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  • Symons: MHRA Editions
  • Ian Small
Arthur Symons, Spiritual Adventures. Nicholas Freeman, ed. Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2017. MHRA Jewelled Tortoise Series. Volume 2. vii + 262 pp. $29.99 £21.99
Arthur Symons, Selected Early Poems. Jane Desmarais and Chris Baldick, eds. Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2017. MHRA Jewelled Tortoise Series. Volume 3. vii + 232 pp. $29.99 £21.99

WHAT IS UNDERSTOOD to be the canon of late-nineteenth-century British literature has changed profoundly over the course of the last fifty years. The critical certainties of Graham Hough about who made up that group of “last romantics,” or about precisely who could be included in Frank Kermode’s Romantic Image, or about which Decadents it was who were caught in Kelsey Thornton’s “decadent dilemma”—these certainties have simply evaporated. As a consequence in recent decades the range of authors studied in university courses on late-nineteenth-century British literature has broadened significantly. Thanks to the revolutionary work of a generation of critics and literary and cultural historians such as Elaine Showalter and Talia Schaffer, women writers of the 1880s and 1890s figure much more centrally than before. In a similar manner, a number of previously neglected but historically popular novelists, such as H. G. Wells, John Buchan, and Henry Rider Haggard, now form part of the mainstream. So too do authors of late-Victorian Gothic and horror stories—such as Bram Stoker.

One result of this expansion of the canon has been to undermine the esteem in which hitherto well-established figures in the Decadent movement, among them Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, and Richard Le Gallienne, used to be held. To put matters simply, they became, for university teachers and publishers alike, less central (and for the latter group, less profitable) than before. Part of this revaluation was no doubt due to the changing tastes or changing values of modern readers. The reputation of a writer like Symons is a case in point. Euphemisms [End Page 520] such as a “Juliet of a night” and “light” or “bought” loves cannot now adequately mask what is at best an unsettling naïvety and at worst a distasteful objectification of women, as a review written by the pseudonymous “PAH!” in the Pall Mall Gazette in September 1895 (in a piece excerpted by Desmarais and Baldick) makes clear. Those judgements were echoed by Lionel Johnson in his astute observations (made in the notes on Symons which he prepared for Katharine Tynan) about the self-deception involved in Symons’s misrepresentations of the reality of prostitution. “That girl I met outside a music-hall, we had champagne, and the rest was an ecstasy of shame” is how one of Johnson’s best-known parodies of that self-deception runs.

The Modern Humanities Research Association’s website claims that their Jewelled Tortoise series (the title is taken from a moment in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours) “aims to provide affordable critical literary editions of lesser-known texts that are out of copyright and are not currently in print (or are difficult to obtain).… The aim is to produce scholarly editions rather than teaching texts, but the potential for crossover to undergraduate reading lists is recognized.” The first title in the series was an edition of Walter Pater’s Imaginary Portraits, edited by Lene Østermark-Johansen and published in 2014. The second and third volumes are those under review, and a fourth title, Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and Other Works, is advertised for early 2018. To continue summarizing the MHRA website, the overarching ambition of the series is to provide the reader with an access to “works of literature and criticism which embody the intellectual daring, formal innovation, and cultural diversity of the British and European fin de siècle.” The publishing schedule for the rest of the series is not available on the MHRA website, but from the titles already published only that by Machen threatens to deliver anything resembling that promised “cultural diversity,” and so reflect those changes in the late-nineteenth-century canon which I outlined above. (Even if we take account of the non-canonical status of Machen, the selection of white English and Welsh men...


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pp. 520-525
Launched on MUSE
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Will Be Archived 2021
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