Digital secrets of two 'Roses'

Digital secrets of two 'Roses'

Orna Ross crowdfunded her Secret Rose project, an unusual limited edition that pairs two books in one volume and reflects William Butler Yeats' interest in many aspects of his own publications. She used Pubslush, which first announced its own imminent demise this week and then announced that it's not quite dead yet — Colborne Communications of Toronto has agreed to buy Pubslush and keep things running. Colborne's Greg Ioannou becomes president of Pubslush. I asked Ross, the founding director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), to give us some idea of what it's like to wade into such an effort as she has undertaken with the Yeats. Here she is, sharing a few of the secrets behind these Secrets, as Yeats might have it, just "between us and the demons of the air." — Porter Anderson

Digital Publishing Doesn't Just Mean Ebooks

My latest project has been to replicate a first edition from 1897, combining traditional production values with the most up-to-date digital technology. 

This is an unusual publication, bringing together two books that were published more than a century apart and by two very different writers: WB Yeats’ book of talismanic short stories, The Secret Rose (1897) and my novel, Her Secret Rose (2015), based on the story behind those stories: Yeats’ famous love affair with his muse, the English heiress turned Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne. 

As with all my projects, I had a number of things I wanted to achieve simultaneously:

  • To do something special for #Yeats2015 to pay my respects to this poet whose work has been so important to me
  • To give my readers and followers an opportunity to get involved in the celebrations, especially fellow Yeatsians
  • To highlight Yeats the fiction writer and The Secret Rose stories in particular. I think they have far more literary value than is generally acknowledged.
  • To bring these stories together as their author originally intended. Yeats was an “indie author” in that he took an interest in every aspect of his books’ publication, from concept to promotion. The stories in this book are a careful blend of old and new, Christian and pagan, and he had intended them to climax in two stories of occult power. But his publisher took fright and would only publish if those final two stories were omitted. As these form a climax toward which all the other stories were aiming, this must have been devastating to Yeats.
  • To bring the stories to a new readership, using my novel, the story behind the stories, as an accessible introduction.
  • To use digital technology to make a beautiful print book.

I wanted also to show what’s possible for authors these days. The dedication on the book says: “For All The Writers Everywhere. Dare.” For me, putting my book together with Yeats’, in one volume, was an act of daring. (Downright cheek, some would say!) As was going out to friends and Yeats fans to raise funds to help me to do it, for it quickly emerged that old-style production values do not come cheap and the book could only be made if Yeats fans supported some of the costs. (At right: the project's Pubslush crowdfunding campaign page shows it funding at £7,890 in contributions from 49 backers.)

The nervousness it all engendered I’ve come to recognize as what I call “creative ferment”, something to work with.

And what more fitting way to celebrate this great poet and, less often acknowledged, great storyteller than with a commemorative book that would reinstate his original vision, when he was still the controlling and confused young genius depicted in the novel?


I worked with writer and artist Yen Ooi (pictured) on this project. “I came up with the project name, Secret Rose,” says Yen, “to reflect the common themes between Yeats’ and Orna's books and represent this conversation between two authors, more than a century apart. With the name in place, and a brief from Orna, I made a mock-up of the cover, which was then used for the crowdfunding campaign and initial publicity.”

Meanwhile, I was deciding which version of Yeats’ stories we should use. Yeats was a determined reviser and his vision for The Secret Rose, where he had to unite so many different occult preoccupations and traditions, had him revising right up to a frenzy of last-minute proof corrections. And after publication, the rewriting went on.

The various versions of the stories are discussed in detail in the much-admired Variorum edition (1981), which follows the standard editorial convention of choosing the author’s last revised version as the definitive text. In Secret Rose, I took a different approach: to be as true as possible to the artistic intentions of the writer as he compiled that first edition of 1897, rather than what was actually published in that year -- or any subsequent year. [A standalone edition of Ross' Her Secret Rose is seen at the left.] 

At first I leaned towards reproducing the stories as originally written but then I read what Yeats said in 1925: “They were, as first published, written in that artificial, elaborate English so many of us played with in the ‘nineties, and I had come to hate them. I asked Lady Gregory’s help [and] we worked together ... till all had been put into that simple English she had learned from her Galway countrymen.”

I actually like the languorous, druggy, Pateresque prose of the 1890s, and find it transports me to the otherworld more effectively than Lady Gregory’s “Kiltartanese”, but I wasn’t going to issue the work in language Yeats had come to hate, so I used the Gregory-revised versions of the texts.

I restored the two stories axed by the publisher but also removed two of the weaker tales that Yeats had later pulled, and substituted a later story, “Red Hanrahan,” for the 1890s version. In short, I put together the combination that I think would have put a smile on Yeats’s 33-year-old face.         


Once it became clear that the crowdfunding campaign was going to succeed, (it was 106-percent funded on completion), Yen’s mock-up cover design went to Jane Dixon-Smith (pictured), to reproduce in a format that the printer could use, to set-up the blocking dies needed to stamp its the navy cloth bound pictorial boards in intricate gold foiling. 

The cover of this book was designed by Yeats' friend, Althea Gyles, Irish artist, illustrator, designer and mage, to amplify the Celtic and occult themes of the text. I have always loved Gyles’s designs, as did Yeats, who described her art as being ‘full of [the sort of] abundant and passionate life which brought to mind Blake’s cry, “Exuberance is beauty”, and Samuel Palmer’s command to the artist, “Always seek to make excess more abundantly excessive”.’ 

Both artists were members of a London-based occult organization, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and had been members of the Theosophical Society together in Dublin. (At left, the ribbon marker is inserted into copies of the book on the line at Clay's Ltd.)

An expunged passage from “Rosa Alchemica”, a definitive story in The Secret Rose, which can be read in the page proofs in the Varorium edition by Prof. Warick Gould, describes an ancient "ritual manuscript" as having a cover showing on one side "a rose-tree growing from an armed anatomy, and enclosing the faces of two lovers, to symbolize certainly the coming of beauty out of corruption, and probably much else”.  

And on another: "The alchemical rose with many spears thrusting against it, but in vain, as  shown by the shattered points of those nearest." 

This is the cover that Althea Gyles set out to create, or had already created when Yeats was writing that passage, and the cover that we set out to reproduce for Secret Rose. Together, they blended their Kabalistic and Rosicrucian teachings into two popular art styles of the time: art nouveau and Celticism.

Front Cover

The skeleton of a knight lies supine under a straight line that probably stands for the veil separating earthly from ethereal existence, helmeted and with a spear in his left hand. From the pelvic bowl originate roots that become intertwined branches, weaving and interweaving like the border of a Celtic medieval manuscript, into the shape of a Kabalistic Tree of Life. 

The intertwined foliage creates the faces of two lovers kissing, while their hands rest on the rose and cross at the centre of the tree. This is the Rosicrucian emblem of the rosy-cross: the cross representing male energy and  physical conflict and suffering; the rose representing female energy and metaphysical love and beauty.

The tree is surrounded by seventeen broken luminous rays and above the two lovers, the intertwining branches of the tree forms a crown containing three roses, in replica of the three higher emanations atop the Kabalistic Tree of Life, with the central emanation slightly higher than the others. 

The Spine

The spine shows a spear sinking into a bowl which, suggests Professor Warwick Gould, is best thought of as a chalice. Vegetation grows from the chalice and interweaves around the spear, which may also be imagined as a phallic symbol in union with the female cauldron. 

Back Cover

The mandala on the back of the book shows the rosy-cross casting twenty-eight rays, seven emanating from each of the four angles formed by the the cross, some broken. This image is included within a two-line wavy circle, with the many spears “thrusting against it, but in vain”, shattering as they approach to form the four sides of a diamond, each side being made of the converging tips of two spearheads.

The reiteration of various opposing couples on front, back and  spine — the rose and the cross, the lance and the bowl, the rosy-cross and the spears — symbolise the opposition between spiritual and material life, between eternity and death. For adepts like Gyles and Yeats, the rosy-cross is the mystical melding of all oppositions, attained only by initiates who fulfill their life’s purpose and attain enlightenment. 


Away from all this esotericism, Yen and I were whittling down the choice of printer and finally settled on Clay's, largely because of the wonderful Rebecca Souster (pictured). 

"When Orna first approached me about Secret Rose, I knew that it was going to be one of those rare books whereby my creative background would really have an impact on the finished book,” says Rebecca. “Orna gave me the opportunity to help sculpt her book into a beautiful product. There was many a conversation about formats and paper types, cover cloths and coloured foils, marker ribbons and end papers, all of which were an absolute joy to have been involved with.”

The interior of the original book was a thing of beauty in itself, with its wide margins and elegant font and reminder on each page of which story you’re reading. It was printed on laid paper, a thick paper that had served to fill out a slim volume of stories. Ours was a much longer publication and we wanted it to be light and proportional. Laid paper, or an equivalent which we also explored for a while, would make too bulky a book.

Such papers are also impossible to use in digital printing presses. And the more we explored, the clearer we became about wanting to use the digital process, which would allow us to use long grain paper, where the grain of the paper runs perpendicular to the spine. This allowed the book to fall open in a way that suited the offset text on the page.

Jane and I had set the text with a very wide right hand margin (43mm) in replica of the original, as it allowed the titles of Yeats’s short stories to be written in the margins. This made the left-hand margin tight and the fall-open of the book very important, sealing the deal for digital. 

So we went for a soft, light cream, modern paper — Ensocreamy — that fulfilled all the requirements. Just as with the content, the intention was not to produce a straight copy, but to be as true as possible to what he would have wanted for his book, were he here today. The improved production opportunities afforded by digital processes would have delighted the young Yeats, I believe.

Of course, I can’t know for sure how he would have felt about this project but I’m happy we’ve done the great man justice and am profoundly grateful to all who helped, from the academics whose work is the scaffolding on which this book was built, to Yen, Jane, Rebecca and of course, all those who supported the crowdfunder.

Last words to Rebecca: ”Together we made a stunning book. And, for me, that is the most important and rewarding part of working with authors." 

This story originally referred to a programme at the London Irish Centre which, in addition to Orna Ross, featured: Yeats Society immediate past president Damien Brennan; Young Poet Laureate to London, Aisling Fahy; Irish Sen. Susan O'Keeffe (chair of #Yeats2015); UK Irish Amb. Daniel Mulhall; and jazz vocalist Christine Toibin. Here is more about it.

Orna Ross speaks at the Novelists Inc. Conference at St. Pete Beach, Florida, in the First Word day programme and general conference, 1-4 October.

Images for this story from Orna Ross and