Jane Ford, Kim Edwards Keates, and Patricia Pulham (eds), Economies of Desire at the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Libidinal Lives (Oxford: Routledge 2016) 214 pp. £110.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781138826342
This invigorating collection asserts itself as ‘the first sustained study to interrogate how and why issues of sexuality, desire, and economic processes intersect in the literature and culture of the Victorian fin de siècle’ (i). The editors’ introduction conveys enthusiasm and energy as it sets the scene for the essays. Building on the research of Luce Irigaray, Regenia Gagnier, Martha Vicinus and others, it offers something new, exploring the cultural atmosphere created by a combination of factors at the end of the nineteenth century; the emergence of ‘economic man’, the transition of the marketplace from needs to desires, and the study of sexology.
The nine essays form a series of case studies, examining diverse literary responses to the ‘cross-fertilisation of theories relating to idiosyncratic desire and consumer choice’ (2). Together they build a picture of desire and economy in this era which is itself idiosyncratic, through the variety of literature under discussion – plays, poetry, novels, short stories, collaborations – as well as the array of different writers, from the prominent to the marginal. As such, ‘how’ and ‘why’ are answered by each essay according to the unique responses and contexts of their subject matter. This case study approach successfully resists the impulse to retrospectively construct a narrative of cohesion for this period and its literature.
However, the structure of the volume seems to run counter to this effort. The essays are organised into three sections; ‘Articulating Desire’, ‘Human Currencies’, and ‘Queer Performativities’. While these are engaging subject headings, and the editors do acknowledge slippage and crossover between them, structuring the essays in this way feels a bit limiting and superficial. An afterword by the editors would have been welcome, to draw the essays together and dispel the tension between resisting definitive narratives while constructing theoretical ones, and to close the volume with the same voice of energy and enthusiasm that opened it
‘Articulating Desire’ examines instances where economy and sexuality manifest in literary language, form and structure. Ruth Robbins analyses Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a play which illustrates Wilde’s contention that desire is always dangerous when it has no outlet and cannot circulate. Robbins argues that as well as depicting perverse sexual economies, the play subverts the tragic into the hyperbolic: ‘human sexuality itself is rendered utterly perverse’ (31). Veronica Alfano considers A E Housman’s ‘ballad economies’ as simultaneously masking and exposing desire. His brief poems use strict adherence to formal convention, and iterative or monosyllabic diction, to create ‘an aesthetic of meticulous understatement’ which ‘both generates and disguises the subtle homoeroticism of his poetry’ (35). Lastly, Jane Desmarais discusses Arthur Symons’s London Nights as a literary record of the decadent transition from economy to desire, from materialism to the symbolic and unseen. Clouds of perfume symbolise the diffusion of the material into the abstract. The realisation that decadence was marketable led to a consumerist appropriation of the ‘material instability of aestheticism’ (63), which, Desmarais convincingly argues, is epitomised by the miasmic commodity of scent.
The three chapters in ‘Human Currencies’ present readings of how women writers ‘represent human bodies as objects of economic exchange within (hetero-patriarchal) capitalist society’ (10). Sarah Parker reveals shared themes in the poetry of Amy Levy and Djuna Barnes: their appropriation of the role of flâneur for a female poetics, and their ‘portrayal of the dead woman as muse’ (83). Parker demonstrates through nuanced close reading the different depictions of this figure – spectral in Levy, re-fleshed corpse in Barnes – as attempts to resist objectification within existing systems of economy and sexuality. Jane Ford looks at the libidinal economies of gift giving in Vernon Lee’s supernatural tales. In these stories, gift exchange is driven by self-interest and establishes obligation. Ford concentrates on two forms of ‘gift-event’, the devotional gift and the Greek gift, arguing that for Lee, both Christian and Greek epic narrative are patriarchal structures which support ‘an economy of giving that involves the subjection and/or exclusion of women’ (106). Catherine Delyfer’s essay on Lucas Malet’s novel The Far Horizon (1906) closes this section. Malet’s novel is ‘a unique, if forgotten, late-aestheticist reflection on self-interest and social good at the end of nineteenth century’ (122). The novel explores how social relations are defined by economic exchange, particularly for individuals within the sphere of the banking world, and posits a ‘spiritual economy’ as a positive alternative. This essay is an accomplished demonstration of how the language of economics permeates dialogue, thought, and text. However, its central focus is not on bodies as objects of exchange; this is a moment where the collection’s structure feels somewhat contrived.
The final section on ‘Queer Performativities’ looks at the relationship between economy, consumerism, and sexual difference. The discussion moves beyond the Wilde trial to recover more marginal performances of homoeroticism and camp. Matthew Bradley examines the subversive and comic figure of Count Stenbock as a living parody of decadence and perversity. Kristin Mahoney analyses Baron Corvo’s ‘Toto’ stories, which narrate extreme power imbalances in a master-servant relationship. Mahoney argues that the stories “camp” and critique inequality by enacting exaggerated, near-ridiculous scenes of hierarchy and injustice, which reveal Corvo engaging in ‘class drag’. Jill R Ehnenn discusses the Michael Field collaboration between Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. Ehnenn complicates established readings of sameness, femininity, and romantic friendship in the work of Michael Field, by demonstrating how the partnership rather ‘appropriates and queers heteronormative conventions’ (180).
Economies of Desire at the Victorian Fin de Siècle draws attention to the rich field of study available through examining literary mediations on the interactions between economy and desire at the end of the nineteenth century. This book is eminently readable, academically rigorous, and offers contributions to multiple disciplines. The collection invites further research with its enthusiastic and generous tone, and its idiosyncratic approach. The section ‘Human Currencies’ in particular has room for expansion. The discussion of the enslaved consciousness as a metaphor for ‘thingness’ in Ford’s essay could form a springboard for more materialist examinations of the continuing repercussions of the slave trade, surely the definitive economic system of ‘human currency’ in which bodies are objects of exchange. The late-Victorian economy, the emergence of economic man, the shift from need to desire, and theories around sexual preference, were defined by, tainted by, and entangled in that legacy. It would be fruitful for future research in this area to follow the mission statement of this volume, and interrogate the 'hows and whys' with which fin-de-siècle literature responded to slavery and other material economic systems and events, through the thematization of the meeting of economy, desire, and exchange.
Louise Benson James, University of Bristol