- Decadence, High Art, & Popular Writing
Kirsten MacLeod's book, Fictions of British Decadence, describes itself as "recuperative and revisionist," or, as she states in the preface, as moving between the "unknown" and the "misknown." The "unknown" is the popular Decadent fiction of the Victorian fin de siècle, a genre that is still often squashed between the canonically strong forms of the Victorian novel, both of the realist and sensational sorts, and the experimental modernist novel. The "misknown" is British Decadence itself, a field that has been heavily mythologised (demonised by its detractors, glamorised by its proponents) but rarely really looked at, according to MacLeod. She therefore wants to take a fresh look at this body of writing, moving away from the "myths" (or one could say clichés) that have predetermined our critical understanding of Decadence. Chief amongst these are the myth of the "tragic generation," which has led to practices of exaggeration and simplification that are still often applied even in contemporary critical readings; and the myth of Decadence as high art which has, according to MacLeod, shifted the balance of criticism in favour of Decadent poetry rather than prose fiction. The title of the book neatly refers both to its concern with a neglected genre and to these "fictions"—mythologies imposed by the critics and self-mythologies fabricated by the Decadents themselves, which the author sets out to debunk.
Decadence is treated throughout as a discursive field. MacLeod analyses both exponents and critics of Decadence, paying particular attention to the history of what she calls a "counter-discourse" of Decadence, the hostile reactions mounted mainly by the conservative and sensationalist presses, and to the intertwining politics of genre and gender that shape Decadence as a literary and cultural phenomenon. She is especially keen to examine publishing practices and the influence of the marketplace, drawing inspiration from critics like Laurel Brake and Regenia Gagnier, and from Bourdieu, whose sociological thought clearly informs MacLeod's method and who is given the last word in the book.
The book charts the rise and fall of Decadence in British literary culture, from 1884, the year in which the term was put into use "as a literary and cultural practice" through to modernism. Introductory chapters trace the emergence of British Decadence from the crises of aestheticism and naturalism, and from the imitation of French anti-naturalist writing, notably Huysmans. From here MacLeod moves on to examining issues of class in the development of what she calls the "decadent sensibility": she argues that the peculiar "social space" inhabited [End Page 216] by the Decadents belongs to middle-class culture, despite their flaunted allegiances with the upper- and lower-social strata and their professed disdain for professional and industrial culture and its values. She then situates Decadence in the literary culture of the late-Victorian decades, paying particular attention to the relationship between Decadent writing and the commercially driven literary production of popular fiction. These initial chapters provide a detailed contextualisation but, as MacLeod knows, the ground they cover is mostly familiar to academics working in the field. The analytic core of the book really starts in the third chapter, where she examines Vernon Lee's Miss Brown and George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man and Mike Fletcher as the novels that marked the beginning of Decadent culture, establishing the recognisable type of the Decadent artist and opening the ground, within fiction, for a debate over authority and artistic identity that reached a wider readership than its nonfictional counterpart in the periodical press. These texts are read as experiments to modernise the nineteenth-century English novel, mainly through the use of French naturalist influences. Lee's unsympathetic critique of aestheticism and Moore's open celebration of Decadence in his early novels are, of course, unlikely bedfellows; but MacLeod is keen, here and throughout her study, to bring together Decadent and anti-Decadent texts in order to provide a discursive analysis of the field. She wants to show that the line that divides Decadent and counter-Decadent...