Encountering the Fin-de-Siècle: Utilising Archives for Undergraduate Teaching

Dr Sarah Parker (University of Birmingham)

Never judge a book by its cover. Clearly the late-Victorians didn’t hold much by this adage, or we would not have inherited so many stunning examples of book design from the fin-de-siècle period. As critics such as Nicholas Frankel and Joseph Bristow have emphasised, one of the central goals of the aesthetic and decadent movements was to produce the ‘beautiful book’ as an objet d’art in its own right. John Gray’s Silverpoints (1893), for example, serves as an icon of such book publishing, with its high-stylized cover design by Charles Ricketts and acres of margin overwhelming its (in Ada Leverson’s words) ‘tiniest rivulet of text’.

The key aims and concerns of the ‘Cult of Beauty’ announce themselves loudly through such volumes, and it is for this reason that the significance of the book-as-art-object is increasingly emphasised within accounts of the fin de siècle.

The ‘beautiful book’ therefore forms a central part of the third-year ‘Decadence and Aestheticism’ module offered to undergraduate students at the University of Birmingham (designed by Dr Marion Thain), serving as a material touch-stone for many of the ideas explored on the course.

On this module, students learn about the formation and aims of the aesthetic and decadent movements, from Walter Pater, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to the movements’ later manifestations in the writings of Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons and even E. M. Forster. They are also encouraged to examine and critique the internal contradictions of the movements and to explore the challenges to Aestheticism and Decadence posed from without; for example, the moral hysteria of Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892).

The beautiful book literally embodies many of these contradictions, for example: the clashing of economic and aesthetic values, which many aesthetic and decadent writers desperately sought to reconcile. Using the beautiful book as an analogy, I sought to emphasise to students the ways in which writers set themselves up against mass-produced, throw-away fiction, seeking to elevate literature to the status of immortal art. Throughout the module, I therefore drew repeated comparisons between the ‘beautiful book’ and literature as mass-commodity, pointing out how periodicals such as The Yellow Book in fact walked the line between the two, by appearing expensive and exclusive, but in reality, being affordable to a mass readership.

However, there remained a problem: none of my students had ever seen any examples of fine fin-de-siècle book design, let alone a mass-produced Victorian paperback. That certainly explained the slightly blank faces when I made frequent reference to such volumes. Facsimile reproductions in monographs and essay collections can only do so much; my students had never experienced the feel of the paper, the gleam of the gilt engravings, the slight creak of the hand-sewn boards, or the musty smell that emanates from such artefacts, the erstwhile possessions of literary connoisseurs. We had spent weeks as a group discussing such volumes, appealing to them as the incarnations of the ideas we were exploring. As semester drew on, I decided it was time for the students to finally see and handle these books for real.

In the last week of the course, I arranged a trip to University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library and Special Collections. I ordered a list of representative texts from the University’s vast collection. The students had an hour to simply handle and enjoy these books in a private reading room. So many relevant items were lined up on a trolley that almost every individual student (of a group of around 30) had an item to themselves.

That hour was without a doubt the best moment of my teaching career so far. The response from students was hugely positive; the beauty of some of the books at first stunned them, and they were hesitant to open the covers and turn the pages. They grew bolder on seeing the well-known names on the spines, realising that these were the original versions that late-Victorian readers would themselves have purchased and handled. The range of books they excitedly shared and swapped amongst themselves — from the intricate ‘obscenity’ of Aubrey Beardsley’s Under the Hill, to the austere medievalism of the Kelmscott Chaucer, to the brightly-coloured covers of various Victorian paperbacks — really brought the period to life in all its variation, and highlighted the contradictions we had talked about in seminars.

Students examined several editions of The Yellow Book, shrewdly observing in the contents listings a combination of well-known names and those less well-known. As critics such as Talia Schaffer and Linda K. Hughes have pointed out, taking in a couple of issues of The Yellow Book enables the modern-day scholar to capture a moment, free of the distortions of posthumous canonisation, in which the contributions of so-called ‘minor’ poets — usually women — are published alongside those of the ‘big names’. Seeing these names occupying the same space demonstrated to students that latter-day generalisations about ‘greatness’ do not necessarily tell us anything useful about the value placed on these writers and their productions during the fin-de-siècle period itself.

On a broader level, the session meant students learnt how to access and use a Special Collections library and archive. In almost all cases, they had feared to set foot in the archives before, assuming they would not be welcome, or that they would be shown up by their lack of knowledge of library procedures. Going in as a group, and being talked through these procedures en mass (signing in, putting bags and coats in lockers, ordering items) enabled them to feel confident visiting the library in future. They were surprised that they did not have to wear white gloves to handle the materials.

Ultimately, the session took the fear out of visiting the archive, and demonstrated why it might be worthwhile to do so. Students learnt that they could use the University’s Special Collections to inform and illuminate their own work. I explained that in addition to Rare Books, they could even consult manuscripts, including hand-written diaries and letters by the writers they had studied, which could be used for forming original arguments in future work, and even in postgraduate study (I explained that my own work on the fin-de-siècle poet Olive Custance had emerged from exploring such papers in the British Library and the New York Public Library).

Overall, they were inspired by the trip to ask bolder questions about the fin de siècle, and to think of themselves increasingly as independent researchers. Some later told me that they went on to use the archives for their dissertations. For my part, the experience re-emphasised the importance of hands-on interaction to teaching; in the archive, handling the books, the students were engaged on a new level, which allowed them to truly discover the period for themselves. I therefore conclude that teaching beyond the seminar room, in heritage, gallery and museum spaces, with original materials that the students can touch, feel and see, is the way forward if we want to equip students with relevant research skills, and if we want to bring a particular literary period to life.

Dr Sarah Parker currently teaches late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century literature at the University of Birmingham. Her publications include ‘“A Girl’s Love”: Lord Alfred Douglas as Homoerotic Muse in the Poetry of Olive Custance’ (Women: A Cultural Review, 22. 2-3, September 2011) and ‘Whose Muse? Sappho, Swinburne and Amy Lowell’  (in Algernon Charles Swinburne: Unofficial Laureate, Eds. Catherine Maxwell and Stefano Evangelista, Manchester UP, forthcoming 2012). Her monograph The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889-1930 is forthcoming in 2014 (Pickering & Chatto, Gender and Genre Series).  Sarah tweets at  http://twitter.com/drsarahparker and her academia profile can be found at: http://birmingham.academia.edu/SarahParker.

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