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Decadent aristocracies in nineteenth-century British literature

Shaun T Harris, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation proposes that a new class of “decadent aristocrats” emerges in the literature of the Victorian period. Using the theories of Michel Foucault's The Order of Things (1966), I argue that an epistemological shift occurs in England during the 1820s which results in transferring political, economic, and social hegemony away from the aristocracy towards the rising commercial and middle classes. No longer able to rely on the fiscal and marital practices which made them a ruling elite during the eighteenth century, the aristocracy further marginalizes itself as it unsuccessfully adapt to the new economy. The failures of these decadent aristocrats and their increasing awareness of their decadent class position inform and then define aspects of British literature as early as the 1840s. ^ Benjamin Disraeli's Coningsby (1844) chronicles the political fallout of the First Reform Bill to demonstrate that aristocrats no longer have the leadership skill or the “political will” to solve England's complex social problems. Lord Monmouth, the novel's leading aristocrat, proves his decadence by prioritizing his personal pleasures over his service to country, his social stewardship, and his grandson's aristocratic future. The narrator of Lord Alfred Tennyson's Maud (1855) is a psychological portrait of a decadent aristocrat whose father's financial misfortunes and death sever him physically and mentally from his class, him community, his lover, and his nation. In Idylls of the King, Tennyson transposes the decadence of Britain's aristocratic class into the narrative of Camelot's decline to make the larger cultural point that no aristocracy can rule effectively if individual members abandon or become diverted from the ideals and practices which made it a leadership class. Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1874–1875) shows the final capitulation of three aristocratic families who have lived decadently for three generations. The aristocrats in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) are so decadent culturally that they no longer identify themselves as part of Britain's ruling elite; Lord Henry lives frivolously on the fringes of the “new social elite” while Dorian victimizes his fellow decadent aristocrats. ^

Subject Area

Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Harris, Shaun T, "Decadent aristocracies in nineteenth-century British literature" (2004). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3159544.