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Women Writing Decadence: European Perspectives, 1880-1920

Women Writing Decadence

Featuring speakers from institutions spanning twelve countries, ‘Women Writing Decadence’ is a clear testament to the breadth of critical and literary recovery that has defined the quarter-century since the publication of Elaine Showalter’s Daughters of Decadence. 

In her opening keynote address, Melanie Hawthorne (Texas A&M University) discussed Renée Vivien’s brand of transnational sapphism, offering a fascinating insight into discourses of nationality and sexuality as mental constructions that operate using similar logic. Interestingly, an undeveloped perception of nationality and, correspondingly, sexuality was potentially empowering for fin-de-siècle women, which Hawthorne illustrated through a case study of a little-known work published as Vivien’s correspondence yet now considered to be a novel that destabilises boundaries of gender and genre. As a touchstone for female decadents and an enabling force for depictions of same-sex love, Sappho featured in multiple papers and was a key consideration in Ellis Hanson’s (Cornell University) discussion of lesbian guides through decadent underworlds and Noelia Diaz-Vicedo’s (Queen Mary, University of London) exploration of Vivien’s use of the siren as facilitating a redefinition of gender identity.

The second keynote was delivered by Ana Parejo Vadillo (Birkbeck, University of London), which entailed a critique of Daniel Halévy’s 1959 biography of English decadent poet and biographer A Mary F. Robinson. Acknowledging the polemical choices involved in constructing one’s subject for memorialisation, Vadillo reflected on Halévy’s decision to represent Robinson through her correspondence with Maurice Barrès. Turning to a discussion of Robinson’s biographical critical essays, Vadillo argued that she purposefully used the language of decadence as a shield against nationalistic writing.

As women functioned within decadent networks in heterogeneous ways, many papers depicted their embracing of a variety of roles such as editor, salon hostess, performer, illustrator and cultural mediator. In her keynote on Oscar Wilde, Rachilde and the Mercure de France, Petra Dierkes-Thrun (Stanford University) argued that Rachilde was a central player in the 1890s writing and publishing scene in Paris, foregrounding her little-known role in enabling much of Wilde’s literary networking in France. Dierkes-Thrun convincingly demonstrated that Rachilde strategically used her position as co-editor of the Mercure de France to rescue Wilde’s reputation as a serious writer following his trial, continuing to actively champion his work decades after his death. Building on Dierkes-Thrun’s excellent introduction to the Mercure de France, Helen Craske’s (Merton College, University of Oxford) paper argued that Rachilde’s reviewing practices facilitated her self-construction as taste-maker through the strategic promotion and undermining of her literary peers. Elizabeth O’Connor (Washington College) demonstrated that fellow producer of decadence, Pamela Colman Smith, ran The Green Sheaf Press with a special interest in showcasing and glorifying women writers, providing a platform for otherwise unknown figures.

Less canonical figures also formed the subject of many papers. Emilia Pardo Bazan, a Spanish author whose indisputable contribution to naturalism has led to her neglect in decadence studies, was considered by Susana Bardavio Estevan (University of Burgos) and Iris Muñiz (University of Oslo) in relation to decadence, sexuality and Catholicism. Polish translator and poet Kazimiera Zawistowska was also the subject of papers by Heidi Liedke (Queen Mary, University of London) and Ilona Dobosiewicz and Sabina Brzozowska-Dybizbańska (Opole University) who outlined her rich contribution to the ‘Young Poland’ movement, in a discussion of constructions of femininity and the reconciliation of the erotic with the sacred. 

Literary influences were also investigated, with Lena Magnone (University of Warsaw) arguing that the first female psychoanalysts turned to their early ‘poetic mothers’ to better understand their own psychological makeup at a time of profound gender renegotiation. For sympathetic representations of women’s issues and progressive gender roles, 1890s women looked to Scandinavia, as persuasively argued by Jad Adams (SOAS, University of London). This decidedly Scandinavian influence was also outlined by Tina O’Toole (University of Limerick) in her excellent discussion of George Egerton’s Irish decadence. O’Toole argued that Egerton’s lack of adherence to predefined fixities concerning nationalities facilitated her deployment of transnational migrants as a disruptive sign to subvert ideological markers and binaries. 

Many papers also reconsidered once prolific female writers who appear in modern scholarship as mere footnotes adorning the biographies of the key male decadents with whom they were associated. Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska, of interest to scholars by virtue of her romantic relationship with French sculptor Henri Gaudier Brzeska, was considered by Anna Ready (Oxford University Press) as an important trilingual writer who crossed languages and cultures and assumed multiple roles and identities. Joseph Thorne (Liverpool John Moores University) highlighted the under-represented Mabel Beardsley’s construction and embodiment of the social and creative ideals of the dandy. 

A plenary panel on Olive Custance’s self-fashioning and complex relationship with decadence featured papers by Patricia Pulham (University of Surrey) and Sarah Parker (Loughborough University). Supporting her argument with extracts from Custance’s diaries, Pulham presented her mood poems as self-consciously created artefacts that subscribed to decadent associations between strangeness and beauty. Focusing on Custance’s later outputs while making a case for her as a conservative Edwardian decadent, Parker illustrated that those Yellow Book writers actively producing at the century’s close offer valuable insight into the complicated ways in which decadence endured and continued to manifest. Indeed, with many papers considering women writing decadence well into the twentieth century, the conference overwhelmingly highlighted the inadequacy of decadence as a construction of periodisation and the need for paradigm revision.

Thank you to Katharina Herold and Leire Barrera-Medrano for organizing such a timely and fruitful exchange of knowledge that traversed borders and reinforced the importance of recovering the many women involved in decadent networks. The sheer volume of original scholarship shared throughout the conference made a solid case for the value of archival research.

As observed by Stefano Evangelista (Trinity College, University of Oxford) in the final roundtable with our keynote speakers, the narratives that emerged through the conference all told a story of forgetting and remembering. However, as appreciated by Hawthorne, sometimes one needs to forget a paradigm in order to write a more coherent and honest narrative. The nature of forgetting was perhaps best understood by Sappho, and I will leave the final word to her: ‘Someone, I believe, will remember us in the future.

The conference 'Women Writing Decadence' took place in Oxford, 7-8 July 2018. It was sponsored by the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund 2017-2018.