Decadence and sexual politics in three fin-de-siècle writers : Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons and Vernon Lee
Robbins, Catherine Ruth (1996) Decadence and sexual politics in three fin-de-siècle writers : Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons and Vernon Lee. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
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An understanding of the concept of decadence in the late nineteenth century is not
dependent on a purely linguistic approach to the various forms of literary language in
which it might be manifested. Rather, the label of decadence invokes (and deliberately
flouts) perceptions of normality in a number of cultural spaces, not all of them strictly
textual. Importantly, the personality of the artist figure is also a part of the definition of
decadence. Decadence, that is, is not limited to a particular mode of textual
performance; it is also a matter of how the artist's personality is interpreted through a
critical assumption current throughout the nineteenth century, that the text acts as an
index of the moral status of the writer. Decadence, then, is about reception, as well as
Given that meaning accrues to the figure of the artist in the definition of
decadence, and given that the late nineteenth century was a period of conflicting
discourses of sexual politics, the definition of decadence is bound up with the matrix of
associations around such concepts as sex, gender and sexuality.
The three writers at the centre of this study all demonstrate decadent potential in
their refusals to respect the conventions of gender — both in terms of the subjects and
forms they each chose for literary representation, and for the choices they made about
the living of their lives.
In his poetry Wilde took up a series of dramatic poses, inconsistent with each
other, inconsistent even within single poems. In doing so, he called into question
prevailing standards and ideals of masculinity — sincerity and purposiveness — and he
was attacked for doing so even before he was tried for gross indecency in 1895.
Symons's subject matter — the preponderance in his poetry of the liminal
figures of the dancer and the actress, and the liminal spaces of the music-hall and
deserted city streets at night — explicitly courted a decadent label, and, indeed, Symons
helped to defme the term. Contemporary audiences read his poetic persona back onto
his personality. And his decadence, like Wilde's, also came from his flouting of the
rules of masculinity, in his case, his exposure of the gender and class ideology of the
gentleman, by speaking aloud of its implications.
That decadence has an importance for sexual politics is signalled by the fact that
there are very few women writers who seem to 'suit' the label. Vernon Lee provides a
test case here of the argument that decadence is to be defmed primarily as a falling away
from an idealised standard of masculinity. Lee wrote impeccably decadent fiction, but is
not generally thought of as a decadent writer, perhaps precisely because she was a
woman writer for whom a term that resides in conventions of the masculine is
Decadence is a notoriously difficult term to define, and this thesis attempts to
show a range of definitions of the word in terms of its favoured themes, forms and and
their relation to ideas of artistic personality; it shows that the label is inextricably bound
up in the sexuality debtes of the 1890s.
|Item Type:||Thesis or Dissertation (PhD)|
|Subjects:||P Language and Literature > PR English literature|
|Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH):||Decadence in literature, Gender identity in literature, Sex in literature, Wilde, Oscar, 1854-1900 -- Criticism and interpretation, Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945 -- Criticism and interpretation, Lee, Vernon, 1856-1935 -- Criticism and interpretation|
|Official Date:||November 1996|
|Institution:||University of Warwick|
|Theses Department:||Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies|
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