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  • Irish Aestheticism in Fin-de-Siècle Women’s Writing:Art, Realism, and the Nation

Much has been written on aestheticism as a European and English movement, whether in regard to the advocacy of l’art pour l’art by French writers such as Théophile Gautier or the espousal of antididactic “art for art’s sake” in the early works of Algernon Charles Swinburne and Walter Pater. But few scholars have turned their attention to the critical relations between aestheticism and Ireland, despite the prevalence of Irish authors in the formative moments of “British” aestheticism. Dennis Denisoff, for example, notes importantly that “two of the most influential contributors to the decadent phase of aestheticism were the Anglo-Irish George Moore and Oscar Wilde.”1 Yet he says nothing more about their Irishness or its potential significance to their decadent or aesthetic representations, turning instead to the influences on Moore and Wilde of the writings of Gautier, Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Pater (all of whose specifically French and English contexts also pass without comment). Richard Begam and Michael Valdez view Wilde’s Irishness as significant only in its absence or even eradication from his aestheticism, asserting that Wilde’s aestheticism “dared not speak its Irishness”—as if to suggest that Wilde’s national identity was as taboo as his sexuality.2 In contrast to these readings, recent work by Joseph Bristow, Declan Kiberd, and Jerusha McCormack situates Wilde’s Irishness firmly within the analytical frame, positing that Wilde’s Irishness in exile is itself central to his antimoralistic critique and subversion of English conventions in his works and life.3 As a colonial figure in the metropole, Wilde has an outsider’s point of view on Englishness that informs his aestheticist critique of key [End Page 805] Victorian forms and ideals. His focus on beautiful surfaces questions mimetic realism, and he challenges Victorian realist emphases on authenticity and sincerity, by asserting, in the words of his character Vivian, that “as a method, Realism is complete failure” and that “lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”4 At the same time, Wilde’s aestheticism also satirizes the frivolity and exclusions of English upper-crust society, as his depictions of decadent English culture carefully expose its mannerisms as all surface, all mask, all shallowness and no depth.

Wilde’s critiques of Englishness from his exilic or “nomadic” position within and against English culture thus constitute one compelling form of Irish aestheticism.5 But I am also interested in how the undertheorized phenomenon of Irish aestheticism appears in works that focus on Ireland itself during the turbulent fin-de-siècle period of decolonization, when the nation was undergoing political, social, economic, and cultural revolutions leading up to independence in 1921. One such form of Irish aestheticism emerges in the critically neglected fictions of coauthors Edith Somerville and Martin Ross, Emily Lawless, and Katherine Cecil Thurston, whose works stand in marked contrast to Wilde’s exilic aestheticism and its central focus on the cultural limitations of English society. These writers’ engagements with debates about art, beauty, and ugliness that preoccupy the tradition of l’art pour l’art also differ importantly from another manifestation of aestheticism in Ireland in works associated with the Irish revival. Revival writers including W. B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory, and J. M. Synge fused aestheticist modes—symbolism, myth, legend, allegory, and dream, among others—with nationalist politics as part of a project of forging and fostering a sovereign Irish identity and nation-to-be. Writing mainly in verse and drama rather than in prose or the novel form, revivalist authors emphasize Celtic and Gaelic myth and legend over contemporary Irish life, an emphasis that aligns their works formally with central aspects of British aestheticism while also differentiating them nationally from British imperialist depictions of Ireland and Irishness.6 Like Wilde, revivalists critique Englishness, though their works focus on Ireland, not England; they counter British colonialism by proffering “authentic” Irish forms and figures in place of colonial representations of Irishness. At the same time, however, the subversive and critical energies that characterize Wilde’s Irish aestheticism in England become considerably blunted when...


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