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Vernon Lee

Vernon Lee Essay - Critical Essays

Lee, Vernon

Introduction

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Hauntings 1890

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) 1923

The Golden Keys (travel essays) 1925

Music and Lovers (essays) 1932

Criticism

Anthenaeum (review date 1904)

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. It is, of course, a legitimate branch of art—but about its value one may fairly debate. In its nature it is very self-conscious; its simplicity (when it is simple) is an elaborate simplicity; and even its perfection is a frozen or carven perfection. One may admire, but one is not moved. One may have a certain tepid pleasure, but...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Horace Gregory (essay date 1954)

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 city fell to the Germans in 1870. The generals of the German occupation drove members of the British Embassy out of Paris into refuge and starvation; in this sense the War of 1870 was a preview of what happened during World War II, and Lee-Hamilton, as he escaped to Portugal and later to his mother and half-sister in Florence, was among those who were not equal to the occasion. He took to a wheeled bed from which he refused to move for twenty years; he was the invalided Phoenix of the family, its poet, its commentator on world and literary affairs; when he chose to speak, and his physicians permitted him to speak only at far-spaced and briefest intervals, his words were of first and of final authority. His half-sister was both his guardian and his servant.

Lee-Hamilton was not fated to die in his wheeled bed; when his twenty-year reign over it had been completed, he rose from his rest, visited the United States and married a young English woman; they had one child, a daughter, who died in infancy and shortly after her death, Lee-Hamilton languished into the grave. Edith Wharton, inaccurate as she was in reporting the bald facts and dates concerning her acquaintance with Lee-Hamilton, was correct when she wrote of the extremes of his invalidism and his vigor. When he visited her on his journey to the United States, he talked and rode a bicycle in and around her Long Island estate as though he were possessed by the spirit of an eighteen year old boy; he was supremely gay. The professional psychiatrist may find ready answers to the peculiarities of his behavior.

His half-sister was in a position to know the extremes of his temperament well. In his passion for literary distinction he published two books of verse and was among the first of Violet Paget's serious critics; an invalid has time for careful reading and critical meditation. There can be no doubt that the relationship between half brother and sister was of daily, almost hourly intimacy; there is no need to think that their interviews were always those of painful anxiety or of sickroom boredom; moments of lassitude and speculations on guilt and love were reserved for Lee-Hamilton's pallid sonnets. After reading his thoroughly literary exercises in verse, done in the approved manner of Walter Pater's young men recently arrived from Oxford, after summing up a few facts of his curious career, Eugene Lee-Hamilton seems to have been a latter-day version of Bramwell Bronte, and as such, demon and all, was an invaluable asset to a gifted younger half-sister.

He may or may not have contributed to Violet Paget's odd and sometimes profound storeroom of knowledge which she called a "lumber room filled with cobwebs" that is so evident in her Studies of Eighteenth Century Italy. But there can be no doubt that he upheld for her, by demanding that she read to him aloud, the standards of Walter Pater's aesthetics, an admiration for Pater's essays on the Renaissance, that he transfused to her a hatred of war, a distrust of many things which were German and yet reserved for her an appreciation of Winckelmann and Goethe. Did she become possessed by him? Or he by her? Neither can be proved—except that as a writer she was the stronger of the two; she visibly outgrew him and lived to write fiction in which the forces of divine good and satanic evil act out their drama, in which the themes of dual personality and demonic possession are the mainsprings of action.

Thus by a roundabout route we come to the shorter fiction of the young woman who adopted in conservative nineteenth century fashion the semi-masculine pen name of Vernon Lee. "Vernon" recalled from a short distance Violet, and the latter part of the pseudonym was a literal transcription of the hyphenated prelude to her elder half-brother's surname. One can read into this choice of a pen name some hint of family solidarity and intimacy—how much or how little it is impossible to say. No reviewers of Vernon Lee's early books were deceived into thinking their author was a man; the disguise was transparent and it was probably intended to be so; it was enough, however, to ward off intimate questions that touched upon Violet Paget's private life; that was not the world's business; her books provided all the answers she cared to give.

Within the twenty-five years after 1881, the publication date of her Studies in Eighteenth Century Italy, a number of short novels and stories appeared under the pen name of Vernon Lee. The first was a by-product of her Studies, "The Prince of a 100 Soups," a narrative inspired by her readings in Carlo Gozzi, the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann, the great German Romanticist, and the Italian comedy of masks. She offered the narrative as a tribute to her love of the Italian puppet show and of the Commedia dell'Arte. Today this little extravaganza reveals no more than a glittering flow of narration and girlish, high-spirited facility; Vernon Lee had no gift for the writing of fantastic comedy; her wit, her gifts were of another kind; nor could she present a piece of what was then the modern "problem novel," her Miss Brown in enduring terms. These early books were fluttering demonstrations or a talent for writing; they are of interest only to the biographer who may wish to pierce the veil of Vernon Lee's personality by way of reading her early ventures into fiction. Yet among these first attempts in 1883 and in 1884 she did succeed in drawing upon the true sources of her genius. Genius may seem a large word to describe the quality of imagination she had and displayed so lucidly—she never claimed it. But if genius can find a definition within writing of less than monumental scope, genius was hers, and something more than the flicker of its presence came into being in a short novel, Ottilie and a biography, The Countess of Albany.

Ottilie has for its subtitle "An Eighteenth Century Idyl." There was probably a slight hint of irony in Vernon Lee's choice of "Idyl" to describe the nature of her provincial romance set within an imaginary Franconia a hundred years before Ottilie was written. It would be easy to say that its young author was all too obviously an enthusiastic reader of the Tales of Hoffmann, the Sorrows of Werther, the Adolphe of Benjamin Constant—that she was and her romance does not disguise its...

(The entire section is 3220 words.)

The Canadian Forum (review date 1956)

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...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Julia Briggs (essay date 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 3043 words.)

John Clute (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 4457 words.)

Irene Cooper Willis (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 3362 words.)