Vernon Lee 1856-1935
(Pseudonym of Violet Paget) English short story writer, novelist, essayist, biographer, dramatist, and critic.
Best known for her perceptive essays on intellectual and cultural trends in the early twentieth century, Lee also wrote short stories that employ historical milieus and supernatural themes. Some critics have compared her work to that of Henry James; others have noted the influence of E. T. A. Hoffmann on her fantastic stories. Although she has not gained a substantial readership in modern times, Lee is recalled in memoirs and biographies as one of the best minds of her day. According to Irene Cooper Willis, "Vernon Lee was a remarkable personality, deeply learned and eloquent, with far reaching historical sympathies."
Lee was born in France to British parents. During her childhood, her family traveled extensively throughout Europe; as a consequence of this upbringing, she became intimate with various languages and cultures. Eventually her family settled in Florence, and Lee began applying the precocious learning of her adolescence to the study of Italian art. In 1881 Lee visited London where she began to establish herself in English literary society. She became acquainted with many of the prominent literary figures of the time, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, and Henry James, and her writing often satirized the aesthetic movement of which they were a part. Lee continued writing essays and stories well into the twentieth century, using her work to examine the changing intellectual trends of her era.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Lee published a limited number of short stories, most of which are characterized by the use of supernatural themes and historical backgrounds. Hauntings, her first and most popular collection of short fiction, was published in 1890. In these transcendent tales, Lee examines the intrusion of the past upon the present. The detailed historical background displayed in these stories lends them that sense of distance from contemporary life that Lee believed essential to works of supernatural fantasy. For example, in the story "Oke of Okehurst," a young painter is commissioned to paint the portrait of Mrs. Oke, the troubled wife of a country squire. He discovers that both the wife and her husband are obsessed by a family tragedy of several centuries earlier, when the husband's ancestor had murdered the lover of his wife. Insisting that she is romantically involved with the ghost of the dead lover, Mrs. Oke drives her husband into a homicidal rage in which he kills both her and himself. Likewise, in "Amour dure" a Polish scholar visiting Italy falls in love with an historical seductress, an attraction that later proves fatal for the scholar.
Scholars have provided mixed critical reactions to Lee's short fiction. Most critics praise her aesthetic and intellectual approach to the time and subjects of her work. John Clute found Lee's short fiction more appealing than her work in other genres, noting that her stories contain "hints of something like greatness." Others, however, have derided her stories for a lack of originality and imagination. Nonetheless, while critical assessment of her short fiction has been slight, Lee's stature as an important Victorian intellectual continues to attract the attention of scholars.
Ottilie (short novel) 1893
Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales 1904
The Snake Lady, and Other Stories 1954
Other Major Works
Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (essays) 1880
Belcaro (essays) 1881
The Countess of Albany (biography) 1884
Euphorion (essays) 1884
Miss Brown (novel) 1884
Baldwin (prose dialogues) 1886
Juvenilia (essays) 1887
Renaissance Fancies and Studies (essays) 1895
Limbo, and Other Essays (essays) 1897
Genius Loci (travel essays) 1899
Ariadne in Mantua (drama) 1903
Penelope Brandling (novel) 1903
The Enchanted Woods (travel essays) 1905
Gospels of Anarchy (essays) 1908
The Sentimental Traveller (travel essays) 1908
Vital Lies (essays) 1912
Louis Norbert (novel) 1914
The Tower of Mirrors (travel essays) 1914
Satan the Waster (prose dialogue) 1920
The Handling of Words (essays)...
(The entire section is 112 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales, in Anthenaeum, Vol. 2, No. 4027, December 31, 1904, p. 903.
[In the following essay, the critic offers a negative assessment of the stories in Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales.]
The lady who writes under the pen-name of Vernon Lee has a well-defined literary personality; and these tales are much what those familiar with her work might have expected from her. They belong to that order of tale which has affinities with the literary hybrid called prose-poetry—a form which betrays its hybrid nature by its sterility, its inability to beget vital literary offspring. The poetic affinities of that order of tale are specially evident in this—that instead of the treatment being a vehicle for the tale, the tale is a vehicle for the treatment. We are all familiar with such poems as the 'Isabella,' where Boccaccio's tale is retold merely to afford a theme for Keats's luxuriant imagery and imagination. Any love-tale would have sufficed as well, but Keats happened to choose this. Precisely the same is the function which the story subserves in such tales as these; just such its relative importance. It is an excuse for workmanship. The writer (it would seem) is not specially interested in the story as a story; he sees in it an opportunity for his sense of arrangement and symmetry, his grace of narration—above all, for the display of his style....
(The entire section is 734 words.)
SOURCE: "The Romantic Inventions of Vernon Lee," in The Snake Lady and Other Stories, by Vernon Lee, Grove Press, 1954, pp. 6-24.
[in the following excerpt from the introduction to Lee's short story collection, Gregory examines thematic and stylistic aspects of Lee's fiction.]
It was a clever, bookish, studious child who in 1880 had written Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, and she was a child born of a mother who outlived, victoriously it seemed, two less spirited, less vigorous husbands; Violet Paget was the daughter of the second union and was born in Boulogne, France in 1856. The household soon moved to Italy and a son by the first marriage, Eugene Lee-Hamilton shared it.
Lee-Hamilton was both the light and shadow of the family. Like the sons of some few other old families of England's northern boundaries, he had been trained to enter the diplomatic services. From the time of the ambitiously successful Tudor kings sons of these families stood at variance from the policies of Court and Parliament; their conservatism held claims to an ancient heritage; it was their privilege, so they felt, to be first critics of whoever became Prime Minister and to accept lesser posts in the foreign service as a duty to an elder disestablished order. Wilfred Blunt was one of these and so was Eugene Lee-Hamilton; like Blunt he was a junior member of the British legation in Paris when...
(The entire section is 3220 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. 36, 1956, p. 118.
[In the following essay, the critic provides a mixed assessment of Lee's stories in Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales.]
Vernon Lee (Viola Paget, 1856-1935, a distinguished student of Italian art and literature), has no particular gift for the supernatural as such. Almost without exception, the most impressive literary ghost-stories deal with perversions of the power of the imagination to create life in the place of death—"Oh, who sits weeping upon my grave And will not let me sleep?" complains a typical victim of the living, and Cathy weeps at the window to which Heathcliff has dragged her. [In Lee's Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales] the compulsive interplay between the quick and the dead is the theme of one of these stories, but it is crudely handled and the climax falls flat. Three others, uncertainly balanced between charm and whimsy, are concoted saints' legends, another is a conventionally constructed ghost-story, in a sixth a reborn pagan goddess erupts into the life of a German artist with catastrophic results (enacted on a conveniently-placed sacrificial altar). The remaining piece, probably the strongest in the book, is not a story at all, but an essay on "Ravenna and her ghosts." Here the spectres as it were float up out of the landscape, whose...
(The entire section is 585 words.)
SOURCE: "A Sense of the Past: Henry James and Vernon Lee," in Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story, Faber, 1977, pp. 111-23.
[In the following excerpt, Briggs examines similarities between the fiction of Vernon Lee and Henry James.]
When T. S. Eliot's Gerontion declared that he had no ghosts, he rejected his past, both personal and cultural, and his deliberate deracination was seen as one source of his barrenness. Although only too often ghosts may act as unpleasant reminders of actions preferably forgotten, by digging up long-buried corpses or reawakening tender consciences, total repression of the past or deliberate evasion of its consequences carry even greater penalties. One of these was dramatized by Dickens in his story The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848): here Redlaw, in consigning his unhappy memories to oblivion, forfeited his capacity for human compassion. In an era increasingly characterized by social upheaval, it becomes correspondingly important to retain tradition and older ways of thinking, to remember our ghosts, if we are to maintain a sense of stability. The natural tendency to overestimate the past at the expense of the present may be further exaggerated by the very rapidity with which that past is disappearing, and nostalgia, in various forms, may result. The Catholic revival and the interest in folklore and primitive belief discussed in the...
(The entire section is 3043 words.)
SOURCE: "Vernon Lee," in Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, Volume I, edited by E. F. Bleiler, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985, pp. 329-35.
[In the following essay, Clute offers a thematic overview of Lee's supernatural tales.]
Under the cover of "Vernon Lee"—the pseudonym of an expatriate—Violet Paget is a forgotten woman, a figure of the nineteenth century who lived much of her life in the twentieth, weaving for herself, over her later years, a legend of impenetrable eccentricity. Traces of that deaf, spinsterish, rude, interminable monologist survive in literary chronicles, and undoubtedly in some living memories. Far less easy to encounter is the young Miss Paget, born in France, childhood friend of the painter John Singer Sargent, precocious author (already as Lee) of Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), formidable advocate of Walter Pater's austere aestheticism, uneasy associate of Henry James (whom she eventually alienated), and author of some of the finest tales of the supernatural in English.
The recent explosion of studies of women writers has left her anonymity intact. She does not appear, for instance, in Ellen Moers's magisterial Literary Women (1976), a book whose focus is on the nineteenth century. It is certainly the case that she is hard to characterize and even to locate, for she was an inveterate traveler, rarely resident...
(The entire section is 4457 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to Supernatural Tales: Excursions into Fantasy, by Vernon Lee, Peter Owen Limited, 1987, pp. 7-18.
[In the following essay, Willis explores the defining characteristics of Lee's short fiction.]
Robert Browning's tribute to Vernon Lee which is quoted on the jacket of [Supernatural Tales: Excursions into Fantasy] was written in the last year of his life, 1889, before these stories of hers were published. Browning knew her only as the author of her first books on Italian music, painting and sculpture, which made her name in London literary circles in the '80s. When Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy was published in 1880 the youth of the author astonished its readers. It seemed an amazing book for a girl of twenty-four to have written. Few, if any, were in a position to criticise the learning displayed in it, for it was a pioneer work, a piece of literary archaeology, the study of a period not distant in time but forgotten, if ever recognised, as the mise en scène that it was of a remarkable efflorescence of national art. Italian music, Italian drama of the eighteenth century, the world of fine ladies, cavalieri serventi, pedants, Arcadian rhymesters and poetasters in which the composers and singers, playwrights and actors, the music of Pergolesi, Cimarosa, Jommelli and Marcello arose, were united in this book in a romantically transfigured...
(The entire section is 3362 words.)
Fremantle, Anne. "Vernon Lee, a Lonely Lady." Commonweal LX, No. 12 (June 25, 1954): 297-99.
Biographical sketch and brief review of The Snake Lady.
Wharton, Edith. "Life and Letters." In her A Backward Glance, pp. 112-42. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1934.
Reminiscence calling Vernon Lee a "highly cultivated and brilliant woman."
Additional coverage of Lee's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 57, 153, 156, 174, 178; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 5.
(The entire section is 79 words.)