“Peculiar flavor” and “preoccupation with the esoteric” … a 1950s view of Custance and friends

THE EIGHTEEN-NINETIES. A Period Anthology in Prose and Verse,
Chosen by Martin Secker. London: The Richards Press. p. xvi, 616.

(Review from the Dalhousie Review, Volume 32, Number 2, 1952)

This new edition of the Anthology first published in 1948, is another indication of the considerable revival of interest in the fin de siecle which has been evident during the past few years. This phenomenon in literary taste is probably due to reaction against much hasty and slovenly writing in an age of rage, pain and uncertainty.

The inner resources are once more being summoned-by the few, at least-as providing the only solace, the only verities. It is this unconscious quest for the felicity that comes with “. . . the cultivation of the self, the consolations of art”, as John Betjeman puts it in his Introduction, that identifies the modern reader with the writers of the period . “If we do not recognize the note of rebellion,- we will hear, those of us who can hear rhythm and rhyme, the accom- paniment of sound craftsmanship.” This is what is too often neglected by the critics of the Nineties. The revolt, the determination to shock, and the Victorian social climate which brought forth such lush and often over-exuberant manifestations being now vivid only to specialists, the often exquisite manner and matter of the writers of the day – all gone now, sadly, except Max Beerbohm – seem too often to have been overlooked. They are slowly earning acceptance once more. Certainly the spell is an entrancing one, and once it claims a happy victim, holds him fast. In the Introduction, Mr. ·Betjeman has slipped into the very polished periods of the decadence to tell of the publisher-compiler Martin Secker, worthy successor John Lane, and of the reading and sifting that finally resulted in this book.

Appropriately (and inevitably, to any lover of the period) the Dedication is to Sir Max Beerbohm. In Eighteen-Eighty and Diminuendo. selected from his writings, “The Incomparable Max” gives the flavor of an age as savoured by his bitter-sweet palate. As Hotbrook Jackson points out, the New Urbanity was finely exemplified in Max’s strangely modern personality, and one sees the decadence smiling at itself in his pages. ·

It appears that the arrangement of the selections is alphabetical by author and, therefore, it is only accidentally felicitous that Aubrey Beardsley should be first on the list. One has always been curious about Under the Hill, of course, and it is re-prin ted here. :Like a good many other things in this book, it is quite unobtainable and long out of print, and one has never seen it. Beardsley died early and this unfinished fragment is his only prose work. His amazing versatility is made apparent in this collection whose frontispiece is his illustration to The Three Musicians, which poem is also reproduced.

Beardsley may not have been essential to the period but he would have been out of place elsewhere and in his brief career he epitomized the courageous and often bizarre creative personality of the day. It was, as Max Beerbohm called it, ” … the Beardsley Period.” 

At times, the peculiar flavour of much Nineties writing becomes only too apparent. It reads almost as if Dawson, Olive Custance, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde and Beardsley were all one. The passion for close description of lush detail, of beauty grafted to elegance ; the preoccupation with the esoteric in all manner of luxurious trappings, outlandish sights and sounds and ‘scarlet’ sins, becomes mere posing at its worst. and most ingenious invention at its best.

But there is so much more here: George Moore, HenryHarland (editor of The Yellow Book), Arthur Symons (editor of The Savoy), Richard La Gallienne, perhaps most capable of evoking the true Nineties aura, as in A Ballad of London with its much-quoted ” … iron lilies of the Strand”. Here one will find also his exquisite, wonder-inspired Ode to Spring which is far from the Strand and patchouli and Bohemia. To browse through these pages is to come across many an example of the very special concern of the Nineties men with acute observation of externals and of the things of the mind. The long complete Lovers of Orelay of George Moore is quite typical prose in this sense, while Vincent O’Sullivan’s The Lady and Arthur Symons’ In Bohemia are poems which could, one might almost say, have been written at no other time.

This eloquent and elegant selection may well inspire the desire to write well, and if it does it will justify itself even beyond its inimitable period attraction. In the broader view, the attempt being made at the end of the last century to find a way for art in a bourgeois industrial society is still going on, and the contemplation of the earlier attempts makes the Nineties of real interest and importance to-day.



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