Victorian Popular Fictions 5.1 9 Kukavica

The Splendour of Decadence: 

The Moral Geography of the European South in Victorian Travelogues


Sebastian Kukavica

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By offering a critical discourse analysis of selected Victorian travelogues of the second half of the nineteenth century, the paper aims to demonstrate to what extent Victorian discursive representations of Italy carried in themselves a highly standardised representation of Southern Europe as both an imaginary geography and as a political culture in a perceived state of moral and political decadence. In Victorian travelogues, the European South was imagined as a counter-geography of modernity and, as such, it was ideologically utilised for legitimising the specific trajectory of Northern modernity, seen as the antipode to the perceived state of backwardness of the European South. The myth of decadence of the European South served the purpose of constituting the South as a premodern moral geography embedded in a state of decadence, while at the same time legitimising British modernity as the only proper organic trajectory of historical evolution. This paper aims to demonstrate how Victorian travelogues, as channels for dissemination of Victorian political imagination, became platforms for consolidation of a specific moral geography of the European South built upon the myth of decadence. In addition, this paper argues that the unification of Italy in 1871 signalises a turning point in development of the myth of decadence of the European South in Victorian travelogues. While pre-1871 Victorian travelogues perceived signs of decadence as the ultimate proof of the country’s incompatibility with Northern or Protestant modernity, post-1871 travelogues conceived decadence as the quintessence of the idealised Romantic or even Gothic nature of Italy and critiqued modernisation as desacralisation of Italy as a place of memorialisation of the past. The travelogues critically analysed in the paper are: T. A. Trollope’s Impressions of a Wanderer in Italy, Switzerland, France and Spain as well as his A Lenten Journey in Umbria and the Marches, William Baxter’s The Tagus and the Tiber, Frances Elliot’s Diary of an Idle Woman in Italy, and George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea.


Victorian travelogue; moral geography; myth of decadence; representations of Southern Europe, T. A. Trollope, William Baxter, Frances Elliot, George Gissing


Date of Acceptance: 27 June 2023

Date of Publication: 5 July 2023

Double Blind Peer Reviewed

Recommended Citation:

Kukavica, Sebastian. 2023. “The Splendour of Decadence: The Moral Geography of the European South in Victorian Travelogues.” Victorian Popular Fictions, 5.1: 124-41. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI:

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