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Oscar Wilde’s “Immoral Aestheticism”

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The following essay will examine British Literature in two fold: the first being that of Oscar Wilde’s contribution to British Literature and the second being feminism in British Literature in the 1800’s and on.  It is hoped that focusing on two separate but entangled subjects will make the paper more accessible and therefore broader in scope and understanding of the reader to British Literature.

Peacocks and Sunflowers:Oscar Wilde’s “Immoral Aestheticism” as an Escape from Reality into the Realm of Beauty

Gilbert, the author’s alter ego in Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist” (originally published in 1888) declared that “[a]ll art is immoral” (274), and that phrase turned into a manifesto for the “immoral aestheticism” doctrine of the famous dandy who decorated rooms with peacock feathers and showed in public with a sunflower in the buttonhole. The writer was condemned by contemporaries as a breacher of Victorian ‘moral’ style of living but justified by successors. As Ellmann explains, “[s]in is more useful to society than martyrdom, since it is self-expressive not self-repressive” and thus contributes more significantly to the acute goal of “the liberation of the personality” (Ellmann 310). The man who used to be convicted of the offence of “gross indecency” is praised now as an icon of decadent and modernist style, a revolutionary in aesthetics and ethics, and a prophet of beauty which is above and outside any boundaries.

The concept of art and beauty as abstract notions being unrelated to the narrowly dichotomous morals takes a key position in Wilde’s oeuvre. Today’s critics are never tired in their coining of appropriate definitions for the writer’s aesthetic programme. Gillespie, one of the most important researchers of Wilde’s legacy, viewed it as consisting of “paradoxical gestures” which “delineate an aesthetic that celebrates the impulse to integrate, amalgamate, and conjoin rather than separate, dissipate, or disperse” (37). Although the writer was aware of “the grave spiritual dangers involved in a life of immoral action and experiment” (Pearce 164), he underlined the right of an artist to be immoral for the sake of eternal beauty.

In his aestheticism, Wilde was an admirer and disciple of essayist and art critic Walter Horatio Pater with the latter’s emphasis on the esthete as a novel kind of being (Murphy 1992; Wood 2002). He was also immersed into the late 19th century cultural milieu as being involved into a polylogue on the topics of art, artist, ethics, and beauty which resulted in the emergence of Decadence and Modernism (Bell 1997). Altogether with the English fin de siècle men of art such as A.C. Swinburne, Walter Pater, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Christopher Dowson, George Moore Symons, and D.G. Rossetti, Wilde researched the concept of aesthetics as being constructed by a person who was proud of “[his] non-participation … in ethical controversy” (Woodcock 53) and thus freed from the restrictions imposed by society and common law.

Oscar Wilde’s “immoral aestheticism” as an integral part of the decadent and early modernist styles is what the present proposal attempts to look at. It will research Wilde’s critical and fictional legacy in regard to ideas and concepts as pertinent to the new understanding of relationship between art and morals. This proposal attempts to re-examine Oscar Wilde as a theorist of the novel aesthetics, establishing a link between the writer and other theorists and critics to prove that the call for immoral aestheticism was a brilliant attempt to overcome the boredom of reality and enter the world of absolute beauty.

Modern Women’s Voices: Sexual Subjectivity in the texts of Victorian and contemporary British women writers

Feminism is still one of the most popular critical lenses to zoom into details of history of literature and social life (Brennan 2002; Jackson 1998; Kemp 1997; Scott 1996), and it is proven to be useful within the framework of the given proposal aimed at tracing the common and differentiating points of the two critical periods of British literature. I am especially interested in the late Victorian epoch with its rise of independent women’s suffragist voices and the latest period with its diversity of tones and melodies composed by women writers amidst the turmoil of free speech and re-thinking of common gender values such as career, family, child-rearing, and gender relationships.

The novels chosen are The Story of a Modern Woman by Ella Hepworth Dixon (1894), Anna Lombard by Victoria Cross (the pseudonym of Annie Sophie Cory1901), Foreign Parts by Janice Galloway (1994) and Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding (2004). The earlier and later books are divided by almost a century but despite a temporal distance there are common motives and aspirations which approximate the Victorian ‘New Woman’ and a modern British female as depicted in fiction.

The feminist movement of the late Victorian period was pre-conditioned by many factors which made the trend not accidental but seriously grounded in the wider social context being permeated by patriarchal ascendance and rigidness of social structure (Bernstein 1997; Lewis and Ardis 2003). The ‘New Women’ movement that acquired much power during the period from the late 1890s to roughly 1915 featured a range of opinions concerning the heightened role of a female in a modern society (Walls 2002; Mitchell 1999). As Ardis (1990) observed, Dixon went farther than her colleagues in asserting the preciousness and independency of a woman as a self-sustaining creature (see also Fehlbaum 2005), whereas Cross’s Anna Lombard represents another type of the late Victorian womanhood as sacrificing her desires and aspirations for the sake of the traditional familial institution.

The most recent books by Galloway and Fielding cannot be straight-forwardly labeled as ‘feminist’ writing, although they utilise some stylistic elements of feminist narration (Greene 1991). Whereas Galloway vividly portrays contemporary women as being able to function outside the patriarchic framework but provides no answer to the question about the appropriateness of such life style, Fielding is often criticised for the attempts to find consensus with a men’s world and, therefore, to abandon the programme of modern Amazons (Marsh 2004). Anyhow, both contemporary British women of letters share specific ideas concerning authorship and the interplay between feminist and non-feminist traditions to the extent that they can be seen as spiritual sisters of their Victorian predecessors.

Being equipped with solid theoretical instruments from gender studies and psychology (e.g., Lacanian psychoanalytic theory) to conceptualise the evolution of womanhood and gendered selves in Great Britain throughout a century, I hope to establish a link between late Victorian and recent women’s writings with a special emphasis on the literary features of the female novel. The freshness of the proposal is in the choice of research objects (all the four novels are not enough extensively discussed by academic critics) and the carrying of analysis within the theoretical framework concerning authorship that was proposed by a Russian scholar Michael Bakhtin.

References

Ardis, Ann L. New Women, New Novels: Feminism and Early Modernism. New Brunswick [N.J.]: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Bell, Michael. Literature, Modernism and Myth: Belief and Responsibility in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge (Great Britain): New York Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Bernstein, Susan David. Confessional Subjects: Revelations of Gender and Power in Victorian Literature and Culture. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Brennan, Teresa. Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. London: New York Routledge, 2002.

Dixon, Ella Hepworth. The Story of a Modern Woman. 1894. London: Merlin Press, 1990.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Fehlbaum, Valerie. Ella Hepworth Dixon: The Story of a Modern Woman. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2005

Gillespie, Michael Patrick. Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996.

Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Jackson, Stevi. Contemporary Feminist Theories. Edinburgh, [Scotland]: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Kemp, Sandra. Feminisms. Oxford: New York Oxford University Press (UK), 1997.

Kolocotroni, Vassiliki. Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Lewis, Leslie W., and Ann L. Ardis. Women’s Experience of Modernity, 1875-1945. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Marsh, Kelly A. “Contextualizing Bridget Jones.” College Literature 31.1(2004): 52-72.

Mitchell, Sally. “New Women, Old and New.” Victorian Literature and Culture 27.2(1999): 579-588.

Murphy, Margueritte S. A Tradition of Subversion: The Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery. Amherst, MA (USA): University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. London: HarperCollins, 2001.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Feminism and History. Oxford: New York Oxford University Press (UK), 1996.

Walls, Elizabeth MacLeod. “a little afraid of the women of today”: The Victorian New Woman and the Rhetoric of British Modernism. Rhetoric Review 21.3(2002): 229-246.

Weir, David. Decadence and the Making of Modernism. Amherst, MA (USA): University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Wilde, Oscar. The Major Works. Ed. Isobel Murray. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wood, Naomi. “Creating the Sensual Child: Paterian Aesthetics, Pederasty, and Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales.” Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 16.2 (2002): 156–170.

Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI 48201.

Woodcock, George. The Paradox of Oscar Wilde. New York:  Macmillan, 1950.

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