London’s Café Royal finally re-opens this week after a four-year makeover, its storied public spaces restored and incorporated into a luxury hotel designed by David Chipperfield, almost 150 years after the Regent Street location first opened for business.
In the 1890s the Café Royal was the undisputed centre of London’s artistic and literary life. It was a bourse of ideas, an informal labour exchange, a place where success was toasted and failure consoled. If through some miracle of time travel you were to find yourself with a booking in the Royal’s sumptuous Grill Room in 1893 and wanted to bone up before embarking through your wormhole, it is unlikely you would find a better guide to English arts and letters in this era than Matthew Sturgis’s Passionate Attitudes, published in 1995.
Subtitled The English Decadence of the 1890s, it begins on the other side of the Channel. Sturgis opens in 1889 with the visit of Arthur Symons and Havelock Ellis to Expo-crazed Paris. No less eye-opening than the Seine-side exhibits was their encounter with French literature then unavailable in Britain, including novels by J. K. Huysmans and other Decadents who consciously drew on the late Latin writers and disdained Zola-esque Naturalism. Sturgis provides a pacy yet hugely valuable timeline of the origins of modern French literature, beginning with the demise of classical verse in the 1830s. It may seem an overlong diversion from the title’s apparent focus, but it is impossible to understand English Decadence without examining its French roots.
The books and ideas which Symons and Ellis brought back were eagerly embraced by the likes of Max Beerbohm, Ernest Dowson and Richard Le Gallienne, their enthusiasm finding expression in The Yellow Book and later The Savoy. Visually these two journals were defined by the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, a figure captured in a perfect vignette:
His cultivated anti-naturalism achieved its zenith when he asked his friend Ada Leverson to come early to one of his Thursday afternoon ‘At Homes’ to help ‘scent the flowers’. Mrs Leverson supposed this to be a mere verbal conceit, but arrived to discover her host spraying the gardenias and tuberose with opopanax. He handed her some frangipani and urged her to perfume the stephanotis.
This fixation with the unnatural, most succinctly symbolised by the hothouse flower, was closely linked to the Decadent preoccupation with unease and disease, both of which were very real in the case of the tortured, tubercular Beardsley. “Beardsley, like ‘decadence’, was new, diseased and curious in form – and, like the century, he was hastening towards his end.” And as Beardsley’s ‘At Home’ indicates, there was a performative element to Decadence, a desire to not merely paint, write or discuss its themes, but to live them by presenting one’s very self to the world as a work of art.
Few pursued this objective with the zeal of writer Count Eric Stenbock. “He was perhaps the most determined ‘decadent’ in London,” states Sturgis. “A dedicated drug addict, a flagrant homosexual, a conspicuous dandy, a writer of horrible poems and horror stories, he became a legend in his own brief lifetime.” Symons, initially fascinated, turned on the “inhuman and abnormal degenerate”, employing language better suited to the enemies of Decadence.
Looming largest of all in Passionate Attitudes, just as he towered – literally and figuratively – over his contemporaries in the Café Royal, is Oscar Wilde. The author’s nuanced approach places Wilde in context, not just with the book-buying, theatre-going, gossip-consuming public, but with his peers as well. Although the characters in this book are all equally dead to us, it’s important to understand the generational shift which occurred in the 1890s. There was a significant divide in age and sentiment separating Wilde from, for instance, Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm. These younger firebrands were suspicious, even contemptuous of Wilde, who belonged to an older generation still bearing a naff whiff of “too too utterly utterly” Aestheticism.
Wilde’s 1895 libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry and subsequent trial on a charge of gross indecency are events which anyone halfway curious about the 1890s will have encountered in numerous variations. However Sturgis – writing at a century’s remove – invests these events with real drama and immediacy. We see how the trial’s verdict gave legal sanction to long-held suspicions about the love that dare not speak its name; numerous broadsides from Punch capture the disgust with which much of the educated middle classes regarded The Yellow Book and affiliated phenomena. The ensuing frost brought personal hardship to many of the protagonists and catastrophic consequences for the rare blooms which had flourished in the first half of the decade. But they were never entirely uprooted and Passionate Attitudes perfectly captures their strange, heady aroma.
Passionate Attitudes | Matthew Sturgis | Macmillan, 1995 | Find on WorldCat