Fictions of British Decadence: High Art, Popular Writing and by Kirsten MacLeod

By Kirsten MacLeod

Fictions of British Decadence is a clean account of the emergence, improvement and legacy of fiction written within the period of Oscar Wilde. It examines a extensive variety of texts through a various array of Decadent writers, from commonplace figures comparable to Ernest Dowson and John Davidson to lesser-known innovators resembling Arthur Machen and M.P. Shiel.

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The more familiar view is that represented in Moore’s idealized image of the ‘high priest’ – the disinterested martyr to art. It is this representation, not Noble’s, that has prevailed in literary histories of Decadence. My intention in this chapter is not to privilege one of these interpretations over the other, but rather to understand the relationship between them, to examine how these ‘fictions’ came to be constructed, and how the material conditions of the British fin-de-siècle literary field made it possible for such diametrically opposed images of the Decadent to circulate simultaneously.

7 Both these fractions had benefited from the Industrial Revolution, which increased the power of the business middle class and led to an expansion of the professional middle class. New professions proliferated throughout the nineteenth century. Though the professions initially constituted the clergy, law, medicine, and the intellectual realm (that is, men of letters, scientists, university teachers, and artists), eventually surgeons, accountants, bankers, engineers, pharmacists, architects, librarians, and others became identified as professionals.

Far from reifying notions of Decadence, these contradictory meanings have rendered it highly intangible and seemingly undefinable. This problem of meaning around Decadence derives, as numerous critics have argued, from the instability of the term itself. 77 For Gilman, the instability of the term renders it meaningless and he wishes that the term could be dropped from the language altogether. 79 Taking a cue from this approach, this study examines the ideological and cultural uses to which the term Decadence was put in Britain, from its origins in 1884 as a literary and cultural practice, through the Wilde trials of 1895, and beyond into the Edwardian and Modernist periods.

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