Women in British Aestheticism and the Decadence
At a conference on Oscar Wilde in 1997 at the University of Birmingham the feminist critic Elaine Showalter regretted that Wilde and some of the late Victorian feminists had made so little common cause. This essay is an attempt to think through this lack of solidarity, though its optic is one of difference and tension rather than regret. A new volume on women in British Aestheticism edited by Talia Schaffer and Kathy Psomiades, like an Exhibition on Women Pre-Raphaelite Artists the previous year (Manchester, 1998), shows how critical women could be of male so-called Decadents.1 Whereas the male Decadents often proposed aesthetic models of consumption, taste, and pleasure, women in the aesthetic movement, especially in the more popular, or applied, forms of aestheticism, such as decorative arts and suburban literatures, were more conscious of their roles as reproducers of daily life and as producers subject to audiences. Essays by Ann Ardis, Annette Federico, and Edward Marx show that the women artists and writers often sided with male ‘Counter-Decadents’ in negating the Decadent negation of bourgeois life. Their work in country cottages, London suburbs, or the empire itself popularized aestheticism for broader audiences while simultaneously expressing the desires of subordinated groups for ideals beyond production and reproduction.
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