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Fashioning Feminist Aestheticism in the Early Twentieth-Century Novel: Lucas Malet, Netta Syrett, Dorothy Richardson, and Fin-de-Si�cle Culture


This dissertation investigates the early twentieth-century works of three British women authors who concentrated on the crucial role of fin-de-si�cle culture in shaping modern womanhood. The writers in question are Lucas Malet (the pen name of Mary St. Leger Kingsley Harrison) (1852-1931), Netta Syrett (1865-1943), and Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957): three authors whose oeuvres, to varying degrees, remain on the margins of scholarship. Taken together, this body of fiction represents an overlooked enclave of women’s writing that refashions the English novel in order to forge new narratives for rebellious women characters. Malet, Syrett, and Richardson share a fascination with investigating the ways in which not only aestheticism (the late nineteenth-century cultural movement that championed “art for art’s sake”) but also decadence (the subsequent movement that flouted moral conventions) could provide them with resources for imagining new forms of modern femininity. Moreover, all three writers are in dialogue with the cultural and literary figure that stood for insubordinate womanhood at the fin de si�cle: the New Woman. This dissertation demonstrates the divergent ways in which Malet, Syrett, and Richardson critically engage with the audacious artistic and sexual advances that developed from aestheticism, decadence, and the New Woman, in order to affirm women’s dissident desires, autonomous self-fashioning, and professional ambitions.

The present study reassesses a span of neglected novels that Malet, Syrett, and Richardson produced between 1896 and 1919. The three substantial chapters explore the works of each of these writers in turn. Existing scholarship about Malet, Syrett, and Richardson has tended to associate each author’s oeuvre with separate literary movements, and therefore critics have seldom considered these novelists’ works in relation to one another. Malet’s fictions are narrated in lush, evocative prose, and have proved to be of particular critical interest to students of literary aestheticism. By comparison, Syrett’s novels are narrated in a middlebrow realist style that has primarily been associated with New Woman fiction. Meanwhile, Richardson fashioned an innovative narrative technique that scholars associate with early developments in English modernism. By juxtaposing these authors, the present study enables us to recognize that these writers converge upon the idea that transgressive forms of womanhood emerged in the period most closely associated with aestheticism and decadence. This dissertation therefore offers an alternative to more traditional ways of grouping women’s fiction written between 1890 and 1920 according to more overt markers of style. Moreover, the history of decadence that I chart here runs counter to a pervasive understanding of the movement as one that was adverse to women, and it also diverges from the way in which certain male contemporaries such as Holbrook Jackson, Richard Le Gallienne, and Osbert Burdett, reflected in the 1910s and 1920s on decadence as having terminated at the turn of the century. This dissertation thus remaps a history of women’s writing, the form of the novel, and art for art’s sake after the turn of the twentieth century through a detailed consideration of several respective novels that Malet, Syrett, and Richardson produced during these decades.

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