Angie Blumberg
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Archaeology and Decadent prose
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This chapter takes up the innovative ways of reading and knowing the past introduced in Chapter 1, and shows that aesthetic innovators at the fin de siècle found archaeology-inspired ways of reading portraits, crafting portraits out of prose, and creating a Decadent prose style shaped by the sensual experience of archaeological discovery. Examining Walter Pater’s collection Imaginary Portraits (1885–1887) alongside Lee’s ‘Oke of Okehurst’ (1890) and Louis Norbert (1914), as well as Lee’s essay ‘Faustus and Helena’ (1880, 1881) and some of her travel writing (e.g., Genius Loci, 1899), this chapter argues that Pater and Lee create an archaeological epistemology of portraiture—one that is both inspired by archaeological excavation and also embedded in their prose styles. Additionally, readings of Lee reveal how she draws from Decadent aesthetics in her transhistorical tales of ghosts and archival mysteries to craft an experimental Decadent prose which also gestures to the iconoclasm and severed perspectives of modernism. Exploring additional works by Pater, including Appreciations (1889), as well as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), this chapter simultaneously unearths the influence of seventeenth-century polymath Thomas Browne’s archaeological tract Urn Burial (1658) on these Decadent stylists. In its examination of the formal styles of prose portraits and archaeological meditations, this chapter teases out the archaeological methods and encounters woven into the fabric of experimental Decadent prose at the fin de siècle.

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