- Decadence Revisited: Evelyn Waugh and the Afterlife of the 1890s
The young Evelyn Waugh’s first encounter with decadence came via his elder brother, Alec, in 1916: “He had a particular relish at that time for the English lyric poets of the nineties; their dying cadences were always the prelude to his departure.”1 Around the same time, Evelyn marked approvingly the lyrics of Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, and Richard Le Gallienne in his copy of The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1912).2 This early encounter with the 1890s inaugurated a lifelong relationship that was marked by both influence and antagonism. The shifts and changes in Waugh’s position on the literature of decadence offer a salutary reminder that the relationship between modernism and its literary forebears is never simple or stable.
Much scholarship on Waugh’s work tends to flatten out his attitude, reducing it to either an endorsement or a rejection of the nineties. For instance, Jonathan Greenberg suggests that Waugh shares with Wilde an “aggressively antisentimental” view of Victorian sentiment.3 Christine Berberich, on the other hand, has suggested that Waugh and his contemporaries at Oxford “rediscovered the dandies and aesthetes of the late nineteenth century, the likes of Wilde, Beerbohm and Firbank: writers who had been exposed to ridicule by their grandfathers and fathers.”4 Andrew Eastham, alternatively, has recently demonstrated the extent to which an engagement with Paterian aesthetics potentially underpins Brideshead Revisited. For Eastham, Waugh’s novel demonstrates the limits of aestheticism, mapped in the intricacies of style.5 In all three instances, the scholars focus on [End Page 593] one period of Waugh’s work and one of his responses to the literature of the 1890s rather than providing an overall picture of how that relationship shifted and developed. The cumulative effect can be to paint Waugh as a neodecadent in a way that smooths over the complexities of literary history. This is a tendency most notably developed by Martin Green, who attempts to paint the whole of Waugh’s circle as a continuation of decadence.6 Simon Joyce, who details Waugh’s engagement with the Victorians from Decline and Fall (1928) to Brideshead Revisited (1945), offers a more nuanced approach, yet in identifying Waugh as part of the “schizophrenic incoherence of conservative modernism” he misses some of the subtlety of Waugh’s engagement with the legacies of the 1890s, particularly Firbank.7
In this article I outline the relationship between Waugh and the 1890s as part of the broader problem of charting the afterlives of decadence. There is a growing body of work on the reception of decadent writers, much of which has focused on Wilde.8 Waugh’s response was idiosyncratic, but it also reflected broader cultural currents: he was drawn to the modish neodecadence of Ronald Firbank in the early 1920s and then satirized and dismissed the increasing popularity of Wilde in the late 1920s, before developing a fond, even nostalgic attitude towards 1890s aestheticism in Put Out More Flags (1942) and Brideshead Revisited (1945). These shifts reflect the broader cultural climate of the first half of the twentieth century, during which writers, artists, and critics went from rejecting to embracing the 1890s, producing a history that can help us to understand the ways in which we read decadence today. Decadence is, despite the best historicist attempts to frame it otherwise, still a twentieth-century construction. It was writers like Waugh, as well the earlier generation of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who were responsible for the image of an affected, effeminate decadence that still characterizes popular representations. As the case of Waugh reveals, however, this was not a simple rejection of the 1890s but a continual revisiting, the period becoming an index of Waugh’s shifting relationship to ideas of literary fashion and artistic beauty. In particular, I want to suggest that Waugh’s relationship to decadence reflected the nostalgia for the 1890s that emerged at the beginning of World War I, before decadence emerged as safely “historical” around World War II, no longer signifying modernity or a transgression of traditional cultural values. Waugh himself, as I detail, rejected literary periodization as inherently reductive...