The New Woman and The Yellow Book: Commercializing The Female Body
© Samantha Baran, Ryerson University, 2020
Women in the 1890s
Women were the inspiration and guardians for civilization in 1890s Victorian England. With the female body as the symbol for a successful domestic sphere and procreation, women were idealized in the home as “Angels of the House”. This image of the Angel of the House antagonized women’s existence within the public sphere of Victorian society.
Since bourgeois femininity was defined in relation to private spaces, women who sought enjoyment outside of the home were problematic to proper bourgeois customs. Public women were dislocated and seen as without the prescribed domestic duty that characterized socially-acceptable femininity in the 1890s. The image of women in the 1890s, and particularly women in public en masse, was shaped by male anxiety.
Women and The Yellow Book
The New Woman was a figure popularized in the press from 1893 until 1897. The dichotic depiction of the New Woman configured her as an idol and as the antagonist within Victorian society in women’s presses and the mainstream press, respectively. The varying depictions of women within The Yellow Book resembled the dichotic reception of the New Woman, begging the question: did The Yellow Book promote or antagonize the New Woman figure? The Yellow Book was filled with stories, essays, and poems not only about women but also by women; and some of these works were very much resemblant of the New Woman. Contributors like John Lane deliberately attracted female authors of New Woman fiction but with the underlying effort to pay them low royalties. With the Prospectus to the magazine announcing that the content would depart from the “bad old traditions of periodical literature” in order to provide a popular “beautiful piece of book-making”, efforts to publish works about and representative of the New Woman are morally debatable.
The visual depictions of women were predominantly by men; and these images often depicted women within scandalous employments and situations. While the traditional Angel of the House symbolized women within the domestic sphere, the New Woman was the figure who emblematized women within the public sphere. The commercial value of using The Yellow Book’s pages to formulate a debate about the New Woman enabled the magazine’s contributors to commoditize and profit from the varying receptions of the New Woman’s body. In essence, the visual depiction of the New Woman was not a part of the magazine’s attempt to evade old traditions of misogyny, but was rather a controversial marketing tactic to increase the commercial value of The Yellow Book.
The New Woman and the Male Gaze
Male readers and critics considered the New Woman as an imposing figure infringing on the solidarity of Victorian societal structure. The New Woman’s attempt to overcome established sexual constructs for femininity and women’s rights created the fear of a sexless society for male critics. The mainstream press assisted to create the negative reception of the New Woman by bringing her to national attention as a negative icon within popular culture. Mainstream press considered her as the dystopian emblem of the Victorian female. She was formed as a symbol of a sexless, rebellious world and deployed in images that represented her as a mannish brute intent on abolishing femininity.
The New Woman jeopardized the survival of the race through what critics feared was a rejection of procreative sex because of her perceived desire to integrate into the patriarchal public sphere of Victorian society. Victorian male critics worried that the New Woman’s egoism would result in voluntary sterility since they assumed that the New Woman could only achieve sexual equality by controlling her fertility through modes like abortion and infanticide. The New Woman became a sign of the negative progression of the female sex that would abolish her essential role as a wife and mother and ultimately lead humanity into racial extinction. Instead of children and other symbols of the domestic sphere, the New Woman was depicted as surrounding herself with literature that challenged her subordinate role within the Victorian patriarchy. The mainstream press created portraits of masculine women who rejected their natural maternal role and sought existence outside of the domestic sphere.
The New Woman and the Female Gaze
Women writers and critics first invented the New Woman as a fictional icon in order to represent the political woman of the coming century. The New Woman figure who was popularized in novels and mainstream periodicals by women in the 1890s was intended as a respectable symbol of a new female political identity that vied to improve and reform English society: she represented feminists’ utopian vision of the model social reformer. Women writers and critics centered the New Woman’s interest in the body politic and social justice as an extension of her domestic duties as opposed to a challenge of her role within the domestic sphere. For the women who published journals that included the New Woman, she was by extension a domestic manager who was able to take her domestic skills into the public life for the betterment of English society. This representation of the New Woman allowed feminists to claim a special role for their sex within the public sphere that was not in opposition to women’s traditional maternal role.
A vital part of traditional womanhood was represented in depictions of women’s dedication to domestic duties and motherhood. Women writing in the women’s press in the 1890s advocated fulfilling employment only for unmarried women while ultimately encouraging women to seek joy through marriage and motherhood. The New Woman’s proclaimed commitment to the home and British nation was a defense against the charges of the mainstream press. The incorporation of images of respectability was central to the women’s press where image became essential to gathering support from an often-condescending patriarchal public.
Aline Szold’s “Maternity”: The Angel of the House
The Angel of the House was expected to be a devoted, submissive figure who exercised an agency within the domestic sphere. Although the woman symbolized the domestic sphere, she was inevitably confined to the domestic sphere by the dominating patriarchal forces of her husband and Victorian society. The expectation to maintain the image of purity or face social retribution, as well as Queen Victoria’s adoption of domesticity, motivated women to operate passively within the domestic sphere of their homes.
Aline Szold’s “Maternity” is an idealized representation of the maternal role of women. A feminine ideal is expressed via the male gaze in Szold’s image by way of the motherly, domestic realm occupied by the image’s subject. However, the external male gaze also omits male involvement in the actions depicted in “Maternity”. Although the male gaze observes the subject, the female gaze and the child’s gaze are fixated on one another as opposed to the male observer. The woman in the image is autonomizing the domestic sphere by exercising her maternal role. The woman sustains her control by averting her gaze from the patriarchal gaze of her husband. Szold depicts the woman as an autonomous figure operating by way of her own agency and gaze that does not literally look to the male gaze for instruction. By averting her gaze to the child, the woman is an autonomous figure who can exercise a dominant agency in the domestic sphere by way of her motherhood.
While Szold is representing an image of the Angel of the House, the autonomy of the female gaze does not make the Angel of the House a passive figure but rather an active figure who can exercise agency over the domestic sphere by way of her femininity. The woman in Szold’s work can be the New Woman: she resists the male gaze and patriarchal authority to exercise her own womanly control over her domestic sphere. The Yellow Book cleverly acknowledges the stereotype of the Angel of the House, but the woman in the image can be depicting the New Woman who is able to resist patriarchal authority to exercise both an autonomy over her body and her domestic sphere. The Yellow Book is able to proport the stereotype of the Angel of the House to allow for a marketability that encompasses several perspectives of women and the New Woman.
Aubrey Beardsley’s “Night Piece”: The Public Woman
Beardsley’s “Night Piece” is resemblant of the male anxiety surrounding the New Woman in the 1890s. Women walking the street at night, even the New Woman, were considered prostitutes. Thus, Beardsley’s piece has a vulnerability attached to the female subject because she risks losing the value of her purity through this connection to a prostitute. The woman alone at night equates her to a prostitute in Victorian society, but her asserting an independence by choosing to walk the street at night also shows her as exercising an autonomy in the public sphere. Nonetheless, the woman’s assertion of her autonomy in a patriarchal sphere comes with the cost of her substituting her purity for independence.
The male gaze subverts the woman by using anxiety to shape her independence in the public sphere as a threat to Victorian patriarchal structure. The woman in the image becomes a controversial figure that demonstrates the New Woman’s ability to exercise an autonomy outside of domesticity while also endorsing female stereotypes.
The New Woman’s body in “Night Piece” stimulates this controversy in order to market The Yellow Book and the image itself to the dichotic views of the public. The autonomy of the woman in Beardsley’s piece is able to create value for those who support the New Woman figure and those who oppose based on the value and interpretation attributed to the image as a result of the observer’s preference.
Marketing the New Woman via Dichotic Female Figures
The front cover and title page for volume one and volume three, respectively, for The Yellow Book offer a dichotic representation of the New Woman that is able to create debate and controversy. Placing these dichotic figures on the initial page of The Yellow Book is a successful marketing tactic by the contributors to accumulate popularity through controversy. The magazine is able to play into the Victorian stereotypes of the New Woman on the initial pages to invigorate consumers into purchasing the volumes. Consequently, the female body, especially the New Woman’s body, attains a commercial value and is perverted via feminine and New Woman stereotypes. By placing these dichotic, debatable figures on the volume’s covers, contributors are marketing the New Woman figure and her body in order to monopolize on her controversial reception in the public sphere.
The dichotomy portrayed in these images allows the New Woman to be simultaneously feminine and masculine, hence “New”. The figures’ allusion to both masculine and feminine characteristics are the qualities that promote and antagonize the New Woman. The woman in volume one is afforded feminine characteristics and dress, but she is masked as another masked figure looms behind her. Her concealed identity and the ambiguity of the figure behind her creates controversy around the female figure. With a candle alight, she illuminates a dark room with a formidable figure. The image is shrouded in a darkness suggestive of night, further insinuating that the woman is alone at night with a stranger. This suggestion, although not spoken, creates the controversy that The Yellow Book placed a prostitute on the front cover of their first volume.
As for the title page of volume three, a starker dichotomy is depicted. Two women are shown in both feminine and masculine dress. The woman on the left conforms to the feminine ideal for dress while the woman on the right is dressed in masculine attire and conceals her identity with a mask. Both the woman on the front cover of volume one and the title page of volume three emblematize an ambiguity of identity by wearing a mask. While the woman on the left of the title page of volume three is able to reveal her identity because of her conformance to the feminine, the woman in volume one and the masculinized woman in volume three must conceal their identity. The concealment of the identity of two women operating against the societal constructs of femininity invigorates the stereotype of the New Woman as a figure who is in opposition to Victorian society. By highlighting this controversy, The Yellow Book is able to add commercial value to the periodical by using the New Woman’s body as a controversial object for marketability.
With controversy as its selling point, The Yellow Book was able to successfully market the female body via dichotic depictions of the New Woman. The New Woman was a marketing tool for the magazine that accumulated controversy through forward-thinking, critical, and scrutinizing images of her that expressed both the antagonism from the male gaze and the idealized servitude of the female gaze. The Yellow Book was able to maintain their selling point of controversy by manipulating the New Woman’s body via images that idealized and antagonized her as a figure. Contributors of the magazine strategically prostituted the New Woman figure by making her image debatable, thus conforming to the preference of the observer and enabling the magazine to appeal to a spectrum of consumers.
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