- Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle
The cambridge companion to the Fin de Siècle is one of the better additions to the ever-increasing number of critical handbooks, introductions, guides, companions, and other background collections that have sprouted up on the current scholarly landscape. The categorization of subject matter in this companion is apt and solid, the contributors are highly distinguished in their specialties, the scholarship in the essays is first-rate, and editor Gail Marshall has organized the volume deftly. Each chapter not only provides valuable, sometimes superb, background information and analysis but also typically builds almost seamlessly on the foundations of the previous chapter(s). The book should prove extremely useful as both an unusually intelligent general introduction to the British fin de siècle and also a compendium of more advanced and nuanced critical insights, even for experts in the field.
The book begins with a brief, two-page chronological listing of historical events occurring between 1885 and 1901. Doubling the size of this chronology would have been much preferred, but the listing is still helpful and serves as an instructive prelude to the volume. A concluding, twelve-page "Guide to Further Reading," with subject categories paralleling the individual chapters, is an equally excellent feature. The selection is very good, even if occasionally spotty (especially with respect to the iconic figures of the period) in that it supplies a few marginally useful entries while omitting more than a few important ones, such as Peter Gay's classic two-volume The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984, 1986), Matthew Sturgis's Passionate Attitudes (1995) and Aubrey Beardsley (1998), as well as particularly good collections such as Richardson and Willis's The New Woman in Fiction and Fact (2001).
Gail Marshall's introduction is modestly concise but strong for its length. It not only distills the various chapters but also crystallizes splendidly the paradoxical fin de siècle, where ostensibly polar conceptual categories were not always mutually exclusive realities. Marshall [End Page 231] turns on its head the common, still-tenacious misconception of the period as the weary decadent end of the Victorian Age, an ending that suggested "barely the whisper of a continuity beyond the "'fin.'" Quite the contrary, the British fin de siècle's desire for endings "signals the undeniable continuity of vitality," and the period unleashed "a creative energy" almost unparalleled in its "vitality and multiplicity." Marshall also observes that cultural and social domains that were almost brand new in the nineties—for example, celebrity-based sensational journalism, with its attendant anxieties about the probity and legitimacy of personalizing political and cultural issues—only intensified the inherent tensions of the period and valorized controversy. Another, equally complicated reorientation was the period's obsession with the "New," which reflected the nineties' self-consciousness as "an era of new beginnings" whose movements ironically were being defined less by the intrinsic value or brilliance in their works than by the very "Victorian roots" they consciously sought not to authenticate.
Fittingly, the first three formal chapters of the book deal with "degeneration" theories, the aesthetical Decadence, and sexual identity—discourses that were a subtext in virtually all others during the fin de siècle. The book's first chapter, by Jenny Bourne Taylor, on fin-de-siècle psychology provides a solid cogent mapping and analytical synthesis of late-Victorian degeneration, which was deemed to be both "a form of mental pathology" and "the product of the deep class divide structurally produced by industrial capitalism" and which became so vague and malleable a term that it could "be pressed into the service of very different social and political agendas." Fed by exacerbated middle-class fears of cultural contagion and deterioration, the science of psychology shifted from a midcentury emphasis on individual agency and self-control to an empirical naturalism experimenting with the "borderland" that was fictionalized in works like Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where neat boundaries between body and mind...