a
Venus of Fifteen communicated privately by Professor John Manning,
"The Other Victorians Course Reader and Miscellaneous Printed
 Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians: Cardinal Manning:
 James Havoc, ed., Oscar Wilde, Salome and Aubrey Beardsley, under the Hill (London: Creation, 1999) Foreword 6.
 Stanley Weintraub, ed., The Savoy: Nineties Experiment (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1966) xiii-xv.
Beardsley, Aubrey. The Toilet. 1896. http://www.house-of-pain.com/artarchives/february2000/febart1-6.html.
Bloomfield, B. C., ed. The
Gibson, Ian. The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry
Havoc, James, ed. Oscar Wilde, Salome and Aubrey Beardsley,
Under the Hill.
Hyde, H. Montgomery. Famous Trials: Seventh Series: Oscar Wilde. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.
James, Lawrence. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of
Manning, Professor John.
"The Other Victorians Course Reader and Miscellaneous Printed
Pearsall, Ronald. The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality. 1969. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Pelican-Penguin, 1971.
Sellon, Edward, and Anonymous. The New Epicurean and The Yellow Room. Wordsworth Classic Erotica. Ware: Wordsworth, 1996.
Smithers, Leonard, and Richard Burton. Priapeia. 1890. Wordsworth Classic Erotica. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995.
Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians: Cardinal Manning:
Weintraub, Stanley, ed. The
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1891. Ed. Peter Ackroyd. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
This is thoughtful and original work which deals with a still neglected area of fin-de-siecle studies. There is a fine sense of context here, and especially of the ambience which produced The Savoy and which influenced its readers' tastes and opinions. Tildesley has produced a very nicely nuanced argument which lead to interesting new insights into the world of Wilde's less obviously flamboyant contemporaries.