BOOK REVIEW / Not so naughty Nineties: Godfrey Hodgson on the pessimism and innovation that marked fin de siecle London. 'London in the 1890s' - Karl Beckson: Norton, 27.50 pounds

DURING the final decades of the century, Karl Beckson sums up, a widespread perception that Britain was in a state of decline found expression in the press, which published articles in profusion announcing 'the decline or decay of such phenomena as cricket, genius, war, classical quotations, romance, marriage, faith, bookselling and even canine fidelity'.

What else is new? He was writing, as it happens, about the last decade of the 19th, not the 20th century. He goes on - and here is the difference - to record that 100 years ago, alongside this widespread pessimism, there was also a remarkable ferment of innovation, 'with much talk of the New Drama, the New Woman, the New Journalism, the New Imperialism, the New Criticism, the New Hedonism, the New Paganism' and so on.

The foolish habit of endowing the decades as they pass with a stereotype is stronger than ever. The Twenties were the decade of political reaction and social pomposity, as well as the age of the flapper and the cocktail, and most of the same people who had been conformist in the Fifties went on being conformist in the Sixties.

This decadism has led the 1890s to be type-cast as 'the Yellow Decade', as if all that was happening in London in those 10 years was the coronation and fall of Oscar Wilde and the publication of the Yellow Book. Long ago E F Benson disposed of that error in a memorable burst. 'Before the dawn of the Nineties, the old idols had been quite toppled over,' he wrote. 'The attempt to demonstrate that there was now marching out of the Bodley Head under the flying flag of the Yellow Book a band of Aprileyed young brothers singing revolutionary ditties and bent on iconoclasm is disastrous to any clear conception of what was going on.'

The Yellow Book, Benson points out, was 'a respectable, almost highbrow organ'. It included articles by such respectable near-fogies as Edmund Gosse and George Saintsbury, , and the illustrators, besides Beardsley, included John Singer Sargent, Wilson Steer and no less a Victorian than Sir Frederick Leighton.

A few dates remind us of the extraordinary creativity and variety of the London 1890s in literature as well as in science. In 1890, for example, Oscar Wilde published The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and Kipling The Light that Failed. The next year, Conan Doyle published The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, George Gissing published New Grub Street and Thomas Hardy finished his sport with Tess. . In 1897 J J Thomson discovered the electron, and by 1900 Max Planck had elaborated the quantum theory.

Karl Beckson brings that London of 100 years ago alive with a series of deft sketches. He is specially good on the cult of sexual 'inversion' which motivated such different talents as those of Wilde himself, Swinburne, John Addington Symonds, the historian of the Italian renaissance, and, in repressed form, Henry James, Edmund Gosse, Gerard Manley Hopkins and A E Housman. He demonstrates that The Importance of Being Earnest was a double pun: 'Earnest' was a euphemism for 'Uranian' or homosexual before Wilde wrote the play.

He pursues curious avenues of the Uranian world, which had been driven underground by the notorious Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1882. We eavesdrop, with some embarrassment, on Edward Carpenter's desire for 'the thick-thighed, hot, coarse-fleshed young bricklayer with a strap round his waist', and E M Forster's desire to 'love a strong young man of the lower classes and to be loved by him'.

Not that the Uranians had it all their own way. The 'purity crusaders' led by Laura Ormiston Chant failed in their campaign to close the 'promenades' at London music halls where the more expensive prostitutes loitered; 20 years later it took a world war and the Bishop of London to succeed where Mrs Chant and her friends had failed. So fleshly a poet as Arthur Symons, arch-champion of the French Symbolist poets, described in flaming verses his pick-ups from the promenades and the pavements. The Pall Mall Gazette didn't approve. 'Every woman he pays to meet him, he tells us, is desirous to kiss his lips; our boots, too, are desirous, but of quite another part of him, for quite another purpose.'

It is striking how intelligent, red-blooded and controversial the journalism of the 1890s was compared to the spiritless ideological tub-thumping and pop sociology of 100 years later. The new mass journalism was challenged by periodicals like the Hobby Horse, the Dial and the Yellow Book which achieved a remarkably high standard of literacy and seriousness.

Karl Beckson has brought this vigorous yet troubled world to life in all its ambiguities and contradictions. He describes the injections of vitality into London in that period from abroad: notably from Ibsen, Nietzsche, Verlaine and Zola. He traces the struggle of the New Woman, from the journalistic controversy of 1888 over the 'Marriage Question', to the work of such proto-feminists as Olive Schreiner and Edith Rees. He also shows that while many women, from Queen Victoria to Margot Asquith, opposed women's rights, many of the most talented male writers of the 1890 generation, including Hardy in Jude, Kipling and H G Wells, addressed themselves in challenging ways to the relationship between the sexes and, for the first time since the 18th century, dealt frankly with both male and female sexuality.

In this and other ways, the 1890s, so far from being a decade of pallid decadence, laid the foundations for the explosion of modernism in the first quarter of the 20th century: Nostromo, The Portrait of a Lady, The Second Coming, Ulysses. It is notorious, though, how many of the great achievements of modernism were raised by writers in English who were not English.

Already, 100 years ago, many of the most gifted of British writers were retreating into the past, or the exotic, or the mid-market, leaving the richest harvest of their own language to be gathered in by literary immigrants. At least, in the Nineties, literary London was a busy enough beehive of ideas, reputations and rewards to attract guest workers of prodigious talent.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee