LONDON IN THE 1890s by Karl Beckson


A Cultural History
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 Centering on literary London and on events and ideas relevant mostly to writers, this history is too narrowly conceived to be, as the subtitle says, ``cultural.'' But as a literary historian, Beckson (English/Brooklyn College) excels in colorful and detailed narration. Beckson focuses on the major events of the fin de siäcle, starting with the many societies for reforming literature, politics, and society, and ending with a chapter on the decline of imperialism as expressed in the adventure novels of Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and the ``invasion'' literature of which H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds is an example. He traces the origin of the idea of decadence to the French, and discusses its dissemination in England by the Pre- Raphaelites and the reaction against it during the 1890's--when it supposedly reached its peak. Beckson devotes chapters to the New Woman; prostitutes in the music halls; the quest for a poet laureate; the new drama of Shaw and Ibsen; the Rhymer's Club (made up of great men and minor poets); the trials of Oscar Wilde and Captain Dreyfus; the founding of little magazines as a protest against commercial publishing; and the significance of Whistler, Wagner, occultism, and the Uranians, a kind of elitist homosexual subculture. By enlarging the literary context, Beckson undermines if not disproves many of the clichÇs associated with the last decade of the 19th century, the artificial syntheses other literary historians created out of the chaos of an expanding and diversifying society. But like other men of letters, he leaves out of what he calls a ``cultural'' history that vast range of human beings to whom the literary life is irrelevant. (Photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 1993
ISBN: 0-393-03397-X
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1992


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