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Chapter one defines and historically situates the intersections among decadence, ecology, and the pagan revival in literature and art. Noting ecological, scientific, classist, nationalist, and imperialist aspects of decadence in its earliest articulations, focus is given to the shifting formulations of modern decadence in particular by such influential writers as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Bourget, and Max Nordau, the chapter offers close analyses of works by Algernon Swinburne such as his poem ‘The Leper’ (1866) and the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederick Sandys such as his painting Medea (1868) that demonstrate the complex interplay across these concepts.
Casting fresh light on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British art, literature, ecological science and paganism, Decadent Ecology reveals the pervasive influence of decadence and paganism on modern understandings of nature and the environment, queer and feminist politics, national identities, and changing social hierarchies. Combining scholarship in the environmental humanities with aesthetic and literary theory, this interdisciplinary study digs into works by Simeon Solomon, Algernon Swinburne, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson, Vernon Lee, Michael Field, Arthur Machen and others to address trans-temporal, trans-species intimacy; the vagabondage of place; the erotics of decomposition; occult ecology; decadent feminism; and neo-paganism. Decadent Ecology reveals the mutually influential relationship of art and science during the formulation of modern ecological, environmental, evolutionary and trans-national discourses, while also highlighting the dissident dynamism of new and recuperative pagan spiritualities - primarily Celtic, Nordic-Germanic, Greco-Roman and Egyptian - in the framing of personal, social and national identities.
Chapter 2 follows the rise of Anthony Comstock from being a dry goods clerk and vigilante against all things he deemed immoral, to becoming the nation’s most prominent and powerful censor. He was responsible for enacting federal legislation banning obscene materials from the US Mail and served as a special agent for the Post Office, enforcing the law. He founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an anti-vice organization that was emulated in numerous other states. From this position, he waged a lifelong crusade against contraceptives, free love, free thought, literature, art, and everything that offended his Puritan sensibilities. The chapter describes the key events in his long career, including his rise to prominence, his prosecution of Victoria Woodhull for revealing Reverend Henry Ward Beecher’s affair with a parishioner, his various campaigns against free thought, art, and literature, and his prosecution of birth control advocates.
Chapter 4 sets forth the “Comstock Playbook,” the techniques used by the anti-vice crusader to attack his adversaries, which have been emulated by censors ever since. His strategies include exhibiting moral certainty, equating opposition to your cause with the love of vice, denouncing and discrediting adversaries, promoting xenophobia, poisoning the debate with invective, touting pseudo science, seeking publicity, exaggerating the threat to be overcome, hyping all accomplishments, and playing the martyr.
Vagrant ‘loafers’ were a preoccupation of novelists and social reformers who saw them as emblematic of social and racial decline during the 1880s and 1890s. This chapter first examines the articles and book-length reports that sought to define and solve the problems of unemployment, inefficiency and vagrancy. These were underwritten by theories of degeneration, social Darwinism and eugenics, ideas that ensured that the vagrant poor were increasingly characterised in ‘scientific’ terms as a biological threat to society and the white ‘imperial’ race. The second half of the chapter examines how this anxiety was expressed in the slum fiction of Arthur Morrison and Margaret Harkness, and in particular how the portrayal of loafers in slum novels and social investigations shaped H. G. Wells’s first dystopia, The Time Machine (1895). Although the influence of social investigation has been noted, Wells’s engagement with the slum novel, and what he perceived to be its failings, has hitherto been overlooked.
How were vagrants represented in the Victorian period? This chapter argues that the Victorians inherited many strategies of representation from the early modern period, including the moral concept of the deserving and undeserving poor, and stereotypes about the lawlessness, deceptiveness and rebelliousness of wanderers and itinerants. But they were also influenced by new epistemologies and ways of knowing. In particular, Victorian representations of vagrancy were influenced by emerging racial theories, such as extinction theory, degeneration theory, social Darwinism and eugenics. This chapter provides an overview of how these theories interlocked with older prejudices and moral frameworks, and in the process introduces the key vagrant archetypes addressed by this study: Gypsies, hawkers, poachers, casual paupers, loafers, pauper immigrants, American Indians, American vagabonds and beachcombers. Together, these figures comprise the taxonomy through which commentators understood, imagined and interpreted vagrancy in the Victorian age.
Beachcombers lived in the Pacific Islands and were the vagrants of the South Seas. Historically, they were most prominent in the early nineteenth century and belonged to the medial phase between the Pacific Islanders’ first contact with Europeans and the formal colonisation that followed. By the 1880s and 1890s they had been thoroughly displaced by white missionaries and merchants; however, despite this, the beachcomber became an increasingly prominent figure in British culture during this period. This chapter examines the importance of the beachcomber in the imperial imagination. It explores how the beachcomber was presented in popular novels and the periodical press as both an imperial pathfinder and as a degraded ‘white savage’ destined for extinction; and how these alternative representations were key to the public’s understanding of the Pacific Islands. This analysis provides the context for a close reading of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Ebb-Tide (1894), a novella in which the beachcomber serves as an essential figure in Stevenson’s critique of empire.
Vagrants abound in the writings of British travellers who visited antebellum America. This chapter focuses on the representation of three of these vagrant figures. First, the pauper immigrant, a figure whose mobility was vigorously contested by British and American commentators. For the British these immigrants belong to the deserving poor – their rootlessness was temporary and incidental; for the Americans they were often perceived as undeserving vagrants and a potential financial burden. Second, the American Indian, a figure who was frequently compared to the English Gypsy, and whose nomadism was often repositioned as vagrancy and a sign of their impending extinction. And third, the American vagabond, a vagrant and anarchic figure who was represented as a lawless reprobate living on the frontiers. These three figures were interpreted using a range of representational strategies that were current in Britain, and together they demonstrate the flexibility of vagrant discourses – their ability to circulate globally as well as locally. Among other writers, this chapter examines the works of Frances Trollope, Harriet Martineau and Charles Dickens.
The Gypsy is one of the most prominent vagrant figures in nineteenth-century literature and culture, and has received a considerable amount of critical attention. This chapter situates the Gypsy alongside other rural itinerants, such as hawkers and handicraft tramps, in order to address how racial and aesthetic assumptions conditioned the representation of Gypsies in British print culture. Focusing on the period 1830–60, this chapter first examines how a legacy of picturesque representation combined with more recent theories of extinction, and how these were combined in periodical articles that depicted the Gypsies as a ‘vanishing race’. This is followed by an in-depth analysis of George Borrow’s autobiography Lavengro (1851) and its sequel The Romany Rye (1857). Here I argue that while Borrow reiterated racial interpretations of English Gypsies, he actively critiqued the picturesque tradition that sought to idealise them and other rural itinerants in Britain. Alongside Borrow, this chapter examines works by George Eliot and Mary Russell Mitford.
Vagrants were everywhere in Victorian culture. They wandered through novels and newspapers, photographs, poems and periodicals, oil paintings and illustrations. They appeared in a variety of forms in a variety of places: Gypsies and hawkers tramped the country, casual paupers and loafers lingered in the city, and vagabonds and beachcombers roved the colonial frontiers. Uncovering the rich Victorian taxonomy of nineteenth-century vagrancy for the first time, this interdisciplinary study examines how assumptions about class, gender, race and environment shaped a series of distinct vagrant types. At the same time it broaches new ground by demonstrating that rural and urban conceptions of vagrancy were repurposed in colonial contexts. Representational strategies circulated globally as well as locally, and were used to articulate shifting fantasies and anxieties about mobility, poverty and homelessness. These are traced through an extensive corpus of canonical, ephemeral and popular texts as well as a variety of visual forms.
London was a centre of vagrancy in the Victorian period. Its refuges, lodging-houses and workhouses ensured that large numbers of vagrants travelled to the capital, especially during the winter months when travelling on the open road could be difficult and dangerous. The first half of this chapter examines how these forms of relief structured the vagrants’ movement and resulted in what I call ‘metropolitan vagrancy’. This was a constrained form of movement, typically limited to the winter months, that was contoured by the resources that the vagrant poor were able to access and the mounting restrictions that were placed on them by the Poor Law. The second half examines an understudied depiction of homelessness that was, in part, a product of these restrictions: the queue outside the ‘casual’ or vagrant ward of the workhouse. This became an image that articulated anxieties about the difficult distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, and also conveyed fears about the illiberality of the Poor Law and the potentially revolutionary response that it might provoke. This chapter examines works by Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley and the painter Luke Fildes.
Most actual poachers were not vagrants in the Victorian period; but a significant number of literary ones were, especially during the so-called Hungry Forties. Examining popular and literary sources from across the political spectrum, this chapter argues that the vagrant poacher became a politically loaded figure in British print culture during the 1840s. In the conservative ‘poacher’s progress’ the poacher’s vagrancy was a sign of selfishness and a staging post on the road to ruin. These morality tales supported the landowning elite and their monopoly on game by depicting the poacher as a predatory criminal. Meanwhile, in radical literature, such as Charles Dickens’s The Chimes (1844), the poacher was represented as a victim of permissive laws; these included both the vagrancy laws and the game laws. In these texts the poacher’s vagrancy was a sign of social oppression and was used to critique what many liberals and radicals perceived as the criminalisation of poverty. Alongside Dickens, this chapter examines Charles Kingsley’s Yeast (1848) as well as works by Hannah More and Charlton Carew.
The middle years of the nineteenth century are notable in the history of Catholicism in England for the development of the ‘papal aggression’ crisis. Catholic emancipation had been met with suspicion by Protestant groups and this suspicion grew into violent antipathy with the publication by Nicholas Wiseman of ‘Ex Porta Flaminia.’ At the same time that this crisis was emerging, Catholic charitable organizations were also attempting to garner support from the state for the building of Catholic schools. With a boom in the poor, urban population, fuelled by the arrival of Irish refugees, this assistance was urgently required. In the midst of this a small school in the heart of London became the focus of a cause célèbre. The belief that this school had been funded by lucre, defrauded from dying and vulnerable members of the Somers Town community by simonist priests, provided the source of a widespread conspiracy theory. The result of this conspiracy theory was a lawsuit, brought in 1851 by the relatives of a deceased benefactor of the school, against the newly enthroned Cardinal Wiseman. Metairie vs. Wiseman became one of the most celebrated and cited cases of the early Victorian era.
The truth of the work, as determined by its origin in personal existence, is fully revealed and realized only through interpretation by other individuals reading it in relation to their own existence in the course of a history of reception. The Vita nuova can stand as emblematic of this process and as illustrative of its exceptionally fecund results in literary history. Often touted as the first book of Italian literary tradition, the Vita nuova is a seed of the very process of a literary tradition disseminating itself through ongoing production of works as responses such as Dante himself elicits in circulating the sonnet about his initiatory dream to fellow poets. Especially revealing of the history of effects of this text are its artistic appropriations at various periods in the iconographical tradition. The Pre-Raphaelite depictions, notably by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, illustrate how subjectively driven interpretation can become relevant to revealing the original, but temporally unbounded meaning of a text. Rossetti’s, like Dante’s, personal preoccupations prove instrumental for disclosing and illuminating what can be lived as perennial and perduring truths about human existence.
The essay argues that Bishop sees poems as a series of possibilities to be revisited gratefully, shrewdly, critically, neither agonistically as precursors to battle or displace, nor polemically in the spirit of a literary politics championing a school or movement. It canvasses her relation to a range of nineteenth-century poets, focusing first from the Romantic period on Blake, to whose visionary poetics she adds a skeptical element, and Wordsworth. The essay finds Wordsworthian elements in her use of the word “something,” her intuition that crucial moments combine negativity and revelation, and her central insistence on the provisionality of vision. It then suggests that Bishop was prompted creatively by two Victorian genres: first, the dramatic monologue, with speakers liberated from accuracy and articulate in their egotism; second, nonsense poetry, with its minor-key version of transcendent magic and its frequent link of the “awful but cheerful.” The other abiding Victorian influence was Hopkins, along with Wordsworth and Baudelaire an exemplar dynamically observing his own process of observation.
The introduction sets up the book’s theoretical terrain by providing a synoptic history of stylistic virtue from Aristotle to the present. It claims that stylistic virtues have typically encoded two ways of thinking about style: a referential one that regards style as an embodiment of underlying character and an autonomous one that sees style as conveying an independent character of its own. It explains that the book’s overarching purpose is to unfold the autonomous conception of style and defends its approach through the analysis of an extended Victorian example (“lightness” in Robert Louis Stevenson's work). It concludes by showing that stylistic virtue offers a fresh conceptual framework for understanding the aesthetic value of fiction in ways not captured by recent work in either ethical or formalist criticism.
What is style, and why does it matter? This book answers these questions by recovering the concept of 'stylistic virtue,' once foundational to rhetoric and aesthetics but largely forgotten today. Stylistic virtues like 'ease' and 'grace' are distinguishing properties that help realize a text's essential character. First described by Aristotle, they were integral to the development of formalist methods and modern literary criticism. The first half of the book excavates the theory of stylistic virtue during its period of greatest ascendance, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when belletristic rhetoric shaped how the art of literary style and 'the aesthetic' were understood. The second half offers new readings of Thackeray, Trollope, and Meredith to show how stylistic virtue changes our understanding of style in the novel and challenges conventional approaches to interpreting the ethics of art.
John Jacob Thomas’s mid-nineteenth-century career exemplifies the contradictions of the post-abolition period. A schoolteacher who authored Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar (1869) and Froudacity: West Indian Fables Explained (1888), he parsed, literally and symbolically, the grammar of freedom. What did it mean to be free in a world in which non-whiteness was synonymous with servitude, and in which blackness and intellect were considered to be oxymoronic? Thomas’s efforts to vindicate 'freedom’s children' – the successors of the generation of enslavement – shed light on conceptions of mimicry, respectability, and literary and political authority that continue to shadow our postcolonial moment.
The conclusion to The Victorian Cult of Shakespeare addresses Victorian reading practices in light of various twenty-first-century hermeneutics of sympathy: Eve Sedgwick’s “reparative reading,” Michael Warner’s “uncritical reading,” Rita Felski’s “post-critical reading,” Emma Mason’s “pastoral reading,” Lori Branch’s “post-secular studies,” and so forth. It urges that professional literary studies might do well to view devotional Victorian responses to Shakespeare with greater sympathy than we have to this point, that such sympathy may be, after all, closer to the heart of our collective mission.