Vernon Lee Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.