‘“Let us be unconventional or we die!” is the unspoken, yet very evident, aspiration of the Modern Woman,’ fulminated the artist and travel writer Charles George Harper in Revolted Woman: Past, Present, and to Come (1894). Women like Ménie Muriel Dowie were donning knickerbockers, he sneered. They were cycling, smoking, shooting wild beasts, adventuring in the Carpathians and Africa, then having the temerity to write successful travelogues to gain a little ‘cheap notoriety’. They were also experimenting with sex, rejecting the principle, which Harper advocated, that ‘women’s mission is submission’. These women, scattering inhibitions and husbands behind them, posed a threat to male lions, whether of the savannah or the Victorian literary establishment.
In Decadent Women, Jad Adams celebrates the lives of women such as Dowie. He traces the intersecting paths of the female writers, artists and sub-editors who contributed to the notorious Yellow Book, the most beautiful magazine of the 1890s, the early covers of which featured Aubrey Beardsley’s spare, louche designs in black and citrine. The women who became part of the Yellow Book circle had very different backgrounds. They came from Australia via South America, Yorkshire via Paris, Ireland, the Channel Islands and Kent. A couple were wealthy, but most were impecunious. What united them was a stylishness, in print and often in person, that caught the eye of editor Henry Harland and publisher John Lane. These women broached topics that would be taboo in a less avant-garde publication. Intellectually and emotionally, they were open, giving the reader – even when the subject matter was dark – a delicious sense of having swallowed the oyster of the new.
Among them was the remarkable Mary Chavelita Dunne. Born to a migratory family with a feckless father, she flitted across three continents before she was a teen and became used to fending for herself. She followed the respectable avenues available to a spinster: teaching in Germany, working as a copyist