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Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism

Continuities, Revisions, Speculations


Edited by Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier


Literary Texts and the Popular Marketplace Series

London: Routledge, 2017

Hardcover. vi+210 p. ISBN 978-1138640771. £85


Reviewed by Laurent Bury

Université Lumière–Lyon 2



The University of Montpellier has a history of Aesthetic Studies. While they were still members of the staff of the Université Paul Valéry, Bénédicte Coste (a French specialist of Walter Pater, now Professor of Victorian literature and culture at the University of Burgundy) and Catherine Delyfer (now Professor of British literature, arts and culture at the University Jean-Jaurès in Toulouse) had co-organized several conferences on the subject: “British Aestheticisms”, in 2009, and “Aesthetic Lives” in 2011 (the proceedings of which were later published by Rivendale Press under the same title). In that same year 2011, Catherine Delyfer edited a special issue of Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens on female Aestheticism and published a book entitled Art and Womanhood in Fin-de-Siècle Writing : The Fiction of Lucas Malet, 1880-1931. In October 2013, Montpellier hosted another conference, “Re-valuing Aestheticism and Modernism Through their (Dis)credited Figures : Aesthetics, Ethics and Economics. 1860-1940”; fourteen out of the twenty-four papers which were presented on that occasion are now published by Routledge under a shorter title, which itself includes a Modernist reference, E.M. Forster’s famous “Only connect” in Howards End.

The intentions of the volume are clearly exposed in its Introduction (for the organisation of the conference and for the edition of the proceedings, Professors Coste and Delyfer were joined by Professor Christine Reynier, an eminent Woolfian and specialist of Modernism in general). In opposition to the myth of the “great divide” between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it aims at “probing and interrogating… the articulation between... two major British literary movements” [1]. Even though Modernism thrived on an “ideology of rupture”, “transgression was misleadingly rewritten as a modernist paradigm” [4] since proto-modernist texts, animated by the same appetite for novelty, were created by Aesthetic writers some years before the sea-change supposed to have happened “in or about December 1910” according to Virginia Woolf. Going beyond the accepted narrative of fragmentation, the books wants “to trace lines of continuities” between Aestheticism and Modernism “without ignoring the disconnections and dissimilarities between them” [5-6]. From that point of view, Aestheticism might almost appear as a kind of missing link, contradicting the “doxic narrative” [8] of a neat break between Victorianism and Modernism.

So far, so good. From then on, as for all collections of essays, the problem becomes the relation each individual paper entertains with this well-defined objective. Some chapters in the book seem concerned either with Aestheticism or with Modernism, but hardly with the possible bridging of the gap between those two movements. Others do their best to follow the guidelines, and show that some of the Aesthetes prefigured the Modernists, or that some Modernists had a debt toward the Aesthetes, but they sometimes lose themselves in a rather shallow quest for exterior signs of Aestheticism or superficial markers of Modernism. In some cases, it seems as if it were enough for the authors to tick the right boxes to prove their point. (Did Mr X express an interest for urban landscapes? Check. Did Ms Y defy sexual conventions? Check. QED).

Another caveat for the reader: it is interesting to know that the subtitle of the conference was “Aesthetics, Ethics and Economics” (emphasis added), since the latter word may explain the inclusion within the volume of some papers whose presence might otherwise be somehow difficult to justify. In the third part of the book, much is made of the notion of speculation in its different meanings, which allows Mary Poovey to discuss “The Modernist Trajectory of Economics” [154-164]. True, John Maynard Keynes was an active member of the Bloomsbury circle, but even though “It is tempting to assume that the early twentieth-century turn to abstraction visible in both literary writing and economic theory should be attributed to the same set of factors” [154], it remains somewhat surprising to find an essay on his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in a volume which one could have expected to be exclusively devoted to literature and art. Similarly, Emmanuelle De Champs’ paper on “Aestheticism and Utilitarianism” [107-119] focuses on “the uses of utilitarianism in literary criticism” [107] but has actually very little to do with literary works.

As it might be tedious to summarise each chapter, it should here be sufficient to say a few words about some of the fourteen essays gathered by the editors. The reader will probably find much food for thought in “Modernists as Decadents. Excess and Waste in G.M. Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Others” [45-55], where Rainer Emig examines “the processes of transfer and re-evaluation but also dismissal and disposal” used by the Modernists, what he calls, in a deliberately provocative way, problems of “waste removal” [45] or “waste recycling” [50]. “Eliot’s modernism... recycles waste as an emblem of modernisation and as a symbol of the lack of spiritual assurance that this modernisation has produced” [51], while in Pound’s poems, waste is “archived”, worked upon, until “The repressed decadent inheritance of modernism that shares with it an overdetermined, self-referential and self-undermining economy becomes a threat to the very project of mechanism itself” [53]. The author of The Cantos is also the object of Michael Kindellan’s “Ownership and Interpretation : On Ezra Pound’s Deluxe First Editions” [187-201], those volumes which Pound himself concluded “were not made to be read by those rich enough to buy them” [195].

Woolfians will also find many things of interest in “The Female Writer in Walter Pater and Virginia Woolf” [56-66], an exhaustive study of the literary and biographic links between Bloomsbury’s most famous novelist and the Aesthetic theoretician par excellence. Lene Østermark-Johansen focuses more specifically on Pater’s “A Prince of Court Painters”, the only one of his Imaginary Portraits to boast a female narrator, and sees Orlando as “the ultimate Paterian text” [60]. Christine Froula starts from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, “A manifesto at the crossroads of late nineteenth-century aestheticism and modernism” [124], to read Leonard Woolf’s writings and their influence on The Waves or Forster’s A Passage to India (“Dangerous Thoughts on Bloomsbury : Ethical Aestheticism and Imperial Fictions” [120-136]). 

In “Artist Stories of the 1890s” [92-106], Elke D’hoker tackles an impressively large corpus of short fiction which includes “such writers as Henry James, Hubert Crackanthorpe, Ernest Dowson, Ella D’Arcy, Vernon Lee, George Egerton, Olive Schreiner, Sarah Grand, Arthur Symons and Reginald Turner, with the intent to uncover both the different representations of the central tension between art and life in these stories and the many convergences that also exist between these stories and the aesthetics they represent” [93]. Catherine Delyfer’s paper, “Speculating on Art in Fin-de-Siècle Fiction” [165-174], is based on George Gissing’s The Whirlpool – which she considers to be “proto-modernist in essence” [168] – and Lucas Malet’s The Far Horizon – whose hero appears as “a self-reflexive pre-Modernist in his own right” [171] – two novels in which the “fiscal plots engage with the late-Victorian inextricability of economic, aesthetic, moral and sexual discourses on value” [165] and which express a “growing sense of cultural, social, financial and linguistic instability” [172].


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