THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue



Leonard Smithers’ Role as Publisher of Teleny

James G. Nelson

In the later nineteenth century, there were coteries of the male English aristocracy given to sublimating their frustrated sexual desires by enlivening their idol hours not only reading but writing pornographic novels.  They whiled away the dull hours apart from their extravagant house parties in town and country and their nightly attendance in Parliament by crafting in conjunction with friends of like mind, pornographic literature, an activity which belied their reputations as men of unimpeachable behavior and unsullied honor.  Perhaps the best known of these cliques was one led by Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, and his close friend, the famous Captain (later) Sir Richard Burton.  Milnes was a statesman of distinction who spent most of his adult life as a Member of Parliament.  A friend of many of the most celebrated men and women of the Victorian age, Milnes was a social lion who frequently entertained the elite of the nation at his famous breakfasts in his London town house at 16 Upper Brooke street and during his weekends at his family seat in Yorkshire, Fryston Hall.  Instrumental with Thomas Carlyle in founding the London Library and subsequently serving as its president, Milnes also is remembered as the rescuer of John Keats’ reputation by writing the first biography of the great Romantic poet.  Moreover, Milnes was a book collector of note whose magnificent library at Fryston was widely known for its splendid editions of rare tomes, and among the few, as the repository of one of the finest and most choice collections of erotica in Britain, the mecca for such sexually risqué young men as the young poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who, in a review of his recently published volume, Poems and Ballads (1866), had by a leading critic been dubbed the ‘unclean imp from the pit’ and elevated to the unenviable position of the ‘libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs.’ (Morley, 145) Milnes, taking a fatherly interest in his new protégé, made a pet of him, opening to him the wonders of this vast gathering of erotica, which included choice works by the Marquis de Sade.  (Pope-Hennessy II, 132-34; Nelson: Milnes, passim.) Milnes was aided in the leadership of the coterie by Burton, well known then as today as a world traveler, explorer, diplomat and translator of Eastern erotica such as The Kama Sutra (1883) and The Ananga-Ranga (1885), and the author of a celebrated work of erotica, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885-1888), more commonly known as The Arabian Nights.  (Pope-Hennessy II, 122-26). 

Among the Milnes-Burton coterie’s pleasureful pursuits was the penning of pornographic novels such as Milnes’s own The Rodiad (1871), a long poem in praise of the joys of flagellation which reflected the sadistic/masochistic experiences of many an upper-class boy at an English public school (including the young Swinburne) during the Victorian age.  More important for our purposes, though, was the group’s penchant for regaling themselves by composing so-called ‘Round-Robin’ novels, that is lengthy fictions written over a period of time by the members who took turns writing a chapter or so until, having circulated among all the participating members, the work came to a close.  Among such works produced by the Milnes-Burton clique was The Romance of Lust (1873-76.) Though the publication of such novels by reputable publishers was a quite risqué business, underground publishers such as William Lazenby (alias ‘Duncan Cameron’) eagerly printed these ‘Round-Robin’ tales which were then available in small numbers to a select public, primarily men of wealth who indulged their leisure hours by perusing them.  So dangerous and delicate was this matter of publication that Burton published many of his books under false imprints, referring to them as ‘printed for private circulation only’ or as issuing from the membership of a private society.  Burton and his protégé Leonard Smithers brought out several works of erotica under the imprint of a fake society known as the ‘Kama Shastra Society.’ London, of course, was never listed in the imprint as the place of publication, but as issuing from exotic cities such as ‘Athens,’ ‘Benares,’ and ‘Cosmopoli.’

Smithers’ relationship with Burton came about when the young man subscribed to Burton’s Arabian Nights, followed by a correspondence the consequence of which led to the Burton-Smithers collaboration in the translation and privately published edition of Priapeia (1890)) and the Carmina of Catullus (1894) which appeared after the death of Burton.  Although Milnes had died in 1885, Smithers, deeply involved as he and Nichols were in the early ’Nineties with pornographic materials, was well acquainted with the Round- Robin novel.  So it is not surprising that in 1893 Smithers and Nichols clandestinely printed and distributed perhaps the best-known and finest example of all Round-Robin novels, Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal.  A Physiological Romance of To-day.  Published in two volumes at ‘Cosmopoli,’ in an edition of 200 copies, it was nicely printed on Wrigley laid paper and bound in salmon-pink lettered wrappers at the considerable price of four guineas.  (Mendes 87-A and pp.  447-49, 253; Nelson C1893.1; Booth contains a photograph of the Teleny title-page, #423, p.  58) According to Brian Reade, Teleny was ‘the one English novel until then in which the main story was concerned with homosexuality at its fullest extent,’ the novel’s authors, Reade continues, being ‘alone in their day in England in attempting to record the special atmosphere of homosexual intrigue and the emotions of men involved in what the police call a liaison.’ (Reade 49-50).  More important, the novel, over the years, has been associated with the name of Oscar Wilde, who, according to the account of Charles Hirsch (the Frenchman who penned the only account of the novel’s origins), brought the manuscript of Teleny into his Librairie Parisienne bookshop in Coventry Street, London, ‘towards the end of 1890,’ with directions that the tied-up and carefully sealed parcel be held until one of Wilde’s friends, producing Wilde’s calling card, should ask for it.  The parcel was called for and returned to Hirsch four times before it was finally returned to Wilde.  (Hirsch’s account is in the Introduction to his 1934 edition of a French translation of Teleny).  Although the authorship of Teleny has by some been attributed to Wilde himself, the novel is probably the product of several authors, as Hirsch’s account suggests.  Moreover, Hirsch, who gave in to temptation and read the manuscript while it was in his care, noticed that the manuscript was written in a number of different hands.  If so, Teleny is clearly a pornographic novel written in the Round- Robin tradition.  (For suggestions as to who the authors probably were, see Booth #423, p.57). 

Although Hirsch himself did not know how the manuscript of Teleny got into Smithers’s hands.  One might speculate that because of the sensationally pornographic nature of Teleny, not even Wilde would have approached any reputable publisher of the day.  Yet his acquaintance with the Smithers-Nichols rare book shop and printing businesses, both located in Soho Square, probably led him there sometime in 1891.  Smithers, who later declared that he would publish anything other publishers dared not touch, accepted the dangerous job of printing Teleny.  But as soon as the manuscript came into his hands, he made some important changes in the text.  These emendations angered Hirsch when he read the printed work.  Besides adding the subtitle, ‘Or the Reverse of the Medal,’ Smithers also had omitted the prologue, which, in Hirsch’s view, ‘meant that the dialogue began abruptly without the reader being acquainted with the characters.  But,’ continued Hirsch, ‘the major difference’ was the transference of the setting of the novel from London to Paris.  Later when Hirsch met Smithers at the 1900 Exposition in Paris, he asked the publisher why he had made that emendation, Smithers replying: ‘in order not to shock the natural amour-propre of the English subscribers.’ (Smithers at that time told Hirsch that ‘a definitive version’ of Teleny existed and, to quote Hirsch’s account, that ‘he was going to print a second edition as soon as the original 1893 one was out of print.’) Although Smithers generally has been criticized for this particular change in the text of Teleny, John McRae, in his Introduction to his excellent edition of the novel, writes that Smithers’ ‘defence of “the national amour proper” is not as spurious as it might seem.’ In McRae’s opinion, Smithers’ ‘transferring of the action of Teleny to Paris, while in no way lessening the risqué content of the book, gave an added fashionable frisson of Frenchness to an already highly esoteric work.  The fascination of the Aesthetic movement, for things French--from yellow-bound books to the eroticism of Pierre Louys,’ McRae opines, ‘makes Smithers’ alteration both understandable and apposite.’ (McRae 10) In his prospectus which was issued to advertise Teleny, Smithers described the novel as ‘undoubtedly, the most powerful and most cleverly written erotic Romance which has appeared in the English language during recent years.’ Apparently Smithers was content that his readers assumed that there was a single author and that that person was Wilde, referring as he did to the novel’s author as ‘a man of great imagination ...  [who] has conceived a thrilling story, based to some extent on the subject treated by an eminent littérateur [John Addington Symonds] who died a few months ago--i.e.  on the Urning, or man-loving man.  It is a most extraordinary story of passion,’ continued Smithers, ‘and, while dealing with scenes which surpass in freedom the wildest license, the culture of its author’s style adds an additional piquancy and spice to the narration.’ (Mendes 87-A.  Smithers here is referring to Symonds’ A Problem in Greek Ethics which Smithers had privately printed in 1901.  Nelson C1901.1)

Although Smithers had told Hirsch in 1900 that he possessed ‘a definitive version’ of Teleny which he intended to publish, it is doubtful that such a version ever existed.  By 1900 Smithers’ ‘Glory Years,’ as I have dubbed them elsewhere, were over.  By then a bankrupt and disillusioned publisher who was rapidly losing ground, force to pirate the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley which he once had so proudly owned, the works of Wilde, and others, painfully ill and relying more and more heavily on the fatal twosome, drugs and drink, Smithers I suspect would have made an attempt along with his underground printer associates to issue the ‘definitive version’ of Teleny if such a manuscript had existed.  Yet who knows but what that ‘definitive version’ of the novel lies misplaced or forgotten in the archives of some great library or, perhaps, its value unknown, lies at the bottom of some old trunk in the lumber and wrack of some dusty old attic waiting to be resurrected in time by an ardent Wildean with a nose for lost treasures?



[Booth, Robert].  Leonard Smithers & the 1890s: The Booth Collection of Books Published by Leonard Smithers: [A Catalogue].  London: Phillips Auction House, 1996. 

McRae, John.  ‘Introduction,’ Teleny, Edited with an Introduction.  London: Gay Men’s Press Publications, 1986. 

Mendes, Peter.  Clandestine Erotic Fiction in English 1800-1939.  Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1993. 

Morley, John.  ‘Mr Swinburne’s New Poems,’ Saturday Review, 22 (4 August 1866). 

Nelson, James G.  Publisher to the Decadents: Leonard Smithers in the Careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson.  University Park, Pa.  : Penn State Press; High Wycombe, Bucks: The Rivendale Press, 2000

——‘Richard Monckton Milnes,’ Dictionary of Literary Biography,’ vol. 184: Nineteenth-Century British Book-Collectors and Bibliographers, ed.  William Baker and Kenneth Womack.  Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. 

Pope-Hennessy, James.  Monckton Milnes.  2 vols.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955. 

Reade, Brian.  Introduction, Sexual Heretics.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970. 



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