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The Aesthetic Book of Decadent Literature, 1870-1914


This dissertation argues for a reading of English Aesthetic and Decadent literature within the context of the limited-edition, artistically produced aesthetic book. Within studies in print culture and the history of the book, late nineteenth-century England is an established center in the revival of fine arts printing owing to the influence of the Chiswick Press, the Daniel Press, the Kelmscott Press, the Doves Press, the Vale Press, and the Eragny Press. Yet little scholarly attention has been paid to the overlap of these efforts in artistic book design with the literature of the Aesthetic and later Decadent movements.

In the first chapter, I argue that Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Poems (1870) was the first book of literature that sought to be a total art object, designed and illustrated by Rossetti himself. I also discuss Simeon Solomon’s A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep (1871) as the first aesthetic book of symbolist literature that was based on Rossetti’s Poems.

The second chapter focuses on Aesthetic theorist Walter Pater’s collaboration with the printer Charles Henry Olive Daniel in their production of An Imaginary Portrait (1894) as a limited-edition book. I suggest the way that Pater’s story, within the context of Daniel’s printed volume, can be read to show that people who had a highly-refined aesthetic sensibility often constituted a rare and even an elite psychological type. I show that his work frequently centers on representations of same-sex desire, and I suggest that Pater’s Aesthetic theory is also a theory of queer personhood.

The third chapter concentrates on Charles Ricketts’s and William Llewellyn Hacon’s Vale Press. I show that the aesthetic book has a particular valence when it is also a work of Decadent literature. Within Decadence as a literary movement, an ironic appropriation of Aestheticism allows a community of writers to portray same-sex desire as as a style of artifice against nature. Once Aestheticism becomes associated with effeminacy and psychological androgyny, the aesthetic book of Decadent literature becomes the model of a rare, refined, and collectible object that prefigures the community formation of queer outsider identities.

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