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  • London in the 1890s: A Cultural History
  • Curtis Marez
London in the 1890s: A Cultural History. Karl Beckson. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. Pp. 445. $27.50.

In many critical accounts, 1890s England is an anomaly, or in Raymond Williams’s words, an odd “interregnum” awkwardly situated between Victoria and the Moderns. 1 In his recent book London in the 1890s, however, Karl Beckson persuasively argues that many traditional markers of “Modernism” in fact originate in the fin de siècle. Beckson finds historical corollaries between the cosmopolitan aesthetics of figures like Pound and Eliot, for example, and earlier cross-fertilizations between English, French, German, Irish, Norwegian, and American artists and intellectuals in the 1890s. While noting their obvious differences, Beckson charts the continuities between fin-de-siècle English Symbolism and the Imagism of the early twentieth century. He further contends that turn-of-the-century “little magazines” helped lay “the foundations for Modernism” (255). Finally, Beckson emphasizes the “antidemocratic attitudes” common to both fin-de-siécle artists and intellectuals and “such early and later Modernists as Yeats, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, and Shaw” (46).

While Beckson draws links between the fin de siècle and modernism, he also usefully complicates the received vision of the 1890s as dominated by the individual aesthete. Although the book covers the familiar themes of decadence and art for art’s sake, Beckson examines a host of other topics, including Fabianism, revolutionary socialism, and anarchism; literary orders (the Rhymers’ Club and Irish Literary Society); debates over the institution of poet laureate; the public scandal surrounding prostitutes on music hall promenades; the “New Woman”; theorizations of the “Urning” and the trials of Oscar Wilde; the influence of Ibsen, Wagner, and Zola; theosophy and Celtic spiritualism; and imperial policy and imperial fiction. As this list of chapter topics indicates, at its best Beckson’s book reconstructs the histories of (largely middle-class) groups, institutions, and private and public spaces. In this regard London in the 1890s compares favorably with Carl Schorske’s important intellectual history, Fin-de-siècle Vienna. 2

If, however, London in the 1890s possesses some of the strengths of good intellectual history, it also demonstrates the limits of such an approach. Beckson’s subtitle, for example, is potentially misleading, for his history is “cultural” in a very restricted sense of the word, referring almost exclusively to the ideas and practices of a privileged clerisy. The subtitle would have been more accurate, in other words, if it had included the word “high” before “cultural.” This limited definition of culture determines both Beckson’s choice of objects and the conceptual tools that he brings to bear on them. Beckson confines his analysis of historical change within formal, distinctly literary categories, describing the decade as the schematic relationship between a “declining Victorianism... and rising Modernism” (xiv–xv). Beckson here takes for granted the very intellectual categories—“Victorianism,” “Modernism”—being negotiated in the period.

Such uncritical deployments of historically constituted labels also govern the often arbitrary chapter divisions. Questions of gender are confined to the “gender” chapters, homosexuality to the “homosexuality” chapters, imperialism to the “imperialism” chapter. Since Beckson seems to have accepted at face value certain received relationships between particular authors and particular ideas, his chapter topics threaten to ossify into isolated, unrelated historical monads. For example, in the chapter that concludes the book, “Empire Builders and Destroyers,” Beckson concentrates on Kipling, Haggard, Stevenson, and Conrad—four authors whose fiction is often considered to be transparently “about” imperialism. [End Page 159]

Imperial discourse, however, was not the exclusive province of such writers. The analysis of such an important and vast cultural form as imperialism cannot be limited, I would argue, to the study of literature with colonial settings, but must also attend to the more subterranean ideological effects of empire that, in practice, traversed the boundaries of various discursive fields. In contrast to Beckson, who treats imperialism and sexuality as though they were wholly discrete categories, the Indian critic Ashis Nandy has argued that in fin-de-siècle England, imperial and sexual discourses were intertwined. Focusing on Wilde, Nandy argues that the aesthete’s reconceptualization...

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