Fictions of British Decadence: High Art, Popular Writing and the Fin De Siecle (Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture)
Very useful book: clear writing free of academic jargon. Good book for those who enjoyed Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939 by James Machin, which I did when I read it in July.
Excerpt seems to sum up the main point, which was that "decadent" writers weren't just young absinthe drinkers who died in 1897 by falling off bar stools and breaking their necks:
Decadence and the Edwardian and Modernist literary fields
The influence of the Wilde scandal and the concomitant backlash against literature considered 'advanced', 'modern', or 'artistic' on the subsequent development of literature cannot be stressed enough. Certainly, it had a profound effect on writers associated with Decadence, but it also affected writers not linked with Decadence. Thomas Hardy, for example, disgusted at the reception of Jude the Obscure, resolved, in 1895, to abandon fiction writing altogether, while H. G. Wells, whose 1890s output John Batchelor has characterized as Decadent and fin de siècle, began to produce socially engaged fiction in the new century. 40 Similarly, Arnold Bennett, who had set out to write an 'artistic' novel in 1895, decided, in 1898, to become a popular novelist. 41
The post-1895 literary field was in a state of considerable flux as the Edwardian period approached. Though the precise origins of the Edwardian period have been debated, 42 there is no doubt that the period's literature was shaped in reaction to the literature of the fin de siècle. Scholars have broadly characterized Edwardian literature as rich in its range of subject matter but weak in formal innovation. Jefferson Hunter, for example, argues that the 'two most salient facts about Edwardian fiction' are its 'thematic adventurousness' and its 'formal conservatism'. 43 The novel was certainly the dominant literary form of the period. Edwardian and Georgian poetry, by contrast, stand low in the canon and its poets have been overshadowed by the 'Modernists' that followed. The 'sheer generic diversity' of the novel in this period was a result of the continuing expansion of the reading public which had begun in the late nineteenth century. 44 This reading public was catered to by an ever-expanding mass periodical and publishing industry dominated by men such as Alfred Harmsworth and Charles Pearson. The increasing awareness of the existence of niche readerships on the part of writers and publishers encouraged the development of what Hunter calls 'coterie fiction' – fiction characterized by 'highly conventional specialities addressed to an identifiable readership of enthusiasts' such as detective fiction, fantasy, horror, and the historical novel. 45 This awareness of the multiplicity of readerships encouraged writers to experiment with different genres in what amounted to what Kemp, Mitchell, and Trotter describe as the 'generic promiscuity' of many Edwardian writers. 46
The tendency towards generic over stylistic innovation owed its origins, at least in part, to the association of formal experimentation with the Aesthetes and Decadents who were now out of favour. Though certainly writers such as Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford experimented with style in the Edwardian period, there were risks involved in such a venture. Nordau's claims about the degeneracy of artists continued to hold sway in the popular imagination well into the Edwardian period and terms such as 'morbid', 'Decadent', and 'degenerate' – what William Greenslade has called the 'labelling system of the nineties' – still carried critical weight, reflecting negatively on the artist. 47 In general in this period, preciosity of style was a sign of Decadence and increasingly Edwardian literature was taken up with social issues. In this respect, Edwardian literature differed radically from the Aesthetic and Decadent fiction of the 1880s and 1890s, though it was certainly indebted to the socially conscious fiction that emerged in the fin-de-siècle period.
While writers such as Machen and Shiel had demonstrated a strong commitment to high artistic and Decadent stylistic principles in the 1890s, their work had also significantly engaged with popular genres. The generic diversity that characterized the Edwardian period had already begun to manifest itself in the 1890s and both Machen and Shiel had contributed significantly to genres that would flourish in the Edwardian period such as the detective story and the horror tale. But where they had tried to negotiate between the demands of art and the marketplace, the conditions of the new literary field seemed inimical to such mediations. How, as writers formerly aligned with Decadence and art-for-art's-sake, would Machen and Shiel respond to the backlash against preciosity of style that characterized the Edwardian literary field, a field strongly invested in fiction focused on contemporary social issues? Would they still try to mediate between the realms of high art and popular fiction or would they choose one at the exclusion of the other – high art over popular or vice versa?
With the advent of a 'Modernist' sensibility, a sensibility which defined itself in opposition to Edwardianism, writers who had been involved in the 1890s Decadent movement were confronted with yet another context within which to position themselves. Though new in some respects, many of the issues taken up by high Modernists were familiar to the former Decadents. The high Modernist disdain for the masses, its interest in subjectivity, in 'difficulty', and in the problems inherent in language as a form of expression had all been concerns of the 1890s Decadents. Robert Hichens and Arthur Machen, for example, had explored the subjectivity of morbid types in An Imaginative Man (1896) and The Hill of Dreams. Machen had also treated the inability of language to express certain states of mind in his horror fiction of the 1890s. And finally, the Decadents, though more willing perhaps than Modernists to cater to the popular audience that they disdained, also employed difficulty or obscurity as a means of rendering their work more challenging. Shiel's Shapes in the Fire (1896) is a case in point, with its linguistic playfulness and its obscure historical and cultural allusions. In a manner anticipating the British reception of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land, 48 critics of the 1890s remarked on Shiel's inaccessibility to the general reader: 'The volume will prove a curious intellectual exercise to certain circles, and will become suitable for general reading about the time when the British workman takes to the Upanishads or the differential calculus for pastime. Mr Shiel is too clever by a thousand degrees for the sober, burden-bearing portions of the world.' 49 Even a critic for a more highbrow review, The Academy, complained of Shiel's 'extravagance of expression', 'liberal coinage of impossible and ugly words', and his 'ostentation of occult and intricate lore', pronouncing him 'incomprehensible … at his best' and guilty of the 'sheerest impertinence … at his worst'. 50
Though the Modernists admittedly engaged with issues of subjectivity, language, and difficulty differently and, to some minds, in a more 'advanced' manner than fin-de-siècle writers, these writers shared similar interests which, in their zeal to fashion themselves as self-originating, the Modernists obscured. The Modernists were as invested in disavowing Victorianism as they were Edwardianism and this included fin-de-siècle Decadence. Wyndham Lewis, for example, scorned Roger Fry's 'greeneryyallery' tendencies, 51 an insult that linked Fry with outmoded fin-de-siècle Aestheticism and Decadence. Pound, though an admirer of 1890s Decadence in his youth, would denounce it in 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley' (1919) and in his introduction to a collection of poems by Lionel Johnson in 1915. 52 His high Modernist disdain for the Decadents extended to those of his own generation sympathetic to these older literary values, including J. C. Squire and Edward Marsh who continued to promote 1890s Decadence and spoke out against high Modernism.
Literary history has largely obscured the vast array of literary and intellectual activity during the war and post-war period in its privileging of specifically 'Modernist' productions and producers. The literary activities of Squire, Marsh, and others indicate that there was more going on in this period than simply high Modernism and that there was a strong interest in fin-de-siècle modernist forms such as Decadence. Decadence, however, though once 'modern', 'new', and 'avant-garde', had now become 'traditional', partly because of the Modernists' need to disavow their literary forbears, but also because of the desire on the part of anti-Modernists such as Squire and Marsh to oppose high Modernism. For example, in the first issue of the London Mercury, Squire attacked high Modernism as 'dirty living and muddled thinking' and as 'fungoid growths of feeble pretentious impostors', 53 charges that are strikingly similar to those levelled at the Decadents in the 1890s. This pro-Decadent, anti-Modernist aesthetic dominated periodicals such as the Mercury, carried over into the work of Ronald Firbank, E. F. Benson, P. G. Wodehouse, Noël Coward, Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh and others, and was endorsed by publishers of the period such as Grant Richards, who disliked high Modernism. 54 The re-emergence of interest in fin-de-siècle Decadence in the Modernist period also manifested itself in a host of memoirs and histories that appeared in the 1910s and 1920s: W.G. Blakie Murdoch's Renaissance of the Nineties (1910), Holbrook Jackson's Eighteen Nineties (1913), Robert Sherard's The Real Oscar Wilde (1911), and Bernard Muddiman's Men of the Nineties (1920) as well as memoirs by Richard Le Gallienne, Victor Plarr, Edgar Jepson, W. B. Yeats, Frank Harris, Lord Alfred Douglas, and many others. These publications catered to what Theodore Wratislaw, a minor poet of the 1890s, referred to in 1914 as a 'thriving interest in the products of the 1890s' when he offered up his own memoirs to Elkin Mathews. 55
The nostalgia for the 1890s in this period was prompted by a number of things. During the years of the 'Great War' and after, the 1890s must have seemed a simpler and more romantic age, much in the same way as the Edwardian era, from the post-war perspective, seemed to have been one long country house party. It may also have been that artistic martyrdom seemed glamorous in contrast to the unglamorous reality of young men being killed in war. At the same time, the glamour of the bohemian artistic life was no doubt appealing at a time when fiction seemed more commercialized than ever. It certainly held this appeal for W. G. Blaikie Murdoch who praised the Decadents for fighting 'Philistia' and had little faith that anything as 'precious as the renaissance of the nineties' would rise again. 56 Or, quite simply, this nostalgia may have been part of the larger reaction against the emerging high Modernist sensibility which denigrated the achievements of the writers of the 1890s.
The existence of this formidable oppositional presence in an age that has come to be so strongly characterized by the work and ideas of high Modernist writers casts new light on the anti-1890s sentiments of writers such as Ezra Pound who attacked Victor Plarr in the guise of 'M. Verog' for being 'out of step with the decade, / Detached from his contemporaries, / Neglected by the young' because of his interest in 1890s culture. 57 The institutionalization of Modernism has made these lines register differently from how they did when Pound wrote them. While Pound's now canonical status lends authority to his condemnation of this forgotten poet, at the time he wrote the poem, he was struggling to assert his cultural authority in a battle which was very much ongoing. The poem functions as a farewell to London, a place where he felt unappreciated within the literary field. 58 The anti- Modernists and the 1890s writers he writes against, writers who are largely forgotten now, were a formidable presence in a field where high Modernists found it necessary to set about creating their own venues for publication – the small presses and 'little magazines' of the period.
In a literary history that privileges 'high' Modernism, the Decadents and the pro-Decadent contemporaries of the high Modernists have come down to us as non-entities or losers in the battle for cultural authority. Yet, at the time of the battle, this outcome was not a given. If Pound and other high Modernists had a disdain for the Decadents and those of their own generation who revered them, the Decadents who continued to be active in the period of Modernism were equally disdainful of Modernists. In 1924, for example, Machen expressed his disdain for modern fiction in a letter to Munson Havens: 'When I do read a modern novel', he declared, 'I often make two reflections. Firstly: "How very clever"; secondly: "And yet this can never last." ' 59 For his part, Shiel thought 1890s writers were 'wittier' than the moderns 60 and his preferences among living writers – G. B. Shaw, John Gawsworth, William Somerset Maugham and Margaret Kennedy – were far from Modernist. 61 The Decadents who were still actively engaged in the literary scene in the Modernist period were alienated by the 'new' modern. They prided themselves on their anti-intellectualism and distinguished themselves as dilettantes in opposition to the intellectual Modernists. The difference in the tenor of intellectualism might well be accounted for by the fact that while the Decadents were largely self-educated, high Modernists, particularly Americans such as Eliot and Pound, were often university educated. And while the Decadents' self-culture constituted a form of avantgarde intellectualism in its own day, by high-Modernist standards this selfculture was anti-intellectual. The antipathy of the Decadents, a former literary élite, for the Modernists indicates that the Modernist period was not simply about the new rejecting the old. Rather, it was a two-sided affair with the surviving 'old' capable of an equally critical condemnation of the 'new'. Both sides felt at times threatened, at times triumphant, in the context of a diverse and divisive literary field. 62
The literary fields of the Edwardian and Modernist periods offered distinct challenges for Decadents who had been schooled in the fin de siècle. Though issues of readership, authorship, professionalism, ethics, aesthetics, high art, popular art, and economics were still central in establishing one's artistic identity, the changing contexts altered the way these issues were used in positioning writers within the field. In the immediate aftermath of the Wilde trials, the backlash against Decadence put pressure on writers, particularly Decadents, to abandon their artistic principles and to conform to the demand for a healthy national literature. This overt attempt to eradicate literary Decadence resulted in an Edwardian fiction characterized by generic rather than formal adventurousness, particularly given the ongoing association of preciosity of style with Decadence. Finally, though the Modernist period, which saw an aggressive promotion of high art principles by some writers, may have seemed a welcoming place for those writers who had espoused similar principles in the 1890s, the period presented other kinds of challenges for the Decadents who continued to be active in the literary field. Even though the Decadents shared with the Modernists certain basic artistic principles, the distinction between the old and the new and a traditional and a radical concept of high art marked the difference between the old 'new' art of Decadence and the new 'new' art of Modernism....
24 August 2019