Vol.  IV                                                                                                                                    No.  2

issue no 33: February 2007

The Critic as Critic

A Monthly Page of Reviews

All authors whose books are reviewed are invited to respond. 

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Honouring Nelson: Kelsey Thornton on the Nelson festchrift 


Playing Indecency: Katherine Maynard on Miriam Mills and Moises Kaufman


Æstheticism in England: Ruth Livesey on Diana Maltz  


Decadence in England: Marco Pustianaz on James Willsher’s Anthology         


Religion in Literary Studies: Frederick Roden on Knight & Mason


Sensation in Literature: Laurence Talairach-Vielmas on Harrison & Fantina


Sly Scenery in Ireland: Maureen O’Connor on Julie Ann Stevens, Edith Somerville and Martin Ross



Sensation in Victorian Literature


Kimberly Harrison, Richard Fantina (eds.): Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre.  Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006, 278 pages. 


Review by Laurence Talairach-Vielmas. 


Kimberly Harrison and Richard Fantina’s collection of articles on Victorian sensation fiction, Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre, is an amazing compilation of no less than twenty contributions which all aim to highlight the breadth and complexity of this popular Victorian literary genre.  The essays are organized thematically in three parts.  In the first part, more particularly centred on the emergence of the genre, Ellen Miller Casey examines sensation fiction reviews in the weekly Athenæum, underlining how literary critics disapproved of the genre and reluctantly acknowledged the spicy taste and power of sensation novels, especially when contrasted with Victorian realism.  Richard Nemesvari, in the following chapter, furthers the question of genre.  His argument is that the assumption that sensation fiction conflicted with realism as an established genre is problematic.  Drawing on reception theories, Nemesvari underlines how the hybridity of Victorian sensation fiction prevents categorization as well as how it helps define a clear set of expectations regarding what belonged to high literature and what did not.  Catherine J.  Golden next focuses on Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife, showing how the novel engages with women’s novel reading through a heroine who is not ruined by the sensation novels she avidly consumes.  Albert C.  Sears’s analysis of Braddon’s Vixen provides another example of Braddon’s ability to distance herself from her sensational writing and to question sensation expectations: as Sears demonstrates, the novel is simultaneously sensational and anti-sensational, playing with sensational conventions only to disrupt them.  Diana C.  Archibald’s article next deals with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, arguing that though published over twenty years before the heyday of the sensation novel, Oliver Twist anticipates sensationalism by associating crime with domesticity.  Dianna Vitanza’s article explores the writing of Charles Reade through Griffith Gaunt.  Vitanza contends that Reade’s characterization was influenced by the theories of Charles Darwin, thereby suggesting Reade’s closeness with naturalistic writers.  Lastly, Devin P.  Zuber analyses how Sheridan Le Fanu participated in the sensation genre.  Zuber uses the influence of Swedenborg on Le Fanu’s writings to explain his play on the themes of language and identity, doublings and uncanny resemblances which were also to be found in sensation novels. 


The second part of the collection then turns towards representations of gender and sexuality.  It starts with Tamar Heller’s exploration of Rhoda Broughton’s erotic sensationalism in Not Wisely But Too Well.  Analysing Broughton’s construction of female desire and female appetite, Heller shows Broughton’s oscillation between convention and subversion.  By playing both on somatophobia and somatophilia, the novel illustrates how women’s discontent with the era’s restraints on female passion could only be expressed through suppressing sexual desire.  Following Heller’s article, Galia Ofek discusses the representation of hair in sensation novels, underlining how, if the fetishization of women’s hair was not new, sensation authors nevertheless challenged literary conventions.  Andrew Mangham’s article on Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White next highlights how the male characters’ obsession with female madness in the novel reveals their own unhealthy obsessions, aligning Collins’s hero with the figure of the mid-Victorian psychologist.  Analysing Charles Reade’s work, Richard Fantina traces the feminist discourse which permeates Reade’s works through focusing on cross-dressing, transvestism and androgynism.  Nancy Welter applies Irigaray’s theories to a reading of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ and Sherida Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, examining the issue of female homosexuality.  Lindsey Faber investigates the construction of sisterhood in Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up As a Flower, studying how Broughton uses the sisters’ relationship as a means to probe definitions of conventional womanhood.  Lastly, Jennifer A.  Swartz analyses the representation of coverture and woman’s legal position in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone to bring to light contemporary legal tensions. 


In the third part, which deals with issues of class and race, Andrew Maunder examines a stage adaptation of Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne, which was played at the Effingham Theatre and aimed at working-class audiences.  Lillian Nayder emphasizes the significance of windows as symbolical thresholds in Braddon’s Aurora Floyd, showing how windows are linked to the construction of social identity.  Tamara S.  Wagner examines the representation of suburbia in sensation fiction, focusing more particularly on Wilkie Collins’s Basil.  Kimberly Harrison next explores Braddon’s political discourse in The Octoroon with regard to the American Civil War, foregrounding how Braddon merges the antislavery question with domestic tensions related to the expansion of the franchise.  In the last two articles, Vicki Corkran Willey studies the treatment of the Other in Collins’s The Moonstone, while Monica M.  Young-Zook focuses on Armadale and Collins’s construction of race and class through Ozias Midwinter and Lydia Gwilt. 


There is no doubt that this collection, originally designed to be used in university courses, will be highly valuable to students.  If the inclusion of some of the articles may seem adventurous to specialists in the field, the collection, as a whole, offers a thorough vision of Victorian sensation fiction, encapsulating many of the issues that have been the subject of a good deal of critical attention in the last three decades, while adding new ideas to further the debate on the limits of the sensation genre. 


v      Laurence Talairach-Vielmas lectures on Victorian Literature at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail, France.  Among her publications are ‘Fatal Secrets of Victorian Sensational Mirrors’, Journal of the Wilkie Collins Society vol 6 (2003), and ‘Victorian Sensational Shoppers: Representing Transgressive Femininity in Wilkie Collins's No Name’, in Victorian Review vol 31 no2 (2005).




Playing Indecency:

The Importance of Being Oscar


Rider University’s production of Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: the Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.  Yvonne Theater.  Directed by Miriam Mills.  16th, 17th, 23rd, 24th February  2007.


Review by Katherine Maynard


Judged by its subtitle, Kaufman’s play should be a stodgy courtroom melodrama with Wilde as the stereotypical gay martyr, a fin de siècle St.  Sebastian, riddled with the arrows of Victorian homophobia and hypocrisy.  Fortunately, Kaufman’s play is an intelligent deconstruction of the Oscar stereotype that reconstructs Wilde’s life, career, and philosophy of art.  It portrays him as a nuanced individual who deserves to be considered far more seriously than the nattering æsthetes that he created in his own plays, especially The Importance of Being Earnest.  Of course Wilde was a bit of an Earnest himself—suave, flippant, and arrogant—and that very entertaining element of his personality surfaces in the lighter moments of his trials—for example, when Wilde and an opposing lawyer spar over whether one of Wilde’s alleged male lovers burns incense or merely pastilles in his room.   Apparently incense would have been a sure sign of degeneracy and sodomy, whereas pastilles would have been more innocent, but it was the kind of arcane distinction that an æsthete of the Earnest variety would take seriously, even in a trial. 


Elsewhere in Gross Indecency, a more serious and thoughtful Wilde emerges both in his own words and in the commentaries of his contemporaries such as Frank Harris and George Bernard Shaw.  For good measure, Wilde is also analyzed in the jargon of a 1990’s vintage Gender or Cultural Studies Professor who natters his (or her, depending on the casting) way through a Foucaultian dialogue composed largely of academic clichés that—like Foucault—are sporadically illuminating.  Unlike the Professor, Wilde is able to defend his own genius and his philosophy of art eloquently as a liberating force that helped to destroy the Victorian/Puritan insistence that the arts must buttress the bastion of prudery (disguised as ‘morality’) that the middle-classes had erected to defend themselves against any alternative weltanschauungs. 


This explains, at least partially, some of the mysteries of Wilde’s behavior.  Thus, legally speaking, he lied by refusing to admit he was ‘guilty’--but since ‘guilt’ is a moral issue, an admission of guilt would have been a tacit admission that Victorian morality was valid and applied to him and his conduct, so he lied with a good conscience.  It also explains Wilde’s stubborn refusal, when convicted of ‘gross indecency,’ to flee to continental Europe where the locals responded to all kinds of supposed indecencies with bemused tolerance.  That too would have been a tacit admission of the validity of Victorian prudery, and so Wilde chose to miss the boat/train to Calais and serve his sentence.  Even more impressive, however, is Wilde’s ‘pitiless’ willingness to confess that he was guilty, not of violating the Victorian values he abhorred, but of ruining himself by consorting with ‘smaller natures’ and ‘meaner minds’ as he ‘became spendthrift of [his] genius’ and ‘careless of the lives of others.’  Among the smallest of these natures, alas, was that of Wilde’s great love, Lord Alfred Douglas, an upper-class twit of no discernable talents who nevertheless managed to entangle Wilde in his snares and his feud with his father, the Marquis of Queensberry, who started the legal proceedings that caused Wilde’s eventual downfall.  Like many passionate, gifted individuals ranging from Anthony and Cleopatra to the latest faces to appear on the covers of supermarket tabloids, Wilde loved less wisely than he should have, but if that really were a crime, the courts would have to work 24/7 in our times as well as Wilde’s. 


Rider University’s production of Gross Indecency conveys these and the play’s other subtleties gracefully and forcefully.   David Yashin was well-cast as Wilde.  Arrogant and flippant before he fully realizes the danger he faces, Yashin’s Wilde matures swiftly into a somber artist who defends himself with intelligence as well as wit as he tries to salvage his æsthetic vision from the ruin that is engulfing his personal life.  Particularly in the play’s closing scenes Yashin is faithful to Kaufman’s view of Wilde as a fighter in a lost cause rather than a victim, and Yashin masterfully avoids the easy pathos of making Wilde a pathetic whiner.   That role in the play is reserved for the actor who plays Lord Alfred Douglas, a world-class whiner by any standard.   Played by Judah Frank, another piece of good casting, Douglas manages to be repellent enough to arouse the audience’s contempt yet charming enough to be one of the major causes of Wilde’s ruin—a difficult role that Frank performed very well.  Even more unsympathetic is the Marquis of Queensberry, played by Kevin Feehery, who is a world-class brute (to use the Victorians’ own terminology) and the play’s only real villain.  Bellicose and obnoxious, Feehery does a splendid job of making the Marquis a bully who not merely enjoys but exults in his ability to bring down a man who is far more intelligent and creative than he is.   The play’s lawyers were bewigged and in splendid voice, as we expect English trial lawyers to be, as they defended or attacked Wilde with either courtesy or disdain as the occasion demanded, and the assorted male prostitutes managed to maintain an appropriate, delicate balance between cringing servitude and sullen resentment.


The production by Director Miriam Mills was excellent.   Indebted to Brecht’s and Piscator’s conviction that drama should induce thought more than emotion, her direction emphasized a timing and tempo that were succinct and forceful so the audience always had time to comprehend Wilde’s ideas and appreciate them.  But the debate never became dry, academic, or preachy; and this brisk tempo—along with Yashin’s restrained performance—was a further reason that the production was able to avoid melodrama and be a play of ideas.  The staging was stark with the actors frequently addressing the audience as a further inducement to thought.   The staging of the third trial was particularly effective.   As Wilde is forced more and more on the defensive, and public opinion against him hardens from displeasure to enmity and even hatred, Mills shows this transformation by turning the minor characters into a frieze of rigid grotesques who twitch and gesticulate their lines.  It is a telling dramatization of the effects of fear and prejudice, and one that is applicable to our times as well as Wilde’s.  


Katherine Maynard is Professor of English at Rider University




Honouring Nelson

Bound for the 1890s: Essays on Writing and Publishing in Honor of James G. Nelson, edited by Jonathan Allison with a foreword by G. Thomas Tanselle.  The Rivendale Press.  High Wycombe.  2006.  ISBN 1 904201 07 5.  £30.00 / $55.00.


Review by R.K.R. Thornton.


One could scarcely have a more bookish book than this – a gathering of essays by well-known bibliophiles on bibliographic topics in honour of a pioneer of the publishing history of the 1890s, James G. Nelson.  It is a delightful read for anyone like myself, who finds concordances and bibliographies of far more use and interest that the average book of criticism.  Nor do I miss the irony of reviewing electronically a book so grounded in the study the book as physical object.


Right from its attractive and smart dust wrapper, depicting three shelves of books that are either by the authors within, or the subject of their essays (though why is Lord de Tabley’s book upside down?), up to its checklist of James Nelson’s publications, it revels in the minutiæ of publishing information.


The foreword by G. Thomas Tanselle sets the anecdotal tone of many of the allusions to Nelson and his work, and we can see traces of the essays having been given first at a symposium on the occasion of an exhibition at the University of Kentucky in 2004 of books and manuscripts from Nelson’s collection.  Many of the writers, scholar-collectors and collector-scholars, have been inspired personally by Nelson and all express gratitude for his work on Smithers, Mathews, Lane and the Bodley Head (and in once case Watson).  It is quite true that his books make a firm footing for anyone working on the 1890s and I would wish to add my own word of thanks to him.


Jonathan Allison’s Introduction is a plain but useful quick summary of the book’s contents; and I can do no better than follow his example and deal with each essay as it comes.


Mark Samuels Lasner modestly withdraws from the spotlight, after some words on the inspiration of James Nelson’s book, by printing Ethel Colburn Mayne’s ‘Reminiscences of Henry Harland’, which he bought as part of a Henry Harland archive put together by Donald A. Roberts.  The article alerts readers to that archive and prints ‘the most interesting document of all’.  It is indeed a revealing insider’s account of the Yellow Book for a brief period from January to June 1896, before the jealousy of Ella D’Arcy forced Mayne out of the sub-editorship and her story out of the April 1896 issue.  It is full of useful detail about Harland and the running of the Yellow Book.


Nicholas Frankel’s essay on ‘The Typewritten Self: Media Technology and Identity in Wilde’s De Profundis’ is for me the least congenial piece in the volume, based largely on Wilde’s detailed instructions to Ross on typing, reproducing and disseminating the prison letter which came to be known as De Profundis.  Wilde instructed Ross to have it carefully copied and thought that ‘the only thing to do is to be thoroughly modern, and to have it type-written ...  on good paper such as is used for plays’.  Frankel argues that ‘Wilde’s prison letter underwent a profound transformation when made to conform to the corrective power of the margin and the visual properties of ‘type’’ (p.30).  I have no problem with the idea of some modest transformation, but I seriously question the word ‘profound’, and am not convinced that ‘Wilde’s instructions to Ross produced not simply a new document but a wholly new version of the work we now know as De Profundis’ (p.30).  Admittedly this is qualified by ‘In one sense at least’, but it makes too sensational a claim by over-dramatising a simple point.  If a student wrote an essay by hand and then had it typed, would the professor grading it consider that it was a ‘wholly new version’ of the work, or, ‘far from being a transparent simulacrum of the often illegible ...  manuscript’, ‘inseparable from its apparently depersonalized and mechanical medium’? Frankel argues that having the letter typewritten ‘abolished traces of its human author from the reader’s field of vision’; that the clarity of the typewritten page has a ‘visual clarity and apparent orderliness [which] embody their author’s newfound ...  spiritual penitence’ and gave it a ‘guarantee of spiritual authenticity’ (p.38).  The essay argues about minor considerations without, so far as I can see, mentioning the most important, that having his manuscript typed on good paper would aid its survival, and his own as the person he wished posterity to see.  ‘My whole life depends on it’ he wrote to More Adey.  He could not risk his manuscript uncopied with the un-dependable Douglas.


The penultimate sentence reasserts that ‘the Oscar Wilde we think we know through his autobiography is partly a function of the media used to produce and disseminate autobiography itself’ (p.39).  The question is, how minuscule is that ‘partly’.  The essay touches on interesting points, but I remain little moved by the monument erected on the pinhead of typewriting.


Margaret D. Stetz’s piece on ‘The Love That Dared Not Speak His Name: Literary Responses to the Wilde Trials’ gives a convincing account of how late nineteenth century authors, particularly those who wrote for the Yellow Book, came to the defence of Wilde.  She revises the often-accepted notion that fellow writers were reluctant to defend Wilde in the period of his punishment, and shows convincingly how they came to his support, though often in ‘covert, coded and oblique’ ways. 


Linda K. Hughes, in her piece on ‘W.  E.  Henley’s Scots Observer and Fin-de-Siècle Books’, offers a welcome revision of the simplistic portrayal of Henley as counter-decadent.  She lists several of Henley’s other contradictory characteristics (often his stated ideas did not square with his actions and sympathies) and suggests that we think of Henley as an ‘imperialist æsthete’ or ‘progressive misogynist’ to indicate the violent oppositions of his allegiances.  She indicates how much more interesting and complex he was than the caricatures allow.


Philip K. Cohen writes on ‘Richard Le Gallienne’s The Book-Bills of Narcissus: An Account Rendered’ and focuses on Book-Bills to look at publishing practices and literary trends.  This is a detailed and informative study of the various stages of the editions of the book, with sidelights on publishing in the 1890s.  It is a pity that Le Gallienne’s cloying book does not quite merit this loving care, but at least when I re-read it I knew from Cohen’s bibliography which version it was that I was reading and how it had reached that state.


Steven Halliwell’s ‘Copyright and Pamphlet Printings: William Watson’s Relationship with John Lane’ does what it says on the tin.  He recounts the disconcerting tale of Watson’s apparent exploitation of Lane’s generous friendship, which included a more-than-conscientious publication of copyright pamphlets of Watson’s poems.  The essay concludes with a checklist of these pamphlets which Lane assiduously produced.  The information is impressively thorough and throws light on both the men and the publishing industry at the time and it also reveals where to find such esoteric information.  Perhaps it will take a bibliophile to value it highly, but it is an exemplary study. 


Linda Gertner Zatlin writes on ‘Aubrey Beardsley and the Shaping of Art Nouveau’  in an essay which she points out is based on (in effect it substantially reproduces Chapter One of) her book on Beardsley, Japonisme, and the Perversion of the Victorian Ideal (Cambridge U.P., 1997).  This is an impressively informed summary, but its wide scope is quite the opposite of the painstaking scrutiny of the other essays and I find myself pouncing greedily on details.  I know it is her subject, but I wonder whether the focus on Japonisme rather blanks out other issues.  For example on p.151 she criticises those reporters who ‘incorrectly postulated China as the source of Beardsley’s inspiration’.  Does the phrasing there –  the source of Beardsley’s inspiration’ – indicate a blindness to other sources of Beardsley’s inspiration, even perhaps China? The chinoiserie of Brighton Pavilion might well have influenced Beardsley – we know he had a playlet played there and remembered its architecture in 1896.


Jonathan Allison’s ‘Constructing the Early Yeats: Modernist Revisions of Poems (1895)’ establishes revision as one way in which Yeats looked for ‘coherence’ which he ‘found to be in jeopardy in the lives of other poets of the 1890s’ (p.176).  He suggests that, although we often look at later revisions, ‘most readers tend to have an unclear picture of the poems written prior to 1895.’ He thus looks at those revisions which ‘outline what kinds of stylistic decisions Yeats made at the time’ (p.176), shaping a body of verse that was ‘thematically Irish, non-urban and predominantly lyric’ (p.177).  The argument that Yeats was a remaker of himself is perhaps not new, but Allison pushes the practice back and suggests that it was continuous right from the early nineties.  The preface to Poems (1895) was also part of that refashioning of the self.


The ‘Afterword’ by James G. Nelson, originally the foreword to the catalogue of the exhibition of his books, is a modest statement of the progress of his work and collection, and the modest length of the Checklist of his books which follows belies their weight and importance.


It is a pity that there is no index, always an irritating lack in a book of such various topics; and I am curious as to the reason for the wider leading on p.103.  But let us not quibble about a book full of fascinating material and detailed bibliographic enquiry, which add up to a fitting tribute to James G.  Nelson.


v      With many publications on the 1890s to his name, R.K.R. Thornton is the co-editor with Monica Borg of Ernest S.  Dowson: Collected Shorter Fiction.  Birmingham: Birmingham University Press, 2003.



Religion in Literary Studies


Mark Knight and Emma Mason:  Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction.  Oxford U P, 2006.  viii+245.

Review by Frederick S.  Roden


Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature is a wonderful anomaly.  It is a small, manageable book that teaches about its subject in a deceptively direct way.  The material contained in Knight and Mason’s book is incredibly rich and useful.  This volume’s greatest strength is that forthrightness: the title says it all (albeit with some glossing about limits in the introduction…), including its comprehensiveness.  The authors have assembled a marvellously readable book that both the generalist and the specialist can appreciate.  One can imagine its use in courses, as a reference, or for its bibliography.  The book can be read cover-to-cover or as individual chapters.  Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature does the work of religious history, literary criticism, and cultural studies.  Knight and Mason are adept and fluent in the fields, knowledgeable about the wide range of disciplines this book intersects.  Their product is synthetic as a ‘guide,’ but it does not stop there.  It brings together not only an awareness of the scholarship, but proceeds to articulate new, original, and exciting thought.  Here are fine readings of literary texts meeting a deep yet accessible familiarity with theology. 


I admit that my first hope for this book’s audience is the scholar of nineteenth-century British literature.  That is because Knight and Mason’s book provides such a clear justification as to why we need to take religious considerations more seriously in our study of that field.  The authors distill an argument for the understanding of the value of doing theology when practicing secular nineteenth-century studies.  Indeed, some of us who work in religion and literature (myself included) are taken to task for making the religious concerns secondary to other discursive issues.  Here we have a book that can be appreciated by the undergraduate, general reader, or specialist that tells us why we shouldn’t do that.  Of course, Knight and Mason draw on an extraordinary range of scholarship in these fields to make their case.  But I am pleased to say that in reading this book, I have learned a number of things and look forward to revisiting it. 


In the introduction, the authors maintain that ‘there is a continual slippage between the sacred and the secular’ in the period (3).  ‘Our book will actively destabilize the categories of the sacred and secular without dispensing with them altogether: despite the limitations and problems of this language, it was common currency among nineteenth-century writers’ (3).  Their concerns are ‘how religion entered public and everyday life, and what means were used to contain or define its influence’ (3).  Here comes a problem, at least in terms of the scope of this study.  Knight and Mason have limited their focus to Christianity, with the statement that ‘Britain was predominantly a Christian culture’ (3).  True enough, but perhaps there could be some allusion in the book to Christian culture’s encounters with other traditions?  I hesitate to take the authors to task on this issue since this small book already does so very much.  They maintain that the ‘Christian narrative is evidently mediated and thus not strictly essential, but it is no less essential than other categories of thought (such as class or gender) that we commonly use as a basis for thinking about and interpreting cultural history’ (5).  Hallelujah! (pardon me) – for this point is exactly the critique one needs to make regarding the resistance to approaching religion among many practitioners of nineteenth-century cultural history.  Yet (I speak from experience), perhaps it would be best to make clear that this is a book about the pervasiveness of the diversity of Christian narratives in nineteenth-century British culture, each of which is worth greater interrogation.  Alternatively, would there not be some way of exploring these ‘mediations,’ particularly with respect to their obvious appearance among nineteenth-century writers and later critics?  I’m thinking of the breadth of work in Jewish studies (from recovery of Aguilar or Levy, to books like Cynthia Scheinberg’s that place Jewish and Christian writers next to one another).  For that matter, if Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature has space for considerations of theosophy, why not Omar Khayyam or other non-Christian literary influences? 


This is my sole critique, which (to be fair) has been dealt with by the introduction’s frame.  Nevertheless, since the book has so much to offer, I can’t but hope for a revised edition that is broader, or perhaps a companion volume.  For Knight and Mason make so many fine assertions, reminding the reader that ‘Christianity… interrogated and reconstructed itself over and over’ (7).  They remind us that those writers who ‘seem to stand against Christianity’ are (like contemporary critics) most ‘locked into an engagement with it’ (8), and how religion ‘found its way into every area of life’ (9). 


The book proceeds with a series of chapters that move chronologically yet focus upon specific Christian denominations.  Chapter 1, ‘Dissent: Wesley to Blake,’ provides a brief history of the dissenting traditions (specifically Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists) and how Protestant nonconformism ‘separated itself from the dominant authority of Anglicanism’ (17).  The chapter provides the important grounding of the value of the hymn as vernacular literature, a poetic form that served to spread the Evangelical message and help forge the believer’s physical, interactive relationship with God.  In an essay that concerns women writers such as Anna Barbauld, the authors also explain Blake’s ‘experiential’ religion – a melange of  ‘Moravian emphasis on love; the Anabaptist elevation of Christ; and the Swedenborgian investment in mysticism’ (42).  Here as elsewhere, the book is particularly interested in metaphors of Incarnation (Divine embodiment in the material world) for literary artists of the nineteenth century.  Chapter 2 charts the transition from ‘Old Dissent’ to ‘New Dissent,’ a movement from devout and sometimes ascetic revival piety to bourgeois ‘genteel professionalism’ (52).  Exploring Unitarianism and the Society of Friends (Quakers), the authors provide theological explanation as they move through major figures from William Paley to Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft to Gaskell.  In a gesture that connects her to those later Victorian feminists who make strategic use of religious discourse, Wollstonecraft’s ‘God represents a reasoned, enlightened standard to which all must aspire because of its inherent integrity: he functions like an anchor securing the essentially good individual against manipulative or damaging codes of law’ (67). 


In my opinion, the chapter on the Oxford Movement is the book’s finest.  The authors make extraordinary connections in a succinct way.  This wide-ranging essay on the Tractarians does a better job of explaining their theological significance and literary/cultural impact than many monographs have done.  The chapter opens observing that the ‘movement’s central figures were poets as well as preachers, and its doctrinal system was grounded in poetics as much as theology’ (86).  This sets the tone for what follows, an intriguing yet thoroughly readable examination of the intellectual and literary history surrounding major writers from Wordsworth to Newman to Hopkins.  Knight and Mason acknowledge the scholarship that has connected Tractarianism with Romanticism, but tease out its meanings for literary criticism:  from the ‘fusion of feeling and thought’ to the ‘notion of epiphany as a measure of divine guidance and revelation, and the idea of the sublime as a marker of retribution and judgment’ (93).  They theologize the ‘overflow of immanence into transcendence’ as understood by Tractarian writers and explain the poetic importance of Christian doctrines of a God embedded in all of creation.  ‘Poetry does not simply offer relief, but is actually defined as relief’ (101).  They explain the so-called Tractarian ‘reserve’ as the ‘encoding [of] religious knowledge in poetry,’ all part of the ‘potentially sacramental nature of human experience’ (101).  Following the male tradition, the authors point to the particular strength of this theological poetics for women such as Christina Rossetti and Dora Greenwell: it allowed them to be priests and theologians.  ‘Reserve’ (and the Divine it contains through metaphor) is contrasted with the direct message to be read according to Evangelical discourse.  Analogy and ritualism lead to a discussion of Hopkins and Pater.  Once again, this short chapter moves through some of the most important ideas associated with Victorian poetry and explains them with respect to Christian theology – no small feat. 


The goal of the subsequent chapter is to demonstrate the ‘breadth and diversity of Evangelicalism… a movement rather than a denomination’ (122).  It is difficult to read the chapter’s pronouncements without reflecting on our own age’s understanding of ‘fundamentalism.’  Knight and Mason show how Evangelical thought with its focus on ‘human sinfulness’ and ‘depravity’ (127) appeared in so-called secular discourse.  From Dickens and Bronte, the authors move to identify the danger posed by Biblical hermeneutics.  For Evangelicals, this emergence was more problematic than Darwin’s theory.  Questions about how to read the real truth of the Bible coincided with the growth of the genre of fiction, contributing reciprocally to destabilizing strategies for finding easy meaning.  Yet Evangelicals themselves capitalized on the range of narratives possible to effect change – the soul’s state was no more fixed than the potential convert’s story.  The chapter thus ‘undermines the one-dimensional caricature of Evangelicalism,’ concluding that ‘Evangelicals may have sometimes been oblivious to their capacity for interpreting the Word in different ways, but it is this variation in reading the Word that helps explain how an apparently narrow movement was able to exert such a substantial and diverse influence upon the whole gamut of nineteenth-century culture’ (146). 


Another exciting chapter concerns ‘Secularization,’ where the authors chart the critical trend challenging the notion of a ‘linear and inescapable erosion of faith… at an advanced stage by the second half of the nineteenth century’ (152).  Knight and Mason discuss the Social Gospel in terms of Incarnation, ‘immanence and transcendence’ (162).  They make the valuable observations that rarely, ‘if ever, does it help to characterize people’s beliefs as either religious or secular… Religion does not have to rely on transcendence to secure its identity: interpreting belief in terms of material concern may run the risk of eroding a realist view of God but this is not the only possible outcome’ (167).  Hence, rather than focusing on breaks and ruptures, the authors are able to construct a narrative about the changing face of religion.  ‘The decline of Christianity’s privileged cultural status did not result in the decline of religion per se’ (177).  Understanding the ‘secular in terms of its attempts to rewrite religion (and vice versa), we end up with a more constructive paradigm for thinking about the position of religion in modernity than that offered by secularization theory’ (180). 


Not surprisingly, the book ends with those religious phenomena associated with the fin de siecle: Decadent Catholic conversion, mysticism, and theosophy.  Discussing Huysman, Stoker, Wilde, Meynell, and many others, Knight and Mason continue the work of Ellis Hanson et al (including myself) by suggesting that Catholic theology should not only be seen as important (rather than pejoratively ‘æsthetic’) for writers of the period, but argue further for its centrality to their artistic creations.  Here again we see the authors finding ‘love and the interrelatedness of living beings’ in literary works (another way of talking about Incarnation and sacrament).  Perhaps the most interesting point they make is to distinguish between a private and public understanding of religion.  In Dowson, the Decadent Catholicism is almost masturbatory in the individual gaze; for Meynell, the journalist’s commitment to a ‘sacramental universe, in which the whole of the created order is seen as a sign of the presence of God,’ provides a means for integrating Impressionism with religious belief (199).  Knight and Mason move to a brief conclusion on the esoteric and the mystical, distinct from the Catholic flowering in the 1890s and beyond.  


The book’s ending is appropriate as it points the way to Modernism – and, without specifically stating so, the theological and literary disputations surrounding the ‘Modernist’ controversy that chastised so many free-thinking, relativistic Catholic converts of the period.  The Thomism championed in relation to the late-century Catholic revival came to be understood as a limiting discourse: natural law, the same throughout time, could not (according to Rome) change with ‘Modernism.’  Curiously, this remains a theological problem in our own post-fin-de-siecle, post-millenium world.  One might have hoped for a more thorough and fitting conclusion to so fine a book, posing the sorts of questions that look ahead to the twentieth – and twenty-first -- centuries.  Instead, the book ends as sharply as did the nineteenth century.  Yet those of us who work on both sides of 1900 are aware that discourses and narratives continue.  Despite these minor flaws, Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature offers a rich, delightful, informative, and well-researched catalyst to encourage scholars to re-think their understanding of Christianity in the period as well as a tool to teach students (and ourselves) more about this subject.  


v      Frederick S.  Roden is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut.  He is the author of Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture and the editor of Palgrave Advances in Oscar Wilde Studies.




Æstheticism in England

Diana Maltz: British Æstheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870-1900: Beauty for the People.  Houndmills: Palgrave 2006.


Review by Ruth Livesey


At the end of an attempt to survey ‘some aspects of æstheticism’ in 1987, Ian Fletcher concluded that the æsthetic movement was ‘only marginally connected with literature’ and ‘essentially centrifugal’, subsisting in ‘satire, in parody, and in the furtive cadences of Pater; and … in art, the remote glow of Albert Moore’s flower maidens lost in timeless reverie’.[1] Since the publication of Fletcher’s study, the remarkable expansion of research relating to the literature and culture of the British fin de siècle has resulted in a welcome inflection of his suggestion that the erotic pursuits of the aristocratic lady ‘Souls’ somehow represented the acme of æstheticism.  The works of Regenia Gagnier and Jonathan Freedman, in particular, have resulted in a renewed interest in the fraught relations between æstheticism, decadence and early literary modernism (and, in Freedman’s case, postmodernism): an interest that frames Pater, Wilde and Henry James not as purveyors of ‘furtive cadences’, but as theoreticians presaging a new age of the commodified literary marketplace.[2]


As Kathy Psomiades points out, however, the limits and definitions of æstheticism remain slippery, always wanting to embrace those wider consumerist crazes for blue china and peacock feathers that she terms ‘lifestyle Æstheticism’, and which so constituted the identity of the movement to readers of Punch.[3] Part of the value of Diana Maltz’s new study of what she, following Fletcher, terms ‘Missionary Æstheticism’, is that it revisits some of that sprawling social hinterland to the lectures of Ruskin, Pater, and Wilde without any trace of the condescension which so often accompanies accounts of the passionate idealisms of the late nineteenth century.  Maltz’s contention is that a host of ‘missionary æsthetic’ activities demonstrates the persistence within æstheticism of a belief that art should serve a social purpose, elevating everyday life for everyone; and her particular focus is the rise in philanthropic ventures in the slums that matched the peak of the æsthetic movement in the late 1870s and early 1880s (3).  The housing reformer Octavia Hill and her sister Miranda, founder of the Kyrle Society, for instance, believed that bringing flowers and paintings (and the pretty faces of ‘Lady Visitors’) into the slums would refine the characters of those who lived there.  For Maltz such a programme is an example of the dialogue between philanthropy and æstheticism worthy of serious investigation; she neither exculpates Hill from overlooking some of the material determinates of poverty, nor scoffs at the deeply held beliefs that underpinned such action in her chapter on this subject.  Rather, Maltz’s work illuminates the oft cited, but rarely examined, friendship between Octavia Hill and John Ruskin. 


Maltz acknowledges that her labelling of Hill (and, in a later chapter, Henrietta Barnett of Toynbee Hall) as a ‘missionary æsthete’ is controversial, and implies a redefinition of the term ‘æsthete’ as well as a ‘theoretical repositioning’ of the rather stolid-seeming Hill (43).  And perhaps some further work on Ruskin’s own relationship to the emergence of æstheticism might have helped smooth the path to her redefinition of such terms.  Maltz makes the important point that Hill never claims ‘the domestic interior as a source of æsthetic elevation’ for slum dwellers, but always ‘points beyond it to the outdoors’: Hill’s continual emphasis on the healing powers of nature thus seems to align her with Ruskin’s own early work; more late-Romantic than proto-æsthete (51).  As Hill forged away at rent collecting and the elevation of character in her first few slum courts in the late 1860s, Maltz shows her to have been equally dogged in chivvying the increasingly pessimistic Ruskin into a belief in the transformative power of such interventions as he himself moved to a more systematic analysis of the relations between economics, æsthetics and ethics in a capitalist society. 


The influence of Ruskin over the generation of educated middle and upper-middle-class men and women who experienced what Beatrice Webb termed the ‘transference of the emotion of self-sacrificing service from God to man’ in the 1870s and 1880s can hardly be overestimated.  For the founders and university settlers of Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, a renewed belief in the ethical value of æsthetics extended well beyond the Liberty upholstery and Morris papers that filled the drawing-room of the settlement house.  As Maltz points out, C.R. Ashbee established his Guild and School of Handicraft in conjunction with Toynbee Hall in 1888, two years after he had led a small Ruskin reading group for working men in the neighbourhood.  Ashbee’s commitment to enabling working men and women to gain craft skills in the process of small workshop production can be clearly identified with Ruskin’s later work.  From the early 1880s the settlement founders, Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, organised an annual Easter Free Loan Exhibition of paintings in the parish rooms of St Jude’s church; a venture that eventually culminated in the establishment of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1898.  Maltz argues that Henrietta Barnett’s essay of 1883, ‘Pictures for the People’ advocates ‘a straightforward Ruskinian dissemination of art and ethics’ (72).  Such a summary does a slight disservice to the subtle analysis of Barnett’s work that follows: Maltz is deft at pulling out both the traces of working-class visitors’ responses to paintings by Briton Riviere and G.F. Watts as reported by Barnett, and the manner in which Barnett herself recontains such ‘naïve’ readings of the works in a frame that authenticates some elements as solemn truths and disavows others as evidence of the deleterious state of working-class education. 


The question of who actually made use of the facilities offered by Toynbee Hall and other cultural ventures into the slums during the 1880s has been widely debated since their foundation.  For Gareth Stedman Jones, the efforts of the university settlements and other philanthropists in ‘Outcast London’ in the last decades of the nineteenth century represented a misunderstanding of the anthropological gift relationship.  The mission to bring sweetness and light to the slums invoked the language of the Arnoldian gift of high culture, as Maltz also notes, but in expecting peaceable behaviour and a decline in class-consciousness in  return, Stedman Jones concludes, the notion of the gift as something given freely which requires no return was deformed.[4] Instead of elevating slum dwellers, the educational programmes of the university settlements were, by and large, subscribed to by the local lower-middle classes: clerks and pupil teachers seeking embourgeoisement.  Maltz’s study of the scrapbooks kept by just such a group – the ‘Toynbee Travellers’ – on two guided tours of Italy is revelatory in its close account of the currents of shame, identification and ambition evoked by the encounter of this new, precarious class, with authorised ‘high culture’.  The actual responses of the slum dwellers in receipt of the philanthropic æstheticism of Miranda Hill’s Kyrle Society are, by contrast (and perhaps inevitably), less well-documented.  Maltz concludes that the sorts of petty vandalism inflicted on some garden projects ‘speak for’ the resentment of patronage that remain untranscribed in surviving accounts of such philanthropy. 


The novelist George Gissing was a representative (albeit an exceptional one) of that upwardly mobile, culturally aspirational lower-middle class which made use of the opportunities offered by the mission of culture.  Maltz’s final chapter on the novelist and the relation of his own works to ‘missionary æstheticism’ is a superb revaluation of a writer all too easily stamped and dismissed as an English Naturalist who never quite stuck with the programme.  Throughout the book as a whole, Maltz moves between the modes of social history – to the fore, for example in her useful account of the conflict between advocates of Sunday museum opening and the Sabbatarian movement – and literary analysis.  On one occasion this leaves Maltz’s argument at an impasse between art and life which mirrors the questions at the very heart of her study.  Maltz devotes a chapter to exploring the conjunction of æstheticism, Ritualist worship and the figure of the slum priest in the 1870s and 1880s, using the ubiquitous balletomane Reverend Stuart Headlam as her touchstone.  Bringing together evidence of actual Ritualist priests in the slums with a range of pro- and anti-Ritualist novels (including a thoughtful reading of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean) leads Maltz to conclude that art, here, simply could not represent life: no novel unites the æsthetic pleasures of Ritualist worship with the practical commitment to improving parishioners’ lives shown by individuals like Father Osborne Jay of Holy Trinity, Shoreditch.


The implicit question of the status of realism and the novel in the age of high æstheticism evoked by this absence is one which Osborne Jay and Gissing could have debated together.  Gissing, after all, felt obliged to make public his surprise when he discovered that sections of Osborne Jay’s memoirs contained lengthy, unattributed passages from his novel The Nether World (1889).  Osborne Jay did not mount a Wildean defence of such plagiary, despite his own affiliation with æstheticism-at-prayer.  Both priest and novelist, it seems, were after the galvanising effects of literary high realism on the middle-class reading public, rather than running ahead of life in search of the evanescent experience for its own sake.  Yet the real pleasure of Maltz’s chapter on Gissing derives from her reading of him as an æsthete manqué: a cosmopolitan sophisticate denied his cenacle by the limitations of British intellectual life; an early admirer of Rossetti and Ruskin who perceived that the æsthetic movement was complicit with the mass culture of modernity; an anti-reformer who eventually retreated into a Paterian cell of individual impressions, even if his novels remained resolutely realist.  Maltz’s mastery of her literary and biographical material in this carefully focussed chapter sheds much-needed light on the profound ambivalence towards philanthropy and the very notion of beauty in Gissing’s novels.  Gissing’s chapter ‘Io Saturnalia’ in The Nether World, for example, charts the decline of the high cultural and philanthropic æsthetic aims of the Crystal Palace in the face of an overworked, almost insensate mass, demanding hard drinking, cocoa-nut shies and rowdy spectacles for its Bank Holiday pleasure at Sydenham. 


It is this question that so troubled Gissing – the relation between class, pleasure, and the concept of ‘high’ culture as a gift de haut en bas – that brings to the fore a certain (and perhaps inevitable) imprecision in the intellectual history of ‘missionary æstheticism’.  Conventional critical narrative positions Matthew Arnold’s idea of high culture as ‘the best that has been thought and known in the world’ – a gift of sweetness and light that should be disseminated to the masses – and his assertion that the function of criticism is ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’ at odds with the genealogy of æstheticism.  Ruskin’s later works, as conscious interventions in the sphere of politics and economics, simply lacked the ‘disinterestedness’ that Arnold required of the critic; Pater and Wilde, of course, deliberately and explicitly invert Arnold’s definition of criticism in their own works in order to free it from any sense of institutional authorisation and objectivity.  Maltz, however, suggests that the missionary æsthetes at the heart of her study married elements of Ruskin to the Arnoldian project of ‘entrusting high culture with the goal of refining and redeeming the uncultivated masses’ (8).  Culture, to the Barnetts and many of their fellow workers it seems, was in their gift as the authorised minority of agents of sweetness and light.  The absence of a sense of conflict between this Arnoldian concept of culture as gift and the Ruskinian assertion that there is ‘no wealth but life’ is probably indicative of the blurriness with which actual historical actors absorb and reuse the currents of intellectual argument in which they are immersed. 


The book raises an important area of debate in this respect.  Maltz is persuasive and convincing in arguing that we need to modify our understanding of æstheticism; there was far more to it than simple decadence and self-reflexive ‘art for art’s sake’ as she demonstrates in her nuanced readings of Pater and Wilde in her opening chapter.  But despite the valuable historical account that emerges of individuals moving between worlds æsthetic and philanthropic – between touring the Grosvenor Gallery and rent collecting – the question remains what is it, precisely, that identifies any one person as an æsthete? Are you an æsthete if you deplore Pater, dismiss Wilde and feel that your mission is that of a new priestly caste of cultural educators, yet have rather a fancy for the latest Liberty gowns? The consequences of redefining æstheticism such that it embraces Arnold not as a productive antagonist, but as an ally of the æsthetic movement should be the subject of further discussion – perhaps in these pages.


v      Ruth Livesey is Senior Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Director, MA Victorian Media and Culture, Department of English, Royal Holloway College, University of London.




Sly Scenery in Ireland

Julie Ann Stevens: The Irish Scene in Somerville and Ross..  Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2007


Review by Maureen O’Connor


In The Irish Scene in Somerville and Ross, Julie Ann Stevens accomplishes for her subject what Wilde studies has done for its subject over the course of the last ten to fifteen years: that is, make a compelling case for reassessing texts long considered ‘merely’ popular and frivolousbecause comicas undertaking serious cultural and political critiques, deployed most potently through form, especially in their complex and cosmopolitan engagements with genre.  With Wilde, Somerville and Ross share a sly and ironic—and, therefore, often misunderstood—æsthetics of transgression, a comic slipperiness that vexes notions of loyalty and alliance in its reflexivity, its confounding deployment of mimicry and mirroring.  These writers call attention to the rebarbative equivocacies of language, which are magnified in a colonial context.  Subjectivity is not singular under these linguistic conditions, but rather dispersed, multiple, divided among interchangeable identities, a deauthorising of identity which Stevens acknowledges early on when she observes that the ‘fact of two voices, two points of view disturbs unity of purpose’, allows for ‘no absolute authority, no single ideological purpose’.  The cousins hid behind each other, ‘drawing both strength and the possibility of evasion from a double authorship’ (2).  Unlike Wilde, Somerville and Ross’s unapologetic preoccupation with the rural has consigned much of their output—with the notable exception of The Real Charlotte—to the provinces of critical attention.  Stevens handily refutes portrayals of the authors as ‘retiring behind demesne walls to nourish the broken-back pride of a conquered race’  (227), and positions them instead at the very heart of a ‘fast-moving British culture preoccupied with the issues of New Woman thought, Social Darwinism, colonial expansion, and the revived romance’ (2).  Somerville and Ross, in this exciting reevaluation, are modernists, feminists actively engaged with the provocative figure of the New Woman, early practitioners of ecofeminism (as was another Irish contemporary of theirs, New Woman fiction writer, George Egerton), critics of laissez-faire economics who were nonetheless canny manipulators of consumer culture, and, perhaps above all, writers immersed in continental traditions in both the literary and visual arts. 


Stevens considers Somerville and Ross’s place in Irish cultural history in a discussion that includes George Birmingham, Bram Stoker, Maria Edgeworth, Emily Lawless, Lady Morgan, Sheridan Le Fanu, Oscar Wilde, Charles Maturin, the cultural nationalism of The Nation, and the paintings of Jack Yeats.  She extends this cultural context to Britain and to the continent, forging solid links to Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Darwin, Balzac, productions of Faust, Beardsley’s illustrations, pre-Raphælite imagery, with special attention paid to William Homan Hunt, Olive Shreiner, Picasso, and Charles Baudelaire, particularly his theories of caricature, to provide only a partial list.  Managing to bring into conjunction, for instance, ‘French diabolism and Irish folk material’ (152), Somerville and Ross ‘creat[e] a kind of pastiche of material reflecting multiple traditions’ (21), drawn from within Irish culture and beyond, and the many genres with which they are demonstrated to engage include several from the stage, most centrally burlesque and pantomime.  Being Irish, for Somerville and Ross, ‘can be a highly self-conscious performance’ (6), a quality that in the Ireland of their fiction disrespects class and sectarian differences, and which informs their own practise of ‘self-conscious manipulation of representation’ (23).  As with Wilde, style does not only determine but comprises substance; manner and matter are inseparable.  Illuminating the self-conscious artfulness of Somerville and Ross’s work is one of Stevens’s signal accomplishments.  The book’s emphasis on staging, on performance and play illustrates one of its central themes; that is, the writers’ ‘particular interest in uniting visual and literary representation of Ireland’ (2), and the book features several pages of colour reproductions of Somerville’s illustrations as well as black and white images throughout.   This emphasis on the pictorial constitutes some of the most eloquent of the book’s arguments.  Somerville and Ross’s heretofore unrecognised æsthetic innovations reside in their unique attention to form, landscape, and the picturesque: ‘They negotiated a line between predefined concepts of representing a landscape and its people and new ways of representing reality that paid attention to multiple perspectives’ (92).  Their deployment of the expressiveness of form as a critical tool depends upon a sophisticated understanding of the politics of representation in an Irish context: ‘By emphasizing the business of being Irish, they achieve two ends: they parody the picturesque and they question notions of national identity’ (94). 


Especially welcome is the extended examination of the writers’ frothiest concoction, the Irish RM stories, which are indeed frivolous comedy for serious people, although it is in this culminating discussion that the frisson of discomfort I felt on the very first page recurred.  On page one Stevens claims for her authors that ‘they often deal with people and ideas that have been submerged or neglected’.  So far so good.  The reason for this neglect, however, is given as ‘a dominating nationalist argument or a general wariness of shoneenism’.  When was the last time a ‘nationalist argument’ of any self-respecting sort dominated cultural discourse in Ireland, outside of a few hurling clubs?  Listening to Irish radio, watching Irish television, talking to Irish people, I see evidence for a general and wholehearted embrace of ‘shoneenism’, if anything.  The clues to such thinking lie in the very fact that the epithet can only have currency in a quaint, archaic language, which even then must be awkwardly anglicised.  (The status of that language has been depressingly demonstrated in Manchán Magan’s series, currently airing on TG4, in which he travels the island searching for fellow-Irish speakers, with little success, indeed, frequently meeting with hostility.)  There is no ‘modern’ word for such a concept; it is untranslatable; it accords with an inscrutable, backward world view.  The ideological positioning betrayed at this book’s very outset undermines to some degree—at least for this reader—its most provocative arguments.  Stevens presents Somerville and Ross as intensely self-aware manipulators of expectations, writers who interrogate received notions of gender, religion, and nation.  Stevens credits them, for example, with ‘careful assessment and adroit management of general notions of Irish or feminine tropes’ (110).  The ‘Irish scene’ is shown again and again to provide a place of resistance for the writers.  ‘They subverted a romantic vision which is as much Protestant as it is Catholic’, we are told, ‘by considering both sides’ propensity for making monuments out of molehills’ (166), but no quarter is given to reading into their work any ‘expression of colonial anxiety’ (213).  Denying the possibility of the historical guilt generating Terry Eagleton’s theory of Protestant paranoia, as Stevens pointedly does, weakens somewhat the impact of the compelling defence she mounts against the charge of stage-Irishry, with which the writers have long been imputed, arguing instead for a nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of the Irish peasant in their work.  Stevens qualifies ‘[t]heir intent, to continue establishing within the Irish literary landscape an Anglo-Irish tradition’, somewhat by describing it as ‘complicated by other preoccupying interests’ (216); however, rather tortuously, their ‘upending of Anglo-Irish Protestant ethos does not forestall their desire to stake a claim on the Irish literary terrain’, and should not, we are warned, be seen as ‘a commentary on [the Protestant ascendancy’s] demise’ (226).  Is it not possible to acknowledge the ascendancy’s demise and for that very reason desire to stake a claim for its significant place in Irish history?  To characterise Somerville and Ross as members of the Protestant ascendancy who were willing to extend sympathy to the natives but untroubled by guilt about the condition which provoked that sympathy, is to minimise and stereotype them.  They are then unimaginable as women capable of ‘new ways of representing reality that paid attention to multiple perspectives’.


It may be impossible to write about Somerville and Ross without generating this kind of debate, so enthralling yet elusive is their work, qualities shared with Reynard the fox, whose sly and sure-footed progress through the book is one of its many pleasures.  Stevens’s rich and inventive study is more complexly and delightfully structured than I have been able to convey here, focusing as I have been on just a fraction of its many invaluable insights, its inspired and inspiring readings.  Reynard may hide his gold, but Stevens shares her treasure most generously with us.


v      Maureen O’Connor is Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences Government of Ireland Post-Doctoral Fellow, Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway, and an Associate Editor of THE OSCHOLARS.



Decadence in England

James Willsher (ed.): The Dedalus Book of English Decadence.  London: Dedalus 2004.  199pp.  ISBN 1 9035 1726 5  £ 8.99.


Review by Marco Pustianaz


Dedalus publishing house deserves to be an household name for anyone in search of ‘the bizarre, the unusual, the grotesque’, as they pointedly claim on their website (  One important mission of Dedalus lies in the translation of celebrated masterpieces of European decadentism, such as novels by D’Annunzio, Huysmans, Mirbeau, Rachilde and others.  No less interesting are their anthologies of Decadent writing from Russia, France, Germany (as well as of fantasy writing from a host of other national literatures).


Clearly the taste for what is relegated to the margins, and the appreciation for the sensual and perverse refinement of lifestyles make up the distinct identity of Dedalus, a publishing house that has marked a territory of its own with enthusiasm and dedication.  Whilst an earlier Dedalus Book of Decadence, edited by the well-known SF-writer Brian Stableford, emphasised the continental roots of the Decadent movement in literature, particularly French, James Willsher, a connoisseur and dedicated antiquarian, seems to stake a different claim by means of this selection.  English Decadence is here traced back to its own indigenous roots of Romantic rebellion, indeed to an underground current that the Introduction ascribes to the fascination for sin and transgression already apparent in the Jacobean dramatists.  Such a current is seen as a dark shadow crossing Britain’s Imperial path to greatness, already sombrely thrown by Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Apart from Gibbon, though, it is the Romantic generation of rebels that has pride of place in the first half of the anthology, from Beckford to Byron, Shelley and Keats. 


It is striking, therefore, though entirely in keeping with Willsher’s reading of English Decadentism, to find that nearly half of the book is taken up by extracts (or short poems) of Gothic and Romantic literature.  The fin de siècle generation of Decadent writers is thus linked to a tradition that had already (unsuccessfully) attempted to subvert Realism and morality as dominant modes of interpreting reality.  After a brief transition marked in this book by Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it is only from page 86 that Swinburne and Pater herald the Æsthetic and Symbolist movement that we are more accustomed to treat as ‘Decadent’.  I wouldn’t quarrel with the argument of an underground tradition springing from a disaffected view of poets and artists vis-à-vis the society produced by the Industrial Revolution.  What I find less convincing is the bland generalizations that support the whole overview of the Decadent tradition in Willsher’s introduction.  To be sure, this anthology is not meant to target the scholarly market, but sometimes I would wish a less cavalier attitude – the attitude that revels in the abstract nouns ‘the poet’, ‘the artist’, or gives us enticing and picturesque statements like the following: ‘The full force of decadence was proving unsustainable, and was eating itself from the inside’ (32).  It might sound nice to read, but it also flattens our sense of historical complexity and smacks too much of those literary historical surveys that fall prey to their own rhetoric. 


Strangely enough I am left wondering whether the editor is in two minds about Decadence itself.  When, soon after mentioning ‘Wilde’s disaster’, he comments on ‘the pose of insouciance’ and argues that ‘a structure that toyed with its own sincerity had been built upon the sandy foundations of Impressionism’, one cannot fail to notice the unsavoury taste of moral superiority that mars the judgment.  Well-turned phrases such as these betray a double-edged attitude towards the whole ‘Decadent movement’ without explicitly acknowledging it.  After an introduction that tells us too much and too little at the same time, the reader is left pretty much to his own, as none of the texts is introduced or annotated.  The only thing we are given is short biographical sketches of the authors in the Appendix, besides suggestions of ‘avenues for further exploration’ through references to further reading (listening, viewing) matter.  In my opinion many of the poems or of the prose extracts (alas, very short) would definitely benefit from a hint of contextualization: Why have they been selected, in what way have they been edited?


If it is just plain reading matter that you crave for, an assortment of varied texts (with some interesting and less-known rarities) strung together by a breezy, light-hearted historical narrative, then this anthology may very well work for you.  If your appetite for Decadent matter seeks more critical nourishment and ways to make sense of the layered and contradictory relationship between these artists and English society and politics, then you’d probably feel disappointed.  In particular, anybody who has but leafed through the more recent critical and theoretical reappraisals of English decadence will be surprised to find that none of these debates seems to have affected the view of Decadence offered here.  All writers are male, no trace of ‘the daughters of Decadence’ here! Decadence comes across as an escape (more or less transgressive) from the harsh realities of Victorian Britain without a hint at the troubled relationships with fin de siècle popular culture and media.  Even the sexual and gendered politics of Decadence is masked behind vague terms such as ‘degenerate’, ‘voluptuousness’, ‘sensual’, as if a sprinkling of such allusive (and loaded) words clinched the matter.  The dearth of critical perspective, thus, ends up diminishing the usefulness of this book, in that it deprives the selection of a deeper, multi-faceted potential.


From my local (Italian) point of view it is intriguing that the Charles Ricketts’ painting depicted in the cover is titled ‘Italia Redenta’, as though to suggest that, beside the Orientalism mentioned in the Introduction, the political avenues of identification developed by Decadent artists were much more varied and, indeed, more trans-national than the mere Englishness of the anthology would lead us to think.


v      Marco Pustianaz is the co-editor, with Luisa Villa, of Maschilità decadenti: La Lunga fin de siècle.  Bergamo: Bergamo University Press.  2006



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[1] Ian Fletcher, ‘Some Aspects of Æstheticism’ in O.M.  Brack ed.  Twilight of Dawn: Studies of English Literature in Transition (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1987), pp.1-33 (p.  33).

[2] Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986); Regenia Gagnier, The Insatiability of Human Wants: Economics and Æsthetics in Market Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Jonathan Freedman, Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Æstheticism and Commodity Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

[3] Kathy Alexis Psomiades, Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Æstheticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p.  154.  I have tried elsewhere to draw a similar distinction between what I term ‘programmatic literary æstheticism’ and the commodified goods and fashions of the ‘æsthetic movement’: see Socialism, Sex, and the Culture of Æstheticism in Britain, 1880-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.  x. 

[4] Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between the Classes in Victorian Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).