The Dead Days: The Fin de siècle

Welcome back to the Dead Days: a time of year that always makes me think about thresholds, the jumping off-point from one space or time to the next. These liminal days between Christmas and New Year are always heavy with expectation, excitement, or dread for the year ahead, and it is here, in these Dead Days, that I’ve started to think a little about some of the most significant thresholds in my research.

Image: from Pinterest

The turn of centuries and millennia pervade my studies in neo-Victorianism. In particular, the turn of the Nineteenth Century, often referred to as the fin de siècle, or ‘end of the age’, is an important juncture in Victorian literature and culture in Britain. Widely considered to be a symbolic endpoint to Victorian sensibilities, and the start of a new era of modernity, the fin de siècle is not only about endings and beginnings, but about in-betweenness, the awkward liminality of a changing social and political order. It is a period imbued with hopeful change and progressive ambition, but one which is inevitably informed by the ideologies of the past. As we look towards our own new era in the form of 2022, I’d like to think a little more about this unusual, transformative threshold, and its implications for the Gothic.

The End of the Era?

The fin de siècle might be broadly considered to fall around the 1890s to around 1910, a period which saw the death of Queen Victoria, the Edwardian era and the beginning of the decline of the British Empire, among several other major social, cultural, and political changes. A number of key Gothic texts emerged during this transitional period – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) being just a few examples. Several ideas which emerged during the fin de siècle pervade such Gothic classics, and I’ll discuss just a few of these in this post. 

Degeneration

In both scientific and literary discourse, gender roles became a key site of contention in the definition of the new century. Post-Darwinian explorations of biological degeneration, linked by many contemporary critics to a sense of a declining empire, gained popular reception in Britain in the later decades of the Nineteenth Century, and presented genetic and social facets of ‘masculinity’ as disappearing characteristics. Max Nordau’s Degeneration positioned degeneracy as the defining trait of the fin de siècle. Crucially, Nordau argued that degeneration was both individual and social, a condition which could be diagnosed in a person but also in their wider environment. 

In the Gothic literature of the period, these anxieties manifest largely in the human body. Dracula, for example, explores themes of change and development, evolution and corruption, at the core of degeneration theory. Questions around what it means to mutate, decay, or find a new form reflect these scientific, social and medical theories which found prominence towards the end of the Nineteenth Century. 

Decadence

Image: Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) observes the corruption recorded in his portrait, in the film ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1945). Inset painting by Ivan Albright.

Another key element of fin de siècle culture was the emergence of decadence. Decadentism praised artifice over authenticity and sophistication over simplicity, embracing subjects and styles at odds with contemporary discourses around decline. Decadence was considered to be an inevitable consequence of modernity and civilisation.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, an anxiety about this kind of self-indulgence manifests literally on the portrait which reflects Dorian’s sliding moral behaviour. Throughout the novel, Dorian himself is positioned on a kind of threshold, at once enjoying the liberties of hedonistic society with little consequence, but always threatened with exposure through this material record of his activities. 

As we look to the New Year, I can’t help but think about it in light of the fin de siècle. This was a period of transformation and aftermath – a time of cultural conflicts, contentious social and political issues, and mourning for a lost world. But there was also a sense of hope in this uncertainty, a feeling that modernity would launch us all into a new age. As we leave behind 2021, and begin a trepidatious advance into 2022, I plan to take this caution, but also a little of this optimism, with me. 


Rosie Crocker is a second-year PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Her project, all about the neo-Victorian ‘medical man’, is funded by the AHRC through WRoCAH. She is on twitter @rosiecrocker98.