Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Florence Saunders Boos
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Jennifer A. Buckley
Fourth Committee Member
Throughout British decadent literature, authors creatively experiment with religion. While part of this experimentation is a matter of how authors represent religious subjects or syncretized religious traditions, a much more foundational level of this experimentation seeks to redefine “the religious” altogether. Collectively, the authors in this study seek to redefine “religion” as focused around community, ritual, and aestheticism over creed or dogma. This new definition resonates with the way many twentieth-century sociologist, theologians, and psychoanalytic theorists have discussed the nature and role of religion in Western society, and I rely on these thinkers throughout my methodology.
Also central to my methodology is my suggestion that the primary lens through which critics often read British decadence is the lens of experimentation and redefinition. It has been well established that British decadents creatively experimented with their representations of gender and sexuality, their use of genre, and their incorporation of Western philosophy, yet their treatment of religion—specifically the Western religious traditions which appear in their works—has been largely unexamined. This project argues that the British decadent authors’ creative treatment of religion is central to their works and to their broader experimental project.
In my first chapter, I suggest that the experimental work that Pater does with philosophy, art theory, and genre has its roots in the experimental work he does with religion. Pater espouses a syncretic approach to religion which sees Christianity as the most recent, and most evolved, link in a series of conversant religious and philosophical traditions. At the same time, he opposes the institutionalization of religion as well as any violence that might take place in its name. In my second chapter, I claim that Oscar Wilde’s destabilization of language—separating words from their denotative meanings—lays the groundwork for his separation of religious ideology from the aesthetic and communal elements of religion. My third chapter argues that decadent religion, as imagined by Pater and Wilde, was not always easily integrated into religious life. I suggest that the sadomasochistic imagery seen throughout some of Francis Thompson’s works signifies a larger conflict between his attraction to decadence and his devotion to Catholicism. In the final chapter, I consider Vernon Lee, a woman writer who spent much of her life in Continental Europe. I claim that her position on the fringes of British, male, decadent society allowed her a unique vantage point, from which she repeatedly examined the decadent religious project even as she valued a secular, moral humanism over that project.
Decadence, Lee, Vernon, Pater, Walter, Religion, Thompson, Francis, Wilde, Oscar
vi, 194 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 181-194).
Copyright © 2018 Nellene Benhardus
Benhardus, Nellene. "British literary decadence and religion." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2018.