Literary Radicalism in the British Fin de Siècle

  • Ian Small
Part of the Warwick Studies in the European Humanities book series (WSEH)


In characterising the literature of the 1890s, literary historians have tended to use descriptions, explanatory models, and even metaphors which have been derived in the first instance from French literary history. Mallarmé and Baudelaire, Huysmans and Zola, Degas and Manet, and movements such as Symbolism, Naturalism and Impressionism — it is from these French examples that models of English literary history are derived. French precedents are used to construct the types or the categories of literary history which can then be applied on a fairly wholesale basis to other cultures, especially to that of Britain.1 One consequence of such a methodology is that the British counterparts of French prototypes are invariably seen as shadows of the ‘real thing’: so, for example, in the 1890s, English poetry, particularly that of Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Arthur Symons, is often seen as derivative of French models. The limitations of such a strategy are most clearly in evidence, however, in descriptions of literary radicalism. Generally speaking, nineteenth-century French culture is seen as determining the underlying patterns of artistic radicalism: indeed it is commonly perceived as possessing something of a monopoly of cultural or artistic iconoclasm.


Literary Criticism Literary History French Revolution French Model English Poetry 
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  1. 1.
    For an example of such a strategy, see R. K. R. Thornton, The Decadent Dilemma (London: Edward Arnold, 1983).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Hilton Kramer, The Age of the Avant-Garde (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1974).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For a discussion of the relationship between the French Revolution and literary and artistic radicalism in France and Britain see Ian Small and Josephine Guy, ‘The French Revolution and the Avant-Garde’ in Ceri Crossley and Ian Small (eds), The French Revolution and British Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) pp. 141–5Google Scholar
  4. Josephine Guy, The British Avant-Garde: The Theory and Politics of Tradition (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1991).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Charles Kingsley, The Limits of Exact Science as Applied to History (Cambridge: J. H. Parker and Son, 1860) p. 17.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    See, for example, Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See Josephine Guy, ‘The Concept of Tradition and Late Nineteenth-Century British Avant-Garde Movements,’ Prose Studies, 13 (1990), pp. 250–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. J. Dover Wilson (1932; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960) p. 133.Google Scholar
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    For a different but related view of Arnold’s rhetorical strategies, see John Holloway, The Victorian Sage (London: Macmillan, 1953).Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    For a further account of Pater’s use of quotation, see William F. Shuter, ‘Pater’s Reshuffled Text’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 31 (1989), 500–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 15.
    For a more detailed discussion of the audience(s) of nineteenth-century works, see Ian Small, ‘Annotating “Hard” Nineteenth Century Novels’, Essays in Criticism, 36 (1986), 281–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 16.
    The influence of individual French writers on individual British writers was of course widespread and has been noticed by a number of critics. See, for example, Patricia Clements, Baudelaire and the English Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985)Google Scholar
  13. John J. Conlon, Walter Pater and the French Tradition (London: Asociated University Presses, 1982).Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    See John Stokes, In the Nineties (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1989).Google Scholar

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© Ian Small 1992

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  • Ian Small

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