Ernest Belfort Bax

Reminiscences and Reflexions of a mid and late Victorian

Chapter III
On Century-End Literature, Art, and Philosophy

THE expression fin de siècle, which sprang up originally, if I remember rightly, in the early eighties, became very popular as the century more nearly approached its close. It had, indeed, an actual significance. As already observed in a previous chapter, the early eighties did undoubtedly mark the culmination of a great change in English popular thought. Perhaps the year 1884 may be specially mentioned in this connexion. It was in this year that the modern English Socialist movement really began to take root and excite interest in the country. With this, however, I propose to deal at length in another chapter. But in other ways also the advent of the mind of a new generation showed itself about this time. The old English Puritanism ceased to concern itself primarily with theological dogma, but turned its principal attention to practical issues and questions of conduct. Its view of moral problems of course centred in the old bourgeois Puritan notions. The circumference of morality still mainly circled round the question of sex relations: sexual abstention under the name of “Social Purity” bulked largely, as it has always done with this type of mind, as the great moral achievement. The late W.T. Stead was its chief literary and journalistic coryphaeus, and the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes its prophet and priest in pulpit and on platform. The movement was also mixed up with Feminism, with which I intend also to deal in a later chapter.

Now was the time of the great Browning “boom.” Browning clubs sprang up in all cultured middle-class circles. Robert Browning was proclaimed as the poet of the age, and the study of his poems was declared by many enthusiasts as a liberal education in itself. Altogether, in the years of these early eighties it became clear that the culture, using the word in its widest sense, of mid-Victorian England had lost its savour and survived its influence. The late-Victorian period which ushered in the twentieth century was already in full swing. The contrast between the new culture, as we may term it, and that of the so-called early Victorian period of the forties and fifties, became very marked indeed. Dickens, to take an example from fictional literature, began to get distinctly old-fashioned as the society of his heyday died off. Even his sarcasms and delineations of character in some cases lost their force. Notably is this true of his religious impostors, his Tartuffes. Take for instance “Stiggins.” Now, Stiggins had become already an impossible caricature long before the end of the last century. The Stigginses of that time, as of our own day, did not as a class, while preaching teetotalism, perpetually get drunk on rum-punch or anything else. Such crude form of hypocrisy, if it ever existed outside the caricatures of a novelist, had long since died out. The hypocrisy of this later period may be intrinsically no better than that of the “Stiggins” of Pickwick; on the contrary, it is worse, in so far as it is far more subtle and hence more dangerous. A pious “shepherd” like our old friend “Stiggins” is after all very easily found out, and when found out, his reputation inevitably collapses. Nobody would take up his defence. Things are different now. The pious Nonconformist preacher of our own day and the recent past still preaches abstinence, alcoholic and sexual, anti-gambling, and anti many other things, only not, of course, anti-moneymaking by the approved methods of capitalistic exploitation. The type of the modern Stiggins, the modern Tartuffe, is rather to be found in the Nonconformist divine who declaims against all the above sins in the pulpit and on the platform, and whose sincerity “moults no feather” (as Shakespeare has it) – in other words, who probably practises what he preaches in this respect. (At least there is no evidence that he does not do so.) But now comes the test. Our Nonconformist divine, who prides himself on devoutly exhorting-pillar as he is of the Nonconformist conscience – to bourgeois morality in all its hues, has influential friends connected with mining speculation in another continent. He acquires stock amounting perhaps to valuable holdings in their mining companies. It becomes the interest of the mining magnates to acquire the political control of the land in which their mines are situated, in order to obtain thereby greater freedom for the exploitation of mining labour. In consequence, the magnates in question, under cover of a patriotic cry, engineer a war for the conquest of the territory concerned and its annexation to Great Britain. What does our Non-conformist, pious and devout, zealous in seeking to save the normal non-ascetic human-non-ascetic, that is, in the points above referred to as the subject of his pulpit and platform diatribes – what does this gentleman (who, bien entendu, was accustomed, when he had everything to gain and nothing to lose by it, to plead the cause of peace and the freedom and independence of small and weak nationalities) – what, I say, does he do when it is a question of an aggressive war and the conquest and annexation of a numerically weak people in the interest of his friends, the mining magnates, and the enhancement of the value of his own holdings in the mines ? He champions the war, denounces its victims, and places himself unreservedly on the side of the mining war agitation of his friends, prepared to defend all the trickery, treachery, and lying involved in their wantonly provocative conduct. This man almost certainly never in his life got drunk on rum-punch or on any other alcoholic stimulant. On the contrary, he is reported to have drunk himself to death on tea, as befitted a pillar of the Nonconformist conscience and a leading light of total abstinence. No; our modern Stigginses and Tartuffes know a trick worth two of the rum-punch business, the red nose, and, for that matter, of sexual gallantries or other like peccadilloes abhorrent to the Nonconformist conscience and its votaries. Class interest and financial gain are more in their way than personal and private sins. This in an illustration of how Dickens and the early-Victorian novelists have lost already their savour and are likely to become pointless for future generations.

The question of the evolution of hypocrisy, as of roguery generally, is always interesting. The mediaeval fraudulent baker would stick a lump of clay or a stone in the middle of his loaf to make it weigh heavier. The modern fraudulent baker is better advised than to play such a clumsy trick. He makes his extra profit through cheapening his flour by adulteration, or otherwise lessening the cost of production, to the deterioration of the product. So the modern Stiggins scorns the methods of hypocrisy affected by his Dickensian prototype. The hypocrisy he so ably cultivates bears the impress of calculated thought and sober reflection. The above is, of course, only one instance of the way in which the wit and wisdom even of such a classic humorist in fiction as Charles Dickens has worn thin within a couple of generations. Many more could be given, such, for instance, as some of the pleasantries, and above all the Cockney speech of Sam Weller – the latter, of course, as has been often noticed, having become to some extent pointless and its funniness blunted to the present generation of Englishmen.

The like observations might be made as regards other novelists that delighted our fathers and mothers, and for that matter, ourselves also, in our early days, that is, those of us who are already beginning to take on the autumn tints of the “sere and yellow.”

In Art, the declining nineteenth century expressed itself in what is known as Decadence in its various forms. The aesthetic movement proper, of which John Ruskin was regarded as the protagonist, and the extreme and more especially decadent forms of it which were represented by Oscar Wilde and his circle, were alike dominant at this time. For other decadents we have only to mention, in painting and designing, the names of Whistler and Aubrey Beardsley to recall a host of imitators. As for the (as we may term it) old legitimate aesthetic movement, as realized in the art of painting and designing, it was represented during the period in question, first and foremost by Burne-Jones, for life a close friend of William Morris, and by his disciple, Walter Crane, who carried on the artistic tradition of it till his death early in the year 1915. On the Continent, this line of artistic conception, in so far as it was not merely imitation, may be deemed to have been embodied in the works of Arnold Bocklin, the Swiss painter (1827-1901). There was considerable difference, no doubt, but the painting with the suggestion of decorative design in it which characterized the English movement is unmistakably present in the latter artist. The influence of this art in Central Europe is very marked indeed. There is a peculiar sweep of line of a scroll-character, eminently Bocklinian, which meets one continually in the more recent decorative art of the Germanic countries.

The cult of Decadence, as we may call it, in literature and pcetry, of which the Oscar Wilde group was the extreme wing, had a considerable vogue in the declining years of the nineteenth century, and traces of its effects may still be seen in the minds of the younger generation. The “Fleshly School,” as it was termed, of Swinburne, with its offshoots, was countered by the “Idyllic School,” as championed by Robert Buchanan, representing the older tradition in English poetry. Both were caricatured by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience. The rapid development of Decadence in art issued in a morbid craving for, and striving after, mere bizarrerie. It mattered not whether a thing were beautiful or ugly, provided it were sufficiently bizarre. This decadent tendency run mad, when transferred from the sphere of literature and art to that of morals and manners, resulted, as is well known, in the downfall of Oscar Wilde himself. While giving full weight, however, to the decadent current in promoting unnatural proclivities in sex as in other matters, it must not be forgotten that the “Social Purity” movement so-called, led at that time by men like Stead and Price Hughes, may easily furnish the seed ground for such forms of erratic vice. In this connexion I cannot but recall what was told me by an eminent Egyptian judge, now holding a distinguished position on the mixed tribunal at Cairo. Speaking of Oriental literature, and especially of the Arabian Nights, he related to me how, in discussing the subject with a learned Mollah, he asked him what he thought of the gross licentiousness of much Mohammedan literature, and whether he could justify it. “Yes,” replied the Mollah; “you see, the true believers, who were the authors of this literature, had to do with populations in which unnatural sexual vice was prevalent. Now, their aim was to provide a counteractive by lascivious descriptions and stories which excited the passions of men in the right direction, turning their lusts into the normal channel.” Whether this pronouncement of the Mollah was historically accurate, and such was really the high moral purpose of the Islamic authors of erotic Eastern literature, may perhaps be doubted. But anyway, the contention itself has something to be said for it. You cannot suppress natural passion. The authors of Eastern literature, according to the Mollah, found a tendency for it to run into unnatural channels, and tried by their literary allurements to entice it back into natural ones. Conversely, promoters of the Social Purity campaign, in trying to cast stumbling-blocks moral and material in the way of the natural outlet of human passion, are pursuing a course which may well lead directly or indirectly to sexual perversion.

In Music, the cult of Decadence, although its first beginning may be traced as far back as the eighties, has reached what one may hope is its extreme development only in our own day. The eccentricities of Richard Strauss have been outdone recently by the senseless bizarreries of a Schönberg, and the madness of an Italian apostle of mere noise. At the end of the last century Wagner had entered fully into the appreciation of the English musical public. Very little was listened to or cared for in the direction of Opera that was not Wagner. In classical music Brahms still held the field with many, but everywhere the Wagnerian music-drama brought full houses. Shaw discoursed on Wagner in the columns of the World, and published the substance of his articles in his little volume The Complete Wagnerite. As regards Shaw, by the way, in connexion with Wagner – about the time of the first production of the Meistersinger in London, in June 1890, he called my attention to the curious fact that the main themes of the work were built up on the interval of the fourth. He and I were, during this period, joint musical critics of an evening paper. He wrote over the pseudonym “Corno di Bassetto,” I over that of “Musigena.” I had often occasion to be away on the Continent at this time, and I remember on this very occasion of the first introduction of the Meistersinger I had arrived home just in time to attend the performance, which fell to my department. This rather disgusted Shaw, who felt himself unduly cut out. The result was that as my frequent absence from London often threw my side of the work on Shaw, I thought it only fair to resign the whole to him. He, I believe, held it for a little time longer and then also resigned, presumably finding that the columns of the World gave him enough scope for the expression of his views on music, and that the pressure of other literary work absorbed more and more of his time.

In Philosophy, outside the still considerable though waning influence of Mill, and still more of Herbert Spencer, the so-called “young Hegelian” movement held the field. Thomas Hill Green, who died in the early eighties, was its protagonist at Oxford. The movement in question must not be regarded as a mere resuscitation of the philosophy of Hegel himself. It rather represented a rehabilitation and re-adaptation of the whole fundamental line of thought in German philosophy, which, though it ended with the old Hegelian school yet took its first origin from Kant. The movement produced a not inconsiderable philosophical literature in England and America. R.B. (now Lord) Haldane and his brother Dr. J.S. Haldane, especially the former, were zealous propagandists of the new departure in British philosophy. Indeed, perhaps the most notable production of the movement may be considered Lord Haldane’s book, The Pathway of Reality, which dates, however, from much later, having been published in 1903. The general position of this school was the leading one in English philosophy until well into the present century; afterwards, at least in its original form, it succumbed to the assaults of criticism, and its basic positions began to be challenged by various cross-currents, perhaps the chief of which was the line of thought centring in Henri Bergson. Notwithstanding, however, its vulnerability to criticism in the older shapes in which it has been presented, the philosophical Idealism, embodied in the movement from Kant to Hegel, unquestionably contains a fundamental element of truth which all future philosophical speculation will have to take account as basal.

In 1882 I contributed my own quota to the dominant philosophical interest by my translation of Kant’s Prolegomena and Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, preceded by a short biography of Kant, published in Bohn’s “Philosophical Library”; and, three years later, by my Handbook to the History of Philosophy in the same series. The Aristotelian Society was founded in 1881 by a small hand of independent students of philosophy, with the late Dr. Shadworth Hodgson as president. In its early years, as I remember it, it had not yet become so much the haunt of academic dignitaries, men of the chair, as it did at a later period.

In History, especially the history of institutions, the century-end showed some remarkable achievements. Freeman was still writing at the beginning of the nineties, and he, in conjunction with J.R. Green (then recently deceased), and Canon Stubbs were the leading lights in the new views of historical research as applied to English history. Green’s Short History of the English People, which originally appeared in 1874, achieved enormous success, and was read by every Englishman and Englishwoman with any pretence to education during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Stubbs’ Constitutional History, though appealing to a more restricted class, had an almost equal success on its own lines. The most remarkable work in general history in this country produced by the declining nineteenth century may fairly be said to be the late Thomas Hodgkin’s Italy and Her Invaders, the separate appearance of the eight volumes of which extended from 1880 to 1899, Hodgkin belonged to the same school as the historians above mentioned, and his work undoubtedly contains the most complete and exhaustive history of the “Barbarian invasions” that has ever been written in any language. One rises from a perusal of Hodgkin with the conviction that, as regards actual historical fact, at least, the last word has been said on this great subject. Covering as it does the ground of a considerable part of Gibbons’ work, Italy and Her Invaders is a striking object-lesson in the advance of historical scholarship during the nineteenth century.

Talking of historical scholarship, it is a curious thing to notice how one occasionally finds a man of undoubted ability and real scholarship, who will be once in a way caught tripping in the most elementary fashion, within the bounds of the special subject to which he has devoted perhaps the greater part of his life. Thus, I believe it was the late Mr. F.J. Furnivall – and if any one was an adept in English Elizabethan literature certainly he was – who, on one occasion, in a review, made the outrageous gaffe of criticizing a preface by Ben Jonson to some contemporary author as if it had been the production of a modern editor. A more recent instance, not so flagrant as this, but showing at least a singular ignorance or lapse of memory as regards well-known historical source, came under lily notice in connexion with the eminent classical scholar and authority in Roman History, Professor Ferrero, of Turin. Conversing on various points relating to the civil wars at the end of the Republic, I mentioned a well-known passage in Plutarch’s Life of Sylla, in which the story is told with considerable detail of a satyr or faun captured by the soldiery and brought to Sylla. I asked Professor Ferrero what he thought it meant. He, however, while hazarding the opinion that it possibly referred to some cretin, almost animal-like in appearance, such as are to be found in some mountainous districts, notably the Val d’Aosta, at this day, stated that he was quite unaware of the existence of the passage in question! And yet perhaps Professor Ferrero knows the sources of Roman history in general better than any other man living. May we take this as showing that the greatest scholars and the greatest specialists may be fallible even as other men – fallible, too, on elementary matters concerning their own specialism?

But even more than in the domain of general historical research is the period of the declining years of the nineteenth century signalized by the remarkable work done in connexion with the early history of institutions, together with Comparative Mythology and the science of Anthropology generally. As in history, so here, English scholars received a vast amount of assistance from, and were powerfully influenced by, continental, and especially German, scholarship. But there was also much original work done by English writers, besides the collection of material and its presentation as a coherent whole of theory. Asked to name the most striking contribution to human knowledge in the departments above mentioned, I think there are few competent to judge who would not give the palm to that remarkable book The Golden Bough of Professor (now Sir James) Frazer, of Cambridge, of which the first edition was published in 1890, and new editions, each with large additions of fresh matter, have been constantly appearing since. This great work has produced, in many respects, a revolution in our views of primitive society and of the early periods of universal history. Valuable work was also done by other writers, but none of quite so much originality as that of Frazer. [1]

Among works dealing with anthropological studies from another side may be mentioned Morgan’s Ancient Society, which Karl Marx was one of the first to appreciate on its appearance in 1876. But it did not receive general recognition till the century was nearing its close. The works of Von Maurer and Maine, belonging to the period of the mid-century or a little later, formed the groundwork for much of the research into the beginnings of social history during the time of which we are speaking.

As before remarked, the early eighties marked the climax of a great change in the intellectual life of England. It was then that the advent of a new generation made itself very distinctly felt. The difference, for instance, between the England of the sixties and the England of the eighties, is immense as regards the relative culture of the two periods alike in respect of its depth and extension. In the sixties an independent all-round intellectual life was strictly limited to a section, of the academic, literary, and scientific classes, and even here the outlook was as a rule very narrow compared with what it became a couple of decades afterwards. The social strata affected by intellectual interests showed an enormous advance in the later as compared with the earlier period. Middle-class households, where in the sixties antimacassars, wax-flowers, on the walls, religious texts worked in Berlin wool, sentimental drawing-room songs, cheap dance music or transcription of banal Italian opera airs lying on a chair beside the piano, religious books alternating with cheap novels in the bookcase, Martin Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy, and, as the nearest approach to actual literature, Longfellow’s poems, on the drawing-room table – domestic establishments such as these gradually disappeared in the interval between the two periods. The generation which came to its own in the eighties had acquired truer instincts and higher interests in art, literature, music, and the deeper problems of life, individual and social, than its predecessors of the early- and mid-Victorian period The penetration of what is known as the “higher culture” into the ranks of the working classes proper followed some years later. It is noteworthy in this connexion that the Socialism of the eighties and even the early nineties – i.e. the new scientific Socialism of Marx and all that that implied – was mainly a middle-class movement. The working classes, to whom in the nature of things the movement ought to have appealed, were largely apathetic and unresponsive in this country for a long time. The work of education in the new social and economic views was mainly done by middle-class men. So it was generally. The new intellectual life of the country began to affect the bulk of the working classes in England hardly before the late nineties. Progress has been taking place, of course, ever since, but it is not amiss to recall the fact that the starting-point of much of our subsequent advance dates from the last twenty years of the nineteenth century and the new intellectual life which grew up during that time.

In the present chapter I have only attempted to call attention to some of the leading features in the literature, art, and science of the period in question. The picture here outlined can be readily filled up by all who will. Those days do not lie long behind us in reality, but the strain and stress of modern life have had a tendency to alter our perspective of events and periods, and already this nineteenth century-end begins to wear the aspect of history, and to seem more remote from us than its actual distance in time would warrant.



1. Talking of the Golden Bough, an incident occurred quite recently, illustrating at once the increase of education and intelligence in the English working classes of the present day as compared with the last generation, and the wide social range of the celebrity attained by this famous book. A window-cleaner coming one morning to perform his functions, and seeing a copy of one of the volumes of the Golden Bough lying open on my study table, observed to one of the household, with much apparent interest, pointing to the open page, “Ah, that’s a very remarkable book, ma’am – a very remarkable book!”


Last updated on 28.3.2004