In Quest of Forgotten Yellow Book Writer Ethel Colburn Mayne

By Elke D’hoker

While early reviews routinely likened her work to that of Henry James, by 1923, Mayne was called ““the only short-story writer capable of succeeding Katherine Mansfield”

About a decade ago I was researching the fin-de-siècle short stories of writers like George Egerton, Ernest Dowson, Olive Shreiner, Evelyn Sharp, Arthur Symonds, Sarah Grand, Ella D’Arcy and Hubert Crackanthorpe. Their short fiction offers fascinating material to the short story critic, because it bears witness to the almost frenetic wave of experimentation in the 1890s, as writers tried out different techniques, narrative modes and poetic styles in their attempts to the short story from a ‘merely’ popular genre into an accomplished and innovative literary form. Since these techniques were eventually applied with greater polish and skill by the modernist writers who succeeded them, most of these writers were forgotten by the 1920s. They were only rediscovered in recent decades as examples of New Woman Fiction and Aestheticism, or as contributors to the Yellow Book. Nearly all of these writers, indeed, published some of their stories in that avant-garde magazine, the notorious organ of decadents, symbolists and new realists.

Reading through the digitized copies of the Yellow Book on the yellow nineties online website, I discovered an intriguing short story by a writer I hadn’t heard of before: Frances E. Huntley. Her “A Pen-and-Ink Effect”, published in the July 1895 issue of the magazine, is a short sketch about the opposed reactions of a middle-aged man and a young girl to a letter the man has written. The first half of the story shows the man self-confidently composing the letter and predicting the girl’s love-struck reactions. The second part shifts to the perspective of the girl who is totally appalled on reading the letter and celebrates her lucky escape by going for a game of tennis. What struck me about the story was the succinct and indirect way in which the story cleverly exposes the man’s inflated self-importance as well as the gender stereotypes that govern his arrogant assumptions.

Further searches yielded little about Huntley, except one more story in the Yellow Book and the fact that she had worked as the magazine’s sub-editor for a short time in 1896. A 1996 article by Anne M. Windholz suggested that Ella D’Arcy, another of Henry Harland’s assistant editors, took a virulent dislike to Huntley, removed one of her already accepted stories from the proofs of the April 1896 issue and made sure that no further reference was made to the author or her work in the rest of the magazine’s (short) existence. The article, however, also identified Frances E. Huntley as a pseudonym for Ethel(ind) Colburn Mayne, who had written a great deal of other work after these early fin-de-siècle stories in the Yellow Book.

This, then, set me on a quest to find out more about this mysterious writer and to read more of her work. Mayne turned out to have been born in Ireland in 1865, as a member of the Protestant, Anglo-Irish gentry. After accepting two stories for his magazine, Harland had offered her the position of sub-editor, to take over from D’Arcy. As Windholz noted, D’Arcy was not pleased and after a few months, she sent Mayne back to Cork. Luckily, Mayne had gathered enough material and connections for a short story collection, The Clearer Vision (1898), and a novel, Jessie Vandeleur (1902) to be taken on by London publisher. Mayne herself moved to London soon after that and her career branched off in several directions. She published five other collections of short stories and three further novels, but she became best-known for her bestselling biographies of Byron, Lady Byron and other eighteenth-century figures. She complemented her income by working as a translator of German and French literature. A friend of writers such as Violet Hunt, Ford Madox Ford, Mary Butts and Joan Rivière, Mayne became a respected literary figure on the early-twentieth-century literary scene. Her fiction output dwindled in the 1930s and, in April 1941, she died as a result of injuries sustained during the London Blitz.

Reading through Mayne’s novels and collections in the British Library, I became increasingly more amazed that the work of such an accomplished, perceptive and original writer could have remained undiscovered for so long. Her novels offer fascinating (if often depressing) portraits of the restricted lives of late-nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish women, but her stories vary more widely in subject matter and mood. What makes them particularly interesting for the history of the short story is the fact that they form a bridge between the 1890s experiments in short fiction and the modernist heydays of the form. Indeed, Mayne is one of the few fin-de-siècle writers who continued writing short stories until the early 1930s; all the other writers mentioned at the start of this blog ended their career around 1900 or turned to other genres. Her stories thus reflect the development of the form towards greater unity, compression and stylistic mastery. At the same time, the reception of her collections in contemporary reviews also charts the changing attitudes to the modern short story: if early reviewers still expressed frustration at the impressionism, psychological nuances and absence of plot in her stories, by the 1910s, these had become the accepted hallmarks of the modernist short story. Hence, while early reviews routinely likened her work to that of Henry James, by 1923, Mayne was called ““the only short-story writer capable of succeeding Katherine Mansfield”.

The thrill of discovering a forgotten writer soon wears off, of course, unless the discoveries can be shared. I gave some papers on Mayne’s work at conferences, but felt very much like a lonely – and rather inept – crusader until Kathryn Laing and Sinéad Mooney, editors of the new EER series Irish Women Writers. Texts and Contexts invited me to put together a selection of her stories. After much agonizing and re-reading, I selected ten stories from across her career (with a certain bias towards stories with an Irish setting given the focus of the series). Transcribing and annotating the stories reinforced my appreciation of their complexity and aesthetic worth, but when trying to write an introduction, I quickly realized the full extent of my ignorance about Mayne. I knew so little about her life, her literary connections and career. Moreover, the more essays and stories I chanced upon in magazines and newspapers, the more I became convinced that I was missing many others. Fortunately, advance publicity for the book attracted the attention of Susan Waterman, who had started a PhD on Mayne in the early 1990s. She never finished it, but has kept collecting any piece of information about Mayne she could find. With Susan’s generous assistance, I was able to puzzle together the various bits and pieces of Mayne’s life and career. Much remains to be discovered, however. I can only hope that my book of selected short stories will help to recruit other Mayne-enthusiasts who are eager to find out more about this fascinating writer, whose work really deserves to be better known.

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