Between centuries

Frank Kermode

  • In the Nineties by John Stokes
    Harvester, 199 pp, £17.50, September 1989, ISBN 0 7450 0604 3
  • Olivia Shakespear and W.B. Yeats by John Harwood
    Macmillan, 218 pp, £35.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 333 42518 9
  • Letters to the New Island by W.B. Yeats, edited by George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer
    Macmillan, 200 pp, £45.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 333 43878 7
  • The Letters of Ezra Pound to Margaret Anderson: The ‘Little Review’ Correspondence edited by Thomas Scott, Melvin Friedman and Jackson Bryer
    Faber, 368 pp, £30.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 571 14099 8
  • Ezra Pound and Margaret Cravens: A Tragic Friendship, 1910-1912 edited by Omar Pound and Robert Spoo
    Duke, 181 pp, £20.75, January 1989, ISBN 0 8223 0862 2
  • Postcards from the End of the World: An Investigation into the Mind of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna by Larry Wolff
    Collins, 275 pp, £15.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 00 215171 5
  • Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins
    Bantam, 396 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 593 01862 1
  • Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1916-1925 by Kenneth Silver
    Thames and Hudson, 506 pp, £32.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 500 23567 8

To live in the Nineties is to have first-hand experience of l’entre-siècle, a useful word I picked up from Kenneth Silver. Expect to see signs of what Henri Focillon in his book on the year 1000 identified as ‘centurial mysticism’, an affliction even more likely to be endemic when the century that is ending is also ending a millennium. These chronological divisions are meaningless in themselves, but, as Focillon argued, we tend to project onto them aspirations and anxieties which have quite other sources. Conscious of personal and social decadence, hopeful of renovation, people transfer their mood to the decade, the illusory dead weight of an old century behind them, and before them the perhaps equally illusory promises of a new one. In the arts these ages of transition tend to breed avant-gardes to whom contempt for the past is a necessary condition of radical innovation, an old calendar thrown out as the new one is hung up. Yet when we look back at such movements, themselves now parts of the past they mistrusted, we see them differently: harbingers of the new, no doubt, but mired still in the tradition they thought to displace.

Interest in the English 1890s has naturally been growing of late. Richard Ellmann’s biography looked forward, emphasising the importance of Wilde as the martyred prophet of a new dispensation. Others have preferred to look back, finding in the poetry of the period a dilute version of the Symbolism of the Eighties. But John Stokes is synchronic and aims to show how the arts were related to other aspects of the life of their own time, fixing on certain ‘topics and texts’ – the New Journalism, the New Art Criticism, the Music Hall, prisons, ‘the suicide craze’.

The result is a good book that could be added to, for it is fairly short and doesn’t, of course, cover all the angles. Stokes’s account, borrowed from contemporary press reports, of an Empire ballet celebrating the contemporary press, provides an apt overture to a study of the interpenetration of journalism and the arts. Journalists – including the likes of Shaw and Wilde – enjoyed controversy about spiritual crisis, decadence, declining morality, patriotism and so on; and editors rigged their correspondence columns to start new controversies. Wilde was not alone in being ‘adept at finding himself drawn, protestingly, into epistolary debate’. By an extension of these methods, newspapers found it possible ‘to instigate the events they subsequently reported’. The new power of the papers also created Gissing’s New Grub Street. They were execrated as open sewers, and this at a time when the split between the popular press and the ‘respectable’ papers was much less marked than it was to become.

Much has been written about the cult of music hall, and of ballet girls, in this period, but Stokes, avoiding old-fashioned chatter about the dancer and the poetic image, studies the Empire Music Hall as a social institution, harried by prudes and a salacious press pretending to high moral standards. When the Empire licence was renewed only on condition that it abolished its Promenade, where people drank, smoked and picked up girls or boys, the Daily Telegraph published 170 letters on the subject in a single week. The Empire closed, but not for long. It was inextricably mingled with the web of metropolitan culture, with Sickert and Symons, Yeats, Walkley and even Shaw; also with sex and drink. The peculiar character of music-hall entertainment – a mixture of singing, dancing, stand-up comics, acrobats – derived, it seems, from an Act of 1843, which decreed that licensees must choose between the right to serve drink and the right to put on full-length plays. The halls being therefore essentially taverns, it was unreasonable to ban drink at the Empire. Now that the music hall has disappeared, the pubs and clubs have taken over some of its functions.

Stokes’s chapter on suicide begins with a remarkable letter from a man called Ernest Clark to the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Clark explains that ‘only the transcendental and aesthetic in life are worth our thought,’ and since they are crowded out by ‘the ugliness and vile monotony’ of his existence, he will have shot himself by the time his letter is received. This very literary, perfectly sane letter naturally provoked further interesting correspondence, and there was even a suggestion that the paper had faked the letter with this in mind, inventing, as it were, a ‘suicide craze’. On these and other matters Stokes is vivid and economical. It is only a little too much to say, as the publishers do, that his is the most wide-ranging study since Holbrook Jackson’s The Eighteen Nineties.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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