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Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier, Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism

New York: Routledge, 2016, 210 p. ISBN: 978-1-138-64077-1 (hbk)
Stefano Evangelista
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Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier, Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism, New York: Routledge, 2016, 210 p. ISBN: 978-1-138-64077-1 (hbk)

Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

esthétisme, modernisme

Keywords :

aestheticism, modernism
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1Over the last few years scholars have found ingenious new ways of bridging the gap between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which is still such a dominant, awkward feature of Anglophone literary studies. Kristin Mahoney’s Literature and the Politics of Post-Victorian Decadence, Vincent Sherry’s Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence and a forthcoming collection edited by Kate Hext and Alex Murray all set out to argue that the legacy of the fin de siècle was a determining factor in how the literature of the early twentieth century defined its own modernity. Most of the work that has been published so far has focused on Decadence as the most visible and controversial strand of fin-de-siècle literature. Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism shifts the attention to aestheticism—a movement that overlaps with Decadence but also has its distinctive features in terms of literary practices, political engagement, modes of sociability and geographical reach (unlike Decadence, aestheticism is a more strictly British phenomenon).

2In putting together the essays in this volume, the editors—Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier—have responded to a critical trend that has produced much revisionist work within the two separate fields of aestheticism and modernism, prompted by the desire to orient the movements away from an exclusive focus on high culture and to open them up to include the marginal and forgotten. As the editors make clear in the introduction, both aestheticism and modernism are contested terms. The best way to go about finding shared ground is, therefore, not by erecting clear boundaries around them but rather working precisely where the boundaries are fuzzy, i.e. by enlarging canons and identifying shared strategies and questions such as the push away from realism, writers’ passion for novelty and formal innovation, interest in radical politics, and engagement with foreign literatures and ideas.

3In the light of this interpretative strategy, one of the strengths of the collection is that it throws light on works that are themselves marginal within authors’ oeuvres. Such is the case, for instance, in Tina O’Toole’s suggestive essay on George Egerton’s collection Flies in Amber (1905). Egerton has been the subject of a critical revival that has concentrated on her radical views on gender and her connections with the Decadent publisher John Lane, who brought out her first two short-story collections Keynotes (1893) and Discords (1894). As a result, the work Egerton produced after the Oscar Wilde trials and Lane’s turn to caution, has been virtually totally eclipsed. As O’Toole persuasively shows, however, Egerton’s later works have many interesting and new things to say about feminism, especially women’s experience of the urban landscape, and migration. The same could be said for Ezra Pound’s early collection of poetry A Lume Spento (1907) discussed by Rainer Emig, which the author himself later dismissed as ‘stale cream puffs’—belittling their transitional status. Read next to each other, the examples of the late Egerton and early Pound—authors who are associated with different centuries but were in fact writing roughly at the same time, and in fact alongside George Moore and James Joyce—show that the particular type of awkwardness generated by a work’s refusal to fit into an author’s period credentials can be a very productive site of interpretation. Other strange and suggestive contemporaneities thrown up by the book include the case of Walter Pater’s sisters and Virginia Woolf discussed by Lene Østermark-Johansen, Arthur Symons and T. S. Eliot studied by Elisa Bizzotto, and Joseph Conrad and Leonard Woolf analysed by Christine Froula. While Dorothy Richardson’s amusing description of Henry James as ‘a large pale motionless octopus with huge eyes, suddenly throwing out huge tentacles’ (quoted in Rebecca Bowler and Scott McCracken, 85) is one of the most memorable images of another strand examined in several essays: that of generational conflict.

4Transnational connections provide an effective way of questioning familiar strategies of periodisation, this time by translating time into space. Sandra Mayer’s rigorous analysis of the reception of Oscar Wilde in fin-de-siècle Vienna shows that the Irish aesthete provided a shaping influence on the identity and practices of the Wiener Moderne, who renegotiated the value of his works in a cosmopolitan context, using their knowledge of Wilde as a source of cultural capital. In another particularly fine essay, Christine Froula pushes the focus beyond Europe, arguing that Conrad’s ‘Preface’ to ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ looks back to Pater’s ‘Preface’ to Studies in the History of the Renaissance—a manifesto for aestheticism’s artistic autonomy and critical impressionism—in order to formulate a new ‘aesthetics of empire’, in which the metropolitan doctrine of art for art’s sake poses new representational and ethical challenges to the writer.

5One of the more effective ways of questioning periods is to approach them from interdisciplinary angles. Such is the case, for instance, in Emmanuelle De Champs’s essay on the intersections between literature and political economy, in which she examines the uses of utilitarianism in nineteenth-century literary criticism. De Champs traces the debate between art and utility in a number of British nineteenth-century writers (including John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin and Henry Sidgwick), pleading that a more nuanced critical understanding of utilitarianism and its challenges to notions of taste would enable us to see new connections between the two centuries. This is a powerful suggestion; it is a pity that her essay does not take the time to develop it fully. The economic angle suggested by De Champs characterises a cluster of essays that the editors have grouped around the theme of ‘Speculative Orientations’. Here Stephen Ross, following Žižek, traces a shared network of interests in speculative abstraction that connects economics, spiritualism and Scottish modernism. Catherine Delyfer looks at novels by George Gissing and Lucas Malet in order to show that episodes of financial crisis expose and challenge prevailing models of value, within the culture market but also in gender relations. Mary Poovey sees a productive connection in the contemporaneous turn to abstraction that literature and economic theory performed in the first decades of the twentieth century. Rob Hawkes examines the question of trust with reference to works by Evelyn Waugh. Read alongside each other, these essays open up new perspectives on notions of individualism, arguing for a sociologically oriented approach to questions of taste and aesthetics.

6The strongest claim put forward by Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism is that critics should resist the easy appeal of a particular teleology that is sadly familiar to students of the fin de siècle: one that sees modernism as an inevitable culmination of late-Victorian culture and consequently values most highly those fin-de-siècle works that seem to anticipate modernist characteristics and ideas. Several essays in this collection make an eloquent argument for a different approach. A less rewarding feature is that the essays are so short that not all of them succeed in developing their arguments fully.

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Stefano Evangelista, « Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier, Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 86 Automne | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2017, consulté le 11 décembre 2018. URL :

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Stefano Evangelista

Trinity College, Oxford University

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