Decadence and the Fin-De-Siècle | Richard Garnett’s tale: Alexander The Ratcatcher By Kiara Byron-Walters

Black image on yellow shows the side profile of a woman.
Ethel Reed, Front Cover for The Yellow Book Vol 12, January 1897. Yellow Nineties Online. Public Domain

 

An Introduction

     I will examine Richard Garnett’s Alexander The Rat Catcher as seen in Volume 12 of The Yellow Book. Garnett manages to create a compelling retelling of the folktale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin with a paganistic and disrespectful tone toward religion, most specifically Catholicism. By further analysis, it is evident that the decadence of the era the story was written it proves itself to be an irrefutable force which would explain the subversive humor. The events of the story effectively utilize folklore to present a text that could be easily popularized throughout the 1890s – which was most known for being the most decadent era of them all. The mystical elements paired with Richard Garnett’s underlying paganistic tone, only proves to further transform the old tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin into a re-imagined folktale fit for the attitudes of the society of the 1890s.

Image is of a woman wearing an ornate light coloured off the shoulder gown. She has dark hair which flows behind her. Her chin is resting on her left hand. Her right hand is holding a long peacock feather which she is dangling in front of a sitting cat with a bow around its neck.
Ethel Reed, Title Page of The Yellow Book from Vol 12, January 1897. Yellow Nineties Online. Public Domain.

Understanding Decadence in the 1890s

     The decadent period was defined as the era in which society begun to distance itself from what was considered high-culture at the time (Roberts 56). High-culture would’ve consisted of things such as the opera, Shakespeare, and other forms of fine art. It wasn’t until the introduction of The Yellow Book and other decadent themed little magazines. At the height of the popularity of decadent literature, The Yellow Book was able to produce thirteen volumes of little magazines spanning from the time of April of 1894 to April of 1897 before being losing to its rival competitors (Denisoff, Dennis and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra). Little magazines were known to be the ‘modern’ magazine of the 1890s as the format of these pieces of literature often challenged the norms of what was typically classed as a piece of fiction.

            When speaking about decadence, it is important to talk about society’s claim toward it. In the 1890s, decadence was a wave of liberalism which spread throughout Victorian society through literature and art. Richard Garnett was born on February 27th of 1835 and lived a long a prosperous life as a keeper of books and writer before eventually passing away on April 13th of 1906. Garnett lived through the decadent era as an author with well-versed knowledge in literature. He began his career in the world of literature in 1850 at The British Museum after the passing of his father (Matthew et. al. 501). Richard Garnett’s experience as a writer as well as his experience of being alive during the decadent era only proves him to be capable to produce writings which, due to the influence of the fin-de-siècle era, are decadent. Throughout, Garnett’s career he curated, edited, and produced a multitude of works. Just a few of these works include: articles in Essays in Librarianship & Bibliography, articles Essays of an Ex-Librarian, articles in the Manchester Guardian, Twilight of The Gods, and Other Tales, etc. (Matthew et. al. 502). Twilight of the gods, and Other Tales is one of Garnett’s most notable works, selections of it appearing in The Yellow Book, including the tale of Alexander the Ratcatcher (Matthew et. al. 502). Aesthetic experimentation and radicalism were what little magazines sought to achieve throughout their production (Scholes & Wulfman 59). The inclusion of Alexander The Ratcatcher, which directly challenged the almighty and powerful institution that is religion, in The Yellow Book only further establishes the folktale’s decadence as well as Richard Garnett’s contribution to the fin-de-siècle era that was the 1890s.

 

Colored image of a bearded man with glasses sitting on a chair at a desk looking through sheets of paper.
Leslie Ward, Caricature of Dr Richard Garnett C.B., from Vanity Fair, April 11th 1895. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Examining The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Alexander The Rat Catcher

     Richard Garnett’s Alexander The Rat Catcher is a reimaged folktale loosely based around the story of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Throughout the story there are various connections which tied the two tales together paired with Garnett’s decadent tone which is evidently apparent through the characters of the story. The Pied Piper is an English folktale which takes place in a town named Hamelin which is overrun by rats (Gutch 7-8). A stranger enters this town and offers to rid it of its infestation for a small fee which the town agreed to. The pied piper sounded his pipe and led the rats away to drown in the lake and saved the town for them to then go back on their promise to pay (Gutch 7-8). The pied piper, however, comes back to collect what he is owed by taking all of the children in the village who were capable enough to hear and follow the sound of his pipe, never to be seen again. Though the ending of this tale differs from that of Garnett’s re-imagined version, the stories still have concrete parallels between them.

Richard Garnett’s Alexander The Rat Catcher is a folktale that focuses on Pope Alexander the Sixth, Alexander the Eighth (Who is introduced under the pseudonym ‘Rattila’ at the beginning of the story), and the plague of rats in Vatican City, Rome. Although the characters of the story have the likeness of humans, Garnett makes sure to reiterate that the reining Pope Alexander the Sixth is known to be a rat and that cowers behind the protection of cats and dogs (Garnett 222). Alexander the Sixth is introduced to a rat catcher by his trusted Cardinal, Cardinal Barbargio. We later find out that the rat catcher, who had gone by the name Rattila, was actually the deceased Alexander the Eighth who had fallen under the influence of the devil and brought forth these rats to terrorize the city. Although Alexander the Eighth is doing the devils bidding, he makes a deal with Pope Alexander the Sixth to send the rats back to hell in exchange for the current reigning Pope rehabilitating the image of Alexander the Eighth and offering the prayers of the people to God in order to help Alexander the Eighth get into heaven. By the end of the fable, Pope Alexander the Sixth agrees to these terms, performs the processions as scheduled, and watches as Alexander the Eighth ascends into the sky and the rats, which had previously been invading the city, descend into a pit to hell (Garnet 237-238).

Analyzing the Folktales

     It is evident how closely these stories relate to each other as seen through the mirrored events of the story. Richard Garnett’s retelling depicts uncanny references to the folktale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin while also keeping decadence in mind, considering the piece of short fiction was written during the fin-de-siècle era. Folklore is defined as ‘lore of the people’ though it also refers to literature (Simpson). Though Garnett’s story is loosely based on history and folklore, it does fall under the same category. The mystical elements embedded throughout Garnett’s Alexander The Ratcatcher only further proves the fantastical aspects of the short story. Rattila revealing himself to be Alexander the Eighth through a magical transformation proves itself to be a single instance of a fantastical event. Alexander the Sixth, immediately believes the transformation to be a “resurrection” (Garnett 230). Not only does this depict the blind faith of Catholics, in regard to Richard Garnett’s overall paganist tone shown throughout the text, but it also depicts a rendition of the pied piper’s character reveal in the original folktale. Rattila’s clear and direct ties to the devil only further prove Alexander the Sixth’s silly ignorance caused by his faith since Rattila comes not as a gift from god but as a servant of the Satan.  Considering the era of when Volume 12 of The Yellow Book was published, the tone taken toward Catholicism falls in line with the spread of decadence throughout Britain. The distancing of society from high culture, including religion, could easily explain the popularity of decadent literature such as Garnett’s tale or the many others featured throughout the span of The Yellow Book’s print run.

            Richard Garnett made a specific point as to name the characters of Alexander The Ratcatcher after important figures from the Catholic faith. Alexander the Ratcatcher is known to be a story about Alexander VI who was known as the “Borgia pope” (McCrimmon). This fact is ironic since Alexander the Sixth seems to cater to Alexander the Eighth who is referenced as Borgia within Garnett’s folktale multiple times. Garnett makes clear and overt connections to Catholicism and uses this as a tool to critique Catholic faith through the fantastical retelling. Catholicism during the fin-de-siècle era was seen as an elaborate paradox (Hanson 7). The concept of Catholicism being a paradox is reflected throughout Richard Garnett’s story, especially through the actions of Pope Alexander the Sixth. It is paradoxical for a Pope to serve the devil’s servant, which is an aspect of Alexander The Ratcatcher that accurately reflects the attitude of society toward religion – most specifically Catholicism. The irony paired with Richard Garnett’s paganistic tone only provides further propaganda which aided in the advancement of decadence throughout Victorian society in the 1890s. The church as an institution is the epitome of high-culture with its use of strict rules, attire, and behavior. It isn’t a surprise to see rebellion against religion during this era as it represented the very thing which people of the 1890s sought to distance themselves from. Garnett’s dissatisfaction and distaste toward religion is apparent throughout the entire text, the characters acting out the events of The Pied Piper of Hamelin while the characters and context of Richard Garnett’s retelling has the propaganda of the fin-de-siècle movement of the 1890s embedded in its frame work.

Conclusion

     The fin-de-siècle era of the 1890s proves itself to be a movement in which decadence thrived throughout Victorian society. In both art and literature, decadence comes as a form of rebellion against the societal norms and expectations which surrounded things which were often considered ‘high-culture’. The liberation from the high-culture and the advancement of the fin-de-siècle movement through the publication of little magazines such as The Savoy, The Evergreen, and most notably The Yellow Book further depicts Victorian society as willing and eager to accept this change. The authors and artists which are featured in these publications contributed to the progression of decadence which spread like wildfire throughout society in the 1890s. Richard Garnett’s re-imagined folktale, Alexander The Ratcatcher, which is featured in Volume 12 of the Yellow Book only further reflects the decadent attitudes of the Victorian society of the 1890s through the sheer popularity of the texts. The rather disrespectful tone of Garnett’s folktale toward religion, which is a powerful institution in society and a large contributor to high-culture, follows in suit with how the society in which he lived in began to separate itself from high-culture. Richard Garnett re-imagines the old folktale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin in a which better reflects the folklore of his own era. Folklore defined as the lore of the people (Simpson). It is clear that the lore of the people should reflect the people themselves. Garnett’s Alexander The Ratcatcher was just but one of many stories which defined society throughout the span of the fin-de-siècle movement.

By: Kiara Byron-Walters

 

Image is of a raised brick wall with crenellations leading toward the moon. There is a figure standing on the turret in the lower right foreground and a figure standing on the left middle ground turret.
Patten Wilson, Two Images: Pathway To The Moon from The Yellow Book Vol 12, January 1897. Yellow Nineties Online. Public Domain.

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Works Cited

Denisoff, Dennis and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. “The Yellow Book: Introduction to Volume 12 (January 1897).” The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University. Web. 19 October 2018. http://www.1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV12_Intro.html

Garnett, Richard. “Alexander the Ratcatcher” The Yellow Book 12 (January 1897): 221-238. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2013. Web. November 26, 2018. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV12_garnett_alexander.html

Gutch, E. (1892). The pied piper of hamelin. Folklore, 3(2), 227-252. doi:10.1080/0015587X.1892.9720106

Hanson, Ellis. Decadence and Catholicism. Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.

Matthew, H. C., Harrison, B., & Goldman, L. (2014). Oxford dictionary of national biography (Vol. 21). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Print.

McCrimmon, Barbara. “Richard Garnett.” Nineteenth-Century British Book Collectors and Bibliographers, edited by William Baker and Kenneth Womack, Gale, 1997. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 184. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/apps/doc/H1200007387/LitRC?u=rpu_main&sid=LitRC&xid=afa1d7cd. Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.

Roberts, Adam C. Victorian Culture and Society: the Essential Glossary. Arnold, 2003. Print.

Scholes, Robert E., and Clifford Wulfman. Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction. Yale University Press, 2010. Print.

Simpson, Jacqueline, and Steve Roud. “folklore (the word).” A Dictionary of English Folklore.” Oxford University Press, January 01, 2003. Oxford Reference. Date Accessed 19 Oct. 2018 http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780198607663.001.0001/acref-9780198607663-e-375.

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Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

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