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Title: Decadence and sexual politics in three fin-de-siècle writers : Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons and Vernon Lee
Author: Robbins, Catherine Ruth
Awarding Body: University of Warwick
Current Institution: University of Warwick
Date of Award: 1996
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An understanding of the concept of decadence in the late nineteenth century is not dependent on a purely linguistic approach to the various forms of literary language in which it might be manifested. Rather, the label of decadence invokes (and deliberately flouts) perceptions of normality in a number of cultural spaces, not all of them strictly textual. Importantly, the personality of the artist figure is also a part of the definition of decadence. Decadence, that is, is not limited to a particular mode of textual performance; it is also a matter of how the artist's personality is interpreted through a critical assumption current throughout the nineteenth century, that the text acts as an index of the moral status of the writer. Decadence, then, is about reception, as well as conception. Given that meaning accrues to the figure of the artist in the definition of decadence, and given that the late nineteenth century was a period of conflicting discourses of sexual politics, the definition of decadence is bound up with the matrix of associations around such concepts as sex, gender and sexuality. The three writers at the centre of this study all demonstrate decadent potential in their refusals to respect the conventions of gender — both in terms of the subjects and forms they each chose for literary representation, and for the choices they made about the living of their lives. In his poetry Wilde took up a series of dramatic poses, inconsistent with each other, inconsistent even within single poems. In doing so, he called into question prevailing standards and ideals of masculinity — sincerity and purposiveness — and he was attacked for doing so even before he was tried for gross indecency in 1895. Symons's subject matter — the preponderance in his poetry of the liminal figures of the dancer and the actress, and the liminal spaces of the music-hall and deserted city streets at night — explicitly courted a decadent label, and, indeed, Symons helped to defme the term. Contemporary audiences read his poetic persona back onto his personality. And his decadence, like Wilde's, also came from his flouting of the rules of masculinity, in his case, his exposure of the gender and class ideology of the gentleman, by speaking aloud of its implications. That decadence has an importance for sexual politics is signalled by the fact that there are very few women writers who seem to 'suit' the label. Vernon Lee provides a test case here of the argument that decadence is to be defmed primarily as a falling away from an idealised standard of masculinity. Lee wrote impeccably decadent fiction, but is not generally thought of as a decadent writer, perhaps precisely because she was a woman writer for whom a term that resides in conventions of the masculine is inappropriate. Decadence is a notoriously difficult term to define, and this thesis attempts to show a range of definitions of the word in terms of its favoured themes, forms and and their relation to ideas of artistic personality; it shows that the label is inextricably bound up in the sexuality debtes of the 1890s.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: PR English literature