- Landscapes of Decadence
Alex Murray. Landscapes of Decadence: Literature and Place at the Fin de Siècle. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. vi + 230 pp. $99.00
ALEX MURRAY opens his study of what he calls the "landscapes" of Decadence with a less than obvious choice, that of the county of Cornwall. The occasion which he chooses is the visit made to Carbis Bay in 1893 by Arthur Symons, Henry Havelock Ellis, and his wife Edith—not a location, Murray concedes, one immediately associates with a decadent sensibility, although the development by the Great Western Railway of a line to and through the Cornish peninsula two decades earlier was to lead to the popularity of Cornwall as a tourist destination and ultimately to the development of St. Ives, with the famous quality of its light, to become an artists' colony, one well-known to Virginia Woolf early in the next century and which she used in To the Lighthouse. Murray goes on to discuss in more general terms the significance of landscape for the literary and artistic imagination over the course of the nineteenth century, most importantly for Wordsworth and then for Ruskin. In Murray's view, the work of the first can be seen in terms of "an ideal index for the debates around the meaning and practice of landscape art and writing in the period." This might be an over-emphatic way of putting matters, but it is true that there is a continuum between those lines in "Tintern Abbey" where Wordsworth distinguishes between what he calls "the mighty world / Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create, / And what perceive" and the paradoxical arguments which Wilde puts into the mouth of his character Vivian in "The Decay of Lying" in Intentions. In a famous passage Wilde suggests that "at present people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. But … no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them."
Of course the connection between the physical world—that is, place—and imagined worlds and the significance of memory is one central in the work of many late-nineteenth-century writers—for example, in [End Page 277] A. E. Housman's "blue remembered hills" in A Shropshire Lad, or Thomas Hardy's various representations of his imaginary Wessex. Indeed both locations did exist principally in the memory or in the imagination of their authors; equally significant is the fact that Housman and Hardy are only briefly mentioned by Murray.
Murray's book has many merits. It is engagingly written, has a wide and eclectic range of reference, and is organized through a variety of tropes and metaphors that are informative and often witty. Principal examples of these are the conceit that allows the construction of the book's argument to be described in terms of a physical journey, and consequently the range of Murray's argument to be seen in terms of map-making—the narrative development of his book is described by him as a species of cartography. So after his brief account of Cornwall, Murray's itinerary takes him south to Naples. He then charts what he calls a northwestern journey, to Paris and London, and then New York, although on the way he does also discuss the cultural importance of other locations, such as Wales, Oxford and the countryside around Cumnor, then a village, now virtually a suburb of the city. Murray is also to be praised for his ability to describe and document the works of canonical and non-canonical writers alike without any sense of the possible incongruity of his choices. But this very virtue exacts a price. For example, his discussion of Conal Holmes O'Connell O'Riordan(F. Norreys Connell) does not persuade me to disinter that particular writer's literary remains. Indeed this objection leads to a more important reservation. On occasions I found it difficult to escape the suspicion that Murray's examples are chosen to add ballast to his thesis: the thesis, that is, has not been prompted...