Decadent LONDON fin de siecle city


An artistic young man stares out from the cover of this book, cigarette held between the long fingers of his left hand. In his other hand he holds a half-filled wine glass. Slouched, in bohemian dress, he is amused, even slightly superior and looks the personification of sophisticated decadence. If I had wanted any encouragement to dip into the late nineteenth London world of Beardsley, Wilde, Yeats and The Yellow Book this portrait, on the rather sickly taupe cover, would have done the trick. It hints at late-night artistic gatherings, poetry written under the influence of drugs and drink, doomed relationships and the death of young genius from consumption or over-indulgence. Is that a glass of absinthe that he has in his hand or what? More of this young man later.

In fact Decadent London is a more serious book than the cover suggests although I cannot help thinking that its title and dust jacket sets out to attract ignorant but respectable readers who would like a vicarious thrill from reading of the antics of more daring and talented folks in London a century ago. Rather as the mid Victorian writers 'explored' the notorious rookeries, alleys and courts of the London slums for the enjoyment of middle-class readers we lap up the tales of café society, flamboyant dress, music halls, brothels, forbidden affairs and inevitable debt.

Antony Clayton has written an account of the life style of a group of artistic men (and a couple of women) and their associates who, in the 1890s, were influenced by the French literary decadent and symbolist movements. Believing in the freedom of art and the rejection of the moral behaviour and customs of bourgeois society they were greatly concerned with private and exotic experience. He points out that this was an urban group and that it would have been difficult for it to exist in any other English city but London. This social, commercial and cultural centre, with its easy access to Paris, was the ideal environment for young men, interested in rebelling against mid Victorian respectability, to meet and flourish artistically. Clayton quotes an early study of the 1890s by Holbrook Jackson. These people were 'spiritual foreigners in our midst; they were not a product of England but of cosmopolitan London'. Clayton suggests that the characteristics of their life-style and beliefs, 'artifice, alienation and perversity' were intensified by access to the temptations of the city.

The author has gathered together an awful lot of information on London of the period. A great deal of this is crammed into Chapter One which tells the reader all about London in the 1890s. In a few short pages he covers housing, poverty, local government, schools, shopping, hotels, restaurants, transport, gentlemen's clubs….by the end of the chapter this reader had a sort of historical indigestion and was desperately hoping that a bit of decadence would soon leap off of the page. However in Chapter 2, when Clayton begins to discuss the main characters and their influences the book really takes off and from then on the reader is plunged into the Bohemian world of late nineteenth century London.

The most familiar literary figure of the period is, of course, Oscar Wilde and all readers will have at least a passing knowledge of his flamboyant life style and tragic end. The Portrait of Dorian Gray is the best known example of a decadent novel. The work of Aubrey Beardsley and his involvement with the Yellow Book is also well known. Antony Clayton, however, reminds the reader of many other figures, particularly poets, who were active in London in this period and who knew each other even if they were not always bosom friends. He particularly emphasises the role of Arthur Symons, writer and poet, who was described by a contemporary as the leader of the decadent movement in London and whose magazine article 'The Decadent Movement in Literature' brought it to the attention of a wider audience. The son of a Methodist minister he was influenced, like many of his artistic contemporaries, by Walter Pater and the work of French writers, Verlaine, Mallarme and Huysmans. Symons is frequently referred to throughout this book as a friend or acquaintance of almost all the important artists or writers of the period. His poetry gave fleeting glimpses of the daily urban life of the decadents and following a visit to Paris his writing became even more exotic. His most important book The Symbolist Movement in Literature influenced many later writers including T S Eliot. The aesthetic movement (ridiculed by Gilbert and Sullivan) and Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance published in 1873 seems to be a common denominator amongst the group. 'L'art pour l'art' was the order of the day. The Rhymers Club, a gathering of poets which met at the Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street included Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Richard Le Galienne, W.B. Yeats as well as having the occasional visit from Wilde. The story of the printers and publishers of their work is also discussed including that of the original Bodley Head in Vigo Street.

This is of course a book on London and Clayton's chapters on Decadent Pleasures, Entertainment and Culture give a great deal of information on the cafes, pubs, music halls and theatres of the time. Inevitably he strays a little from the decadent scene. I found the section on the new catering establishments as interesting as that on the Café Royal. However I found it difficult to imagine Wilde dining at an ABC or Lyons teashop although to be fair Lyons did move up market to the Trocadero in the early twentieth century. There is also some discussion of the role drug and drinking, including a short section on the lethal 'Green Fairy', absinthe. Of course the reader cannot help being horrifically entranced by some of the details of the characters' lives. Ernest Dowson, having been received into the Catholic Church, demonstrated his faith by dipping a small gold crucifix into his absinthe. Leonard Smithers, publisher of erotica, produced a copy of Thomas a Kempis' book Imitation of Christ' bound in human skin. Many of the decadents were like Wilde (and his mother!), staying in bed until late in the day and staying out all night. Many died young. Lionel Johnson, who drank two pints of whisky a day died aged 35 and Dowson aged 32. Beardsley and others were prematurely carried off by TB. For some reason I was particularly touched by the story of Francis Thompson. He took to opium to escape the poverty of life lived on the streets at the same time writing poems in a notebook. When rescued by a publisher he wrote The Hound of Heaven but finally died of TB aged 48.

Do not look for analysis or in depth discussion of the artists' work in this book. This is a straightforward guidebook to their world although the author has provided a brief description of the decadent movement and its relationship with aestheticism, symbolism. and degeneracy. However I did feel that the author assumed that readers would have a greater knowledge of the theories of his subject matter. A brief introduction (as at the beginning of Chapter Two) would have set the decadent scene better and I would have liked some sort of summing up, however superficial, at the end of the book. As it was I felt obliged to check definitions in a dictionary of literary terms and to re-read parts of Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde in order to fully appreciate what the author was trying to tell us. At times I felt overwhelmed with facts and a little discussion between lists might have increased my appreciation of the subject. On the plus side the book inspired me to return to some of the poetry of the period. I had forgotten Ernest Dowson ('They are not long, the days of wine and roses') nor, I am ashamed to say, do I ever remember reading Lionel Johnson's 'By the Statue of King Charles At Charing Cross' which apparently made such an impression on the members of the Rhymers Club.

Historical Publications have published a number of books on London districts which are probably of greatest interest to those who live in the area. This book should appeal to a wider audience, those with an interest in literature and the history of London. It is well illustrated with photographs and prints and includes some reproductions of Beardsley's illustrations. There is ample material for further reading in the bibliography.

And what of the young man on the 'greenery-yallery Grosvenor Art Gallery' cover who so desperately wants to appear degenerately sophisticated? Strictly speaking he isn't a decadent at all. The portrait was created in 1914 by Adrian Allinson twenty years after the heyday of the decadents. The sitter was Alan Odle, aged 26, an illustrator. Such is the influence of the fin de siecle group his work is compared to that of Beardsley and is highly collectable.

Rosemary Conely
Copyright © Open University History Society, 2014