In his introduction to Richard Le Gallienne's The Romantic '90s, H. Montgomery Hyde tells us that the nineties were regarded as naughty, not because they were any naughtier than other decades, but because of the efforts of the 'decadents' to shock the middle classes – Épater le bourgeois. Ironically this group sprang from the middle class itself, and, as Arthur Symons puts it "Nothing, not even conventional virtue, is so provincial as conventional vice…and the desire to bewilder the middle classes is itself middle class."
Montgomery Hyde suggests that these 'decadents' exhibited: perversity, artificiality, egoism and curiosity, with their novel ideas reinforced by the use of epigram and paradox. The goal was, according to Symons, "to fix the last fine shade, the quintessence of things, to fix it fleetingly; to be a disembodied voice, and yet the voice of the human soul…" Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Beardsley's unfinished romance, Under the Hill
are held as exemplars.
By continually satisfying new desires, MH concludes, they created new ones, and in the new thirst for fresh experiences and novel sensations they were insatiable to the point of exhaustion, mental and physical.
Many turned to Rome. Some turned to theosophy. Others turned a gun on themselves.