George Egerton at Fin de Siècle (University of Loughborough, 7th-8th April 2017)

Alexandra Gray is an Early Career Researcher at the University of Portsmouth, UK. She is the author of Self-Harm in New Woman Writing (2017, Edinburgh University Press) and the co-editor of a forthcoming collection of scholarly essays entitled Lucas Malet, Dissident Pilgrim: Critical Essays (2018, Routledge). Her blog is part of a two-part series on ‘George Egerton at the Fin de Siècle’ examining the ‘Keynotes’ to an event devoted to the author of Keynotes (1893), to be followed by a discussion of the event’s ‘Discords’ by Dr Clare Stainthorp.

On 7th April, scholars excitedly gathered for the first international conference devoted to examining the life and work of George Egerton, author of Keynotes: one of the most infamous short story collections of the Fin de Siècle. However, Egerton—Born Mary Chavelita Dunne in 1859—was more than a one-trick pony. While her first two collections of stories (Keynotes and Discords) had created a major literary stir in 1893 and 1894 respectively, her later work was not as well received by a public (and a publisher) attuned to the dangers posed by sexually subversive literary fare after the conviction of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency in 1895. Neither Egerton’s later collections Symphonies (1897), Fantasias (1898), or Flies in Amber (1905), her semi-autobiographical novel The Wheel of God (1898), nor her epistolary novel Rosa Amorosa (1901) managed to solicit the level of success her earlier work had garnered. ‘George Egerton at the Fin de Siècle’ set out both to revitalise Egerton studies and bring critical and public attention to her less well-known works, ending with a promise by all in attendance to ‘do their bit’ to foster research on Egerton’s oeuvre. With a schedule packed with presentations from both seasoned academics and fresh voices (including both MA and undergraduate students), a plenary by Egerton studies pioneer Margaret Stetz, and a roundtable including Stetz and noted New Woman scholar Ann Heilmann, the day provided—in true Egertonian style—a range of keynotes and discords, affinities and contradictions on which to ponder.

Fig1Gray Egerton books

Fig 1: Delegates gathered around Rosie Miles’s collection of Egerton first-editions and beautiful cover art

As Heilmann adeptly summarised during the roundtable discussion on Day Two, major themes or ‘keynotes’ had emerged from the papers presented, signalling the breadth of new connections Egerton scholars are continuing to make between her own works and with the works of her contemporaries. A major keynote to the conference was Egerton’s engagement with music, art, tactility, female sexuality and queer desire. The sheer number of papers that examined these topics—all of which bordered and spoke to each other in fascinating ways—attests to the existence of a nexus of sensory experience in Egerton’s work, one which invites a range of new and exciting critical frameworks, including affect theory, art criticism, musicology, psychoanalysis, and reader-response theories. At the same time, many of these papers revealed Egerton’s formal and thematic interrelations with her literary forbearers, contemporaries and successors—in particular, with the Aesthetic, Decadent, and Naturalist traditions she largely treated with suspicion but with which she was accused of significant ideological overlap. As Stetz’s plenary reminded us, the success of Keynotes was collaborative: it was written by a woman and asserted a specifically female perspective on women’s experience at the Fin de Siècle, yet the manuscript’s shape and fate was also determined by two established literary men.[1] Perhaps unsurprisingly, discussions of the intertextual quality of Egerton’s writing noted resonances with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Machen, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Ola Hansson, but also female authors including Ella-Hepworth Dixon, Mona Caird and Olive Schreiner.

Equally perceptible was the centrality of cultural and national hybridity, of transnationalism and cosmopolitanism to Egerton studies, a leitmotif in both Egerton’s writing and the conference papers presented. Egerton’s sense of Irish identity, her imaginative reliance on, but ambivalence about, Irish life and cultural values examined in papers by Karen Power and Elanor Fitzsimmons, was revealed as essential to understanding her relation to the Nordic literature which she both translated and drew inspiration from. Valérie Fehlbaum, Peter Sjølyst-Jackson, and Whitey Standlee all presented on the Scandinavian timbre of Egerton’s work and her influence on the reception of Scandinavian literature in English. Egerton’s fierce defence of her identity as a citizen of the world, tied neither to Irish, British or even European social mores is perfectly captured by what Eleanor Fitsimmons described as a “restlessness, hybridism [and] listlessness” in Egerton’s work and personal life, one which kept her constantly on the move in both physical and imaginative terms. At a time when the Brexit agenda threatens the sorts of connections that stimulated Egerton’s intellectual development and allowed her creativity to thrive, questions of transnationalism, collaboration, and cross-pollination of cultural influence now seem more crucial to the humanities than ever.

Fig2Gray Keynotes

Fig 2: Cover of Egerton’s Keynotes (1893) London: The Bodley Head

Other keynotes that emerged from the conference included sexuality and textuality, the body and the urban space, nature and the city, fantasy, desire and daydreaming, but most importantly—as more than one paper demonstrated—humour. As Stetz pointed out in her scathing account of what Heilmann termed a “Judas biography”, George Egerton was “kind of a hot cougar”: described by her nephew Terence DeVere White in strikingly ungenerous, often misogynistic terms—as a woman whose youth, influence and creative capital had dried up in later years—but who, in reality, never lost her social and sexual appeal even when her literary star was on the wane. The papers presented at ‘George Egerton at the Fin de Siècle’ certainly teased out the textual parallels and theoretical intersections inherent in Egerton’s writing. However, equally fundamental and equally apparent were the discordant strains in the work of an author who was both attuned to, and in conflict with, the fin-de-siècle literary and social world of which she was a part. In Wednesday’s post, Dr Clare Stainthorp examines the discords that emerged from the conference, reflecting on the future of Egerton studies and the impact of an event devoted to foregrounding Egerton’s contribution to the fin-de-siècle literary landscape and beyond.

 

Works Cited:

[1] Keynotes was reviewed by Richard Le Gallienne, who suggested re-arranging the order in which the stories appeared and placing ‘A Cross Line’ at the beginning. The collection was published and cleverly marketed by John Lane, who drew on his experience publishing work by Oscar Wilde to create a sensation.

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