Dickens and Decadence
Stockholm University, Sweden
Deadline for submissions: 31 May 2020
Department of English and Department of Culture and Aesthetics
17-18 December 2020
Conference Homepage: https://www.english.su.se/2.60277
Keynote speakers: John Bowen (York), Dennis Denisoff (Tulsa) and Claire Wood (Leicester)
In chapter nine of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours (1884), the protagonist des Esseintes determines to alleviate his ennui by traveling to London, inspired by his reading of Dickens. But stopping off en route in Paris, des Esseintes finds himself already lost in the Dickensian text, reading the city through his novels and transforming the French capital into a simulacrum of London. Huysmans’ novel, that ‘breviary of decadence’ to use Symons’ famous phrase, takes Dickens as being central to the concerns of the realist tradition of nineteenth-century literature, and a response to him central to the concerns of the decadent tradition which would problematise this realism.
Des Esseintes’ aborted journey to London represents perhaps the most famous and influential of the ‘decadent’ responses to Dickens’ work, but Huysmans was not alone amongst their number in having something to say about the novelist. Decadent writers from a large number of different nationalities responded to and reworked Dickens’ writing: in England, Pater, Swinburne and Symons read him, as did Wilde and Moore in Ireland. In France, beyond Huysmans, Dickens influenced Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé, and elsewhere across Europe, Rodenbach in Belgium and Carrere in Spain, amongst others. Further afield, Dickens was also an influence on writers of the South American modernismo tradition. These responses were not always appreciative, but what joined these figures was the shared belief that Dickens’ work was a substantial phenomenon which required working through. On the other hand, in the early twentieth century, conservatives such as Chesterton eagerly sought to invoke the name of Dickens against these decadents in their crusade against ‘the hour of absinthe’.
And yet, in spite of these facts, no sustained critical interest has focused on Dickens’ relationship with the decadent tradition. While literary history has continued to emphasise the roots of decadence in the Romantic and French Naturalist traditions, and the recent upturn in interest in the links between decadence and modernism, the same critical enquiry has not been focused on the ways in which decadence responded to Dickens and realism. Moreover, Dickens’ anticipation of decadence – his interest in contemporary scientific and cultural ideas of individual and social degeneration, as well as the ways in which his late style itself can be considered a kind of decadence – remains largely unexplored.
Celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Dickens’ death in 1870, this conference invites papers which seek to fill in our knowledge of both Dickens’ decadence and the decadents’ Dickens. In so doing, the conference aims to contribute to the fields of Dickens studies, of comparative world literature, and of nineteenth-century British literary history more broadly, as well as the burgeoning field of decadence studies.
Possible points of departure might include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The relationship of decadence to Dickensian realism
- The late shift in Dickens’ writing from realism to proto-decadence
- Aspects of Dickens’ work that might be characterised as being ‘decadent’, including his interest in the decadence of Empire, of the modern city, and his interest in contemporary science and theories surrounding biological and social dissolution
- The decadence of Dickensian characters such as Eugene Wrayburn of Our Mutual Friend or John Jasper of The Mystery of Edwin Drood
- Dickens’ importance for individual writers of the decadent tradition
- The ways in which conservatives mobilised Dickens in response to decadence
Please send an abstract of no more than 300 words, accompanied by a brief biographical note, to firstname.lastname@example.org by 31 May 2019. Individual presentations should be no longer than 20 minutes in duration.