The Nineties happened some time between the Queen’s 1887 Jubilee and the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, at which point The News of the World was pleased to announce that ‘The aesthetic cult in the nasty form is over’. Even at this remove, the period continues to exert a quasi-mystical fascination, with its taint of sybaritism, suicide and sin, genius and degeneracy, high aspirations and low vices perversely intertwined. Stokes’s publishers have been at pains to stress these saleable qualities in their publicity material, since the author has elected to look at this colourful decade resolutely in black and white, chiefly through the medium of contemporary newspapers, magazine articles and other little-read ‘texts’ such as Max Nordau’s Degeneration, a fine example of the early Paul Johnson style of middlebrow vituperation.
The book is divided into five sections with a number of essays collected under each heading, dealing with public response to the art and literature of the Decadence, the music hall, prison reform, the vogue for suicide and the relationship between literature and journalism. The result is determinedly scholastic and