Alex Murray, Landscapes of Decadence: Literature and Place at the Fin de Siècle

Alex Murray, Landscapes of Decadence: Literature and Place at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016) 235 pp. $80.00 PDF, £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-107-16966-1

Alex Murray’s Landscapes of Decadence considers the intersection between landscape, location and identity in the Decadent fin de siècle.

Beginning with a reading of Arthur Symons’s impressionistic poem ‘At Carbis Bay’, Murray illustrates how Symons’s rendering of the Cornish coast – whilst being spatially distinct from the cosmopolitanism of his later work – shares both an aesthetic and tropes that reoccur throughout the movement. In drawing upon John R. Reed’s Decadent Style, Murray untangles the decadent – the ‘cultural decline’ (5) – from the Decadent – a practice of style and aesthetic – with the latter being the central focus of this work. The decay connoted by decadent degeneration is replaced by the emergence of a Decadent foregrounding of the mode of representation. Murray claims that the writers chosen for this study ‘[…] were self-consciously attempting to emphasise the artificial, constructed nature of place and to interrogate claims that specific places were imbued with 'natural' characteristics’ (11). Murray supports this claim through contrasting writers such as fin-de-siècle staple Oscar Wilde, with the peripheral, and reluctant Decadent, poet Louise Imogen Guiney (Chapter Three): Guiney’s Oxford stands on the foundations of her literary predecessors, the ‘echo with the whispers of a lost and forgotten Catholic past’ (113).

Consequently, the term ‘landscape’ is also subject to redefinition; it represents not only the Decadent rural, but also the urban space of fin-de-siècle literature. The term becomes a way for Murray to represent both the geographically ‘real’ place, and the way in which place is represented textually. Landscape is suggestive of both the visual and literary arts, and whilst both Romantic and Aesthetic forms are noted for their influence on Decadent landscape writing, Murray argues that the emergence of Decadent landscape writing is dislocated from the earlier ‘Aesthetic theorisations of landscape’ (13). The Decadent landscape – unlike the Romantic and Aesthetic landscape – can no longer communicate what Murray terms ‘the vivid experience and impressions of the subject in nature’, rather, he suggests, it will be ‘transformed into a textual landscape in which the medium communicates itself’ (19).

Whilst Landscapes of Decadence’s five chapters have a short temporal range – 1880 to the mid-1920s – the spatial reach goes beyond that expected of a Decadent study: Murray’s monograph includes chapters on rural Wales, Oxford, and the New York cityscape. In considering location as a commonality between authors, Murray is able to reanimate ‘contemporary debates over the politics of place in order to outline how a series of writers responded […] with geographically specific literary practices’ (26).

‘The Disappearing Ghosts of Naples’ (Chapter One) strays into familiar (and, moreover, traditionally ‘decadent’) territory, with a short study of Vernon Lee’s aesthetic morality and genius loci. In this chapter, Murray emphasises the unwholesome impact of Italian Renaissance scholarship on fin-de-siècle tourists, and suggests that Lee’s cautionary fantastic tales act as media for disrupting the corrupting influence of a degenerate Naples. Yet, despite the landscape of fin-de-siècle Naples exuding profligacy and wickedness, Murray argues in this chapter that J. A. Symonds’s Decadent stylings of the Italian city provide a counterpoint to this form of decadent cartography: there is no decline, only ‘the constant revolution of becoming’ (49). This takes as its basis Symonds’s statement, ‘phenomenal existence is in a perpetual state of becoming; becoming implies cohesion and dissolution; both processes involve contention’ (49).

Chapter Two, ‘Paris and London, World–Flowers Twain’, considers the relationship between Paris and London, through the work of authors synonymous with both cities: Arthur Symons and George Moore. Symons’s poetry collections Silhouettes and London Nights provide specifically English examples of the visual mode of landscape representation in Decadent literature, yet aptly, Symons’s London draws on tropes from the Gallic Naturalism of Emile Zola. In both collections the city is evoked, yet absent: London the site is substituted for the place of an impression. Symons’s experiences as an outsider are explored in poems such as ‘Paris’ (1894): the impressionistic and lyrical language with which Symons renders the quotidian aspects of French urban life foregrounds Decadent landscape.

Chapter Three, ‘Stirring the Cumnor Cowslips in Decadent Oxford’ considers the influence of Catholicism, Matthew Arnold, and nostalgia, on the works of Oscar Wilde, Louise Imogen Guiney and Lionel Johnson. Johnson’s poetry is arguably representative of the conflict between the Hellenic Oxford of Arnold and Pater, and the Oxford of Cardinal Newman and the Roman Catholic Church. Johnson’s ‘Bagley Wood’ (1890) is a liminal site: a geographical location that symbolises homoerotic sexual passion, and shame, a location that echoes wider religious, social and political conflict.

‘The Glowing Furnace of Decadent Wales’ (Chapter Four) is a wonderful exploration of the Celtic landscape, drawing once more on Matthew Arnold, albeit on this occasion on his lectures On the Study of Celtic Literature. The Decadent Welsh landscape of this chapter is suffused with light: from the ‘mild’ and ‘soft’ glow of Arnold’s Wales (127), to the ‘crimson’ and ‘red’ furnace of Arthur Machen (151). It is the light of science and reason, and spirituality and myth simultaneously, and counters the dark silhouetted nights of Paris and London, and the bright towered spires of Oxford. Chapter Five, ‘"Venice sans hope": Reading Decadent New York’ charts the development of Aestheticism and Decadence in New York City. In this, the final chapter, the divergence between European Decadence and the evolution of the tradition in New York is considered. American Decadence, Murray suggests, ‘has never had the luxury of decline, and instead is plagued by a perceived lack of tradition’ (162).  Using the work of Edgar Saltus, James Huneker and Vance Thompson, Murray positions New York Decadence as a challenge to, and adaptation of, the style of its European sibling, with interesting consequences.

In Landscapes of Decadence Murray argues that the writing of landscapes – rural or urban – provided Decadent authors with a way of exploring not only location, but identity. Throughout, the links between Decadence’s practitioners (the shared influences, personal friendships), and the cosmopolitan nature of the movement might suggest to the reader that Decadent literature would inevitably be subject to an increasing homogenisation. Murray’s work, however, convincingly examines the adaptability and evolution of Decadence during the period.

Sally Blackburn, University of Liverpool