decorated initial In the 1890s, Victorian novelist Robert Murray Gilchrist (1868-1917) wrote mannered, atmospheric short fiction that crossed Gothic horror with Decadent beauty. Though he later pursued a career as a mainstream, regional novelist, presumably to make a living, he never fully abandoned his Gothic and Decadent sensibilities. His short stories and serialized novels appeared in reputable periodicals like The National Observer, Colour, Pall Mall Magazine, Windsor Magazine and Atalanta, often sharing the pages with Kipling, Stevenson, Yeats and even Mallarmé. His work was largely well-received and admired by many of his contemporaries from H.G. Wells to Bret Harte. By the time he died at age 49, he had published nearly 100 short stories, 22 novels, six story collections, and four non-fiction books.

During his lifetime, reviewers often did not know what to make of his work and gave his writing wildly uneven appraisals. They admired his originality and descriptive powers but condemned his use of the macabre and the horrid. Some critics recognized his genius, in one case extravagantly praising his first story collection, The Stone Dragon (1894), which is the main focus of the thesis:

The book is sinister, enveloped in gloom -- yes, and Decadent (like much fine literature): but it is strong, it has authenticity; the effect sought is the effect won. There is nothing quite like The Stone Dragon in modern English fiction: but in it you may distinctly trace the influence of Poe, and perhaps also Villiers de l'Isle Adam and Charles Baudelaire. Indeed, if there is a man who could catch and cage the spirit of Fleurs du Mal in our Saxon tongue, it is the author of The Stone Dragon. [“Mr. R. Murray Gilchrist” 690]

Writing in 1899, this unnamed reviewer recognized Gilchrist’s The Stone Dragon as a collection of Decadent tales under the distinct influence of Poe, the master of the Gothic short story. His references to Villiers de l’Isle Adam and Baudelaire solidify Gilchrist’s relation both to Decadent and Gothic fiction. Villiers de l’Isle Adam mixes the Gothic and Decadent in his collections of cruel tales, Contes cruels and Nouveaux contes cruels, while Baudelaire’s poetic masterpiece, Les Fleurs du mal is frequently cited as the ur-text of Decadence. While distinctions between these genres almost disappear when examined too closely, Gilchrist uses their motifs not to belong to a given movement or school but as a means to convey the unspeakable, or at least, the morally unacceptable.

Shortly after Gilchrist’s death, American critic Cornelius Weygandt’s major study, A Century of the English Novel (1925), classified him as a minor novelist, praising his artistic, memorable writing but finally damning it as "incomplete, elliptical, mannered and uncontrolled" (355). Though literary scholars largely forgot Gilchrist for the rest of the twentieth century, his writings still stand out today for their unusual Decadent and Gothic variations and their gender-eroding themes that explores the degeneration of aristocratic men and the moral and intellectual prowess of women of all social classes. His extensions to genre fiction, as well his attack on the binary gender system, clearly supports the contention that his work is worthy of revival and study. Gilchrist’s work extends the realm of English Decadent or Gothic writing of the late Victorian era, but its real significance is its use of the fantastic and the historical to create a space to disrupt contemporary notions of gender and sexuality.

Although it is difficult to precisely situate Gilchrist's early writings among those of his fellow Victorians, the depth of his influence appears in his publication history and in the critical response to his work. His critics admired its emotive power and originality but decried his penchant for horrid deeds and insanity. No biography or long study of his writing exists, but his significance appears in contemporary reviews; Clarence Daniel’s brief book on his regional writing and life; reminiscences by Hugh Walpole; and correspondence Gilchrist received from prominent writers, and editors, including Richard Le Gallienne, Henry Harland, H.G. Wells, W.E. Henley, and William Sharp.

Oddly, unlike other Decadent writers who thrived in the urban scenes of London and Paris, Gilchrist lived a quiet life in the countryside near Sheffield, venturing to London rarely and Paris only once, preferring to withdraw to the isolated heights of the Peak District. He was something of a country dandy who favored Wildean, brightly-colored clothes and who periodically appeared in his local Anglican church wearing a cassock and girdle. He also was the only writer of the Decadent Movement who regularly contributed to The Abstainer’s Advocate, the journal of the British temperance movement. Much of his writing, which centers on rural life, frames degeneration and moral decay as an inherent part of male behavior that pervades both country and city. Despite his non-urban preferences, Gilchrist’s writing places him close to English and French Decadence, but unlike those writers, he uses Decadent motifs to make gender-contorting themes that uncover the inherent flaws, degeneracy, and spiritual weakness of the patriarchy as a ruling class. His revision of the fatal woman as a masculine delusion distinguishes him from other Decadent writers. Recent critical interest in his Decadent writing among French-speaking critics and frequent reprints of his books and short stories call for his revival as a significant writer of the 1890s.

Last modified 23 December 2011