Britain's Unpermissive Society

Trevor Fisher chronicles the backlash against libertarianism in art and literature in the closing years of the Victorian era.

In the closing years of the nineteenth century, observers across Europe detected an unmistakable whiff of decadence in the air. The influence of this discovery varied from society to society, but there is little doubt that in Britain the developments which culminated in The Yellow Book were unwelcome and decisively repudiated. Despite the image of the 1890s as 'naughty', if not downright salacious, by the middle of the decade 'respectable' society had firmly asserted itself. Social taboos were laid down which were to shape attitudes for over half a century.

In no area was this truer than literature and the arts. Victorian society in Disraeli's heyday had tolerated eccentric and even bohemian behaviour amongst the creative, as the Pre-Raphaelites had shown. The development of the Aesthetic Movement in the 1870s struck many as absurd, but essentially harmless. When Whistler sued Ruskin in 1878 over the latter's famous attack on Nocturn in Black and Gold, the jury ruled in favour of the artist but then mocked him by awarding only a farthing damages.

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