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  • Cited by 7
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: September 2008

2 - Decadence and aestheticism

Summary

'Decadence, decadence, you are all decadent nowadays.' Thus bewails the hyper-conservative critic in the essay that Hubert Crackanthorpe published in the second volume of the journal The Yellow Book. Yet while Crackanthorpe was mocking the critics, decadence and aestheticism were a major source of contention from the moment they began flaunting their dissident passions before the British public in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1890s, many had had enough of the mix of aesthetic idealism, taunting self-display, uncommon sexuality and degeneracy that had become packaged as their defining characteristics. Max Nordau devoted an entire chapter of Degeneration (1892) to chastising both for encouraging pessimism, sexual aberrancy, mysticism and poor taste in clothing. While we might now find Nordau's extremism laughable, his contemporaries did not cast him aside as quickly. Similar arguments were being made even by artists and writers. George Du Maurier, for example, has the hero of his novel The Martian (1898) attack aesthetes as 'little misshapen troglodytes with foul minds and perverted passions'. Even contributors to the Aesthetic or Decadent movement - such as Richard le Gallienne, Vernon Lee and Walter Pater - voiced displeasure with some of their qualities. Meanwhile, late aestheticist and decadent works such as Aubrey Beardsley's drawings and Ada Leverson's short stories imply that the movements had in fact fallen into self-parody.