This past year has been an excellent one for any devotee, no matter how languid, of the British 1890s. In this period aesthetes and decadents such as Oscar Wilde, Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock and Enoch Soames celebrated art for art’s sake, while flaunting their outrageous personalities and flouting the bourgeois establishment. Delicate young men produced slim volumes of ethereal verse or prose, then gave them titles like “Discords,” “Wreckage” or “Negations.” This was the era of that notorious quarterly, the Yellow Book, and of the grotesque Pierrots and courtesans depicted in its pages by Aubrey Beardsley. It was, in many ways, the first colorful flowering of modern gay culture.
While the 1890s produced strange personalities galore, none was stranger than Frederick William Rolfe, who adopted the pen name Baron Corvo for his astonishing 1904 novel “Hadrian VII,” in which a Grub Street hack is elected pope. Rolfe himself was inordinately abrasive, paranoid and spiteful, as one learns from A.J.A. Symons’s pioneering 1934 biography, “The Quest for Corvo,” newly reissued by Tartarus Press in a handsome illustrated edition, superbly introduced by Mark Valentine. In its pages, we are treated not only to Rolfe’s scandal-ridden life — which culminated in sordid frolics with Venetian gondoliers — but also to Symons’s interviews with eccentric collectors and aging priests as he seeks information about his fractious but fascinating subject.
The resulting double portrait, elegantly written, suffused with antiquarian charm and seductively readable, ranks as a minor masterpiece. But, really, aren’t minor masterpieces the best kind? Appropriately, New York’s Grolier Club is hosting — until Jan. 5 — “A.J.A. Symons: A Bibliomane, His Books and His Clubs,” an exhibition drawing on the Symons collection of Simon C.W. Hewett. For bibliophiles, it’s worth a trip to Manhattan.
Early in 2018, Harvard University Press brought out “The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde,” edited by Nicholas Frankel (who previously annotated the original version of Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”). Sentenced to two years of hard labor for gross indecency with young men, the often despondent Wilde still managed to write his last important works: “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” remembered for its haunting line, “Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” and “De Profundis,” his 1897 novella-length letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (the poet who originated the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name”). In it Wilde, a.k.a. Prisoner C33, looks back on his relationship with Douglas and the disgrace that followed when their homosexual bacchanals — provocatively likened to “feasting with panthers” — were made public and the older writer’s life utterly ruined.
Wilde’s fellow Irishman, W.B. Yeats, spent much of the 1890s in London, eventually memorializing his friends in the Rhymers’ Club as “the tragic generation.” Of these, Ernest Dowson, who died at 32, may be the best known today, If only for the cri de coeur “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion,” while Yeats himself most deeply admired Lionel Johnson. A superb capsule account of that poet’s life, titled “Ritualistic Adorabilities,” forms the introduction to Nina Antonia’s “Incurable: The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, the Decadent Era’s Dark Angel” (Strange Attractor Press). Johnson was diminutive, cherubic in appearance, exceptionally learned in the classics, the sometime lover of Lord Alfred Douglas (till Wilde came along), and always thirsty for whiskey or “the green devil,” absinthe. He died at 35 from a series of strokes brought on by alcoholism. “Go from me: I am one of those who fall.”
What can one say about the decadent’s decadent, Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock? At last his poetry and prose — never easy to find — is readily available in “Of Kings and Things,” edited by David Tibet (Strange Attractor Press). Stenbock was an Estonian aristocrat, educated at Oxford, homosexual yet devoutly Catholic, and a seriously addicted opium-eater. His work comprises the morbid and romantic stories collected as “Studies of Death,” a dark fairy tale of blue flowers and E.T.A. Hoffmann-esque transformations called “The Other Side” and three volumes of melancholy verse:
Eyes! That I dared not look to,
Lips! That I dared not touch—
Would you pray for me a little,
Who prayed for you so much?
Stenbock’s most anthologized prose work, “The Story of a Vampire,” is less a tale of terror than an oblique description of a homosexual or Uranian (the period’s preferred term) Liebestod: To survive, the tormented Count Vardalek must kill the thing he loves, the faunlike boy Gabriel. Just before his own death at 35, Stenbock was said to travel with a child-size wooden doll which he treated as if it were human and referred to lovingly as his son and heir.
Readers of a scholarly turn should definitely seek out James Machin’s “Weird Fiction in Britain, 1880-1939” (Palgrave Macmillan), which reinserts horror texts into the fin-de-siecle canon, then follows their insidious tendrils all the way to the American pulp magazine Weird Tales. Arthur Machen’s novella “The Great God Pan,” suffused with transgressive sexuality, and the stories in M.P. Shiel’s “Shapes in the Fire,” composed in a feverish, overwrought prose, clearly revel in what the poet Swinburne once memorably described as “the raptures and roses of vice.”
In the spectacular “Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story” (U.S. Games Systems) four scholars — Stuart R. Kaplan, Mary K. Greer, Elizabeth Foley O’Connor and Melinda Boyd Parsons — celebrate the career of a major book artist and costume designer. Still, Smith will be forever revered for the hermetic images that she and 1890s occultist A.E. Waite devised for the modern Rider-Waite Tarot deck. T.S. Eliot’s fortunetelling Madame Sosostris apparently used Smith’s “wicked pack of cards” and so deserves the admonitory last word: “I do not find the Hanged Man. Fear death by water.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.