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Robbins, Catherine Ruth
Languages: English
Types: Doctoral thesis
Subjects: PR
An understanding of the concept of decadence in the late nineteenth century is not\ud dependent on a purely linguistic approach to the various forms of literary language in\ud which it might be manifested. Rather, the label of decadence invokes (and deliberately\ud flouts) perceptions of normality in a number of cultural spaces, not all of them strictly\ud textual. Importantly, the personality of the artist figure is also a part of the definition of\ud decadence. Decadence, that is, is not limited to a particular mode of textual\ud performance; it is also a matter of how the artist's personality is interpreted through a\ud critical assumption current throughout the nineteenth century, that the text acts as an\ud index of the moral status of the writer. Decadence, then, is about reception, as well as\ud conception.\ud Given that meaning accrues to the figure of the artist in the definition of\ud decadence, and given that the late nineteenth century was a period of conflicting\ud discourses of sexual politics, the definition of decadence is bound up with the matrix of\ud associations around such concepts as sex, gender and sexuality.\ud The three writers at the centre of this study all demonstrate decadent potential in\ud their refusals to respect the conventions of gender — both in terms of the subjects and\ud forms they each chose for literary representation, and for the choices they made about\ud the living of their lives.\ud In his poetry Wilde took up a series of dramatic poses, inconsistent with each\ud other, inconsistent even within single poems. In doing so, he called into question\ud prevailing standards and ideals of masculinity — sincerity and purposiveness — and he\ud was attacked for doing so even before he was tried for gross indecency in 1895.\ud Symons's subject matter — the preponderance in his poetry of the liminal\ud figures of the dancer and the actress, and the liminal spaces of the music-hall and\ud deserted city streets at night — explicitly courted a decadent label, and, indeed, Symons\ud helped to defme the term. Contemporary audiences read his poetic persona back onto\ud his personality. And his decadence, like Wilde's, also came from his flouting of the\ud rules of masculinity, in his case, his exposure of the gender and class ideology of the\ud gentleman, by speaking aloud of its implications.\ud That decadence has an importance for sexual politics is signalled by the fact that\ud there are very few women writers who seem to 'suit' the label. Vernon Lee provides a\ud test case here of the argument that decadence is to be defmed primarily as a falling away\ud from an idealised standard of masculinity. Lee wrote impeccably decadent fiction, but is\ud not generally thought of as a decadent writer, perhaps precisely because she was a\ud woman writer for whom a term that resides in conventions of the masculine is\ud inappropriate.\ud Decadence is a notoriously difficult term to define, and this thesis attempts to\ud show a range of definitions of the word in terms of its favoured themes, forms and and\ud their relation to ideas of artistic personality; it shows that the label is inextricably bound\ud up in the sexuality debtes of the 1890s.
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    • I Punch, 26 November, 1891, p. 147.
    • 2 Sally Ledger, 'The New Woman and the Crisis of Victorianism', in Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken (eds), Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 22-44, p. 22
    • Alison Hennegan, 'Personalities and Principles: Aspects of Life and Literature in fin-de-siècle England' in Mikulas Teich and Roy Porter (eds), Fin de Siècle and its Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 190-191.
    • 4 Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), p. 9
    • Punch, 27 April, 1895, p. 203 6 The words are those of James Forsyte, a character in John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, published between 1906 and 1921. James is very relieved, in the light of the difficulties his son has with the beautiful Irene, that he married his wife before the enactment of the 1882 Married Women's Property Act, which came into force in 1883. See John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga, Volume 2, In Chancery [1920] (Hannondsorth: Penguin, 1978), p. 607.
    • She writes: 'In one sense it means "the work of ideology": representations of gender at midcentury were part of the system of interdependent images in which various ideologies became accessible to individual men and women. In another sense, however, the phrase means "the work of making ideology": representations of gender constituted one of the sites on which ideological systems were simultaneously constructed and contested.' See Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideolgical Work of Gender in Ma-Victorian England (London: Virago, 1989), p.2.
    • 8 See Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988).
    • 9 Lee Halcombe, 'Victorian Wives and Property: Reform of the Married Women's Property Law, 1857- 1882,' in Martha Vicinus (ed.), A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women (London: Methuen and Co., 1980), pp. 3-28, pp, 24-25.
    • 1° Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 97.
    • 11 Kermode comments that the sense of an ending is 'known for a myth.' But he also suggests that the end of the nineteenth century is a defensible myth, in the sense that many other endings corresponded with the century's end. 'In 1900 Nietzsche died; Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900 was the date of Husserl's Logic, and of Russell's Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz.
    • With an exquisite sense of timing Planck published his quantum hypothesis in the very last days of the century, December, 1900.' The Sense of an Ending, p. 97.
    • 'Ian Fletcher, 'Decadence and the Little Magazines,' in Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer (eds), Decadence and the 1890s, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 17 (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), pp. 174- 206, p. 175.
    • Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 158.
    • 'Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1987), p. 63.
    • 15 Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 5.
    • 18 Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), p. 46.
    • 17 See Peter Gunn, Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856-1935 (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p.
    • 79. The rather scanty remains of Vernon Lee's coirespondance with Pater are documented in Lawrence Evans (ed.) The Letters of Walter Pater (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1970).
    • See Karl Beckson, Arthur Symons, a Life (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1987), pp. 25, 34. One of Symons's last published works was A Study of Walter Pater, published in 1932 by Charles Sawyer, indicating that Pater's influence on Symons lasted for the whole of his life.
    • E. Charvet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972) Baugh, Edward, 'Arthur Symons: A Centenary Tribute', Review of English Literature, 6, no. iii (1965), 70-80 Beckson, Karl, and John M. Munro, 'Symons, Browning and the Development of the Modem Aesthetic', Studies in English Literature, 10 (1970), 687-699 Beckson, Karl (ed.), Arthur Symons: Selected Letters, 1880-1935 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989) Charlesworth, Barbara, Dark Passages: The Decadent Consciousness in Victorian Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965) Dowling, Linda, 'Letter Press and the Picture in the Literary Periodicals of the 1890s', Yearbook of English Studies 16 (1986), 117-131 Du Maurier, George, Trilby [1894] (London: Everyman, 1994) Gagnier, Regenia, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Aldershot Scolar Press, 1987) Galsworthy, John, The Forsyte Saga, 3 volumes [1906-1920] (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978) Lee, Vernon, Baldwin: Being Dialogues on Views and Aspirations (London: T.
    • Fisher Unwin, 1886) Lee, Vernon, Hauntings: Fantastic Stories (London: William Heinemann, 1890) Lee, Vernon, 'The Craft of Words', The New Review, XI (1894), 571-80 Noble, James Ashcroft, 'The Sexuality of Fiction', Contemporary Review, 67 (1895), 490-98 Nordau, Max, Degeneration [first published, 1892; first English publication,1895), introduced by George L. Mosse, facsimile edition (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993) Symons, Arthur, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (London: Archibald Constable and Co. Ltd, 1899)
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