Sex and Sensuality: How Modern Fiction has Reinvented Victorian Decadence


Sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000, by Albert Robida [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today we mainly associate the word ‘decadence’ with luxuries like chocolate and wine. However, the term has deeper significance in recent fiction, which draws parallels between our own era and that of nineteenth-century decadent writers like Oscar Wilde. Joseph Thorne, the co-organiser of a forthcoming conference on Neo-Victorian decadence, explains how decadence has been reinvented in twenty-first-century literature, film and television.

Can you help us out with some of the key terms? What do you mean by ‘decadence’ in relation to the Victorian period?

Decadence is, by its very definition, a difficult thing to pin down. What united proponents of decadence was their opposition to the existing status quo; they might not have all agreed on a shared vision for a utopia, but they collectively disliked the way things were and they shared a love of sensation and a desire to remake stylistic norms. There was a real tendency for decadent writers and artists to try and shock their audience as a way of challenging contemporary cultural assumptions and values.

However, in the Victorian period it was never really tied to any definite political position—you end up with decadents both on the far left and the far right and pretty much everything in between. Decadent thinkers prized individuality, but at the same time set out to create their own counterculture with a wide network of people engaging through their shared values. So, decadence managed to be both social and isolated at the same time, all while crossing the political spectrum.

Pont de l’Europe, Gustave Caillebotte [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And what defines a Neo-Victorian work of fiction?

Neo-Victorianism is slightly more definite. At its most basic, it labels post-Victorian fiction which deals with Victorian themes. But what really adds the ‘Neo-’ to Neo-Victorianism is the level of self-awareness. Neo-Victorian authors are very aware that they are producing modern texts, while self-consciously pretending to produce Victoriana. There is a definite archness in the way they play with a reader’s assumptions about the historical veracity of a text.

How did you become interested in decadence as a theme in more recent Neo-Victorian fiction?

I am looking at the social networks of fin-de-siècle decadents for my doctoral thesis so ideas of Victorian decadence are rarely far from my mind. I first became interested in the crossover between my work and Neo-Victorianism while watching Guillermo Del Toro’s 2015 film Crimson Peak. The set dressing of the film is fantastically decadent – think Whistler’s Peacock Room, but distorted by a fever dream. That got me thinking about modern post-Victorian receptions of late Victorian culture.

The set dressing of the film Crimson Peak is fantastically decadent. Photo: Legendary Entertainment.

On your website you mention several recent decadent narratives on page and screen, ranging from Will Self’s novel 2002 novel Dorian: An Imitation to the 2014 TV series Penny Dreadful. Is decadence a major theme of much contemporary culture?

Penny Dreadful certainly has a very decadent take on the late Victorian period; it even transforms Mary Shelley’s Romantic scientist Frankenstein into a fin-de-siècle dandy! And Will Self’s novel transplants the events of Wilde’s novel into the late twentieth century and makes Dorian’s picture into a video installation. Both these examples explicitly deal with Victorian outpourings of decadence.

But this interest in decadence is not just a Neo-Victorian reinvention: decadence has never really gone away. There’s a tendency to displace literary decadence into the past (for us it often seems to be the 1890s or the Jazz Age, while the decadents of the 1890s drew a direct line of inspiration back to ancient Rome). In spite of this, decadence remains incredibly contemporary for all its apparent historicism.

Decadence certainly has identifiable themes (the reception of art not least among them), but it is above all an approach. In many ways, I think Wes Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the most decadent things I’ve come across. It perfectly captures the studied air of frivolousness which epitomises the best of Wilde’s writings.

Anderson isn’t using decadence as a theme, but rather as a style. It characterises the way he frames the film—he seems to draw attention to the issue of the framed narrative by the sheer numbers of picture frames he crams into the background of his shots!

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t use decadence as a theme, but rather as a style. Fox Searchlight.

Why do you think decadence is a key theme of Neo-Victorian texts? Are writers using ideas about decadence from the Victorian period to highlight issues in our own society today?

I think decadence provides an attractive subject for Neo-Victorianists because, beyond its popularity in the 1890s, it has attractively scandalous associations. It plays both on sensuousness and sensuality.

But, more than that I think it offers a real creative opportunity. Neo-Victorianists seem to recognise the importance of re-creating identities through decadence. For instance, both Crimson Peak and Penny Dreadful (to a greater or lesser extent) use their settings to unpick questions of gender. The degree to which they are successful can be debated, but the intent is certainly there. That said, when something is described as decadent in contemporary culture it often seems to be part of a marketing strategy. It is the hallmark of luxury chocolate cake and perfumes! There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s more to decadence than personal self-indulgence! Embracing creative decadence as a concept, I believe, allows modern writers and artists the chance to explore and undermine the conventions of our own society.

The TV series Penny Dreadful uses its setting to unpick questions of gender. Photo credit: Showtime.

Is modern steampunk linked to decadence in any way?

Contemporary steampunk culture seems to explicitly engage with this challenge to convention. It shares the decadent fascination with objects, but also represents a re-fashioning of the Arts and Crafts movement’s creative philosophies (albeit with a self-consciously mechanical approach which would have horrified William Morris!). Steampunks make elaborate Neo-Victorian artefacts as a reaction to twenty-first century consumerism. They use Neo-Victorian objects, ranging from clockwork top hats to archaic laser cannons, to fashion a creative self—as a builder rather than as a simple consumer.

Who or what is your own favourite author or example of Neo-Victorian decadence?

For connoisseurs of the truly terrible, I have to recommend James McTeigue’s film The Raven, which sees John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe running around nineteenth-century Baltimore swilling alcohol

I think Crimson Peak may have to be my favourite example. Del Toro’s colour palate is so lush and he perfectly captures (and perhaps subverts) all the tropes of late Victorian gothic.

Penny Dreadful is definitely worth a watch. I’m not entirely convinced by their portrayal of Dorian Gray, but it’s entertaining and has some interesting interactions with its Victorian source material. Eva Green’s performance is fantastic and I could probably recommend the show on that alone.

Sarah Waters’ novels probably go without saying (although Affinity is not really decadent), but I’ll recommend them anyway. As a side note, Park Chan-wook’s post-Neo-Victorian adaptation of Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is currently in cinemas. It transplants the action to 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation and has an interesting dialogue with the Neo-Victorianism of Waters’ original novel.

In terms of art, Yinka Shonibare’s Neo-Victorian photo suites Diary of Victorian Dandy and Dorian Gray raise questions about the relationships between dandyism, race and disability. With Shonibare casting himself as the central dandy-figure in both these collections of images, they are supreme acts of self-fashioning.

Finally, for connoisseurs of the truly terrible, I have to recommend James McTeigue’s film The Raven. This sees John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe running around nineteenth-century Baltimore swilling alcohol, shouting (a lot) at bystanders and solving murders. It is genuinely ridiculous, but perhaps represents Neo-Victorian decadence which is (no doubt unintentionally) performing that truly decadent activity of self-parody.

The conference Neo-Victorian Decadences will take place between September 8–9, 2017 at St John’s College, Durham University. The Call for Papers closes on 2nd July.

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One response to “Sex and Sensuality: How Modern Fiction has Reinvented Victorian Decadence

  1. It all depends what you’re looking at: if you’re looking for decayed public morality, you’ll probably find it in any era.

    In the early 19th Century, the ethics pendulum swung to the puritan side, after the excesses of the Georgian era. This applied to government corruption, gambling, drinking, to exploiting the poor for profit, and to public behaviour generally.

    Sexuality is a 20th Century obsession, though there have always been individuals obsessed with sex – usually men, who fear that they might be stuck with someone else’s children if they let their wives out of their sight.

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