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Ruth Livesey. Socialism, Sex, and the Culture of Aestheticism in Britain, 1880-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-19-726398-3. Price: US$85.00 /£45.00

  • Christine Bolus-Reichert

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  • Christine Bolus-Reichert
    University of Toronto

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What holds together the diverse group of figures who populate the pages of Ruth Livesey’s book is, first of all, each other—they were friends, collaborators, lovers, family members, neighbors, and householders. The book is about the individuals who constituted that community and the aesthetic and socialist structures of feeling that held them together. Although “the peculiarly aesthetic genealogy of British socialism” (19) which Livesey traces goes back to the Romantics, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century British writers were far more systematic in their pursuit of reform—forming societies, publishing journals, giving lectures, and leading trade unions. The book is valuable in establishing a clear link between literature and politics and demonstrating the broad range of literature’s engagements with social movements. Sex is the uneasy third term—in the title and the book. Neither Livesey’s history nor the aesthetic-socialists can do without it. It shadows all the reformers’ efforts, and if not attended to, threatens to undo them.

Sex might also be the obscure origin of aesthetic socialism. When William Morris takes up his familiar place at the head of the movement, he is driven, Livesey argues, by “a late romantic anxiety concerning the masculinity of the artist and poet in the age of industry” (26). Morris exits the dream world of his early poetry by turning to Iceland, craft, and Karl Marx; but as Livesey puts it, his aesthetic interests are driving the social critique that emerges in the 1880s. Much of the story here is familiar, but Livesey frames it in a new way. Identifying Morris’s shift from consumption to production, Livesey notes a concomitant gender shift from effeminacy to manliness. (Such masculinism encountered resistantance as subsequent readings of Olive Schreiner’s and Dollie Radford’s feminine gendering of creativity show). Morris’s realigned artistic values enabled him to evade the dreaded solipsism of lyric poetry while gaining a “somatic aesthetic theory” that “locates aesthetics in the realm of the body via the pleasures of labour” (34-35). By putting Morris into dialogue with Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891), Livesey shows has Morris’s “distinct socialist aesthetic” evolved “in creative tension” with other kinds of aestheticism (1). While scholars such as Regenia Gagnier have joined Morris and Wilde in common cause, Livesey puts them asunder by insisting that the foregrounding of the somatic put Morris into conflict with Paterian aesthetics. For Paterian writers like Wilde, the value of art lies in its construction of the self. Whereas Morris’s rhetoric and practice lead toward the making of men (and sometimes women), Wilde’s lead toward the formation of personality.

Livesey’s second chapter focuses on women closely associated with the socialist movement at its height in London in the 1880s. She effectively recreates the atmosphere of hope, reconstructing friendships and political alliances through diaries, letters, and essays. She also gives the age and the movement its own genre—romance. According to Livesey, activists like Isabella Ford and Clementina Black chose this genre because “Romance was the narrative of hope” as well as a form that would “educate” desire (71-2). Livesey’s readings of these forgotten fictions are persuasive. Romance shows us the world as we want it to be, which leads to dissatisfaction with the one we are in. Dissatisfaction, as Morris knew, can be transformative. Female socialists challenged the male-dominated labor movement, forcing men to see them as fellow workers for social change. In the popular imagination, women were enmeshed with the consumerist excesses of capitalism. Even Vernon Lee renders her female colleagues as picturesque objects in the socialist scene, regarding them as consumers of a lifestyle, not actors in a historical drama. The story of this chapter, as of the third chapter on Schreiner, is the dialogic struggle of socialist women to be heard and to turn their beliefs into action.

Livesey creates some disturbing pictures here: for example, Schreiner’s correspondence with Karl Pearson, founder of the Men and Women’s Club, who saw in “maternalism and the history of womanhood […] a model of that self-renunciation which was the necessary ethical basis of a future socialist state” (81). Neither Pearson nor the misgonynistic Ernest Belfort Bax left room in their socialism for the development of women as individuals—it was either impossible or irrelevant. Yet for most female socialists, the so-called Woman Question and socialism were inextricably linked. Socialism could not be achieved without the emancipation of women. As Livesey shows, however, opposition to women within the socialist movement only grew as the movement for women’s suffrage gained ground. The old idea of sexless fellowship was crumbling by the turn of the century.

The fourth chapter on Edward Carpenter and George Bernard Shaw shows that male socialists were also linked with an unscientific religion of socialism. Livesey recovers here a fascinating history of the fads associated with socialism in the late nineteenth century—vegetarianism, sandal-wearing, dress reform, and the return to the land. Drawing upon recent work on Victorian masculinity, Livesey argues, “Ascetic regimes conceived as an intellectual discipline, leaving the body to one side, were no longer sufficient to affirm the manliness of the middle-class socialist man of letters […]. Instead, faddism proved a means of theorizing and working through the body itself in reframing radical masculinity” (111). Carpenter, who was openly homosexual and advocated a somatic, democratic aesthetic, and who is still too little known outside of specialist academic circles, emerges from this study as a fascinating, prophetic figure. His focus on unhealthy appetites—“Advanced capitalist civilization was bound to bring about its own end, overcome by the very forces of accumulation that had enabled its development” (117)—probably has more resonance now than it did in the nineteenth century.

The strongest chapter is the fifth, which focuses exclusively on the fin-de-siècle poet Dollie Radford. The focus on a single, pivotal figure within the movement permits Livesey an intimacy with her subject that she does not achieve elsewhere (not even in chapter three where Schreiner is shown continually in dialogue). The shift is noticeable even in the writing style, which becomes more fluid, more conceptually daring. Sex returns here in Radford’s central dilemma, “the ongoing struggle between the individuated affective figure of the woman poet and the demands of the greater communal refrain” (155). Livesey dwells upon two key images in this chapter, two signs under which Radford appeared in the 1880s and 1890s. The first sign we see in a photo: “Socialist League, Hammersmith.” Radford is seated in the front row between Morris’s daughters. There are nine women here and twenty-seven men. The second sign is the frontispiece of a book, Radford’s 1895 book, Songs and Verses, published by John Lane. The poet is drawn alone at her harp, wearing sandals and an aesthetic gown. These two signs could stand for the whole argument of the book, for the writers working under the two signs of socialism and aestheticism, toward the integration of art and life.

By the time I reached the final two chapters of this magnificently researched book, and the intermarriages and friendships of a second-generation of British socialists, I was wishing desperately for genealogical charts or Venn diagrams organizing the individuals and societies who can rightfully claim descent from the socialist-aesthetic furor of the 1880s. I cannot overrate or even begin to do justice to the intricacy of Livesey’s arguments. The final gesture toward the dissolution of aesthetic socialism in the fascism of the 1930s is a discouraging one, to be sure; but Livesey never flinches from exploring the multitude of ethical and ideological investments that were encompassed under the idea of socialism and played out in its diverse movements. The book is not an easy one, in this regard, which ought to ensure that it will continue to be sought out and read by scholars and students curious about a moment when art and politics aligned.