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London in the 1890s: A Cultural History.

What, for most of us, is the image invoked by the Eighteen-Nineties? Naughtiness? Yellow gaslight? Decadence? They resolve themselves, do they not, those faraway days into a series of received icons -- Wilde, Beardsley, Dowson, Johnson, Symons (with and without a 'd'), Davidson, Yeats, Le Gallienne. They conjure up pictures of distant graves -- Beardsley and Le Gallienne -- high above the azure sea in the lemon-scented hill-side cemetery at Menton, where also the Russian Romantic Exiles lie; of death in a cottage at Catford; of the survivors, as old and grizzled Men of Letters, living in far-from-Nineties'-London country cottages -- Symons at Wittersham -- or quiet residential suburbs -- J. Lewis May, who saw Oscar, Le Gallienne and the rest Shelley-plain, and, in his late eighties, in Mill Hill, told me all about them. Professor Beckson's is a wonderfully comprehensive survey, both scholarly and anecdotal, letting no pebble lie unremarked and turning over a few new ones; that, for instance, the Marquess of Queensbury's fatal note read: 'For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite'. It does not replace, but judiciously extends Holbrook Jackson's classic The Eighteen-Nineties; it trimly complements Katherine Mix's A Study in Yellow, and sundry views from the Bodley Head -- from J. Lewis May to Nelson and Lambert and Ratcliffe.

Just as the author of so diffuse a book must, like a juggler, perform no mean feat of keeping an uncomfortably large number of topics all twirling and cascading in the air at the same time, so can one bestow upon this vast and sweeping panorama no more, at a review's length, than a dilettante selectivity. A chapter concerning various fin-de-siecle dabblings in the occult tells of Yeats, absorbed in magic experiment, trying to raise the ghost of a burned flower. He failed. Compliments fly when the thaumaturgic quality meet. Crowley described Yeats as 'a lank dishevelled demonologist who might have taken more pains with his personal appearance without incurring the reproach of dandyism'. And Yeats, in turn, described Madame Blavatsky, quit India and the higher elevations of Tibet for Upper Norwood, whither she was busy seducing the Masters of Wisdom to descend, as 'a sort of old Irish peasant woman, vast and shapeless, and perpetually rolling cigarettes'. 'Of course she gets up fraudulent miracles, but a person of genius must do something', observed Henley. Especially revealing and informative is the recondite chapter on Urnings, which includes Parson Bradford's stirring Uranian hymn:

Eros is up and away, away! Eros is up and away! The son of Urania born of the sea, The lover of lads and liberty.

He is calling aloud to the men, the men! He is calling aloud to the men -- 'Turn away from the wench, with her powder and paint, And follow the Boy, who is fair as a saint.'

Sex will keep raising its 'decadent' head -- The circumspect excision of John Bull's manifest machismo on Beardsley's prospectus for the Savoy, and the desexualization of Aubrey's urinating (on representation of The Yellow Book) cupid on that journal's cover. The hilarious battle of the ridiculous Mrs. Ormiston Chant against the 'unfortunates' of the Empire promenade.

While Professor Beckson lays many a venerable fin-de-siecle canard, he perpetuates the Lionel Johnson death-fall from a bar-stool legend. According to the inquest proceedings, the truth is that he walked into The Green Dragon, Fleet Street, went to sit down in a chair and fell on his head. He died, not of a fractured skull, but as the result of a ruptured blood vessel of a stroke. A misprint for correction in future editions: Eclogue not Ecloque. Oddly tiresome is the non-naming of sources on the page; 'a modern critic', 'most recent biographer'; pointless periphrasis; a publisher's unsuccessful editorial device rather than the author's decision, I suspect.

But such motes are of little importance weighed against the vast research, erudition, clarity and value to literary and social historians of this delectable book of record and reference.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Author:Whittington-Egan, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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