Fin de Siècle

Ruth Livesey

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online March 2011 | | DOI:
Fin de Siècle


In its simplest definition, “fin de siècle” refers to the end of a century, yet at the end of the 19th century in Britain, the term did not just refer to a set of dates, but rather a whole set of artistic, moral, and social concerns. To describe something as a fin de siècle phenomenon invokes a sense of the old order ending and new, radical departures. The adoption of the French term, rather than the use of the English “end of the century,” helps to trace this particular critical content: it was, and continues to be, associated with those writers and artists whose work displayed a debt to French decadent, symbolist, or naturalist writers and artists. It was also particularly strongly encoded in visual culture, with the black-and-white illustrations popularized by Aubrey Beardsley in the Yellow Book and elsewhere coming to serve as shorthand indicating textual material that challenged the mores and formal conventions of high Victorian ideals for literature and art. Much of the characteristic literature of the fin de siècle is thus closely interrelated with the earlier aesthetic movement and coincides with the zenith of decadence. But the fin de siècle—both at the time and even more so in current critical debate—encompasses a broader set of concerns, social and political, that often stand in tension with aestheticism. Two good examples of this divergence are the rising interest in literary naturalism and the emergence of the New Woman. Both the decadent and naturalist influences on literature and art at the fin de siècle led to vehement debates in the press concerning the moral responsibility of art, with writers such as Thomas Hardy, George Moore, and Arthur Symons arguing for greater freedom of artistic representation of sexual or subversive content. For much of the 20th century the literature and culture of the 1880s and 1890s were treated as a slight critical embarrassment: an era of precious experimentation overshadowed and disavowed by the radical, virile departures of modernism. Yet the rising scholarly interest in gender and sexuality from the 1970s onward swiftly drew fresh attention to the era of the Wilde trials, the emergence of the New Woman, and the explicit address to sexuality in the decadent movement. The end of the 20th century, in turn, provoked a wave of centennial reassessments of the 1880s and 1890s, which also examined afresh the relations between fin de siècle culture and literature, and the emergence of modernism in the early 20th century. Such studies have not only led to the emergence of new fields of study in their own right, such as the New Woman, or degeneration and literature, but also extended the coverage of the period: it is common now for studies of the fin de siècle to examine the period up to and including 1910 or even 1914, and for the fin de siècle to be viewed as the crucible of early modernism.

Article.  12569 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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