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Ernest Dowson and the Duality of Late-Victorian Girlhood: "Her Double Perversity" Christine Roth University of Florida Quel dommage that the world isn't composed entirely of little girls from 6-12! —Letter to Arthur Moore, 27 August 1890 Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine. —"Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae" (11.1-3) AS A NINETEENTH-CENTURY DECADENT, Ernest Dowson was one of a group who "loved the cleanliness of unclean things, the sweetness in unsavoury alliances."1 Throughout his career, he insisted on conflating presumably antithetical categories—innocent/corrupt, fictional/real, sacred/profane—and he used these paradoxes to glorify and help shape the now-classic image of the alluring Victorian "little girl." Indeed, his personal relationship with the real little girl Adelaide Foltinowicz fueled sensational legends that have overshadowed key nuances in his work for more than one hundred years, even though Dowson had fashioned his archetypal girl figure long before he met Adelaide, and his fictional dream-girls were, in fact, incompatible with his real-life girlfriend. The girls of his poems and stories are most often rural, spectral , and sheltered, while Adelaide was an urban, worldly, working girl.2 Yet this incongruity does not undermine the validity or sincerity of his aesthetic; it provides, instead, the clearest illustration of exactly how that aesthetic operated. Dowson worshipped Adelaide as a "double per158 ROTH :DOWSON versity of enfant gâtée and jeune fille coquette," and his poems and stories rely on a tension created by the irreconcilable schism between the ideal and the mundane3—a schism created and sustained by girls who exist within a space that constantly negotiates two equally important ends of a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, the girl figures as a corruptible (and corrupting) agent of transgression and sexual vice. At the other, she possesses an invulnerable chastity that aligns her with domesticity and a sense of moral duty. Neither side is complete without the other, because if they are isolated, the ideal girl becomes distant and cold, and the "real" or mundane girl becomes fallen, aesthetically flawed, and utterly forgettable. The poem "Yvonne of Brittany" provides a clear example of this unstable balance between two paradoxical extremes. The speaker in the poem is captivated by the girl Yvonne while she is between girlhood and womanhood—sequestered within the walls of her mother's garden but also in "the first faint flush of love" (1.24).4 She is innocent, but she is on the verge of knowing. The poem moves quickly from spring to midsummer , and as soon as the girl "sheds" her apple blossoms and "surrenders ," she becomes tangible and sexualized, destroying the tension between innocence and corruption that had previously sustained the orchard scene. Predictably, after this symbolic consummation/conquest, Yvonne becomes literally and figuratively lifeless to the speaker: "There is dew on your grave grass, Yvonne!/ But your feet it shall not wet:/ No, you never remember, Yvonne!/ And I shall soon forget" (11.38-39). She is forgettable, for Dowsonian girls like Yvonne embody, or are made to embody , a paradox that gives equal consideration to the girls' transcendence and their potential ruin. In fact, the most common mistake in Dowson criticism to date has been the seemingly unquestioned claim that the little girls of his poems are somehow sequestered within a world of youth, innocence, timelessness , or art.5 If these girls were securely located in a sphere of "lily-time," the poet would have little to do besides admire them or long for them from a distance. The resulting poetry would surely overflow, as Dowson's does, with pathos and even intoxicating life-weariness, but it would not contain the tension and anxiety that characterizes Dowson's work. In poem after poem, and with almost excruciating languor, Dowson portrays little girls not as safely untouchable and sequestered, but as fragile and vulnerable. The speaker in "Ad Domnulam Suam," for example, loves a "fairy land" girl "too well" and must part "ere this love grow 159 ELT 45 : 2 2002 stronger...


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pp. 158-175
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