Victorian Literature Fin de Siècle
by
Ruth Livesey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0030

Introduction

In its simplest definition, “fin de siècle” refers to the end of a century, yet at the end of the 19th century in Britain, the term did not just refer to a set of dates, but rather a whole set of artistic, moral, and social concerns. To describe something as a fin de siècle phenomenon invokes a sense of the old order ending and new, radical departures. The adoption of the French term, rather than the use of the English “end of the century,” helps to trace this particular critical content: it was, and continues to be, associated with those writers and artists whose work displayed a debt to French decadent, symbolist, or naturalist writers and artists. It was also particularly strongly encoded in visual culture, with the black-and-white illustrations popularized by Aubrey Beardsley in the Yellow Book and elsewhere coming to serve as shorthand indicating textual material that challenged the mores and formal conventions of high Victorian ideals for literature and art. Much of the characteristic literature of the fin de siècle is thus closely interrelated with the earlier aesthetic movement and coincides with the zenith of decadence. But the fin de siècle—both at the time and even more so in current critical debate—encompasses a broader set of concerns, social and political, that often stand in tension with aestheticism. Two good examples of this divergence are the rising interest in literary naturalism and the emergence of the New Woman. Both the decadent and naturalist influences on literature and art at the fin de siècle led to vehement debates in the press concerning the moral responsibility of art, with writers such as Thomas Hardy, George Moore, and Arthur Symons arguing for greater freedom of artistic representation of sexual or subversive content. For much of the 20th century the literature and culture of the 1880s and 1890s were treated as a slight critical embarrassment: an era of precious experimentation overshadowed and disavowed by the radical, virile departures of modernism. Yet the rising scholarly interest in gender and sexuality from the 1970s onward swiftly drew fresh attention to the era of the Wilde trials, the emergence of the New Woman, and the explicit address to sexuality in the decadent movement. The end of the 20th century, in turn, provoked a wave of centennial reassessments of the 1880s and 1890s, which also examined afresh the relations between fin de siècle culture and literature, and the emergence of modernism in the early 20th century. Such studies have not only led to the emergence of new fields of study in their own right, such as the New Woman, or degeneration and literature, but also extended the coverage of the period: it is common now for studies of the fin de siècle to examine the period up to and including 1910 or even 1914, and for the fin de siècle to be viewed as the crucible of early modernism.

General Overviews

Temple 1974, Dowling 1986, and English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 prove that scholarly interest in the fin de siècle did exist prior to the 1990s, but as Temple indicates, the term itself was perceived to have shaky intellectual status at the time and chiefly took its identity from the decadent movement that forms the mainspring of Dowling’s work. A number of centennial conferences and events in the late 1980s and early 1990s stimulated a new wave of interest in the literature and culture of the period 1880–1900 that tended to be interdisciplinary in approach. Several durable and significant collections of essays emerged as a result: Stokes 1992 set the agenda for much work that followed, with its engagement with wider cultural history of the period and the recovery of some “forgotten” writers; Ledger and McCracken 1995 is rather more informed by critical and theoretical concerns with contributions by scholars such as Terry Eagleton and Anne Janowitz, who bring expertise from different fields to bear on the period. Pykett 1996 is a collection aimed more directly at undergraduates with a focus on commonly taught popular fiction. More recently, Marshall 2007, like all works in the Cambridge Companions series, seeks coverage of all critically current aspects of the period with excellent scholarly apparatus and is a good starting point for students and more advanced scholars alike. Brockington 2009 provides a good interdisciplinary overview of the broader European artistic context during the period.

  • Brockington, Grace, ed. Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Siècle. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    A diverse collection of essays from an international group of scholars that includes considerations of the international reception of Wilde, Sickert, Morris, and others. Most useful taken as a whole, as an overview of European artistic dialogue in the late 19th and early 20th century.

  • Dowling, Linda. Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    A rigorous work from the foremost literary scholar of the decadent movement that places philology and style at the heart of an investigation of British decadence. Language itself, in Dowling’s analysis, was perceived to be subject to and a symptom of fin de siècle decadence, with a new style of elaboration coming to characterize decadent prose. Challenging work, but vital for any serious study of literary style in the period.

  • English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920.

    E-mail Citation »

    This peer-reviewed journal provides an important forum for emerging work on the period. In its fifty years or more of publication, ELT has done much to unpick the modernist/Victorian divide and open space for discussions of new field of study.

  • Ledger, Sally, and Scott McCracken, eds. Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511553707E-mail Citation »

    Another important collection emerging from the fresh critical interest in the fin de siècle during the 1990s. The fourteen essays combine a sense of defining a new field—with now almost canonical acknowledgment of the areas of the New Woman, sexology, socialism, and empire—with a critical and theoretically reflective edge to the volume.

  • Marshall, Gail, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection provides an excellent—and currently the most up-to-date—overview of the period and of scholarship in key areas, with essays by leading academics in the field. Of particular note for its more unusual inclusion in such a collection is the chapter on psychology by Jenny Bourne Taylor, which gives a very good sense of the interplay between scientific thought and literary developments in the period.

  • Pykett, Lyn, ed. Reading Fin-de-Siècle Fictions. London: Longman, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of essays (some reprinted from elsewhere) aimed at undergraduates that provides a good synopsis and introduction to central areas of interest in the scholarly field as it took shape during the 1990s. The emphasis falls on popular fiction in context on the whole.

  • Stokes, John, ed. Fin de Siècle/Fin du Globe: Fears and Fantasies of the Late Nineteenth Century. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    A foundational collection of essays that marked the emergence of new scholarly interests in the period, with the notable inclusion of essays on Vernon Lee by Ruth Robbins and degeneration by William Greenslade that inaugurated much subsequent work in both areas.

  • Temple, Ruth Z. “Truth in Labeling: Pre-Raphaelitism, Aestheticism, Decadence, Fin de Siècle.” English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 17 (1974): 201–222.

    E-mail Citation »

    Identifies the confused use of the terms of her title in literary history and advocates the use of “decadent” alone on the basis of shared themes. Useful polemic to rebound against and gives a good sense of how the fin de siècle was viewed prior to the new wave of scholarly interest at the end of the 20th century.

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