My Special Subject, Literature of the 1890s, also known as the literature of the fin-de-siècle (pronounced fawn duuh seeyeclur bluh), is marked based on a 5000-word essay on a question of our choice constructed around texts of our choice and which, you may have noticed, bears a strong resemblance to la dissertation. I’m going to talk about the subject of my essay and boy oh boy — what a subject it is.
It’s the apocalypse.
This means I’m doing my dissertation on Satan and my Special Subject essay on the apocalypse. But naturally it’s a little bit more complicated than that because the 1890s aren’t the Middle Ages, and nobody was really predicting very much of an apocalypse at the time. That’s why I’ve chosen H.G. Wells as my novelist of choice, specifically his novels The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. The War of the Worlds, needless to say, features some rather apocalyptic imagery, and The Time Machine effectively features the apocalypse, so they’re fairly apt. I’m going to contrast these fantastical but literal apocalypses with the nihilistic poetry of Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson. Here’s a teaser.
‘They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for while, then closes
Within a dream.’
Lovely. Whilst reading texts across the module I found myself spotting key words constantly popping up — ‘twilight’, ‘dusk’, ‘dim’ — which really do give the sense of a great feeling that the fin-de-siècle was the end of an era, even the death of an era. In fact professional ranter Max Nordau actually called the first chapter of his mad book Degeneration ‘The Dusk of the Nations’. Images of red sunsets and autumnal tones appear so frequently that I figured I’d try to write an essay reconciling them, and seeing what these shared images really meant for the writers involved. Wells, Dowson, and Johnson are the stars, but I’ll likely be giving cameo roles to other 1890s celebrities like Munch, Gissing, and Dixon.
We’ll see how it works out, or if anyone makes it out alive. See you next week!