‘Oh, London dear!’: Belated Decadence and the Queer City in Ronald Firbank’s Vainglory and Caprice


  • Lucinda Janson


In his introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 (1936), W. B. Yeats famously declared that, after the so-called Yellow Nineties, ‘in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten’.[i] Yeats’s remark is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. Still, Yeats had forgotten at least one writer, and very few people have remembered him since. Ronald Firbank, who wrote his best-known novels during, and immediately after, the First World War, stayed up on his stilts, half drank himself to death, converted to the Catholic Church, and was widely considered to be mad – or, at least, very eccentric. One person who did remember Firbank was E. M. Forster, whose 1929 article on Firbank was reprinted in the same year as Yeats’s Modern Verse. ‘[T]here is nothing up to date’ about him, Forster states: rather, Firbank is ‘fin de siècle, as it used to be called; he belongs to the nineties and the Yellow Book; his mind inherits the furniture and his prose the cadences of Aubrey Beardsley’s Under the Hill’.[ii] Definitionally, decadence is always belated. But Firbank’s was doubly so, because he had missed out on the 1890s. He was too late to be belated when the men and women of the ‘Yellow Nineties’ had been feeling belated in exactly the same way that he would a few decades later.


[i] W. B. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935, ed. by W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), p. xi.

[ii] E. M. Forster, ‘Ronald Firbank’, in Abinger Harvest (London: Edward Arnold, 1936), pp. 135-41 (p. 137).