Our Betters by Somerset Maugham (1923)

This is another of Maugham’s well-made comedies. Apparently it was written during the Great War, in 1915, but not staged in England until 1923 because it was thought that it might alienate American public opinion, which we were trying to persuade to enter the war.

It is set in the cynical but stylish High Society we are used to from Maugham, but this time concerns a group of Americans, not posh Brits – Americans who have married into British or European ‘Society’.

The characters

There is a sort of chorus of three mature American matrons who have married British, French or Italian aristocrats:

  1. Pearl, Lady Grayston who married George Grayston, a baronet
  2. Minnie Hodges who married and then divorced the Duc de Surennes and now is always in love with some beautiful young man or other, currently the gorgeous pouting young Tony Paxton
  3. Flora van Hoog, who married an Italian aristocrat to become the Princess della Cercola but, when he began taking mistresses, abandoned him to come and live in London and now pursues philanthropic causes and charities which she pesters her friends about.

There is also a couple of older American men who have made their way in British society: the brash, loud and over-dressed Thornton Clay, and the corrupt 70-year-old American Arthur Fenwick who made his fortune selling poor quality food to the American working classes and is now opening stores to do the same here in London.

Together these five represent a variety of ways older Americans have integrated and exploited their position. Set against them are the Younger Generation who are trying to make their life decisions, namely whether to marry for love or money (a dilemma which would have been familiar to Jane Austen a century earlier).

Young Bessie Saunders is heiress to an American fortune staying with her older sister, Pearl. Pearl’s husband, Lord George Grayston, very conveniently doesn’t live with her, allowing her to conduct her gay social life and numerous flirtations in London’s High Society without hindrance. All three acts are set in her houses – Act One in her grand town house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair, and Acts Two and Three in Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk.

Bessie has only recently arrived from America and been swept off her feet by the giddy whirl of London society. Back in the States she was engaged to a nice, unspoilt, young American gentleman, Fleming Harvey when she was 16 and he 18. Soon after arriving in London and seeing the wider world she wrote him a letter breaking off the engagement. She is being wooed by an English aristocrat, Lord Harry Bleane. Now Harvey has arrived in London and, understandably, commences trying to woo her back.

Meanwhile Act One introduces the love triangle between the good looking, slender, immaculately dressed but poor young Brit, Tony Paxton, with whom the ‘Duchesse’ (original name Minnie Hodgson, daughter of a Chicago millionaire who made his money in pork) is besottedly in love. It only slowly emerges that Tony is revolted by the desperation of the Duchesse’s passion and has become smitten with Pearl, precisely because she is so playfully unavailable.

Comedy

Comedy is extracted from the interaction of all these types – the three cynical ladies, the earnest and easily shocked young American boy Harvey, the sincere English Lord Bleane, the spoilt brat Tony Paxton, with Bessie playing her part: only slowly does it emerge that the play hinges on Bessie’s choice of whether to stay in England and marry an English lord in order to join the kind of amoral if stiflingly ‘correct’ lifestyle the three ladies live – or whether to reject European corruption and return to pure and innocent America (the subject of many of Henry James’s novels).

And there is something deeply comic about the way all these amoral characters pursue their cynical schemes against the backdrop of the impeccable formality of the grand house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair and at Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk, with their silent servants, especially the butler, Pole.

Just the existence of a dutiful and obedient butler, overhearing all their selfish schemes with complete discretion, is itself funny. ‘Very good, m’lady.’

Speaking of Funny, Maugham isn’t Oscar Wilde. His bon mots don’t ring and dazzle. But the play does have quite a few moments of brightly comic dialogue.

Bessie: Does George know?
Pearl: Who is George?
Bessie: Don’t be absurd, Pearl. George – your husband.

Or:

Fleming: Has it occurred to you that he wants to marry you for your money?
Bessie: You could put it more prettily. You could say that he wants to marry me with my money.

Or:

Clay: Some of these American women are strangely sexless.
Fleming: I have an idea that some of them are even virtuous.
Pearl [with a smile]: It takes all sorts to make a world.

Or:

Duchesse: I know he’s lying to me, there’s not a word of truth in anything he says. But he’s so slim I can never catch him out.

Or:

Pearl: You’re the very person we want, Thornton. An entirely strange young man has suddenly appeared on my doorstep and says he is my cousin.
Clay: My dear Pearl, that is a calamity which we Americans must always be prepared for.

And:

Duchesse: He makes me so miserable but I love him… He wants to marry me, Pearl.
Pearl: You’re not going to!
Duchesse: No, I won’t be such a fool as that. If I married him I’d have no hold over him at all.

Act Two

In Act Two, at Pearl’s country house, various interactions give us a deeper sense of the characters – of the three older women’s American backgrounds, the men they married, how they’ve coped with divorce and separation and so on.

Fleming is still really sweet on Bessie but she is agonising over whether to accept Lord Bleane. Fleming would like to hate Bleane but is disappointed to discover that he’s actually a good guy who tells Bessie he was originally attracted to her money (the fact that she was rich being broadcast all over London by her elder sister, Pearl) but that now he really is in love with her.

Their story is, for this middle part of the play, eclipsed by the passion with which pretty young Tony Paxton a) is revolted by the cloying over-attention the lurid Duchesse lavishes on him b) is powerfully attracted to Pearl. Against the latter’s better judgement Paxton persuades her to accompany him to the tea-house in the garden. Duchesse, in her violent jealousy, suspecting something is up, despatches innocent little Bessie to fetch her handbag from the same tea-house where Bessie sees… something so horrible that she rushes back into the drawing room where all the other characters are playing cards (are the couple having just a snog or actually having sex??). When Minnie provocatively asks what on earth is wrong with her, it prompts the tear-filled admission that she has seen Pearl and Tony… together!

When Pearl and Paxton make a nonchalant entrance to the drawing room it is to discover that everybody knows (know what? were they having a snog? a grope? full-on sex? it is never explained).

Tony has blown his relationship with Duchesse. More fatally, the doting old millionaire Fenwick has all his fond illusions about Pearl being pure and romantic utterly burst. ‘The slut, the slut’ he repeats, in angry despair. Given that he substantially funds her lifestyle this is a major blow.

Act Three

Act Three takes place in the same drawing room on the afternoon of the following day. The atmosphere is very strained, Pearl didn’t come down from her bedroom for either breakfast or lunch, the innocent menfolk (Clay and Fleming) and women (the Princess) tiptoed around the furious fuming Duchess while Fenwick was purple with rage. Their conversation informs us that the previous evening turned into a blazing row with words exiting the dementedly angry Duchess’s mouth that none of them had ever heard before, as she screamed her rage at Tony and Pearl.

The Duchess is pouring her heart out to the Princess when Tony sidles in looking for cigarettes. There is a comic scene where she turns on him, all outraged pride and anger, insisting he leave the house immediately and will be booted out of the flat in London which she pays for him to live in, while Tony is all sullen pouting. But the comedy is in the slow insinuating way in which their positions shift until the Duchesse is begging Tony to be nice to her and, eventually, she makes the Grand Concession of relenting and saying she will marry him – to which Tony’s only response is ‘Does that mean I’ll be able to drive the Rolls-Royce?’ By this stage we have grasped the depths of the Duchess’s helpless infatuation and the true extent of Paxton’s shallow selfishness.

The remaining scenes showcase Pearl’s brilliantly scheming to redeem a tricky situation: it will take all her wiles and cunning.

First she makes an entrance looking fabulous. Then she holds tete-a-tetes with Bessie, Clay, the Duchess and Fenwick. She reveals all her cunning ploys to Clay (and thus, to us, the audience).

1. To the Duchess she reveals that she has been phoning all her contacts that morning and has managed to get Tony a job in the government, nothing too demanding. Over the course of feline dialogue she is slowly able to win the Duchess back round to being her friend.

2. Then she explains to Clay how she is going to play the little-girl-lost for Fenwick whose self-image is of a Strong Masterly Man; she will play weak to encourage his narcissistic sense of his own masculine resilience, and so it pans out. After five minutes she has him back eating out the palm of her hand under the delusion that he is magnanimously forgiving her.

Only Bessie, her sister, sees straight through her and indeed through the lifestyle of all these Americans-in-Europe.

She has a big scene where she begs Lord Blaine to release her from their engagement. At the centre of the scene is the Author’s Message: Bessie has seen that English girls are bred up to responsibility and dignity and so know how to handle and manage their wealth; whereas the American women who marry into the British aristocracy have no sense of noblesse oblige or duty, but simply see it as an opportunity for frivolous pleasure, hence their silly flirting and superficial romances. It is not them, it is the niche they move into, which turns them into monsters. As Bessie has seen at close quarters how her beloved elder sister Pearl has become a monster of manipulation. Bessie is determined not to become like that.

The play ends with her witnessing her sister’s pièce de resistance – first thing that morning Pearl had sent her Rolls to London to collect the most fashionable dancing teacher in London and beg him to come down and stay the night. When he enters all the guests who swore they would leave in disgust at her behaviour (Fenwick, the Princess, but especially the Duchesse and Paxton) all confirm that they will stay for dinner and dancing. Despite committing just about the worst social crime imaginable (being caught red-handed being unfaithful to her elderly lover and stealing her best friend’s lover) Pearl has manipulated everyone into forgiving and forgetting.

Bessie watches all this with disgust and, in the last line of the play, vows she will be returning to America at the first opportunity.

So it’s a brittle social comedy of comically amoral, upper-class behaviour among rich American title-hunters in England – with just enough of a sting in the tail to elude the censorship but have the more high-minded critics admitting that it does have a sound moral message. It is, in other words, a clever and entertaining theatrical confection perfectly suited for its times.

Adaptations

The play was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1933, directed by George Cukor. Here’s a clip.

It was adapted for BBC radio in 1998.

It had previously been revived at the Chichester Theatre in 1997, with the throaty American actress Kathleen Turner playing Pearl and Rula Lenska as the Duchesse. The fact that Turner plays the same role in the radio broadcast suggests that one led on to the other. The Daily Telegraph reviewed the stage play. I am puzzled why Patrick O’Connor casually calls Maugham misogynist since a) all the strongest characters are women, the men being just foils and pretexts b) the women themselves cover a wide range from the strong, clever, scheming Pearl to the genuinely innocent but, ultimately decisive, Bessie.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on. The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an art one: the Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’. The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Postivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) affected by industralisation. So not the less-industrialised Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) – the northern Catholic parts of France, Germany and Belgium.

He then goes on to explain how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the triumph of science. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this dramatic painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Some of them set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, turned to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

  • Portrait of Péladan (1891) by Alexandre Séon Péladan was one of the founders of the mystical Salon de la Rose+Cross which aimed to support Symbolist art, and changed his name to Sâr (or ‘Magus’) Mérodak. Stop sniggering at the back.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist painting women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife which just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature, and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The irrational is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since,after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we experience (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, himself often handsome and alluring, and the person doing the confronting often a handsome young hero.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans, in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe. Discuss.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

The irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints. But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique. It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) no landscapes, still lives or history scenes with lots of characters; generally, one or two or so people are caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century, naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it. Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate séances and spiritualism.

Related links

Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Declaration of interest

I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.

The jargon of desire

In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.

The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915,  The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desireGender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this, that or the other work of art or fiction or film ‘subverts’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ gender conventions and ‘transgresses’ gender stereotypes and ‘rewrites’ gender narratives.

With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced towards the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.

For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, as a result, more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.

On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘discourse of desire’.

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.

What is a queer work of art?

Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?

Is queer art any  work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.

And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?

Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?

Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?

Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.

Tricky questions. In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.

The drawbacks of telling history through art

This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey placed next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.

Although Tate calls in plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available, what has survived. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – and especially the painted – record.

In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.

The dates

In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.

The exhibition is in eight rooms

Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly-clad women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched towards a feel for the same-sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before in this period.

The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see ‘gender norms’ being ‘transgressed’, but they’ve included one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous-looking young men.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s.’

Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in.

This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.

Alongside the Wilde and Beardsley are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.

You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.

Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.

There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war (his ‘surrealised portraits’), was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. The show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.

This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué and ‘transgender’ comedy.

A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.

The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.

Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
  • Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’.

The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as ‘neo-romantics’ in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.

Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. The fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady stream of less well-known gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.

This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with good-looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same-sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.

Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.

For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange sensibility of the 1940s, surely the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life.

Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973. How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Author, Author by David Lodge (2004)

Lodge (b.1935) taught English literature at university level from 1960 to his retirement in 1987, specialising in classic novels of the 19th century, from Jane Austen to Henry James, explaining and theorising about them in his many works of literary criticism.

Coming towards the end of his writing career, this novel can perhaps be taken as a labour of love – a long (382 densely-printed pages in the Penguin paperback), lovingly detailed account of the life and career of the writer many regard as the novelist, Henry James. The novel focuses on the years during which James tried – and embarrassingly failed – to write for the stage, writing half a dozen plays (The American, Mrs Jasper’s Way, Summersoft) most of which weren’t even staged or were flops, leading up to the public disaster of Guy Domville where James himself, going to take a bow after the first night performance – to cries of ‘author, author’ from the audience – was heartily booed and jeered, a public humiliation which his biographer, Leon Edel, claims he never recovered from.

Lodge the pedagogue

Lodge always writes clearly and logically. He knows where the interest lies for sure – but quite often it is a factual or historical or literary interest. An academic interest. Dry, unemotional. This ability to write clearly, to demystify literary terminology and ideas, explains the success of the articles he wrote for the Independent newspaper in the early 1990s, which were brought together in the book The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts. He is/was a great teacher.

And this urge to teach and inform explains why, from the beginning, his novels have included plenty of factual information along with the plot:

  • In the early ones, there’s lots of patient explication of Roman Catholic theology and the changes to it brought about by the Second Vatican Council.
  • In his mid-70s comedy classics he uses his in-depth knowledge of literature as the background for hilarious high jinks, stuffed with witty references to Eng Lit classics.
  • The novel before this one, Thinks… (2001), similarly tries – unsuccessfully, in my opinion – to insert a lot of current scientific theory about Artificial Intelligence and the nature of human consciousness into an all-too-predictable story about a randy married university lecturer seducing the new, dim writer-in-residence.

So he’s always been a fact-based novelist.

A historical novel

This is Lodge’s first historical novel, not set during a period he’s lived through and not, to some extent, based on his own life experiences.

The novel starts with Henry James’s final months (he died in February 1916) then flashes back to the mid-1880s and gives a slow patient description of his attempts to write for the stage over the next decade, interspersed with a wealth of detail about James’s densely packed social life and professional activities.

It is all very readable and interesting, very enjoyable, very easy to dip in and out of – but in a completely factual way. I don’t know that much about James and so was interested to learn about his family background, about the two brothers who fought in the American Civil War and were ruined by it, while he and brother William James escaped conscription as students and went on to have eminent careers – as well as about his invalid sister, Alice, her final decline and death, tended to the end by a loyal lady friend in that claustrophobic Victorian style.

Most of all I enjoyed Lodge’s weaving of the lives and biographies of all the men of letters, musicians, artists, actors and theatrical people who the hugely sociable James knew, met, dined and corresponded with. Being unmarried and celibate gave James the time to have an enormous circle of friends and to be invited everywhere. He seems to have known everyone who was anyone during the period and the novel therefore amounts to a panoramic overview of many of the most interesting literary and artistic events of the period.

Interesting anecdotes

For example, we get an interesting account of his long friendship with Punch cartoonist-turned novelist, George du Maurier (nickname ‘Kiki’), whose failing sight leads him to diversify into writing novels and eventually to the popular success of Trilby, the book which gave the world the phrase ‘Svengali’ (meaning ‘a person who completely dominates another, usually with selfish or sinister motives’) as well as the trilby hat. Trilby‘s phenomenal world-wide success and the wealth it brought du Maurier stand as a permanent ironic reproach to James’s own failing fortunes: in the year du Maurier’s novel sells 250,000 copies, some of James’s books barely sell 20.

Another long-term friendship is with the novelist and poet Constance Fenimore Woolson, who he took to referring to as ‘Fenimore’ and whose meetings of mind and imagination, but slight reticences and hesitations, are delicately depicted. It comes as all the more of a shock when, half way through the book, we learn that she committed suicide by jumping from a hotel balcony in Venice. James feels unbearable guilt at the things left unsaid and unfelt in their relationship.

Then there are numerous references to the wider world of letters, particularly to his encounters with contemporary writers such as Oscar Wilde (who he found vulgar and preening), the young Rudyard Kipling (whose bride Caroline ‘Carrie’ Balestier he found himself giving away at their wedding) but who he found beastly and vulgar, accounts of his good friend Robert Louis Stevenson who has travelled to the other side of the world to live in the South Seas – and so on and so on.

We meet the French in the shape of the ageing novelist Alphonse Daudet whose incontinence means he has to keep slipping away from his chair at the banquet called in his honour to take a pee into a chamber pot behind a carefully positioned screen (the toilet is too far away); and Guy de Maupassant who shocks James by asking him to approach a lone woman in a restaurant, because Maupassant ‘needs’ a woman’, hasn’t had a woman for a whole week! In fact the atmosphere of moral turpitude i.e. free love i.e lots of sex, in the French literary world, is the single factor which had decided James not to live in Paris but to settle in more philistine, but more restrained, London.

Thus Author, Author has the feel of a leisurely literary biography, full of interesting grace notes and biographical asides.

The theatrical impresario who takes on James’s first play and puts up with his endless emendations before it flops in London, Edward Compton, is shown being father to a promising little boy, who the alert reader realises will grow up to be Sir Compton Mackenzie, OBE the ‘Scottish writer of fiction, biography, histories and a memoir, as well as a cultural commentator, raconteur and lifelong Scottish nationalist’, most famous for his comic novels Whiskey Galore and Monarch of the Glen.

When James hears that John Addington Symonds has died (April 1893) it gives rise to a couple of pages telling us about Symonds’ privately published pamphlet calling for society to accept sexual love between Uranists (who were, as Lodge helpfully points out, just starting to be described by the new term ‘homo-sexuals’) and James’s own opinion on the matter.

When du Maurier confides that he doesn’t believe in God he is careful to use the newish word ‘agnostic’ and Lodge is careful to let us know it was a neologism recently coined by the Darwin apologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, in 1869.

When James and du Maurier ponder the amazing popularity of Henry Rider Haggard’s debut adventure novel, King Solomon’s Mines (1885), du Maurier is made to remind us how this success was partly due to the blizzard of posters put up all over London the morning the book was published by Haggard’s enterprising publishers, Cassells, in an early example of a mass advertising campaign.

One of James’s young men friends, Henry Harland, is planning to set up a new literary and artistic journal, The Yellow Book, and Lodge (through James) contrasts the style of its main illustrator, the young Aubrey Beardsley, with that of du Maurier’s more traditional Victorian illustrations for Punch magazine.

The historical novelist as tour guide

Fenimore and James happen to be walking through the Place Vendôme in Paris where James takes the opportunity to tell her that the column at its centre is made from 1200 cannon captured at the Battle of Austerlitz, and Fenimore replies that he sounds like a guide book (p.178). In fact the whole text often sounds like a guide book. The hero is strolling across Piccadilly Circus? An opportunity to share with us that the statue of Eros (erected 1893) is made of aluminium so as not to tarnish in the smoggy London atmosphere (p.244). Walking past Buckingham Palace? An opportunity to tell us that Queen Victoria had recently opened some of the royal apartments to visitors. And so on.

Same with people, with the famous personalities of the day. Who is this in the stalls at the first night of Guy Domville, reviewing it for the Saturday Review? Could it be the red-haired figure of George Bernard Shaw, the up-and-coming music critic, rumoured to have written a few plays of his own? And over there, surely that’s the Pall Mall magazine’s new drama critic, Herbert Wells, been in his job all of four days since the PM’s editor Harry Cust promised the thrusting young freelance journalist the first vacancy which came up at the magazine and this turned out to be it. So wet behind the ears he had to rush out to buy a set of evening dress made for him in just 24 hours. When Shaw and Wells get chatting Herbert boasts about the short story he’s just sold to the Pall Mall Gazette for £100, entitled The Time Machine. And so on.

There is a kind of innocence about the exchanges like this which pepper the book, as if a teacher had set his 6th formers a piece of homework to imagine a conversation between the young H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. The book evinces a kind of simple-minded excitement at the sheer existence of these writers, a wonderment that Wells and Shaw and, in fact, the young Arnold Bennett, were alive and bumping into each other in the same town, along with Oscar Wilde and Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle, not to mention artists like Singer Sargent, Burne-Jones, Alma-Tadema, Frederick Leighton and so on. What bubbles up off the page is Lodge’s sheer enjoyment of this star-studded era.

A guide not a novel?

There are scores and scores of other examples of interesting and beguiling facts, stories and anecdotes throughout the book, as well as countless titbits about Paris and London, Rome and Venice. Taken together they probably make up the majority of the actual text. Author, Author has plenty of biography of the great man and lots of stories about his (fascinating) life and times, and the world of literature and art as it swirled around him. All very interesting, and Lodge has gathered much be interested and informed about.

But not in the teeniest bit moving or emotional. I didn’t feel anything at all at any part of the book – even at the climax where James takes the stage after the first performance of Guy Domville (5 January 1895) to be publicly booed and humiliated. Well, what of it? We know that James will survive and go on to write the late masterpieces which have secured him a high place in the history of English Literature. Even the scenes where he is called to Venice to help the distraught family of Fenimore dispose of her vast collection of belongings, I found interesting rather than moving. And the final pages which revert to James on his death-bed in 1916 are done very factually and so, I’m afraid, didn’t move me at all. I was more interested in the way the James family nobly offered his loyal servants continued employment after his death.

This is a very enjoyable book but for long stretches it doesn’t feel like a novel at all, more like an old-fashioned literary biography with made-up scenes and conversation added to enliven the basic narrative of events, and plenty of fascinating facts thrown in. It could have been called ‘Henry James and His World’.

On this basis I’m looking forward to reading Lodge’s last novel, A Man Of Parts, which hopefully does much the same thing for H.G. Wells, another pivotal and well-connected figure from a slightly later period.

Credit

Author, Author by David Lodge was published by Secker and Warburg in 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Author, Author

Penguin paperback edition of Author, Author

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a text rich with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

The Decay of Lying: An Observation by Oscar Wilde (1891)

The aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized society.

Originally published as a magazine article in 1889, Wilde substantially rewrote this essay for inclusion in his volume of four essays, Intentions (1891).

Dialogue form

It is in dialogue form, harking back to the Platonic dialogues Wilde would have studied for his Classics degree, signaling Wilde’s embryonic interest in drama – and his realisation that his ‘ideas’ were maybe less amusing than his taste for paradox, for surprising reversals of expectations, for sudden bon mots and witty phrases – all of which are easier to engineer in dialogue form. Dialogue allows:

  • quick fire interchange
  • one person to develop an idea at length until it is in danger of becoming boring, at which point – the other person interrupts with a deflating remark or a witty summary of the story so far, so
  • treatment of individual notions can be pages long or made in a throwaway one-liner, and
  • the case of the proponent can itself subjected to irony and satire by the interlocutor – Wilde can parody or ironise his own argument

In The Soul of Man Under Socialism Wilde has to go a long distance in his own voice and strains a bit to make a consistent ‘argument’. In Lying, as soon as the dramatic lead (Vivian) tires of one line of witty sophistry, his foil (Cyril) can interrupt, not understanding, or pooh-poohing the idea or asking for clarification: whatever new direction Wilde requires at that moment.

The Argument

All Art is lying, wonderful imaginative lying.

Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.

However, in Wilde’s time more and more artists were determined to drag the ‘real world’ into their art, making it ‘relevant’, addressing ‘issues’ and thus showing a tragic misunderstanding of what Art is and is for, and – the great crime in Wilde’s eyes – destroying their individuality – so that all the writers end up sounding like Parliamentary reports and all the artists end up creating works which are grim and depressing.

Now, everything is changed. Facts are not merely finding a footing place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind.

Art is a form of lying, of rejecting the banality of ‘reality’ and creating something marvellous from our imaginations. Wilde must have had notebooks packed with sentences starting ‘Art is…’:

The object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty.

Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of overemphasis.

The proper school to learn art in is not Life but Art.

Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new a aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr. Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts.

Taking this as his point of departure, the entire essay enjoys contradicting the popular view of the day (Wordsworth, Ruskin, Morris), that we must somehow get ‘back to Nature’, that Nature is a cure for modern industrial society. Quite the opposite:

What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition… Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.

If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity’ is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch. Nothing is more evident than that Nature hates Mind.

Provocation 1 – The incongruous

Wilde enjoys provoking his reader, which takes at least two forms: one is the unexpected and witty application of homely phraseology in an unexpected way, to create a humorously incongruous effect.

Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out…  Art is … our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place.

A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.

Thus, as he endeavours to show his friend Cyril how far lying has decayed, the protagonist Vivian makes a humorous survey of the professions, all on the witty assumption that they are and have been professed liars, so that he is in the witty position of lamenting the decay of lying in professions which most Victorians would assume to have been the bedrock of British honesty and probity:

CYRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

VIVIAN. I assure you that they do not.  They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue [!]…  Something may, perhaps, be urged on behalf of the Bar. The mantle of the Sophist has fallen on its members. Their feigned ardours and unreal rhetoric are delightful…  They …  have been known to wrest from reluctant juries triumphant verdicts of acquittal for their clients, even when those clients, as often happens, were clearly and unmistakeably innocent [!]. But they are briefed by the prosaic, and are not ashamed to appeal to precedent. In spite of their endeavours, the truth will out. Newspapers, even, have degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon [!] One feels it as one wades through their columns…

Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy… or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination! and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so like life that no one can possibly believe in their probability.

Later, he manages to include journalists in his list of the lying professions. The same journalists who would hound him into prison and cackle around his fallen corpse.

Lying for the sake of a monthly salary is of course well known in Fleet Street, and the profession of a political leaderwriter is not without its advantages. But it is said to be a somewhat dull occupation, and it certainly does not lead to much beyond a kind of ostentatious obscurity.

Provocation 2 – Anti-England

Like any man of feeling or imagination, Wilde is depressed by the small-minded, xenophobic, philistine culture of England (something which has always driven our best writers abroad, to escape our stifling conformity and seek out a wider world). An attitude given bite by the fact that he was, of course, Irish and saw himself, as so many literary men of the Modern period (1890s onwards), as an outsider.(1)

Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity.

Nonetheless, one trembles when one reads his casual insults of England and the English. For, as we know, the English were going to have their total and humiliating revenge on Wilde and to drag all his witty paradoxes down into the lowest mud.

A thoughtful young friend of ours once told us that it reminded him of the sort of conversation that goes on at a meat tea in the house of a serious Noncomformist family, and we can quite believe it. Indeed it is only in England that such a book could be produced. England is the home of lost ideas.

But in the English Church a man succeeds, not through his capacity for belief but through his capacity for disbelief. Ours is the only Church where the sceptic stands at the altar, and where St. Thomas is regarded as the ideal apostle.

The solid stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like the Sphinx in Flaubert’s marvellous tale, and fantasy La Chimere, dances round it, and calls to it with her false, flutetoned voice.

The contemporary scene

Wilde gives a fascinating summary of the contemporary literary scene, of which he laments: ‘the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.’

He is to be found at the Librairie Nationale, or at the British Museum, shamelessly reading up his subject. He has not even the courage of other people’s ideas, but insists on going directly to life for everything’ and ultimately, between encyclopaedias and personal experience, he comes to the ground, having drawn his types from the family circle or from the weekly washerwoman, and having acquired an amount of useful information from which never, even in his most meditative moments, can he thoroughly free himself. The loss that results to literature in general from this false ideal of our time can hardly be overestimated.

In his way Wilde is echoing Stevenson’s essay on Romance – a conscious revolt against the gradgrindish obsession with facts, a wish to escape, to soar on the wings of free imagination. Although Stevenson is first in line to be criticised:

  • Mr Robert Louis Stevenson… is tainted with this modern vice [of realism]… There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet.
  • Mr. Rider Haggard, who really has, or had once, the makings of a perfectly magnificent liar, he is now so afraid of being suspected of genius that when he does tell us anything marvellous, he feels bound to invent a personal reminiscence, and to put it into a footnote as a kind of cowardly corroboration.
  • Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.
  • Mr George Meredith! Who can define him ? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything, except articulate.
  • Mr. Hall Caine, it is true, aims at the grandiose, but then he writes at the top of his voice. He is so loud that one cannot hear what he says.
  • Mr. James Payn is an adept in the art of concealing what is not worth finding. He hunts down the obvious with the enthusiasm of a shortsighted detective.
  • The horses of Mr. William Black’s phaeton do not soar towards the sun. They merely frighten the sky at evening into violent chromolithographic effects.
  • Mrs. Oliphant prattles pleasantly about curates, lawntennis parties, domesticity, and other wearisome things.
  • Mr. Marion Crawford has immolated himself upon the altar of local colour. He is like the lady in the French comedy who keeps talking about ‘le beau ciel d’Italie.’ Besides, he has fallen into a bad habit of uttering moral platitudes. He is always telling us that to be good is to be good, and that to be bad is to be wicked. At times he is almost edifying.
  • Robert Elsmere is of course a masterpiece–a masterpiece of the ‘genre ennuyeux,’ the one form of literature that the English people seem to thoroughly enjoy. It is only in England that such a book could be produced.
  • As for that great and daily increasing school of novelists for whom the sun always rises in the East End, the only thing that can be said about them is that they find life crude, and leave it raw.

Wilde prided himself of his knowledge of French culture – their poetry and painting vastly more advanced than their English counterparts. But he dwells on the realist school and is equally as damning:

  • M. Guy de Maupassant, with his keen mordant irony and his hard vivid style, strips life of the few poor rags that still cover her, and shows us foul sore and festering wound. He writes lurid little tragedies in which everybody is ridiculous; bitter comedies at which one cannot laugh for very tears.
  • M. Zola is determined to show that, if he has not got genius, he can at least be dull. And how well he succeeds!.. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire? We have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed. M. Zola’s characters have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty, and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders.
  • M. Daudet is better. He has wit, a light touch, and an amusing style. But he has lately committed literary suicide… The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies. The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a work of art.
  • What is interesting about people in good society – and M. Bourget rarely moves out of the Faubourg St. Germain, except to come to London – is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask. It is a humiliating confession, but we are all of us made out of the same stuff. In Falstaff there is something of Hamlet, in Hamlet there is not a little of Falstaff. The fat knight has his moods of melancholy, and the young prince his moments of coarse humour. Where we differ from each other is purely in accidentals: in dress, manner, tone of voice, religious opinions, personal appearance, tricks of habit, and the like. The more one analyses people, the more all reasons for analysis disappear. Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature. Indeed, as any one who has ever worked among the poor knows only too well, the brotherhood of man is no mere poet’s dream, it is a most depressing and humiliating reality!

But he likes Balzac:

  • Balzac was a most wonderful combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit. The latter he bequeathed to his disciples: the former was entirely his own. The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality… A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent fierycoloured existence. They dominate us, and defy scepticism… But Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was. He created life, he did not copy it.

Art does not express the world. Yuk. It expresses the individuality, the genius, of the artist.

Art should be quite detached, quite useless

Where Morris the Marxist argued that Art in an ideal world would be the results of happy men expressing their creativity, especially in decorating the everyday objects of our lives, so that everything a happy fulfilled worker makes is Art – Wilde the hyper aesthete argues that all Art should be quite useless, quite irrelevant to our everyday lives and concerns: that is its point.

The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art. To art’s subject matter we should be more or less indifferent. We should, at any rate, have no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling of any kind…

I do not know anything in the whole history of literature sadder than the artistic career of Charles Reade. He wrote one beautiful book, The Cloister and the Hearth, a book as much above Romola as Romola is above Daniel Deronda, and wasted the rest of his life in a foolish attempt to be modern, to draw public attention to the state of our convict prisons, and the management of our private lunatic asylums. Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor law administration; but Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with a true sense of beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of contemporary life like a common pamphleteer or a sensational journalist, is really a sight for the angels to weep over.

Life imitates Art

So far, so plausible. Wilde has moved beyond outraging the bourgeoisie to establish his main point: Art is a wonderful kind of lying which, in his age, was everywhere in danger of being hobbled by the mania for Realism. But the essay goes to another level when Wilde pushes the conceit further to say that, not only is vulgar, dull Life bad for Art, but that Life itself actually copies Art.

Paradox though it may seem, it is none the less true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life. We have all seen in our own day in England how a certain curious and fascinating type of beauty, invented and emphasised by two imaginative painters [the pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Burne-Jones], has so influenced Life that whenever one goes to a private view or to an artistic salon one sees, here the mystic eyes of Rossetti’s dream, the long ivory throat, the strange squarecut jaw, the loosened shadowy hair that he so ardently loved, there the sweet maidenhood of The Golden Stair, the blossom-like mouth and weary loveliness of the Laus Amoris, the passion-pale face of Andromeda, the thin hands and lithe beauty of the Vivien in Merlin’s Dream. [See illustration below]

And it has always been so. A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher. Neither Holbein nor Vandyck found in England what they have given us. They brought their types with them, and Life, with her keen imitative faculty, set herself to supply the master with models.

As it is with the visible arts, so it is with literature. The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate applewomen, break into sweet shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers… The boy burglar is simply the inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is with trying to reproduce Fiction.

  • Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy.
  • The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely literary product. He was invented by Tourgenieff, and completed by Dostoieffski.
  • Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau as surely as the People’s Palace rose out debris of a novel. Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose.
  • The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac. Our Luciens de Rubempre, our Rastignacs, and De Marsays made their first appearance on the stage of the Comedie Humaine. We are merely carrying out, with footnotes and unnecessary additions, the whim or fancy or creative vision of a great novelist.

At some point this argument begins to overlap with very modern concerns about people imitating violent films or video games. Wilde doesn’t say there is a tendency to copy art: he think sit is an absolute rule:

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is true. Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realizes in fact what has been dreamed in fiction. Scientifically speaking, the basis of life – the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it – is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt. Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died. Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Caesar.

This anticipates Raymond Chandler’s 1930s comments about his hoodlums and gangsters modeling themselves on the movies, a sentiment echoed by Alistair MacLean in his thrillers of the 1960s, and of what I know of Auden and his circle modeling their posing, the way they lit and held cigarettes, on the movie stars of the 1930s. It seems to me a very persuasive argument indeed that Art gives us the models and then people enthusiastically set about copying them – except that Wilde probably wouldn’t call movies, TV and pop videos Art: but they are what provide contemporary humanity with our models for behaving and talking.

Nature imitates Art

And Wilde’s comic style, his essential humour, combines wonderfully when Vivian is goaded by Cyril to go one step further and prove that Nature imitates Art – the precise opposite of what most of the nineteenth century has been telling itself:

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gaslamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows ? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge ? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.

To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.

Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold.

And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pisaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon.

The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Nature… That she imitates Art, I don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one thing that keeps her in touch with civilized man.

Art doesn’t reflect its society & times – it creates them

In the same spirit, Wilde rejects another cliche, that Art reflects the society and times it was created in. Wrong, says Wilde; the precise opposite: Art doesn’t reflect: Art creates the style and look of its times.

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence ? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate selfconscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.

The Japanese people are, in fact, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art. And so, if you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home, and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.

The fact is that we look back on the ages entirely through the medium of Art, and Art, very fortunately, has never once told us the truth.

A new world

The essay ends, with a witty call for a revival of lying at all levels of society, beginning in the nursery and extending through school and into the higher professions. In a kind of satire on the millenial, revolutionary rhetoric of this decade of revolutionaries and nihilists and anarchists, Wilde looks forward to the overthrow of the present dull world of facts and the rebirth of a wonderful world of lying and imagination:

The solid stolid British intellect may not hear the voice of fantasy now, but surely some day, when we are all bored to death with the commonplace character of modern fiction, it will hearken to her and try to borrow her wings. And when that day dawns, or sunset reddens how joyous we shall all be! Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be found mourning over her fetters, and Romance, with her temper of wonder, will return to the land.

The very aspect of the world will change to our startled eyes. Out of the sea will rise Behemoth and Leviathan and sail round the high-pooped galleys, as they do on the delightful maps of those ages when books on geography were actually readable. Dragons will wander about the waste places, and the phoenix will soar from her nest of fire into the air. We shall lay our hands upon the basilisk, and see the jewel in the toad’s head. Champing his gilded oats, the Hippogriff will stand in our stalls, and over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happened, of things that are not and that should be. But before this comes to pass we must cultivate the lost art of Lying.

Three principles

And the essay winds up with some more generalisations from Wilde’s books of sentences about Art.

  1. Art never expresses anything but itself.  It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress.
  2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art’s rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything… It is only the modern that ever becomes oldfashioned. M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.
  3. The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.

1. It is a revealing moment when Wilde jokingly says that society must return to its ‘lost leader’, the skilled liar. Mostly this is paradoxical wit – but the phrase ‘lost leader’, by 1891, already referred to Charles Stewart Parnell, whose affair with a married woman split the Home Rule party of which he was leader, and, arguably, set back the cause of Irish independence by a generation. And of course, Wilde’s oblique reference to a man hounded to his death by the British establishment because of his private life has a terrible reverberation for us who know Wilde’s fate.

Related links

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

The Soul of Man under Socialism by Oscar Wilde (1891)

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

 A brief recap

Wilde debuted with a volume of slender and derivative poems in 1881 and was promptly invited to undertake a lecture tour of America in 1882 which proved fabulously successful. Throughout the 1880s he established himself via essays, reviews and articles (not least for The Woman’s World magazine which he edited for a spell) as a flamboyant journalist, leading representative of the Aesthetic movement, as well as fashioning himself into one of the London’s most notorious and newsworthy personalities.

Tiring of makepiece journalism, towards the end of the decade he made the transition to becoming a full-time writer of prose with a series of short stories and essays:

– as well as his one and fabulous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) – before embarking on the series of comic dramas which clinched his reputation:

  • Lady Windermere’s Fan  (1892)
  • A Woman of No Importance (1893)
  • An Ideal Husband (1894)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

The Soul of Man Under Socialism, published in 1891, was therefore written at the height of Wilde’s powers as a prose artist.


The Soul of Man under Socialism

Believe it or not, this essay was written under the influence of the contemporary anarchist philosopher, Kropotkin, whose works Wilde had been reading. Dangerous thing, reading.

It is foolish to try and extract too sensible, coherent or linear an argument from a Wilde text. His whole purpose is to entertain and delight, and witty paradox or bon mots will always take precedence over logic. And sure enough the second half of this long essay does wander a long way from the ostensible topic, so much so that it ceases to be a consideration of Socialism, the political platform espoused by (in their very different ways) George Bernard Shaw or William Morris, and becomes a long defence of Wilde’s theory of Individualism.

In the first part, insofar as their is an ‘argument’ in this, Wilde’s only statement on politics, it can be summed up quickly: Capitalism forces men to waste their energy and genius trying to help each other in vain and silly ‘politics’ or pointless ‘charity’. In a world set free by technology, everyone would be free to express themselves creatively. Wilde the artist and art critic, rather inevitably sees Art as the highest form of being, and involvement in creating or appreciating art the highest fulfilment of human nature.

His vision of socialism is one where everyone devotes all their energies to developing and moulding themselves into the most exquisite art works possible. It is everyone’s duty to cultivate their individuality. Anything which prevents this ie the entire set-up of Victorian society, is bad.

For individualism

Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.

Under the new conditions Individualism will be far freer, far finer, and far more intensified than it is now. I am not talking of the great imaginatively-realised Individualism of such poets as I have mentioned, but of the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally.

With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

In the central part of the essay, at its hinge or transition, Wilde makes a prolonged case for Jesus as the first prophet of Individualism, a radical reinterpretation, spangled with Wildean paradox, but eventually quite convincing (or as convincing as many of the other dogmas and sects whch have been spun out of the Big One’s words). He presents a Jesus who is continually emphasising that the kingdom of God is within you, nothing to do with external possessions or even actions:

He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try to so shape your life that external things will not harm you. And try also to get rid of personal property. It involves sordid preoccupation, endless industry, continual wrong. Personal property hinders Individualism at every step.’

At moments a strightforward rehash of Jesus’s teachings, at others it suddenly sheds new light, making Jesus appear an 1890s Aestheste. This section can’t have made him many friends with late-Victorians, and it would be remembered at his trial. Everything beautiful and inspiring which he wrote would be used against him.

And so he who would lead a Christlike life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him.

It is to be noted also that Individualism does not come to man with any sickly cant about duty, which merely means doing what other people want because they want it; or any hideous cant about self-sacrifice, which is merely a survival of savage mutilation. In fact, it does not come to man with any claims upon him at all. It comes naturally and inevitably out of man. It is the point to which all development tends. It is the differentiation to which all organisms grow. It is the perfection that is inherent in every mode of life, and towards which every mode of life quickens. And so Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself.

‘Sickly cant about duty.’ This is a deliberate insult to the Kipling worldview and the entire administration of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen. For them, for the public school ethos which provided the administrators of the Empire, Duty is paramount, and Duty is about suppressing the self, crushing the self, denying the self in order to do your duty by God and Her Majesty the Queen-Empress. Knowing what lay ahead, it is impossible to read this bating of the Establishment without anxiety.

Against coercion

Wilde repeatedly warns that the whole point of socialism or communism (in his view) is to free people to do as they want and to be themselves. It follows that any sign of compulsion in the movement will risk instituting a new tyranny worse than the current one. How horribly prophetic.

I confess that many of the socialistic views that I have come across seem to me to be tainted with ideas of authority, if not of actual compulsion. Of course, authority and compulsion are out of the question. All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary associations that man is fine.

[For] all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised.

No Authoritarian Socialism will do. For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all.

What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.

People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous. .. all authority is equally bad.

Morris and Wilde

Both men are more radical than their modern watered-down reputations suggest. Morris genuinely called for a violent revolution. Wilde supported Irish nationalism and signed petitions supporting arrested anarchists. They attacked the Establishment. They both thought the British Empire was ridiculous and immoral. (When Kipling returned to London for the first time as an adult in 1889, this is the kind of literary culture and writing he found offensively short-sighted, ignorant and unpatriotic. Which side would you have been on?)

Superficially their utopias sound very different: Morris’s utopia, in News from Nowhere, is rural and simple and arts and crafts-y. It in effect calls for a radical simplification of human nature, until everyone is reduced to the level of a pipe-smoking rustic. Wilde’s utopia sounds, at first, as if it lies at the other extreme, overwhelmingly urban, upper-class, cosmopolitan and super-sophisticated. And yet Wilde – after the Jesus section mentioned above – disconcerts with his vision of the character of the future, liberated, humanity – in its way even more wilfully infantile than Morris’s:

It will be a marvellous thing – the true personality of man – when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, or asking them to be like itself. It will love them because they will be different. And yet while it will not meddle with others, it will help all, as a beautiful thing helps us, by being what it is. The personality of man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.

More art, more individualism

The second half of the essay wanders away from politics to become an extended disquisition on the nature of Individualism, on the necessary individualism of the artist, and consequently how all genuine artists must prompt the enmity of the stupid, suburban, philistine English and their lackeys in the popular pres, the critics who always want more of the same and never understand the New or the Beautiful. Socialism is left quite a way behind. The essay should really be called something like The Necessity of Individualism.

And on reflection I realise this is the weakness in the argument (if it is an argument rather than a collection of beautifully written witticisms and generalisations about Art): No matter how many times he writes that he is thinking about everyone in society when he urges a philosophy if Individualism, in practice figure of the Individual is always set against the hectoring of vile journalists, ignorant art critics, bombastic politicians and, behind them all, the vast stupid public, brought up to have the lowest, most degraded taste, and to be the great squid against which the true Individual must struggle to assert himself.

This, as Morris, Shaw et al realised, was not the language of the joiner, the supporter, the member of any political movement they recognised. How to get from a society where a few scattered individuals (like Wilde and his clique) were fortunate enough to be able to truly express themselves to one where everyone, absolutely everyone, either wants to or can, is the vast leap Wilde takes for granted. Just as Morris struggles to imagine how society can possibly make the transition from Victorian repression to the utopia of News from Nowhere, in which it takes the form of a kind of great spiritual awakening.

Now we know that it is brought about by social breakdown, anarchy, the seizure of power by a well-organised vanguard who seize the mechanism of the state and institute a reign of terror. England 1647. Paris 1792. Petersburg 1917. Tehran 1979.

Summary

This essay is often spoilt, wilful, showy, overly paradoxical. And yet in his disgust at the poverty and misery of so many of his fellow human beings in Victorian England’s grotesquely unfair society, and in his warning against the coercive element in Socialism which risked imposing a tyranny worse than the ills it set out to cure, Wilde was bang on the nail.

And in his combination of good humour, clever sophistry, flowing clear style and witty paradoxes, he is a master of this form, to be enjoyed and relished for his skill no matter what he’s saying.

Related links

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

1895

1895 was a year of endings and beginnings in English literature and beyond:

Endings

The long series of gripping tales and stories spun by master teller Robert Louis Stevenson had ended when he died on the Pacific island of Upolu on December 3rd 1894. He had completed the long short story The Ebb-Tide (1894), but left unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which was published posthumously, as were his 20 Fables and a final volume of verse, Songs of Travel and Other Verses, in 1896.

Two major careers ended in 1895. On 14th February Oscar Wilde‘s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened at St James’s Theatre, London, and was an immediate success, a triumph of wit, artifice and stagecraft. Within days the Marquess of Queensberry – outraged by Wilde’s relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas – had accused Wilde of sodomy and begun the nightmareish sequence of events which led to Wilde being put on trial and, on 25 May, being found guilty of seven counts of gross indecency with other men. He received the maximum sentence, 2 years hard labour, emerging from his ordeal a broken man, and dying just three years later he died, aged 46, in exile in Paris.

A backlash began against not only Wilde, whose name was erased from playbills and whose books went underground, but against the whole cult of beauty, the aestheticism which had been a major strand of late Victorian culture. A mood of revulsion set in against the dandyism, the metropolitan decadence of the London literati and artists. The pre-Raphaelites who had sown the seeds of the cult, and some of its leading lights, were to pass away in the next few years:

  • In 1895 William Morris published three minor works while he prepared his beautiful illustrated edition of Chaucer, the Kelmscott Chaucer, which was published the following year. But only a few months later, on October 1896, aged only 61, the great pre-Raphaelite painter, poet, novelist, textile-maker and revolutionary died.
  • In June 1898 the pre-Raphaelite giant Sir Edward Burne-Jones who had designed the woodcuts for his friend Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, himself passed away.
  • From the younger generation, the scandalous caricaturist and illustratorAubrey Beardsley died aged only 25 in June 1898.
  • In 1895 Sir Frederick Leighton, purveyor of sumptuous paintings of the classical past, exhibited one of his enduring masterpieces, ‘Flaming June’, a symphony of colours. In January 1896 he passed away.

Flaming June (1895) by Sir Frederick Leighton

Another literary sex scandal ended a brilliant career in 1895. Thomas Hardy, aged 56, published his last novel, Jude the Obscure. It had begun magazine serialisation in December 1894 and continued through to November 1895 when it was published in book format and met with a storm of abuse for its supposed immorality. ‘Jude the Obscene’ one reviewer called it, and the bishop of Wakefield notoriously claimed to have burned his copy. The fierceness of the criticism which greeted Jude (and had also greeted his earlier masterpiece, Tess of the Durbevilles, 1891) led Hardy to abandon novel writing. The philistine English public had claimed another scalp. He never wrote another novel, though he continued to publish poetry until his death in 1928.

Imperialism 

The mood was changing, swinging away from art for art’s sake and towards the prophets of Imperialism, to Kipling and his epigones. The Jameson Raid (29 December 1895 – 2 January 1896) was a botched raid on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic carried out by a British colonial leader, Leander Starr Jameson, and his Rhodesian and Bechuanaland policemen over the New Year weekend of 1895–96. It was meant to trigger an uprising by British expatriate workers in the Transvaal (known as Uitlanders) and so justify a British military invasion, but failed to do so. Weeks later, in January 1896, the Tory journalist Alfred Austin published a Kiplingesque ballad, Jameson’s Ride, celebrating the entirely illegal and foolish act. Later in the year Austin was appointed Poet Laureate.

Sir Henry Newbolt followed his stirring poem Vita Lampada (‘Play up, play up and play the game!’) with the patriotic collection, Admirals All (1897) featuring the patriotic classic, Drake’s Drum. The new mood was to reach a kind of crescendo in the jingoism of the Boer War years, and then slowly recede to reveal the solid and suburban Edwardian novelists, Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy.

Beginnings

Within months of Stevenson’s death a new voice had emerged to tell stories of the South Seas, of the Far East, and to continue Stevenson’s mordant scepticism about the ‘benefits’ of Empire for native peoples, Joseph Conrad whose first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published on 29 April 1895 in the midst of the furore surrounding the Wilde trials.

And as the Aestheticism of the 18970s and 1880s came to a climax and was abruptly garrotted, a completely new strain of writing was emerging in the hands of the 28 year-old Herbert George Wells which was to thrive and prosper into the new century. The Time Machine, serialised from January to May 1895 in W.E. Henley’s magazine the New Review, then published in book form in May 1895 – ie exactly contemporary with the Wilde trials – was the first in the long and prolific career of Wells, the godfather of science fiction. He also published ‘The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents’, his first volume of (15) fantasy and science fiction stories. No decadence from Wells, though. Even if the ideas in the science fiction questioned the meaning and endurance of Western ‘civilisation’ (for example in Wells’s classic The War of The Worlds, 1898), they did so using manly chaps as heroes.

(Talking of discourses which were to dominate the 20th century, unknown to all these authors and artists, the obscure Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud was speculating that his patients’ neuroses were possibly the results of suppressed childhood sexual traumas, and also wondering whether our dreams might reveal the return of these suppressed memories but in concealed and symbolic forms. Both these insights took place in the pivotal year 1895, though he only published his first short papers on the subject the next year, and The Interpretation of Dreams wasn’t published until 1899…)

Art Nouveau

On 1 January 1895 the streets of Paris were plastered by a new poster advertising the play ‘Gismonda’ by Victorien Sardou, featuring Sarah Bernhardt, designed by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. The poster was to crystallise many aspects of the style which came to be known as Art Nouveau.

‘Gismonda’ by Alfons Mucha

In December 1895 German art dealer Siegfried Bing opened his famous gallery, the Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Henry van de Velde designed the interior of the gallery, while Louis Comfort Tiffany supplied stained glass. These displays became so strongly associated with the style that the name of his gallery subsequently provided a commonly used term for the entire style.

Business as usual

Through all these changes and shifts in mood other Victorian writers continued their careers, with varying degrees of success:

George Meredith, 65, published The Amazing Marriage.

Henry James, 56, was booed offstage on the opening night, January 5, of his play Guy Domville at London’s St James’s Theatre. As coincidence would have it, the play was taking off after just four weeks to make way for Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s nemesis the Marquis of Queensberry had tried to gatecrash the first night in order to denounce Wilde from the audience but Wilde had the police blockade the building. Two historic first nights within a month of each other!

George Bernard Shaw, 39, helped found the London School of Economics which held its first classes in October; he began a three-year stint as drama critic for Frank Harris’s ‘Saturday Review’, and wrote a play, The Man of Destiny.

George Gissing, 38, most famous for New Grub Street, published three novels, Eve’s RansomThe Paying Guest and Sleeping Fires.

Rudyard Kipling, 29, published The Second Jungle Book.

Arthur Symons, 30, published London Nights.

The ever-prolific Henry Rider Haggard, 39, published Joan Haste, Heart of the World and a serious tome on Church and State.

In verse, WB Yeats, 30, published ‘Poems, verse and drama’, the first edition of his collected poems containing ‘The Countess Cathleen’, ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’, ‘The Wanderings of Usheen’ and the poetry collections ‘The Rose’ and ‘Crossways’.

Politics 

Another eminent Victorian’s career came to an end when, in May 1895, William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the Liberal party, resigned as an MP, having resigned as Prime Minister the year before. Tennyson had died in 1892. The politician and the poet for many people embodied the Victorian period, its art and values and politics. Their passing marked a watershed in literature and the broader culture.

A New Mood

Dead or silent were Tennyson, Gladstone and Hardy, masters of long poems, long speeches, long novels. The future belonged to the shorter, pithier tales of Conrad, Wells and Kipling, Bennett and Galsworthy, the Fabians and Edwardians. The new writers, whatever their personal proclivities, were to depict a homely Home Counties version of Englishness, in abreaction both to the metropolitan decadence of Wilde’s circle and to the melodramatic jingoism of Kipling, Austen, Newbolt. Even the cosmopolitan Kipling was to catch the new mood by settling in Sussex and writing innocent children’s stories set among the rolling Downs, Puck of Pook’s Hill.

The Happy Prince and other stories by Oscar Wilde (1888)

In May 1888, 4 months after the 22 year-old Kipling published ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’, the 33 year-old Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde published ‘The Happy Prince and other stories’, nine fairy tales for children. I’m rereading them in a lovely illustrated old Puffin edition (1973). It cost 25p. Wilde takes up Victorian sentimentality where Dickens dropped it, but whereas Tiny Tim or Little Nell were accompanied by the comic, the grotesque and Dickens’s unquenchable verbal energy, Wilde strives for a melodious smoothness, clothing his sweetly weeping tales in fin-de-siecle silver and gold.

“Pale poppies were broidered on the silk coverlet of the bed, as though they had fallen from the tired hands of sleep, and tall reeds of fluted ivory bare up the velvet canopy, from which great tufts of ostrich plumes sprang, like white foam, to the pallid silver of the fretted ceiling.”

The Happy Prince and other stories on Amazon

%d bloggers like this: