Victorian Literature Decadence
Matthew Bradley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0021


Decadence is a literary category originally associated with a number of French writers in the mid-19th century, most notably Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier. Often linked by both proponents and critics with the excessive refinements found in the literature of the late Roman period, its general characteristics are an interest in perversity, ennui, art for art’s sake, transgressive modes of sexuality, artificiality, and decay. As the century continued, in France the label was increasingly applied to a type of poetry exemplified by the writing of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé, and the fiction of J. K. Huysmans. By the end of the century, decadence had spread into many other European countries as an aesthetic term. Decadence became a vital force in England during the 1890s and thrived as one of the dominant focuses of a wider cultural debate regarding degeneration and in particular the fin de siècle, a decade and an idea with which it became increasingly associated. The periodical The Yellow Book was seen as one of the chief organs of decadent writing, and Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, and Ernest Dowson are usually cited as the leading writers in the English decadent tradition—although much work in recent years has focused on expanding this canon, particularly with regard to its gender bias. Along with aestheticism and symbolism (literary categories with which it often overlaps), decadence has become a vital focus within literary study of the Victorians, and it now appears secure as one of the major strands of teaching and research in the literature of the period.

General Overviews

There is a dilemma here, for despite the plethora of general guides to decadent literature, there is no single overview of decadence as a global phenomenon—most of this type of work tends to be limited by national, or at best continental, boundaries. Schoolfield 2003 is undoubtedly the best place for those interested in gaining the widest view, although Praz 1970 also has a wide focus and forwards the classic view of decadence as a subset of romanticism extremely effectively. Students of Victorian literature looking for a European context, however, will in all likelihood be most interested in France; and while many guides to English decadence tend to contain material on this, Pierrot 1981 is the strongest on the literature, while Birkett 1986 provides a wider contextual view for the French movement, which usefully supplements the broader-brush versions often given in Anglocentric works. For the best of both English and French worlds, Denisoff 2007 conveys a large amount of information in neat and concise fashion and is probably the best place for the student to start. Many critical assumptions about English decadence begin with Jackson 1913, which still reads well and gives a good sense of the vibrancy of the period, while Sturgis 1995 is probably the best book-length introduction of English decadence currently available, despite contributing little that is new in terms of ideas. Probably for this reason it is often overlooked, but it remains very entertaining and is strong on Beardsley and the visual arts. For a full sense of the many diverse areas of decadent study, and to remain fully up to date, The OScholars contains much wide-ranging information, but perhaps most importantly, it is very frequently updated; it thus remains perhaps most useful for familiarizing oneself with current critical trends and developments.

  • Birkett, Jennifer. The Sins of the Fathers: Decadence in France, 1870–1914. London and New York: Quartet, 1986.

    Accessible historicist study of the development of decadence in France, arguing that it is in essence a style evolved by elites under threat, and a response to the perceived sterility and weakness of the country after defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1871.

  • Denisoff, Dennis. “Decadence and Aestheticism.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle. Edited by Gail Marshall, 31–52. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK: University Press, 2007.

    Strong article that combines an elegant tour through the key moments of historical significance for the development of decadence with a convincing argument suggesting that the even the ephemeral and parodic elements of aestheticism and decadence were primarily sociopolitical in aim and effect.

  • Jackson, Holbrook. The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century. London: Grant Richards, 1913.

    The keystone of much writing on the period, and still useful as an overview of the entire fin de siècle, although it has a particular emphasis on decadent discourses. Remains readable and is widely held by academic libraries, although a number of its assumptions have since been challenged, particularly and obviously with regard to canon.

  • The OScholars.

    Hub with links to many exciting online journals of relevance to decadence, with the OScholars site itself containing a useful forum in which all aspects of fin de siècle culture are discussed. Updated regularly, and a very useful guide to recent publications helps the student to keep right up-to-date with critical developments on decadence and fin de siècle culture.

  • Pierrot, Jean. The Decadent Imagination, 1880–1900. Translated by Derek Coltman. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

    Strong sense of the French decadence in general terms, but also with an excellent and convincing section on Wilde that sees him as a theorist after-the-fact of the original French movement.

  • Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. Translated by Angus Davidson. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.

    Originally published in Italian in 1951, Praz’s classic study aims to study romanticism “under the erotic sensibility” and is thus a key text for the idea of decadence as a “falling off” from the Romantic movement. Organized thematically, and with consideration of an extraordinary range of English, French, and Italian texts, many now obscure.

  • Schoolfield, George C., ed. A Baedecker of Decadence: Charting a Literary Fashion, 1884–1927. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2003.

    Wide-ranging discussion of the subject on a global scale, including some decadent writers from lesser-known European contexts, including Ireland, Norway, and Finland, as well as sources from the United States and Australia. Helpful for the nonlinguist, although not particularly engaged with other relevant criticism.

  • Sturgis, Matthew. Passionate Attitudes: English Decadence of the 1890s. London: Picador, 1995.

    Lively survey of the development of English decadence, which remains the best book-length starting point for the topic. Not much on developments in critical debates and with surprisingly little scholarly apparatus, but a very readable introduction for the beginner.

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