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What does “decadence” mean? Does it mean anything at all? Is it sinister or irresistibly appealing? Regardless of the ambiguity that surrounds the word “decadence” (often with a small “d”), no one can deny that decadence (frequently with a capital “D,” especially when it alludes to the late nineteenth-century European cultural movement) has been sweeping the world of academic publishing. Seen from the perspective of 2022, the past few years appear to have been, at least among scholars, a decade of decadence. Joseph Bristow opens his chapter on “Female Decadence” for the 2016 volume The History of British Women's Writing, 1880–1920 by saying, “There is no question that by the mid-1890s one word had come to define avant-garde art and literature in Britain,” and that word was decadence. Judging by the recent proliferation of books and art exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic, history appears to be repeating itself and on a broader scale. Decadence is now defining, or at least preoccupying, many of us.
Long ago, Margery Williams'sThe Velveteen Rabbit (1922) taught us that toys become real when they are loved. Literary genres, however, become real when they are parodied. The neo-Victorian novel, therefore, must now be real, for its features have become so familiar and readily distinguishable that John Crace has been able to have naughty fun at their expense in Brideshead Abbreviated: The Digested Read of the Twentieth Century (2010), where John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) stands as representative of the type. Crace's treatment of Fowles's first-person narrator results in a remarkable effect: the ironic commentary upon the nineteenth century from a twentieth-century vantage point that runs throughout the novel gets subjected, in turn, to ironic commentary from a twenty-first-century point-of-view:
'The real revolution in British publishing in the reign of Queen Victoria was that it became a fully fledged industry, turning over millions of pounds, conducting its affairs in a businesslike manner, and dealing fairly with the different interest groups within it and around it.' So wrote John Feather in 1988, using a term ('industry') that the twentieth century came to accept as a seemingly uncontroversial and unproblematic one to describe the sphere from which texts issue and through which they circulate. At the fin de siècle, however, no one could have called publishing an 'industry' so breezily, without comment. The word still bore a wealth of associations and evoked a wide range of both negative and positive feelings that made its usage a vexed matter. It was a label fraught with political meaning, and some members of the late-Victorian world of books and periodicals accepted it gladly, even as others rejected it as antithetical to their beliefs and to the ways in which they worked or wished to work. With so many of the important ideological conflicts at the end of the nineteenth century focused on labour, the notion of publishing as occupying the status of an industry inserted itself squarely amidst these discussions, and was much debated. The image of machinery, moreover, on which this idea relied - whether of factory machines or of the human brain and hands as potential sources of mechanised and standardised labour - had enormous resonance among publishers, printers, editors and authors alike.
One response, as modelled by the Aesthetes of the 1880s and 1890s, was to deny outright that Art (always with a capital 'A') had anything to do with the collective undertakings and division of labour demanded by industrial practices; neither did it have any relationship to industriousness. The making of literature was, the Aesthetes insisted, solitary, private, impossible to bind to a schedule, and equally impossible to document.
“Oh, it is indeed a burning shame that there would be one law for men and another law for women. I think that there should be no law for anybody” (Beckson, I Can Resist 100). So said Oscar Wilde to a journalist interviewing him in January 1895. And for the first five years of the 1890s, it looked as though the British literary and publishing worlds, at least, were increasingly in accord with this Wildean perspective. Texts challenging the double standard of heterosexual conduct proliferated, even as bold articulations of same-sex desire appeared. At the same time, laws of all sorts that governed the production and consumption of literature seemed to be struck down daily. The three-volume novel declined and, with it, the circulating libraries' law of conforming to Mudie's definition of the reading public's tastes. New Women and other new realists gleefully violated the laws that required fictional narratives to end with marriage or, indeed, to provide some version of closure. In the sphere of periodical publishing, the law demanding that the visual arts be subordinate to words vanished in April 1894 with the first issue of the Yellow Book. The Bodley Head's new quarterly proudly stated that “The pictures will in no case serve as illustrations to the letter-press, but each will stand by itself as an independent contribution” (Stetz and Lasner 8).
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