Fin de siècle, Part I: From “The Grand Duke” to “The King in Yellow”

To understand the future, we must understand the past. I’ve used this strange, unwieldy phrase “techno-decadentism” in reference to an artistic movement; one that is, I will argue, an heir to the tradition of “just plain old” decadentism. But what was the original decadentism? Where did it come from? And can we learn anything from it?

Come with me, once again, to the 1890s. I talked in the previous post about fin de siècle. But now we have to experience it.

It’s 1897 and there’s a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard on at the Savoy. Check out that poster!

A black figure against a yellow background–how striking. Then again, we’ve seen this before–in 1896, The Grand Duke was playing at the Savoy, with a very similar poster–indeed, by the same artist:

Of course, Grand Duke depicts a broken-down critter, not an imposing figure. And yet, both, in their own way, symbolize the same thing. Do I even have to tell you what they symbolize? Decadence means decay, and the final stage of decay is of course death. A lone figure, symbolizing death… it evokes Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

Ah, now, that’s a bit of a cheat. I have no business dragging a poem from 1842 into a conversation about the 1890s. Or do I? After all, Poe’s influence on the decadent movement was great, and if he was born a little too early, and a lot too west, we can’t blame him for it. Artistic movements usually take a while to bloom; like a plant. “A flower, planted on Poe’s grave,” as I once heard someone describe it.

You might think these posters are similar simply because they are by the same artist, Dudley Hardy. But this is more than just a single artist’s distinctive touch. It’s part of something bigger–hence, we call it an aesthetic. See again the example of Théophile Steinlen’s 1896 poster for Le Chat Noir:

Or, maybe the single most famous piece of artwork to come out of this epoch: The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893). Again, an ominous background surrounding a surreal and nightmarish figure: 

Everything about Fin de siècle is conveying a mood of pessimism, of decline and decay. In England, a venerable old monarch was growing grey. Victoria’s days were numbered, as her subjects must have known, but would not say. Maybe that’s why Sir James Frazer’s anthropological study of death and rebirth myths The Golden Bough (1890) made such a hit.

You ask: am I just cherry-picking here? Finding all the seemingly-related works from a certain period and leaving out ones that don’t fit? I’m sure there must have been good old-fashioned romantic art being produced in the 1890s. (Actually, fin de siecle art was centered in Europe–other parts of the world were in an altogether different phases of civilization at this point.)

Anyway, yes: I might indeed be cherry-picking facts. It’s easy to find themes that fit a narrative and discard those that don’t, since we know what happened next, and therefore are easily predisposed to see patterns that might not even exist.

To know if anything is really going on here in the 1890s, we have to try to look at the world through the eyes of its inhabitants. This is where my amateurish Gilbert and Sullivan studies come in handy: in their heyday of the 1870s and 1880s, Gilbert and Sullivan made their names with comic operas known for their light humor, bubbly dialogue, and romance. They are optimistic and fun–even when they talk about darker subjects like execution.

And then we come to the 1890s, and things change. Their next-to-last work, Utopia, Limited doesn’t just mock the foibles of particular public figures, but is a broad satire on the British Empire itself. And their last, the aforementioned Grand Duke is cynical mockery of almost everything–love, death and the medium of theatrical entertainment itself. It’s funny (actually, in my opinion one of their funniest) but it doesn’t have heart like their most famous operas do.

As Max Keith Sutton put it in his article, The Significance of The Grand Duke:

The opera is a decadent work, as Professor Jones has suggested–perhaps a deliberate parody of literary trends near the time of Wilde’s Salome, when perverse attitudes (necrophilia, for one) and violence were being seriously depicted on the European stage. Certainly The Grand Duke is decadent in the literal sense of representing physical and mental, moral and political decay.

He explicitly makes the comparison with fertility myths:

The decrepit Rudolph has the role of the Old King whose death signifies the end of the year, the defeat of Winter in the ceremonial contest with Spring. “Broken-down critter” that he is, he makes a perfect monarch for a comic wasteland… Rudolph undergoes legal death in the mock duel–”the moment of ritual sacrifice”–and the plump, sausage-devouring comedian takes over as duke for a day and Lord of Misrule.

I can’t prove an entire shift in the zeitgeist based on the work of a curmudgeonly old librettist and his alienated and sickly composer. But, something is going on here, wouldn’t you say? Things that would have never been tolerated at the height of Victorian prudishness are now becoming mainstream. 

There is a sense of a cycle, a cycle that is coming to an end. The cynicism, boredom, and restless neuroticism that characterize a declining empire who knows its best days are behind it. 

I’ve always liked The Grand Duke. It was the least popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but its atmosphere is strangely compelling to me. But I never bothered to see it in its proper context until I began to study the 1890s for another reason: Robert W. Chambers’ collection of stories, The King in Yellow, and in particular the first story, The Repairer of Reputations.”

I’ve talked about it before. A lot. Hell, I’ve actually posted the story with my annotations on this blog. So a lot of this will be old hat to longtime readers. But we just can’t understand this strange world of fin de siècle without understanding The King in Yellow. Sorry if this is repetitious for some of you.

Despite my enthusiasm for it, I’ve never actually reviewed The King in Yellow, however, because something in it defies reviewing. The key part of the book is the fictional play described within it, also called The King in Yellow, which connects the first four stories. Chambers only quotes bits and pieces of the play, and, notably, only from Act I. Act II–the really juicy bit that drives people mad–is left a mystery to the reader. Personally, I’ve always imagined it as something to do with an all-consuming plague, like the aforementioned Masque of the Red Death. And I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say there is an echo of Poe’s story in these mysterious lines quoted from the play:

CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask.
CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

But that’s just me. The beauty of Chambers’ technique is that he knows that what the reader imagines will be scarier than anything he himself could create.

If The King in Yellow has a flaw, it’s that its tales are arranged in the wrong order, proceeding from most bizarre to most mundane. M.R. James would have known that the way to truly mess with the reader is to lull them at first, before springing the trap. But, probably some editor told Chambers that one of the ten rules of writing was to lead with the exciting bit, or some such conventional wisdom. Times change; but people who don’t appreciate art remain the same, and also remain in charge of deciding what shall be published.

Recall that, as I said above, it is hard to evaluate an era honestly, because we know what happened. It’s interesting to get a view of the people of the era, who don’t know where it’s all going. It’s even more interesting to read their predictions for where they think it will go.  Chambers provides us with just such a prediction, albeit wrapped in a curious package.

The Repairer of Reputations begins:

Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President W———‘s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s ————-, had left no visible scars upon the republic…

Okay, so I’m playing censor here and cutting stuff out. Did your mind automatically fill in those blanks? The natural thing is to assume the first is filled with “Wilson” and the second with “invasion of France.” 

If you do that, you have a totally nondescript history of someone talking about actual 1920. Admittedly, it’s a decidedly vague description, but still, it works.

But of course, this story was written in 1895. And it’s President Winthrop and Germany seized the Samoan islands. Which actually happened a few years after Chambers wrote the book, although it was not the cause of the major war.

I am not a believer in prophecies or seers or other such superstitious hokum. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side…” etc. But seriously, this gives me pause. 

What’s even weirder is that, as the story develops, we learn that Hildred Castaigne, the narrator telling us all this, is, um, not exactly reliable. In fact, he’s so unreliable that it might not even be set in 1920 at all, and yet his doubly-imaginary 1920 seems plausible to us, as readers who, unlike Chambers, know what happened in real 1920.

Does this creep you out just a little? There’s more: the future that our narrator reports (envisions?) includes such things as government lethal chambers, where people who find existence unendurable may find relief. Was that prescient? I dunno, let’s check with the American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922. 

So what the heck? Was Robert W. Chambers was some sort of prophet or time-traveler gifted with uncanny insight into the future? And if he was, we must ask: why did he use his powers only to write one cool story, and not for something more epic?

A more plausible explanation, and much more agreeable to my skeptical, materialist mind, is that there is such a thing a zeitgeist where all trends are pointing towards something happening.  For example, could you find some literary work from the early 2000s that involved a highly-contagious pandemic? Why yes, you could! But really, in retrospect, isn’t that one of those things that any intelligent person who was paying attention could have foreseen? 

And this is why fin de siècle literature is so interesting. If it was all just a coincidence that around 1890 everybody started to feel cynical, bored, and generally like the old order is about to go up in some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, and it did, then it’s a mere historical curiosity. 

But if, on the other hand, there is some sort of predictive value in this–if perhaps people feeling this pervasive sense of decay had something to do with the ultimate fate of Europe, either because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or simply because anyone attuned to the spirit of the age could see where it was going, then this is very interesting indeed.

And it would be especially interesting if we had some reason to believe that it was happening again… but that’s for another time. 😉


  1. A lot of things to ponder here. Not being all that familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan it left me a little behind.

    1. Yes, I’m indulging my own niche tastes a little bit. 🙂 But thank you for reading it and commenting!

  2. This is a very interesting and thought provoking post.
    Art in all its shapes and forms reflects the general mood of not necessarily all of the population but a sizeable proportion. I think one of the contributory factors to this air of what may also be called Despondency or Disillusionment with the Times would have been the flourishing of Industrialisation not just in the cities and by the removing of the countryside but in the capacity for war; suddenly there were large machines capable of mowing down ranks of soldiers (there always had been, but these looked more ‘The Business’). And when folk saw the massive battleships, well it was obvious one of those could level an entire city (quite incorrect but again they looked ‘The Business’). Also the old European order had changed and in the scramble for empires wars ever loomed. Then there had been the industrial scale slaughters in the Franco Prussian and American Civil wars to name but two.
    In the UK during the 1870s off started the genre of Invasion Literature which scared a lot of folk even if there was no possible logistical possibility. Of course War sells well but the threat of it scares too. We can refer to our own 1950s to 1970s fear of nuclear war to see how that affected moods and art.
    I would suggest back in those times the shadow of The Machine left in people a gloom which in turn did give rise to a ‘What’s The Point of It All’ and was reflected in the works you have highlighted. In some respects they were justified, or though with the rise of militant nationalisms there was an element of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    1. Thank you for this excellent comment. These are all good points.

      I’m planning to do a series of posts about this topic, and what you have said here is even more relevant to what I’ll talk about in subsequent posts. Thanks again!

What's your stake in this, cowboy?