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COSTE Bénédicte, Catherine DELYFER and Christine REYNIER, eds., Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism. Continuities, Revisions, Speculations

Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace Series, London: Routledge, 2017 (210 p.). ISBN : 978-1-138-64077-1
Floriane Reviron-Piégay
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Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier,eds., Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism. Continuities, Revisions, Speculations, Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace Series, London: Routledge, 2017 (210 p.). ISBN : 978-1-138-64077-1

Texte intégral

1The purpose of this volume, as clearly stated in the title, is to bridge the theoretical gap existing between aestheticism and modernism. The three editors themselves are specialists of both movements and this volume may be read as an effort to transcend categories and stereotypes and see the transition between the nineteenth century and the twentieth as a cross-fertilizing move rather than as a divide, in the literary, artistic, philosophical and economic spheres. The introduction to the volume reminds us that the modernist credo voiced by Ezra Pound to ‘make it New!’ is in fact a continuation of the aesthetic passion for the new and that the alleged break between the Victorians and the Modernists may well be more of a posture than a real fact. Positing that ‘connections between aestheticism and modernism have tended to be ignored by literary history’ (1), the editors have gathered international specialists to interrogate this transition and analyse it from their different vantage points, some being specialists of Victorian literature and arts, others of modernist literature and culture, both ‘pushing their analyses beyond their strict period of expertise’ to offer a renewed and fresh approach of this fascinating period.

2The result is a ground-breaking and varied study of the way one movement led to the other or looked back on the other: modernism is seen as re-appropriating the codes of aestheticism and refashioning them rather than moving away from them. The introduction to the volume offers a very useful survey of the most recent research on the fin-de-siècle movement by Sally Ledger, Talia Schaffer, Elaine Showalter, Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff, Matthew Potolsky, Martha Vicinus or Cassandra Laity. The volume itself revises assumptions about very well-known characteristics of aestheticism and modernism (the birth of the New Woman and its impact on representation, the figure of the ivory-tower artist, artistic greatness, moral depravity, decadence, cultural elitism, art for art’s sake, the tension between art and life), offers new insight into renowned artists (Pater, Wilde, James, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Richardson…) and sheds light on more obscure ones (Johnson, Dowson, Egerton, Symons, Lee, Schreiner, Crackanthorpe).

3The volume is structured in three distinct but interconnected parts giving us a kaleidoscopic picture of the literary production at the turn of the twentieth century thanks to chapters devoted to poetry, the novel or to short fiction, highlighting the role of editors and of magazines such as The Yellow Book and The New Review. The different backgrounds of the contributors from Europe, Canada and the United States and their different theoretical approaches are an apt reminder that aestheticism and modernism were trans-national and cosmopolitan movements and the first part, entitled ‘Connecting Aestheticism and Modernism’ in particular helps map the expansion and propagation of ideas across Europe and beyond. Nietzschean philosophy and Scandinavian modernists are quoted by Tina O’Toole who explores the resonances between Egerton, Moore and Joyce to denounce the separate spheres and double standards of the late nineteenth century. Charles Baudelaire is used by Elisa Bizzotto to explore the ambiguities of Arthur Symons’s fame as ‘one of the ghosts of literary history’ but also as ‘the man who made late-Victorian poetics blossom into modernism’ (31). Jules Laforgue, Georges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard are summoned by Rainer Emig who purports to analyse G.M. Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and other prominent modernists as decadents. ‘Dismissal and disposal’ (45) being part and parcel of every artistic attempt at innovation, Emig shows that loss, expenditure, waste and recycling are common ground between decadent poets such as Lionel Johnson or Ernest Dowson and the modernists. Lene Østermark-Johansen further examines the problem of literary inheritance by analysing Virginia Woolf’s texts (in particular Orlando) in the light of the imaginary portraits created by Walter Pater and to conclude this first part, Wilde’s figure is compared to his Austrian mentor Hermann Bahr in Sandra Mayer’s study of Oscar Wilde’s Viennese artistic networks.

4The second part entitled ‘Revising Assumptions about Aestheticism and Modernism’ is less an exploration of the link between the two movements than a reappraisal of their main characteristics, starting with a criticism of the ‘stream of consciousness’ metaphor in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, a metaphor which she deemed a ‘perfect imbecility’ (81) although her work is teeming with aquatic metaphors contributing to creating what Rebecca Bowler and Scott McCracken call her ‘wet aesthetics.’ Elke D’Hoker then demonstrates how the short story provided an ‘excellent forum’ for the discussion of art and aestheticism in fin-de-siècle England precisely because of the freedom of subject matter and shape it afforded. The tension between art and life, the figure of the ivory tower artist are examined in turn in an impressive array of short stories by Vernon Lee, Hubert Crackanthorpe, Arthur Symons or George Egerton. Emmanuelle De Champs’s chapter, although less directly concerned with literature and art, shows how, under the influence of Lacan and Foucault, the opposition between utilitarianism and aestheticism has been reassessed, leading to a better understanding of utilitarianism and its relationship with literature. It affords a useful transition with one of the most powerful contributions to this volume, Christine Froula’s appraisal of ethical aestheticism and Imperial fictions: comparing Leonard Woolf’s fiction with Conrad’s or Kipling’s novels of Empire, Froula highlights the tension at work between an aesthetic contemplation of facts and the imperialist claims to action, a tension summed up in Conrad’s Preface to ‘The Nigger of the “Narcissus.”’ A very fine analysis of ‘Pearls and Swine’ or of ‘A Tale Told by Moonlight’ allows Froula to examine Conrad’s influence over Woolf’s rhetoric and the latter’s final conversion to an anti-imperialist stance, clearly visible in The Village in the Jungle.

5Part Three, ‘Speculative Orientations in Aestheticism and Modernism’ is perhaps the boldest and the most original part in that it truly paves the way for a new approach of both aestheticism and modernism by examining their links with speculation (in its philosophic, scientific and economic sense) seen as a ‘connecting point’ between the two movements. Stephen Ross broaches the subject of scientific and philosophic speculation focusing on Henry Sidgwick’s role in linking nineteenth-century empiricism, aestheticism, ethics and speculation. He then very elaborately articulates the neglect suffered by modernist works and their value as speculative objects, showing that some modernist works (among which the Scottish trilogy A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon) were unfairly tagged as minor works. Mary Poovey follows suit by examining how both mathematicians and writers embraced abstraction to address the tensions between realism and formalism and looks at the way economists capitalized on these new modes of representation between the 1870s and the advent of the Keynesian model. Like De Champs’s less literary approach, her paper affords an original transition towards Catherine Delyfer’s analysis of two fin-de-siècle novels (Gissing’s The Whirlpool and Malet’s The Far Horizon) that illustrate the way economic, aesthetic, moral and sexual discourses on value contributed to ‘interrogate the problematics of representation in general’ (165). Delyfer shows that the language of economics permeated the plots of most nineteenth-century novels, even though their main subject was also the value of art. She analyses the pervasiveness of consumerist values and the culture of investment in fin-de-siècle England, a subject Rob Hawkes tackles precisely in his study of Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Ford Madox Ford’s The Rash Act. Both novels can be seen as asking fundamental questions about the authenticity of experimental artistic practices and the relationship between money, modernity and trust. Finally, Michael Kindellan picks up the thread of the link between economics and literature by looking at an unpublished tract written by Ezra Pound in 1933 in which he laments the facts that deluxe first editions (such as his own edition of The Cantos) are ‘not made to be read by those rich enough to buy them’ (195). Kindellan looks at the editing history of these Cantos and interprets Pound’s turn from deluxe editions to more commercial presses, assessing his editorial job in the process and showing that it was conditioned by his conception of the value of the work of art as inimical to financial viability.

6The volume as a whole thus offers unusual representations of aestheticism and modernism and will prove very useful to students and academics. It will remain a lasting work of reference to understand the shift from one movement to the other because it raises fundamental questions about the advent of modernism, the problem of its authenticity, of its autonomy, and the commodification of modernist art. This cross-disciplinary exploration of the connections between aestheticism and modernism proves surprisingly consistent despite the diversity of approaches. The notions of trust, value, speculation, waste and disposal are particularly stimulating: not only do they create a very efficient bond between the articles but they also prove particularly appropriate to grasp the scope of the transition between fin-de-siècle culture and modernism.

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Floriane Reviron-Piégay, « COSTE Bénédicte, Catherine DELYFER and Christine REYNIER, eds., Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism. Continuities, Revisions, Speculations »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2017, consulté le 15 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Floriane Reviron-Piégay

Université Jean Monnet, Saint-Étienne

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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