Category Archives: Lecture notes

Defining Decadence: A Few More Thoughts (Open Forum)


See some of our own initial “definitions” at the start of class:


“During the last half of the nineteenth century, literary movements, schools, cenacles, and ‘isms’ proliferate.  My position is that decadence is the common denominator underlying the extremely complex and diverse literary activities in the mid-to late nineteenth century, and that this substratum of decadence is crucial to the development of the modern novel.”  (David Weir, Decadence and the Making of Modernism, p. xvii)

“Practically everyone who writes about decadence begins with the disclaimer that the word itself is annoyingly resistant to definition.  …  [T]he paradoxical nature of decadence and its resistance to definition are among the most important elements of its meaning.”  (p. 1, 2)

“Nevertheless, by dissociating art once and for all from the goal that has always been assigned it—the faithful imitation of nature regarded as the supreme norm [i.e. mimesis]—the decadent period does constitute an essential line of cleavage between the classical esthetic and the modern esthetic.” (Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination 1880-1900, p. 11)


How did Wilde fit in—in contemporaries’ eyes, and in our own?  Wilde as the quintessential embodiment and model of Decadence?

“There is not a man or a woman in the English-speaking world possessed of the treasure of a wholesome mind who is not under a deep debt of gratitude to the Marquess of Queensberry [Lord Alfred Douglas’ father, who was the cause of the trials for “acts of gross indecency” that ended Wilde’s career] for destroying the high Priest of the Decadents.”  (National Observer, May 1895)

“[C]ontrary to its image as a rarefied ivory-tower aesthetic or merely parodic hiatus before the inception of Modernism, decadence poses serious literary, political, and historical questions.”  (Constable, Potolsky, and Denisoff [eds.], Introduction to Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, p. 1)



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Lecture Notes and Discussion Questions: Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”

Wilde published story in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1889, but a definitive version of it did not appear before his death.

The story came up during Wilde’s trials and formed part of the network of legal interest in Wilde’s writings there—Edward Carson, Counsel for the Marquess of Queensberry and a skilled (some would say vicious) questioner, was trying to weave a network of “evidence” via Wilde’s writings, alleging that Wilde’s perversion was evident in his work as well as in his life.  See the following exchange from April 3, 1895, during Wilde’s trials at the Old Bailey courthouse, London:

Carson: I believe you have written an article to show that Shakespeare’s sonnets were suggestive of natural vice?

Wilde:  On the contrary, I have written an article to show that they were not.  I objected to such a perversion being put upon Shakespeare. 

(qtd. from Danson, 81)

Lawrence Danson explains:  “It was one of the most daring paradoxes, the idea of a love between men that is not ‘unnatural,’ not ‘a perversion’: in 1895 it was a contradiction almost beyond the reach of language.  What would you call it?  Words that made sense in the Old Bailey, ‘sodomy’, buggery’, and their cognates, were words of legal condemnation, implying ‘disgust, disgrace, vituperation.’ The prison house of language wasn’t all you had to fear if your love used those words to speak its name.  There were other possibilities.  The word ‘homosexuality, for instance, had been coined by a Swiss doctor in 1869.  But in England in the nineties, ‘homosexuality’ belonged to the discourse of science; it named a medical problem, and its truth was not yours.  ‘Urning’,  ‘inversion’, even Whitman’s term ‘adhesiveness’ were neologisms, ‘suggestive of’ something strange and new.  Was there any language that would not falsify your desire—and Shakespeare’s and Michelangelo’s and Plato’s—in the process of speaking it?”  (Danson, 81)

“Wilde’s story or essay or hoax—one hardly knows what to name it—poses a question about the representation of homosexual desire that is only partly bound to the particular circumstances of Victorian reticence and fear.  […] it is necessary to ask what ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is about because the obvious answer  (it’s about Shakespeare’s love for Mr. W.H., ‘the onlie begetter’ of his sonnets) is radically undercut by the very narration that proposes it.” (Danson, 82)

Jerusha McCormack writes: “What one believes in this story relies on the impact of its performance, forged in the heat of inspiration, and carrying conviction only within the context of its utterance.  Its oral nature dictates the fiction’s contingent and arbitrary nature and offers the premise of its own erasure; here lies a fiction writ in hot water.” (McCormack, 108)

“Locating the impulse of Shakespeare’s own creation in the performance of an actor, Wilde returns the literary text of the Sonnets to their source in his own performance of their interpretation. At every level, that performance subverts the authority of the text, and the ‘forged’ reputation of its author, William Shakespeare.”  (McCormack, 109)

Some questions we’ll consider, among others:

How does the story compare to the other”portrait” fiction by Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray and to the other “forgery” text we’ve read, “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”? (Note that “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” is more or less contemporaneous with both of these.)  What are some obvious (or not so obvious) overlapping themes and concerns?

What is the role of authorship and the printed versus the oral tradition of storytelling in “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”?

This story could be described as a palimpsest, or a Chinese box of textuality.  Forgery, oral discourse, written discourse, hearsay, truth, lying, death, survival, tale and teller, physical and intellectual desire, inspiration, intent, and accidental events … what are some effects of this complex textuality and layers of meaning on you as a reader (its attractions and difficulties)?

How does our previous discussion of Wilde’s interest in truth and lying continue and extend with regard to this story?

What role does the notion of  text as performance (which we’ve pointed out is very important for much Decadent writing) play in this story? How does it compare to the other hyper-performative texts we’ve read (such as Huysmans’ A rebours or Flaubert’s La tentation de Saint Antoine?

How is homoeroticism (as allusion, implication, indirect discourse) part of the textual performativity here, especially with regard to the oscillations of meaning because of dazzling multiplicity of textual layers?

What do you know about the status of Shakespeare for middle-class culture in Victorian England, and the contemporary regard for his Sonnets?  Why may it have been especially provocative to attach this particular “theory” to Shakespeare in Wilde’s time?

Works cited

Danson, Lawrence.  “Oscar Wilde, W.H., and the Unspoken Name of Love.” In Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays.  Ed. by Jonathan Freedman. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.  81-98.

McCormack, Jerusha.  “Wilde’s Fictions.”  In The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde.  Ed. by Peter Raby.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.  96-117.

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Oscar Wilde and The Woman’s World: An Overview

By Petra Dierkes-Thrun

 During the brief period of Oscar Wilde’s editorship of the Victorian periodical The Woman’s World from November 1887 to July 1889, the women’s fashion magazine formerly named The Lady’s World was programmatically renamed, and in fact completely overhauled, under Wilde’s direction. “Turning ladies to women,” to use Richard Ellmann’s descriptive phrase of the new magazine, involved a revision of the magazine’s content, layout, as well as the targeted reading audience (Ellmann, 291). In the summer of 1887, Cassell’s Publishing House had appointed Wilde the new editor of The Lady’s World (a shilling monthly with colored illustrations, described as “A Magazine of Fashion and Society”), after 12 issues of The Lady’s World had already appeared (the first one in November 1886; see Mason, 218 ff.).  In a letter to the publisher, Wilde wrote about his substantial plans for overhauling the magazine:

It seems to me that at present [The Lady’s World] is too feminine, and not sufficiently womanly.  …  [I]t seems to me that the field of the mundus muliebris, the field of millinery and trimmings, is to some extent already occupied by such papers as the Queen and the Lady’s Pictorial, and that we should take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel. (Hart-Davis 1962, 67 f.)

As Wilde envisioned it, the new magazine was to be “the organ of women of intellect, culture and position,” with articles on literature, culture, the arts, society, and even politics, concentrating on women’s position in these areas (ibid., note 3).

Both The Woman’s World and its predecessor, The Lady’s World, must first and foremost be seen as commercial enterprises whose publication and circulation took place within a specific historical, economic, cultural, and sociopolitical context.  The Lady’s World and The Woman’s World were part of a developing market of women’s periodicals that were just starting to constitute their own special niche, while still being part of a strongly gendered world of Victorian periodicals.  While the predominantly male press addressed current and controversial topics of politics, religion, finance, and economics, the female press consisted mainly of topics in the arts, belles lettres, fiction, fashion, music, and gossip. The large market of family periodicals, aimed at both male and female adult readers as well as (to a certain extent) children, was also marked by an exclusion of “material regarded as potentially controversial and inappropriate for women” (Brake, 128).  In conjunction with a general explosive growth of the publishing industry, “the last two decades of Victoria’s reign were years of unparalleled expansion in publishing for women … not less than forty-eight new titles entered the field between 1880 and 1900” (White, 58).  The new and complex evolving market of women’s periodicals was by no means uniform; following the laws of the market, there seems to have been a magazine for just about every woman, in every situation in life: working girls and lower-middle class working mothers supporting their families, middle-and upper-class housewives concerned with the social and economic management of their households and mainly interested in home topics (the hugely popular genre of “housewife” periodicals came to dominate the market), upper-class society ladies, in all their different ranks of the aristocratic and mercantile hierarchy. The picture is a complex one, and so the image of  “‘womanliness’ the magazines sought to produce was always contradictory and entangled with other differences–especially those of class, nation and religion” (Beetham, ix).

Within a Victorian market especially geared toward female consumers and their generically presumed topics of interest, cultural and socioeconomic constructions of what it meant to be female–what one had to do, to wear, to think, to say, and, above all, to buy–must be seen as important interventions into the debate around gender issues and male and female roles in society.  Despite the overall complexity of this marketplace, it one can easily make some general observations about certain recurring themes and features. In what Beetham calls the “Ladies’ Papers” of the 1860s to early 1890s, for example, the concentration on the topics of beauty (still led by the ideal of female beauty that persisted in high art), fashion and genteel household management and domesticity, as well as society columns, in Beetham’s opinion all “combined to create a femininity of surface rather than depth, of appearance rather than moral management” (Beetham, 90).

Interestingly enough, The Lady’s World and The Woman’s World can be seen as emerging from just such an upper-middle class market that had educated, upwardly mobile women as its marketing target, whose roots or affinities, however, still lay with London society (which was still very much hierarchized by aristocratic rank and affiliation). However, The Woman’s World, although practically re-entering into the same market as its predecessor, took a very different stance towards its readers. Brake’s excellent overview and comparison of the two magazines’ content and layout cites evidence that The Lady’s World clearly followed a “construction of women as leisured, domesticated, interested in society gossip, seemly accomplishments, sport, clothes, and a modicum of culture” (Brake, 136).  Sos Eltis recounts the regular columns of The Lady’s World as follows: “Regular monthly features were ‘Fashionable Marriages’, ‘Society Pleasures’, ‘With Needle and Thread: the Work of Today’, ‘Five O’Clock Tea’ (an account of the latest fashionable tea-parties and receptions), and ‘Pastimes for Ladies’, of which typical examples were shell- and pebble-painting, mirror-painting, or, for the more adventurous, sleighing” (Eltis, 8).  Wilde himself observed in a letter to Mrs Hamilton King that The Lady’s World was “a very vulgar, trivial, and stupid production, with its silly gossip about silly people, and its social inanities” ([? Sept 1887], Hart-Davis 1962, 205). Women were mainly addressed as consumers, as the intricate fashion plates, and the elaborate advertising sheet showed. It seems that it was mainly “the presence of commerce in the arguably literary to which Wilde objected” (Brake, 137). As chief editor, however, Wilde was not immune to the commercial context. Not only had he originally taken on his job as an editor because he urgently needed the money, but he also let the publishing house use his name as advertisement on the cover.

Against the open commodification of the female readership of The Lady’s World, The Woman’s World does not only try out a different format, but a different politics of content as well. In The Woman’s World, “women are constructed as serious readers who want (and need) education and accculturation [sic]” (Brake, 142).  For such a magazine, the name The Lady’s World, alluding to the tradition of women’s magazines that aimed at “re-making the lady” (Beetham, 89), was no longer a fitting description. At the particular urge of Mrs. Craik (a well-known authoress at that time, and part of Wilde’s circle of acquaintances), the new editor was persuaded to change it into The Woman’s World (Ellmann, 292).

The format of the new magazine were slightly enlarged numbers (48 instead of 36 pages), with a variety of both regular columns and solicited articles, the overwhelming majority of which were written by women. Wilde obviously used his wide circle of personal acqaintances to ask women of some standing in the cultural life of London to contribute to the magazine, but he also quite frequently included little-known female writers (whom he thought promising), and chose contributors according to specific topics that he wanted The Woman’s World to address. In Ellmann’s words, “Wilde had eclectic tastes and tried women of very diverse interests; the magazine took on a miscellaneous look which it never lost” (Ellmann, 292). But the dominant feature of the magazine was its concentration on the work of women in the public sphere (especially in the arts), both in the fact that its material was mainly written by women, in Wilde’s championship of women writers in his Literary Notes, and in the actual content of the articles.

Some prominent subjects in the twenty-odd issues under Wilde’s editorship are, significantly, higher education for women, the political status of women and the debate about the ‘woman question’, the question of female moral leadership, the debate surrounding scientific theories of women’s physical and mental inferiority to men, and the relation of the sexes in marriage and in society in general. The magazine also made a point of describing and addressing new professions for women (like medicine, teaching, nursing). Regular columns include reviews of current theater productions or famous actresses, articles about great female figures in the arts (e.g., Christina Rossetti [Feb 1888], Russian painter Mary Bashkirtseff [June 1888], and poetess Carmen Sylva [March 1888]), and about women’s life in different historical societies and cultures (e.g. “A Pompeian Lady” [Oct 1888], “A Lady in Ancient Egypt” [Nov 1888], “Roman Women at the Beginning of the Empire” [Sept 1888]). There are regular travel reports written by women, topics of arts and crafts interest (e.g. about embroidery or lace-making), a serial fiction story, and short stories and poems by women writers like Olive Schreiner, or Violet Fane.  Ireland featured prominently in The Woman’s World (in travel reports, arts and crafts, and literary notes) and here, too, Wilde “made sure that there was a place in the magazine for Irish women” (Coakley, 192), among them, of course, his mother, Lady Wilde, as well as some of her friends. For female authors’ contributions to The Woman’s World, individual “signature is mainly in the form of forenames and surnames […],  a form which invokes the convention of the professional (male) writer” (Brake, 139).  The prominent announcement of names on the cover also functions as an important advertising function. According to Brake, “[t]he personalizing of journalism and the trailing of names associated with the disappearance of anonymity and the advent of the new journalism are far more pronounced in The Woman’s World; these new features credit the reader with more knowledge of authorship in general and make more explicit the commodity identity of the periodical (it is commercial and for sale) and the consumer position of the reader whose discretion in purchasing the article is wooed through the renown of named contributors” (Brake, 135).

The most obvious important overall change to the magazine under Wilde’s editorship was the cover layout. The Lady’s World’s cover was a female figure (elevated like a mythological goddess on a pedestal), disinterestedly holding a book in her left hand, while gazing into her own image in a mirror in her right hand (an image of woman which in and by itself seems telling). Under Wilde’s editorship, not only does the title of the publication change, but the cover also announces and advertises its editor, and some of the most well-known contributors of articles. The fact that the title page of The Woman’s World prominently displayed the name of Oscar Wilde and uses his name to advertise itself, geared readers’ expectations towards the subject-matter of art as associated with Wilde’s name. The new layout, accordingly, evokes the context of Aestheticism as an art movement: having gotten rid of The Lady’s World’s symbolic goddess, it is markedly abstract and vaguely aestheticized, in art nouveau fashion. Aestheticism as an avant-garde art movement also featured prominently in the magazine.

The arrangement of articles within the single issues of The Woman’s World, and the omission of certain columns that had been there before, were also significant. Instead of opening each issue with the monthly fashion report, as The Lady’s World had done, it was moved to the end of the magazine. There were no music and no gossip columns. However, to a certain extent, the idea of ‘gossip’ was retained, although elevated to a higher cultural level, through a change of form from social into literary discourse in Wilde’s Literary Notes. In another letter, Wilde had announced: “I am going to make literary criticism on of the features of the Woman’s World, and to give special prominence to books written by women” (Hart-Davis 1985, 70-1).  From these notes (which appeared regularly only in the first five issues [Nov 1887-March 1888], and then again from issues 14 to 21 on, in slightly modified form [Dec 1888-July 1889], it is clear that Wilde took his task of literary criticism of women’s work very seriously, and treated it on an equal plane with that of male writers.

Moreover, Wilde tended to review books by women which were interesting for their novelty of subject-matter, or beauty of style, or trying out new boundaries of writing.  One comment from a review of Lady Bellairs’s book on Gossip with Girls and Maidens in the second issue [Dec 1887] may stand in as symptomatic for Wilde’s liberal views here: “I am afraid that I have a good deal of sympathy with what are called ’empty idealistic aspirations’; and ‘wild flights of the imagination’ are so extremely rare in the nineteenth century, that they seem to me deserving rather of praise than of censure.”

From this short overview of the magazine’s layout and selection of articles under Wilde’s control, it seems to me to have become sufficiently clear that Wilde was consciously following an agenda of promoting and championing a construction of women as intellectually, culturally, politically, and even scientifically interested readers – serious intellectual beings who would find in The Woman’s World “an organ through which they can express their views on life and things,” as Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter to a potential female contributor to the magazine (Letter to Helena Sickert [27 May 1887]; Hart-Davis 1962, 69).

As Arthur Fish, Wilde’s editorial assistant for The Woman’s World, professed in an interview in 1913, Wilde lost interest in his editorial work over time.  His regular work fell off after the fourth issue, as Wilde gradually delayed producing his editorial features for The Woman’s World.  He seems to have been hard pressed to live up to the tight publishing schedule and a lifestyle of regular office work .  Still, Fish writes, the general outlook and impact of The Woman’s World was remarkable in hindsight:

The keynote of the magazine, indeed, was the right of woman to equality of treatment with man, with the assertion of her claims by women who had gained high position by virtue of their skill as writers or workers in the world’s great field of labor. All the contributions were on a high literary plane. … Some of the articles on women’s work and their position in politics were far in advance of the thought of the day and Sir Wemyss Reid, then General Manager of Cassell’s, or John Williams the Chief Editor, would call in at our room and discuss them with Oscar Wilde, who would always express his entire sympathy with the views of the writers and reveal a liberality of thought with regard to the political aspirations of women that was undoubtedly sincere.  (Fish, 18)



Beetham, Margaret. A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine 1800-1914. London: Routledge, 1996.

Brake, Laurel.  Subjugated Knowledges: Journalism, Gender and Literature in the Nineteenth CenturyNew York: New York University Press, 1994.  (See chapter on “Oscar Wilde and The Woman’s World,” 127-47.)

Eltis, Sos. Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Fish, Arthur. “Oscar Wilde as Editor.” Harper’s Weekly (New York), Oct 4, 1913, pp. 18-20.

Gagnier, Regenia. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Hart-Davis, Rupert (ed.), The Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Harcourt Brace, 1962.

—— (ed.).  More Letters of Oscar Wilde. 1985. Repr. London: Harcourt Brace, 1986.

White, Cynthia L.  Women’s Magazines 1693-1968. London: Joseph, 1970.

Wilde, Oscar (ed.). The Woman’s World. London; New York : Cassell, 3 volumes (1887-1889). Microfilm. New Haven, Conn.: Research Publications Inc. (History of women periodicals ; reel 247)

Wilde, Oscar. Essays, Criticisms and Reviews. London, privately repr., 1901. [Unauthorized edition. Wilde’s editorial contributions for The Woman’s World from November 1887 to June 1889.] Microfilm. New Haven, Conn.: Research Publications Inc., 1977. (History of women, reel 5572)

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Oscar Wilde’s Salome: Context

Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University

Oscar Wilde’s Salomé: Context

1891                         Salomé (French)

1892                         Lady Windermere’s Fan

1892                        The English theatrical censor bans the play from public performance as rehearsals were in full swing with Sarah Bernhardt in London in June of 1892.  Official reason: presentation of Biblical characters on stage (16th-century law), but privately the censor Edward Pigott writes to a friend, Spencer Posonby, about his real motivations:

I must send you, for your private edification and amusement, this MS. of a 1 act piece … written by Oscar Wilde! It is a miracle of impudence … [Salome’s] love turns to fury because John will not let her kiss him in the mouth – and in the last scene, where she brings in his head–if you please–on a ‘charger’–she does kiss his mouth, in a paroxysm of sexual despair. The piece is written in French–half Biblical, half pornographic–by Oscar Wilde himself.  Imagine the average British public’s reception of it.

Wilde’s original ideas for the planned (banned) 1892 London premiere: 

“a feast for the senses that encompassed a particular style of slow recital of the lines, a stage and costumes symbolically colored in different matching or opposing shades, and scented clouds [of perfume rising from incense basins] rising and partly veiling the stage from time to time – a new perfume for each new emotion!”

1892            Salomé is subsequently published in book form (in French).

1893             Salomé, English translation (by Lord Alfred Douglas, but really Wilde himself) and publication in book form

“A Wilde Idea, or More Injustice to Ireland!”  Punch cartoon by J. B[ernard] P[artridge], 9 July 1892.

In two separate newspaper interviews at the time when Salomé was being considered by the London theater censor (and subsequently banned), Wilde stated his opposition and intent to leave England for France once and for all:

“If the Censure refuses Salomé […] I shall leave England and settle in France, where I will take out letters of naturalization.  I will not consent to call myself a citizen of a country that shows such narrowness in its artistic judgement.  […] I am not English; I’m Irish—which is quite another thing” (Oscar Wilde, “The Censure and Salomé,” interview, The Pall Mall Budget, xl, 30 June 1892, 947, quoted in E.H. Mikhail [ed.], Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, vol. 1, 188).

“My resolution is deliberately taken.  Since it is impossible to have a work of art performed in England, I shall transfer myself to another fatherland, of which I have long been enamoured.  There is but one Paris, voyez-vous, and Paris is France.  It is the abode of artists; nay, it is la ville artiste.  I adore Paris” (“La Salomé de M. Oscar Wilde,” Le Gaulois, June 29, 1892, 1, quoted from ibid.)

The unsympathetic New York Times reported on July 3, 1892:  “[a]ll London is laughing at Oscar Wilde’s threat to become a Frenchman” (cited in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 373).

In March 1895 Wilde’s fatal trials for “Gross Indecency” begin; end on May 27th with subsequent imprisonment at Reading Prison with two years of hard labor.  Declared bankrupt in July 1895.  Prison ruins Wilde’s health, spirit, and career.  Writes De Profundis  (letter from Reading Prison to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas [nicknamed Bosie]), published posthumously by Robert Ross in 1905.

Background: 1885 Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Act which made it illegal to engage in homosexual activities.  The section read: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.”

1896             Salomé first performed in France under avant-garde director Aurélien Lugné-Poë at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre, Paris

1900              Wilde dies of meningitis in a shabby hotel room in France, shortly after his release in prison and the death of both his mother Lady ‘Speranza’ Wilde (1887) and his estranged wife Constance (1898).  He never saw his two sons Cyril and Vyvian again before his death.

1905             Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (libretto based directly on Wilde’s play with minor changes) premieres in Dresden

1905             First private premiere of Salomé in England, held at the small Bijou Theatre in suburban London, by the New Stage Club

1910              Strauss’s opera premieres at Covent Garden, London, but only with major changes necessitated by the censor; conductor Sir Thomas Beecham

Wilde’s Salomé not publicly performed in Britain until 1931.

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Lecture notes: Wilde, “Pen, Pencil and Poison”

Lecture Notes:  Oscar Wilde, “Pen, Pencil and Poison”

BRAINSTORMING exercise (see this link): What is one really good question we should ask today that will help us discuss and investigate this essay?


Some discussion targets for this essay:

  • Relationship of art to life, and the values Wilde attaches to each
  • Blurring of lines between history, fiction, criticism, and biography/facts in this essay—relationship of history to fiction, too [see Pater’s line re: impressions, quotes below]—we will see this relationship/blurring again in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”
  • Form of the dialogue in “the Decay,” a monologue in “Pen”—nevertheless similarities in approach and effect here?
  • The essay as a performance, a practice.
  • Role of individualism; how does Wilde conceive of subjectivity? (see also “Phèdre,” “Hélas” to look at that again for question of individuality; cf. also the quote from Picture of Dorian Gray about the ego not being simple but  multilayered thing and Dorian as “a complex, multiform creature” influenced by past “monsters”)
  • Role of style, hybridity of genres
  • dandy
  • Meaning of “modernity” here (cf. “Decay of Lying”)
  • Fascination with crime
  • Temptations of biographical reading. Biographical connections and parallels tempting us again here: Wainewright  “sought to be somebody, rather than do something,” who “recognized that Life itself is an art, and has its modes of style”; “interested in Greek models, is a dandy, etc.

General context:

  • Essay originally published in January 1889, but much revised for publication in Intentions, 1891.
  • “Just what criticism is, Wilde explained by direct and oblique references [in “The Critic as Artist,” the longest essay in Intentions, which was originally titled “The True Function and Value of Criticism: On the Importance of Doing Nothing”] to his Oxford predecessors” (Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, p. 326):
  • Matthew Arnold had written in his influential “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864) that “the aim of criticism is to see the object as in itself it really is” (demand for disinterested curiosity, belief in objective reality of the object).  Ellmann comments: “Its effect was to put the critic on his knees before the work he was discussing.  Not everyone enjoyed this position” (326).
  • Walter Pater [Wilde’s title Intentions echoes and modifies Pater’s famous essay collection title, Appreciations, of 1889—same year in which “Pen, Pencil” and “Decay” were written]: Pater had said in The Renaissance preface, “the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly.” This signals a shifting attention from the object to the critic; critic more important and also more consciously subjective.
  • In his essay “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde outdid Pater, proposed: “The highest Criticism … is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not […].”  (The Artist as Critic, ed. Ellmann, 369)
  • Cf. quote from the end of Wilde’s “Truth of Masks” essay:  “Not that I agree with everything I have said in this essay.  There is much with which I entirely disagree.  The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything.”  How does this relate to “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”? How to “The Decay of Lying”?

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Lecture Notes: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University

Perspectives and Context for Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Regenia Gagnier on the critics’ reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray (before the 1895 trials for Wilde’s “Gross Indecency”):

One is struck by the profusion of such terms [in the reviews of Dorian Gray] as “unclean,” “effeminate,” “studied insincerity,” “theatrical,” “Wardour Street aestheticism,” “obtrusively cheap scholarship,” “vulgarity,” “unnatural,” “false,” and “perverted”: an odd mixture of the rumors of Wilde’s homosexuality and of more overt criticism of Wilde as a social poseur and self- advertiser. Although the suggestion was couched in terms applying to the text, the reviews seemed to say that Wilde did not know his place, or-amounting to the same thing-that he did know his place and it was not that of a middle-class gentleman.  (Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public, p. 59)

Ed Cohen analyzes this passage and comments:  In Gagnier’s analysis, the immediate critical response to Dorian Gray denounced the text’s transgression of precisely those class and gender ideologies that sustained the “middle-class gentleman”: the novel was seen as “decadent” both because of “its distance from and rejection of middle-class life” and because “it was not only dandiacal, it was ‘feminine”‘ (65). Thus, the Athenaeum would refer to the book as “unmanly, sickening, vicious (although not exactly what is called ‘improper’), and tedious and stupid” (Mason 200). And the Scotts Observer would remark: ‘Mr. Wilde has again been writing stuff that were better unwritten and while ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ which he contributes to Lippincott’s, is ingenious, interesting, full of cleverness, and plainly the work of a man of letters, it is false art-for its interest is medico-legal; it is false to human nature-for its hero is a devil; it is false to morality-for it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health and sanity.’ (Mason 75-76) Emphasizing that Wilde’s novel violated the standards of middle-class propriety, these characterizations illustrate the intersection of Victorian class and gender ideologies from which Wilde’s status as the paradigmatic “homosexual” would emerge. For, in contrast to the “manly” middle-class male, Wilde would come to represent-through his writing and his trials-the “unmanly” social climber who threatened to upset the certainty of bourgeois categories.  (“Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation,” PMLA 102.5 [1987]: 802)

The Westminster Gazette (6 Apr. 1895), commenting on the Marquis of Queensberry’s acquittal on charges of criminal libel: [E]very reader of our columns, as he passed his eye over the report of Wilde’s apology for his life at the Old Bailey, must have realized, with accumulating significance at each line, the terrible risk involved in certain artistic and literary phrases of the day. Art, we are told, has nothing to do with morality. But even if this doctrine were true it has long ago been perverted, under the treatment of the decadents, into a positive preference on the part of “Art” for the immoral, the morbid, and the maniacal. It is on this narrower issue that the proceedings of the last few days have thrown so lurid a light. … But this terrible case . . . may be the means of incalculable good if it burns in its lesson upon the literary and moral conscience of the present generation.

Further comments by Ed Cohen:

[T]he widespread fascination with Wilde’s trials should not be viewed solely as the result of a prurient public interest, nor should it be seen only as the product of a virulent popular desire to eradicate “unnatural” sexual practices. Rather, the public response must be considered in the light of the Victorian bourgeoisie’s larger efforts to legitimate certain limits for the sexual deployment of the male body and, in Foucault’s terms, to define a “class body.” The middle-aged, middle-class men who judged Wilde-both in the court and in the press- saw themselves as attempting not merely to control a “degenerate” form of male sexuality but also to ensure standards for the health of their children and their country.’ To this end, the court proceedings against Wilde provided a perfect opportunity to de- fine publicly the authorized and legal limits within which a man could “naturally” enjoy the pleasures of his body with another man. The trials, then, can be thought of as a spectacle in which the state, through the law and the press, delimited legitimate male sexual practices (defining them as “healthy,” “natural,” or “true”) by proscribing expressions of male experience that transgressed these limits.2 The legal proceedings against Wilde were therefore not anomalous; rather, they crystallized a variety of shifting sexual ideologies and practices. For what was at issue was not just the prosecution of homosexual acts per se or the delegitimating of homosexual meanings. At issue was the discursive production of “the homosexual” as the antithesis of the “true” bourgeois male. In Britain during the late nineteenth century, “the homosexual” was emerging as a category for organizing male experience alongside other newly recognizable “types” (“the adolescent,” “the criminal,” “the delinquent,” “the prostitute,” “the housewife,” etc.).3 Coined by the Swiss physician Karoly Benkert in 1869 and popularized in the writings of the German sexologists, the word (along with its “normal” sibling, “the heterosexual”) entered English usage when Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis was translated during the 1890s. The shift in the conception of male same-sex eroticism from certain proscribed acts (the earlier concepts “sodomite” and “bugger” were identified with specific legally punishable practices [see Trumbach; Gilbert]) to certain kinds of actors was part of an overall transformation in class and sex-gender ideologies (see Weeks, Coming Out, esp. chs. 1-3). If we think of the growth and consolidation of bourgeois hegemony in Victorian Britain as a process whereby diverse sets of material practices (“sex” and “class” among others) were organized into an effective unity (see Connell), then we can see that “the homosexual” crystallized as a distinct sub- set of male experience only in relation to prescribed embodiments of “manliness.” This new conceptualization reproduced asymmetrical power relations by privileging the enactments of white middle-class, heterosexual men […].  (“Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation,” PMLA 102.5 [1987]: :801-2)

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Lecture notes: Rachilde

Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun

Stanford University

Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery, 1860-1953), Monsieur Venus (1884)

Click here for brief online bio of Rachilde

From the introduction to our edition, “Rachilde: A Decadent Woman Rewriting Women in Decadence” by Melanie Hawthorne and Liz Constable:

  • Rachilde’s “pivotal role among the Parisian intelligentsia was undisputed” at the time as an “author and a critical conduit and mediator of the aesthetic and intellectual ideas of the time” (ix); only female writer for Anatole Baju’s journal Le decadent (1886-89); husband Alfred Vallette edited the important literary-cultural journal Le Mercure de France. Rachilde moved in these influential cultural circles, but when she died (in 1953), her work was not well known any more.
  • Before her marriage to Vallette, Rachilde was known to have been a cross-dresser (very unusual and daring for a woman of her time).
  • Military family, only child, parents had wanted a son, father verbally and physically abused mother and daughter, young Marguerite was rebellious.  Parents interested in spiritualism, she channeled voices for them and found room to maneuver to become a writer (xf.).  Adopted the name Rachilde from a Swedish nobleman for whom she claimed to act as medium.  Many of her literary heroines show similarly subtle skills in playing with/eluding/themselves adopting perverse masculine power.  “This strategy allowed her to appropriate the darkly misogynist topoi of decadence, such as powerful and cruel female figures, and to maintain personal affiliations with male decadent writers, while simultaneously turning around the gendered gaze of decadence to disclose, form the perspective of a woman writer, the ideologies mediating the female figures and forms of decadence” (xi).
  • Published her first stories in 1977; in 1880s in Paris, she was part of the literary avant-garde literary circles.  Rachilde was dubbed “Mademoiselle Baudelaire” by the writer Maurice Barrès, “suggesting she was a legitimate decadent heir of the Baudelairean aesthetic legacy” (xiii).  He wrote the first preface to the novel and placed R. in the decadent tradition as a degenerate in mind and body, which was not unwelcome a portrait to Rachilde (seems to have considered it an important publicity coup, xiii).  “Both Rachilde and Joris-Karl Husymans borrowed the decadent topos of the Belle Dame sans Merci from the Baudelairean tradition but with different results.  Monsieur Vénus turns the coldly indifferent, sterile, and cruel figure of Baudelaire’s ideal beauty to different ideological ends.  Rachilde appropriated Baudelaire’s legacy of representing women as split into two sharply contrastinf types: on the one hand, idealized woman-beauty as artifice and artifact; on the other hand, organic, embodied woman, monstrously insatiable in her sensual appetites, a degenerate and disease-bearing body.  But she rewrote and regendered the male decadent gaze […]” (xiv).
  • Huysmans’ A rebours became famous, but Monsieur Vénus didn’t last … same year, both famous in their time, why? Example of male/female canonization!
  • Monsieur Venus first published in Brussels in 1884, judged pornographic and banned in Belgium.  But France had tradition of pornographic or “gallant” literature; published the novel in 1889 (but censored!  Key passages were omitted, see below).  Flaubert and Baudelaire had both been prosecuted, but the 1880s was a much more tolerant tine in France, could claim redeeming artistic merit.
  • Censored passages/Chapters:
    • preface and dedication have been replaced by an anonymous short text
    • Raoule’s masturbatory fantasy at start of chapter 2 is reduced from 4 to 3 paragraphs (echo of the scandalous carriage ride in Madame Bovary, in which Emma has adulterous sex with her paramour in the carriage with drawn shades)
    • Chapter 7 is gone – “an important fin de siècle manifesto on the relations between the sexes” (xxvii)
    • Penultimate sentence of the ending has been shortened, so as to be less shocking (this was most shocking to the public in 1884): only mouth is animated in censored version, not the thighs (necrophilia, mechanical sexual aids).  “Rachilde’s literal erotic treatment of an idealized dead (male) body challenges the latent necrophilia in the conventions of aesthetic (good) taste, conventions that idealized the woman’s dead or dying body” (xxix).  “The suppressed phrase makes it clear that Raoule’s relationship with the effigy involves her penetration of him”  (xxix).  It “explicitly challenges the gender hierarchy that the male role is dominant because penetrative”  (xxix).  “Jacques is Raoule’s mistress, and not just because of the social reversal of male aristocrat and kept woman. […]  The nature of this relationship also explains Jacques’s disappointment that Raoule ‘can’t be a man’”  (xxix).  “[S]he performs a type of sexual act that has no name in he phallogocentric imaginary” (xxx). “Raoule’s and Jacques’s sexual practices exceed any attempt at explanation through appeals to nature, procreation, or the subordination of women—that is, the categories rejected in chapter 7” (xxx).  Rita Felski has also argued for Raoule’s fashioning of Jacques as an early prototype of the cyborg (in The Gender of Modernism).
  •  R successfully and intriguingly played with her “reputation as an innocent, reserved, virginal young woman who had produced a shocking book” but also with Barrès’s portrayal as a degenerate writer who had written her own life experiences (xv); she also cross-dressed herself.
  • Various myths/origin theories for the novel, supposedly co-written with a mysterious Francis Talman: A) R attributes idea for novel to being in love with fellow writer Catulle Mendès, which provoked a fit of hysteria and following convalescence in her during which she wrote the novel in 2 weeks.  B) R said she only had commercial motives in writing this novel after a friend suggested w=she write something “dirty” that would sell well.   Telling quote from police officer record (who kept record of conversation with Rachilde on this issue), see introduction, xix: “We had some trouble finding something new. […]  We thought of a woman who would love men and with the means that you can guess, sir—the mechanical arts can copy everything—would b[ugger] them.  And there you have Monsieur Vénus.” C)  R claimed the novel had other autobiographical origins.
  • After Monsieur Venus: “series of novels that drew on similar themes of nonconformist, nonreproductive sexual practices, novels that raised questions about the multiple possible relations among the sex category assigned at birth, gender expression, and erotic desire”  (xvi)—La marquise de Sade (1887), La jongleuse (1900), etc.
  • In the 1920s and 30s, Rachilde had “increasingly conservative views”—eg antifeminism, collaboration with the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti (xvii)
  • Nazis thought she was Jewish; she struggled to survive in Paris after being put on book black lists
  • Tenuous relationship with feminism:  “Rachilde appears to embrace and reclaim characteristics that would more frequently be identified with abusive enactments of power prerogatives and associated with certain constructions of masculinity or with social class or economic power.” […] her representation of women clearly went against the grain of [1970s feminism’s focus on] giving voice and form to a feminine difference”  (xxi).
  • But the novel has very innovative, modern ideas abour gender and sex as distinct but inseparable.
  • Powerful rewriting of Ovid’s myth of Pygmalion, “the misogynist sculptor who, disappointed and disillusioned with mortal women, falls in love with his own creation—the ideal female beauty embodied in his work of art—and who brings his statue to life with the intervention of the goddess Venus” (xxii).  In  French lit, the myth had already been used to “raise questions about the blurring of aesthetic and erotic experience, about the connections between fantasies and sexual arousal, about the links between looking and desiring, and about what it means to bring an artistic representation to life” (xxii).  “Raoule is a female Pygmalion who fashions from Jacques a corporeal ideal of male beauty after her own desire, ‘a being in her own image.’  Her ‘possession’ of Jacques entails a switch of the conventional gendering of mind/body and creator/creation divisions” (xxiii).  But end of the novel throws into stark relief the human price of such extreme idealization and worship of sensual and aesthetic fashioning.  DISCUSS IN 2ND SESSION: is the ending a triumph or a terrible irony?  Is the shock factor of the ending and the gender-bending of the novel an indirect feminist statement?
  • Another important “intertext” for Monsieur Vénus is Baudelairean idealization of the woman of artifice (and a work of art), xxiii.

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