How Dark is Dark Blue? Transgression, Suggestive Subversion, and Art for Art’s Sake in the 1870s

by Rachel Busse

With The Dark Blue, John C. Freund’s had high ambitions of creating a journal for the entire English-speaking public, but ultimately “a broad readership eluded the shilling monthly.”[i] The journal was only in print from 1871-1873 and featured just 25 issues.[ii] But though the journal failed in its breadth-based goals, it did manage to make a lasting impact by publishing a fair amount of poetry and prose that was considered rather high-brow. Art from the Pre-Raphaelite movement had its place within The Dark Blue’s pages; the Pre-Raphaelites were active through the end of the 1860s which makes their appearance in a journal of the early 1870s quite natural. But The Dark Blue was also ahead of its time in many ways; the journal published many writers who would enter the cannon of British Aestheticism and Decadence, both of which flourished primarily in the 1890s. These movements “championed pure beauty and ‘art for art’s sake’ emphasizing the visual and sensual qualities of art and design over practical, moral or narrative considerations.”[iii] Charles Algernon Swinburne, a major figurehead of the movement whose poetry was published in The Dark Blue, vehemently insisted that his work was non-didactic.[iv] This morally-ambiguous approach challenged Victorian sensibilities of what poetry was for, if not teaching morality.

But the journal’s run was controversial for more than a perceived undermining of morality. The Dark Blue’s short, early 1870s run was more overtly controversial for Freund’s willingness to publish “sexually transgressive” material like Le-Fanu’s Carmilla and Swinburne’s “The End of a Month,” which was accepted to The Dark Blue after having been rejected from a more conservative publication.[v] But it wasn’t an entirely shocking journal; as Anna Maria Jones notes, “the content in Dark Blue is a bit of a hodgepodge. Alongside the aesthetically radical, cosmopolitan, even transgressive, pieces are more staid, socially engaged, didactic articles.”[vi]In attempting to make sense of Freund’s vision for The Dark Blue, one has to wonder what exactly Freund was thinking when including these boundary-pushing pieces in a journal he hoped would have wide appeal. Just how “dark” did he wish to take The Dark Blue?  By examining Freund’s “Letter to the Public” alongside the journal’s most widely read and anthologized piece, Carmilla, we can make sense of the way The Dark Blue’s attempt to include both sides of every issue was an approach that piqued Victorian interests with a boldness ahead of its time, but ultimately led to a journal just slightly out of focus. In reaching to cover everything, the journal included scandal-inducing content alongside stodgier material, making The Dark Blue a relic of an age caught between expression and suppression, unstable in its attitudes and on the verge of change.

The name The Dark Blue is worth examining, as color can tell a lot about how a publication presents itself. The fin de siècle The Yellow Book, for example, used its title to hint at lascivious content, making cheeky reference to “the notorious covering into which controversial French novels were placed at the time.” [vii] Like yellow, blue can hint at the scandalous; blue is occasionally used to describe lewdness or obscenity, though the origins of such connotations are disputed.[viii] As such, it is possible that the blueness or specifically dark blueness of the name is playing into that usage as well. But The Dark Blue was a name actually borrowed from a previous journal that had failed at Oxford University, a choice Freund discusses briefly in his “Address to the Public,” noting specifically the choice to leave out any overt ties to the University. The choice to use the name The Dark Blue is still a thinly veiled reference to Oxford, where the school color is a deep blue. But given Freund’s deliberateness in his discussions of how to deal with the Oxford ties, it is hard to imagine he wouldn’t have thought extensively about the name’s implication—his attention to the darkness of the blue was deliberate. In the 1870s, societal darkness often stayed in the depths, especially in journals that claimed to cater to all. When darkness did come out, it came in the sensational as relics of an anxious age, which had been the case throughout the 1860s. But much of the controversial content in The Dark Blue left less to the imagination than a standard sensational novel like Aurora Floyd or The Moonstone might have, where anything remotely crude is simply hinted at in suggestive suppression.[ix]

But whatever his intent with the name, Freund sought to clarify the journal’s mission after its first year—a move some critics have suggested was “almost certainly image-crafting, perhaps even attempting damage control in response to rumors of the journal’s shaky financial footing.”[x] In his address, Freund conceits that “it may not be out of place that some account of its origin, purpose, and course during the last twelve months, should be given.”[xi] In giving this account, Freund retells the (short) history of this journal—a journal intended to cover the most “salient” topics of the time in an attempt to appeal to a broader readership than any other magazine on the market. Though this sort of catch-all mission could come across as money-hungry or pandering, The Dark Blue’s approach was more radical. Freund explained that his intentions with the magazine were centered on “a certain guarantee of originality and literary excellence” that meant he absolutely could not include the terms “University” or “Oxford” despite the fact that Oxford was partially bankrolling this operation. Freund felt that including such terms would brand the magazine as stodgy, homogenous, and inauthentic, all of which were in conflict with journal he envisioned. About this vision, Freund wrote:

Because common sense seemed to indicate that  a periodical that would appeal for readers to the whole English-speaking public, and hence influence their mode of thought, must naturally admit of a certain amount of discussion, or even diversity of opinion, in its pages; in other words, must admit contributions from the general public it wished to appeal to. It follows, therefore, that a magazine of this nature should contain articles on both sides of every question—for surely there are two sides to every question; and as, furthermore, those personally most interested in any measure are probably its best exponents, it would be impossible to exclude from such a magazine the members of a class. [xii]

Freund goes on to explain that being too closely associated with a traditional university stifles the ability to draw from those closest to the action—a practice that could create controversy if it meant publishing the writings of those  deeply “unpopular or small in numbers.”[xiii] Thereby, this mission acts as a way of priming the readers for controversial content from shocking, bohemian writers.

Further, this passage suggests that diversity and disagreement should be the rule rather than the exception, for “surely there are two sides to every question.” This is a bold statement, for if Freund really means every, then suddenly everything is up for discussion and debate, even traditionally held beliefs. As such, though it may initially seem that an appeal to all is concessionary, it actually makes a bold claim slipped in among Fruend’s rambling explanation. Committing to cover and accept everything (so long as it was suited to the editor’s tastes) is not a passive move—it is a radical action. But this radicalism is quiet, as the journal used its unfocused combination of the controversial and the common to keep the subversive somewhat under the radar.  Further, because this note came a year after the magazine began, it is possible that readers had no idea what Freund had in mind for the magazine when they first picked it up. This is especially true given that Freund wasn’t much of a celebrity—the reference he makes to his book By the Roadside was likely not much to boast about.[xiv]

All that said, even without the context given by the letter, the magazine does visually look different than a magazine like Dickens’ Household Words, which does not features art not illustration of any kind.  The Dark Blue is closer to something like Belgravia, for it features lush artworks scattered throughout. Beyond artwork, the words have room to breathe, as there is a considerable amount of white space, especially on the first pages of each piece, where the titles are written in a lavish typeface somewhere in a camp between Gothic and Art Nouveau. The blend of these elements creates visual intrigue that provides a subtle cue that not only is this a different kind of journal, but it’s a journal deeply concerned with elements of style and artistry. But despite its semi-indulgence, it doesn’t take the type of artistic or stylistic risks that a true journal of Aestheticism or Decadence would take.  The Yellow Book, for example, featured beautiful, iconic artwork that was decidedly more daring than that published in The Dark Blue. Thereby, this journal is anticipatory rather than participatory when it comes to the movements that dominated the 1890s—The Dark Blue’s content is therefore often unstable, genre wise, as it readies itself for the coming years. Thereby, Freund and his critics’ concern that the journal might be “chimerical and absurd” may have been fairly astute.[xv]

One difficult-to-define piece from The Dark Blue is Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla. On one hand, Carmilla fits quite nicely into a journal that is so aesthetically focused as it provides indulgent, enticingly written prose. On the other hand, critics seem to disagree about what exactly Carmilla is trying to do or be—is it sensationalist? Is it gothic? Does it ask us to consider the interplay between the natural and supernatural? Is it a vessel carrying Le Fanu’s Irish identity, or perhaps commentary on lesbianism in the Victorian era? Regardless of how it is read, with Carmilla, Le Fanu teases the Victorian reader with sexuality and bloody, lustful violence. Instead of asking us to think about morality or a message, it asks us to think about the body, as it discusses languor, blood sacrifice, and mysterious bodily thrills and terrors. We see lusts and romances begin to flower between two women—one of whom is an evil, murderous “revenant”—and suddenly readers are confronted with how to feel about this relationship. Without the foresight modern readers have gained from tropes created in the Victorian era, it is reasonable that Victorian readers might “root for” the relationship between the two women at least in a platonic way, if not romantically or erotically. Like the literature of Decadence or Aestheticism, any message imparted in Carmilla seems to fall second to horror, sexuality, and suspense. This approach elicits a visceral response from the readers.

A big part of the art-for-art’s sake movement that began in this era was about using art to be subversive. As literature moved towards the aesthetic and decadent, writers maintained that a focus on aesthetics did not make a work vapid or meaningless, but rather brilliantly subversive; this subversion allowed them to talk about uncomfortable or ugly concepts under the guise of beauty. This juxtaposition undermines the power of earlier Victorian sensibilities and notions of acceptability in a powerful way. In including a story like Carmilla (which was likely quite shocking to Victorian readers) among more conventional writing, The Dark Blue engaged in some version of subversion that helped the story become popular. Even if they were scandalized, Victorian readers consumed Carmilla in large numbers, and they did so amongst more didactic, conventional content. Evidently this worked, as Carmilla wasn’t considered too raunchy or dark.

Rather, Carmilla dips just deep enough to fit nicely into the darkness of Dark Blue. With the novella, Freund proved that Victorian readers had an appetite for suggestive, visceral aesthetics. Thereby, even though his journal was often not cohesive, it was ultimately successful in beginning to push the boundary of how dark blue society could really get. This is part of why The Dark Blue is remembered for both beginning to make change and being ultimately hard to define.  In its very instability and inconsistency, the journal captured the Kairos of the 1870s, right on the verge of major change.

[i] Diedrick, “Dark Blue,” in C19: Dictionary of Nineteenth–Century Journalism.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Aesthetic Movement,” Glossary of Art Terms,” Tate Modern, accessed November 10, 2016.

[iv]Carolyn Burdett, “Aestheticism and Decadence,” in Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians, British Library (2014), accessed November 10, 2016.

[v] This was accepted even after it had already been rejected from a more conservative publication because of its risqué content Diedrick, C19: Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism

[vi] Anna Marie Jones, “On the Publications of Dark Blue, 1871-73,”BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga, extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web, accessed November 10, 2016.

[vii] Dan Piepenbring, “The Other Yellow Pages,”The Paris Review (May 19, 2014).

[viii] Iva Cheung, “Sacré Bleu! Why Is Blue the Most Profane Color?,” Lexicon Valley, in Slate (May 25, 2015), accessed November 10, 2016,

[ix] The only other recorded reference to the title is in the July issue of the first volume, where Freund uses a quote from Byron as an epigraph. It reads, “Oh deeply, darkly, beautifully blue,” though it does not appear to be used at any other point.

[x] Anna Marie Jones, “On the Publications of Dark Blue.

[xi]John C. Freund, “Address to the Public,” Dark Blue c. 1, v. 2 (1871-1872), iii.

[xii] Emphasis mine. Ibid., iv.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] If remembered for anything before immigrating to the United States and finding more success there, Freund is remembered for editing Dark Blue, not By the Roadside. The latter seems to be quite rare and unknown, though it has been digitized and is available on google books.

[xv] Ibid., v.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Rachel, you tap into a topic that I’ve found particularly interesting throughout class: just how important editors were to their respective periodicals. While I think most of us writer types readily can acknowledge the value of an editor, it seems as if a lot of the celebrity and power supporting editors for periodicals is simply different than what we see nowadays. In that regard, it does seem as if many of the periodicals became sounding boards for the tastes and missions of their respective editors (particularly for someone who had a lot of celebrity backing them, such as Dickens).

    I think looking at how Carmilla fits with Freund’s overall mission for The Dark Blue is an interesting way of looking at the story. I think examining the overall trajectory of The Dark Blue seems to indicate another familiar message: knowing your audience is important. It sounds as if Freund may have been reaching a little too wide in his endeavors for a readership for The Dark Blue, which, as you noted, resulted in the odd disarray that permeated the journal. There, too, is the difficult of basing a periodical around the vision of one (or a few) people, I think; just because you see something clearly doesn’t mean that you’re communicating it well and in the way you want to to your intended audience.

    One aspect I would love to hear more about is, if Carmilla is a successful outcome of Freund not being afraid to publish something unconventional, what works weren’t? And why? What was truly outside the taste of the Victorian readers, and was there anything that Freund published that was truly salacious and scandalous? (In that line, I’d be equally curious to know just what Freund found appealing about Carmilla in the first place, and what themes he saw as fitting in well with other texts he had published in The Dark Blue.)


  2. Kaari Newman says:

    I love how you’re articulating the nuances within Dark Blue that made it so quixotic – it obviously wasn’t popular enough to draw support for more than three years, and yet its thematic ambiguity laid the important groundwork for the adoption of aestheticism and the Decadent and Art Nouveau movements. As Brittany commented, it does call into question the editor’s role in creating and sustaining the life of a Victorian magazine. One could conceivably argue based on the evidence here that Freund’s relative obscurity could have played a role in the journal’s ultimate demise, but I think you’ve rescued him from that fate by connecting his efforts to those prominent movements that were just beginning to take shape.

    One thing I found myself wondering as the discussion continued was what the “other side” of the question found in Carmilla was, or if it even had one. As you note, Victorian readers obviously tolerated the covert sexuality and bloodlust, which questioned things like the body, the nature of true friendship and female sexuality. Did any of your research uncover whether contemporary readers found other themes besides those to comment on? I often wonder how much our modern fixation on how “subversive” something was for its time gets in the way of our understanding of how it might in fact support commonly held ideologies. For example, in this story (as in Brahm Stoker’s Dracula), Carmilla is a foreigner encroaching upon the upper class cosmopolitan aristocrats, subtly reinforcing the stereotypes of wild Eastern nations and the supremacy of the British Empire. She herself is upper class, in fact royalty, but for that reason all the more dangerous, it seems, because the will to dominate comes naturally to her.

    Perhaps this would be another direction to explore in understanding “how dark” the blue of Dark Blue really is and seeing if these types of racial and colonial questions were also up for discussion as Freund seems to suggest they could be.


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