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Haunted by the Pagan Past:
an introduction to Vernon Lee

by Brian Stableford

Violet Paget was born at Château St Leonard, near Boulogne in France in 1856. Her mother, Matilda Adams, had previously been married to one Captain Lee-Hamilton, who was reputed to have married her for her money; he had died in 1852. Violet's father, who went by the name of Henry Ferguson Paget, was the tutor who had been entrusted with the education of Eugene Lee-Hamilton, the only child of that first marriage, born in 1845.

When Violet adopted the masculine pseudonym Vernon Lee for her writings she forged an extra link with her half-brother, who became a poet of some small reputation. The assumed name also served to distance her from her father--a colourful character of mysterious ancestry who was far fonder of shooting and fishing than literature and learning, and whose tendency to transplant the family at regular intervals seems to have been symptomatic of a congenital restlessness--but this may not have been her original intention; the first version of the pseudonym, which never made it into print, was H. P. Vernon Lee, and one of her earliest publications appeared under the signature H. Vernon Lee. At any rate, she and her half-brother developed their literary talents under the near-exclusive influence of their despotic mother, a fervent rationalist whose considerable intellect was somewhat undermined by her compulsive faddishness. The fact that Eugene was always his mother's favourite was as significant to Violet's character-development as it was to his.

Violet was a precocious child whose first literary productions were in her second and third languages, French and Italian (German was her fourth). "Les Aventures d'une Pièce de Monnaie" (1870) appeared in a Swiss newspaper when she was thirteen, and three articles on English women novelists appeared in an Italian journal while she was in her later teens. The literary career of Vernon Lee was launched in 1877 with an article on "Tuscan Peasant Plays" in the February issue of Fraser's Magazine. Her first book, a well-researched and intelligently-argued collection of Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, appeared in 1880, two years after Eugene's first collection of Poems and Transcripts.

Eugene left Oxford in 1866 without taking a degree and went into the Diplomatic Service. He was unlucky enough to be attached to the British Embassy in Paris during the siege of 1870--his mother and half-sister rushed to join him there before the embassy was relocated--and his heart was never in his work thereafter. Under threat of being sent to Buenos Aires in 1873 he developed a debilitating but probably psychosomatic illness that consigned him to a sofa for the next twenty years. As with other career invalids, he now had plenty of time to write but too little energy to produce much more than the occasional poem. He did, however, serve as an anchor suppressing his family's wanderlust, causing them to settle more-or-less permanently in Florence.

Violet, who was sixteen when Eugene fell ill, became his lectrice and amanuensis for several years, although she tore herself away more frequently and for longer periods during the 1880s, when she was often in London. She usually carried his manuscripts with her, shopping around for publishers for him as well as for her own work. After defying the diagnostic talents of many doctors, including the great Jean Martin Charcot, Eugene decided to get better in 1894 and soon asserted his newly-regained independence in the traditional family manner by setting off on his own travels. He visited England, but that was too close to home and he soon went on to Canada and the USA. He married the popular novelist Annie E. Holdsworth in 1898 and spent the last few years of his life--he died in 1907--completely estranged from the half-sister who had served him so devotedly in the years before her literary reputation far eclipsed his.

Violet was somewhat prone to neurasthenic disorders herself, but rarely had the luxury of retreating to her bed in order to be looked after. Her bouts of illness never suppressed her literary activity for long, nor the restlessness that made her a lifelong compulsive tourist, nor the argumentative verbosity that energized her conversation as well as her multitudinous essays extrapolating her responses to various works of art. Having decided never to marry she never made the slightest effort to cultivate feminine mannerisms and maintained a rather androgynous appearance--habits which inevitably gave rise to speculations and rumours about her sexuality. We can only guess what Charcot, the forerunner of Freudian psychoanalysis, actually had to say about her hysteria-stricken family, but he was probably far too diplomatic to suggest that the intensity of her passion for art might be a kind of displacement, let alone that the literary arena in which the mechanisms of that displacement were most likely to reveal themselves would be supernatural fiction. The fact remains, though, that erotic impulses, whether evident or disguised, are the nearest thing to supernatural agents that everyone encounters in the routines of daily existence.

Vernon Lee's early critical work was heavily influenced in its attitude and manner by Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). Pater, the great pioneer of the English Aesthetic Movement, had yet to publish Marius the Epicurean (1885) at the time when Lee began to publish voluminously, but his insistence that art should be valued for its own sake had already made a deep and indelible mark on her, as it was also to do on the most famous of all Pater's disciples, Oscar Wilde. Lee first met Pater when she visited England in 1881, shortly after her first encounter with Wilde, but she was less impressed by his "plain, heavy and dull, but agreeable" presence than she had hoped to be. Her essays are extraordinarily discursive, frequently wandering off into extended flights of fancy that often dabble so extensively in dialogue, fable or exemplary anecdote that they stray into the gray area between essay and fiction.

Lee's first fiction publication in English, issued at the same time as Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy by the same publisher, was an anonymous collection of Tuscan Fairy Tales allegedly "taken down from the mouths of the people", although the inspiration she took from the activities of the Brothers Grimm extended to a similar tendency to rewrite and polish the traditional tales for the benefit of a modern audience. It was followed by her first venture into supernatural fiction, a story published in the January 1881 issue of Fraser's Magazine as "A Culture-Ghost; or, Winthrop's Adventure", whose earliest version had been written in 1874. She had already written the novella Ottilie: An Eighteenth-Century Idyl [sic], but that did not see print until 1883, the same year as The Prince of the Hundred Soups: A Puppet Show in Narrative.

Ottilie, whose preface describes it as an account of "phantoms" beckoning to the author out of the past as if in a vision, is a curious tale of the mutual dependency of two half-siblings. The narrator Christoph, who is much younger than his eponymous half-sister, calls his account of their relationship "a confession". Having been delivered into her care at an early age, he casually ruins the opportunities of both her potential suitors, but after failing to complete his university education because he cannot bear to be separated from her he marries himself. The marriage is, however, a miserable failure, and he eventually is glad to return to Ottilie's chaste embrace; she has grown old but he tells her that "we should not complain of Time and his doings, since he has taught us that we were made only for each other". This is the conclusion of the story, but an introduction set in a later era has already shown the pair living contentedly and inseparably to a ripe old age. "His works," that introduction says of Christoph, "with the exception of a little volume of verse and some collections of popular legends which he had taken down from the mouth of the peasantry, were mostly tales of the fantastic, humorous and pathetic style, slightly monotonous, and to our mind childish, which had been so popular in the time of Jean Paul and Hoffmann, and which are now well-nigh forgotten."

The Prince of the Hundred Soups is a children's story in "the fantastic, humorous and pathetic style", which redeploys some of the stock characters of the commedia dell'arte in a fanciful account of the redemptive advent of the opera-singer Signora Olimpia Fantastici to the state of Bobbio. It was issued in the USA in 1886 in an omnibus with Ottilie, under the title The Prince of 100 Soups. It was rapidly followed by a very different work: Lee's first and only venture into the three-decker novel, Miss Brown (1884). This intoxicated and perhaps ill-judged satirical roman-à-clef is set in the contemporary literary circles of London, which Lee had just encountered for the first time.

Like most Victorian novels, Miss Brown ends with the heroine's marriage, but that climax is a capitulation rather than a completion, the ambition of the heroine being sacrificed on the altar of imagined duty. The novel was dedicated to Henry James, whom Lee admired and had met on several occasions; he was initially gratified, although his attitude cooled considerably once he had read the book. He felt slighted by it, although he accepted that no insult was intended, and his eventual verdict was that the book was a "deplorable mistake". When Walter Pater diplomatically withheld his own judgement, Lee decided that she had indeed overstepped the mark, and that satire and the novel of manners might best be avoided in future--at least for a while.

When she published "A Culture-Ghost" in 1881 Lee had already set out a manifesto for the writing of supernatural fiction, in an article published in the Cornhill Magazine in the previous year, "Faustus and Helena: Notes on the Supernatural in Art". This rhapsodic essay, which was subsequently reprinted in Belcaro, Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions (1883), was prompted by contemplation of the very different versions of the Faust-conjured Helen of Troy formulated by Christopher Marlowe and J. W. Goethe. It proposes an original and rather fanciful account of the relationship between art and the supernatural, involving the thesis that art's various attempts to render the supernatural explicit are bound to obliterate exactly those qualities which surpass the natural, and that the supernatural can only retain its quintessential power over the imagination if it is allowed to remain obscure, ambiguous and paradoxical.

This theoretical stance, which is perfectly consonant with Lee's admiration for the surreal works of E. T. A. Hoffmann, anticipates the theoretical approaches to the role of the fantastic in art taken by other admirers of Hoffmann, including Sigmund Freud and Tzvetan Todorov. It informed most of Lee's own supernatural fiction, helping to establish its best examples as pioneering works whose darkly ambiguous yet flagrantly passionate like had rarely been seen in English fiction before.

Lee was not entirely happy with "A Culture-Ghost", so she produced "A Wicked Voice", a much more polished version of the same story, for publication in her first and best collection of supernatural fiction, Hauntings (1890). The collection also reprinted the novella "Oke of Okehurst", which had been issued as a book in 1886 under the title A Phantom Lover: A Fantastic Story, and added two more stories set, like "A Wicked Voice", in Italy: "Amour Dure" and "Dionea".

Although it has affinities with Walter Herries Pollock's novella "Lilith" (1874-5; reprinted in 1883 as The Picture's Secret) and some of Mrs Oliphant's better ghost stories, the psychoanalytic element of "Oke of Okehurst" is much more self-conscious than anything to be found in the work of Lee's contemporaries. It is a strikingly modern work, which has more in common with the knowing and teasing psychoanalytical ghost stories of such American writers as Henry James and Edith Wharton than with other British works of the period. Its unreliable narrator is modelled on the portrait painter John Singer Sargent, who had been a childhood friend of Lee's in Florence.

The other three Hauntings all deal with the seduction of contemporary characters by animated fragments of the past, dramatically exaggerating the process described in the preface to Ottilie. Their apparitions are sharper in focus than the highly ambiguous ghost featured in "Oke of Okehurst", but the only one that achieves the solidity of flesh in the story's present--the eponymous "Dionea"--sacrifices her supernatural qualities, in full accordance with the thesis of "Faustus and Helena", until the time comes for her to reclaim her true nature.

Like "Dionea", "Amour Dure" is a dramatic tale of a femme fatale who lays waste to modern moral standards in a cavalier fashion, being possessed of a glamour that no actuality of today's world can match. The story was originally an outline sketch for a novel to be entitled Medea da Carpi, but when Lee had submitted the outline to William Blackwood, the publisher of A Phantom Lover, he had objected to the proposed hybridization of fact and fiction, so she re-tailored the material to its published form. "Amour Dure" is as modern in its way as "Oke of Okehurst", particularly in its forthright celebration of masochism; "Dionea" is only slightly less so, although its sly advocacy of pagan ideals was something of a fin-de-siècle fad.

"A Wicked Voice" is the only story in Hauntings to feature a male seducer rather than a female, but the fact that he is a castrato whose instrument of temptation is his unbroken voice lends some support to the notion that Lee's understanding of desire was intimately bound to the contemplation of unmasculine objects. Lee eventually reprinted the 1881 version of the story as "Winthrop's Adventure" in For Maurice: Five Unlikely Stories (1927), explaining that in spite of all its narrative faults it was truer to her youthful impressions of Italy and "the ineffable sense of the picturesqueness and wonderfulness of everything one came across: the market-place with the stage coach of the dentist, the puppet show against the Gothic palace, the white owl whom my friend John [Sargent] and I wanted to buy and take home to the hotel....a land where the Past haunted on, with its wizards, sphinxes, strange, weird, curious." That same introduction explained that by 1927 Lee had become dissatisfied with "A Wicked Voice", despite its evident literary superiority to earlier versions, because it was a story "of Yellow Book days", only brought up to date as far as the day of "Tourgueneff's Chant de l'amour Triomphant and Wilde's Salome".

Such references make it abundantly clear that by 1890 Lee had considered herself to be firmly in the vanguard of the English Aesthetic Movement while it took aboard the influence of French "Decadence", although she followed the example of many others who rejected the label when the trial of Oscar Wilde brought the wrath of the public down upon it. Like other pioneers of English Decadent prose fiction--notable examples include Arthur Machen, R. Murray Gilchrist and M. P. Shiel--Lee went on to produce work of a very different stripe after the turn of the century, sacrificing a certain fervour of style as well as the more extreme aspects of her ironic moral scepticism.

By the time Hauntings appeared Lee had published another deeply ironic tale of exotic infatuation, "The Virgin of the Seven Daggers" (1889). This was the most consciously Decadent of all Lee's works: a calculatedly sacrilegious tale in which one of the two images playing the role of femme fatale is the virtuous mother of Jesus. Although the Virgin wins the vote against the ancient Islamic princess who competes with her for Don Juan's heart--thus guaranteeing the legendary rakehell an unlikely place in Heaven--it is far from obvious that he favours her for the kind of reasons of which a devout Christian would have approved. The tale remained uncollected until it was reissued in For Maurice in 1927, when Lee defended its outspoken profanity on the grounds that "if I have anywhere in my soul a secret shrine, it is to Our Lady.... For is she not the divine Mother of Gods as well as God, Demeter or Mary, in whom the sad and ugly things of our bodily origin and nourishment are transformed into the grace of the immortal spirit?"

"The Virgin of the Seven Daggers" recalls the lush Romantic fantasies of Théophile Gautier, and it anticipates the heartfelt syncretism of the short stories Rémy de Gourmont wrote after his features were destroyed by lupus. Like "A Wicked Voice" it was very much a story "of Yellow Book days", and as such it has much in common with the novella "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady", which actually appeared in The Yellow Book in July 1896 before featuring as the weightiest item in Lee's second collection of fantasies, Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales (1904). Although this volume was initially issued by Grant Richards it was reprinted a few years later, along with Hauntings, by Yellow Book publisher John Lane, who was later to be the publisher of Louis Norbert and For Maurice.

Like "The Virgin of the Seven Daggers", "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady" is an ironic subversion of Gautieresque Romanticism. It uses the same classical source from which Gautier had borrowed the plot of "Arria Marcella" and John Keats had adapted the story of "Lamia": Philostratus' account of a supernatural seductress, half-woman and half-snake, detected and banished by Apollonius of Tyana. Like Gautier and Keats, Lee takes the side of the tempting serpent against those who would banish her, and sees her removal from the world--representative of a reluctant acceptance of brute reality--as a tragedy best delayed for as long as humanly possible. She had long been fascinated with the story's central motif, having described a chimerical "Serpent King" in an outline for a story called "Capo Serpente" which she submitted to a magazine publisher in 1870.

Although Lee's commitment to the Aesthetic Movement was firm enough during the first half of the yellow nineties, she remained a mere dabbler in Decadent fantasy. After Wilde's fall from grace she swiftly returned to the production of naturalistic fiction in the manner of Henry James. The first two novellas collected in Vanitas: Polite Stories (1892) both make careful reference to James's work, and his influence is also detectable, albeit more subtly, in the third, The Legend of Madame Krasinska, which had been published in the Fortnightly Review in 1890 and was subsequently to be reprinted in book form in the USA in 1903.

Lee's dedication describes the central characters of all three stories in Vanitas as "frivolous women", and they certainly testify to the extent to which Lee had taken aboard James's sly misogyny along with the exhortations contained in his classic essay on "The Art of Fiction" (in Partial Portraits, 1888). Unfortunately, the book's subtitle did not prevent it from causing offence; the first novella therein, "Lady Tal", was sufficiently close in method and spirit to Miss Brown to have the same effect on various persons who thought that their habits and ideas were being mocked. The distress of Alice Callander, who saw herself in the female lead, Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw, was only slightly less than that of Henry James, who thought the male lead, Jervase Marion, a cruel caricature of himself. His sense of injury was so deep that he felt obliged to send "a word of warning" about Lee to his brother William when the latter visited Italy in 1893, "because she is as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent, which is saying a lot.... She's a tiger-cat!" When William passed this intelligence on Lee was deeply contrite, and never repeated the error again.

The Legend of Madame Krasinska, the only supernatural item in Vanitas, pointed the direction which Lee's fantastic fiction was to follow during the next few years, building on foundations foreshadowed in "Dionea" and "The Virgin of the Seven Daggers" but more firmly laid down by one of the most imaginative of her essays on Italian Renaissance art, first published in 1891 and reprinted in Renaissance Fancies and Studies (1995) as "A Seeker of Pagan Perfection, Being the Life of Domenico Neroni, Pictor Sacrilegus". This essay strays far enough into narrative to have been reprinted as a story in a Grove Press collection, The Snake Lady and Other Stories (1954), which helped renew interest in Lee's work among modern connoisseurs of supernatural fiction, but it does so as an imaginative exercise of the kind identified in the preface to Ottilie. In a broader context, this kind of attempt to forge sympathetic links with the past is an exaggeration of the philosophy of history which argues that the essence of historical understanding is the ability to identify with actors in history, thus to appreciate the rationale of their actions.

"A Seeker of Pagan Perfection" offers a speculative biography of the Volterran sculptor Domenico Neroni, venturing a hypothesis as to the sequence of events that led to his being burned at the stake in July 1488 for the crime of desecrating a church and using its apparatus for the purposes of witchcraft. Lee puts herself in the shoes of a brilliant and progressive artist living in fifteenth-century Rome, whose struggle to reconcile his profound aesthetic appreciation of pagan art with his shaky Christian faith leads him by inexorable degrees to a heretical desire to see the old gods as their ancient representers saw them, no matter what the cost.

The necessity of combining an aesthetic delight in Classical pagan artefacts with an orthodox regard for Christian morality was an affliction that weighed heavily on all Victorian critics. It had been the central obsession of John Ruskin, and Walter Pater's attempts to escape the trap had eventually faded into capitulation--as noted in the "Valedictory" appended to Renaissance Fancies and Studies, which observes, without making its regret too obvious, that Pater "began as an aesthete and ended as a moralist". Oscar Wilde was forced to the same conclusion by two years' hard labour, and such feeble resistance as Lee could muster in 1900 was expressed in the irony of such tales as The Legend of Madame Krasinska, which indulge in playful but fundamentally respectful satirization of the inspirational anecdotes of The Golden Legend--the most preposterously imaginative of all the enterprises by which pious Christians had turned the legacy of pagan folklore to their own advantage.

By far the sharpest of Lee's perverted legends, "Marsyas in Flanders"--whose title and theme echo and subvert Honore de Balzac's "Christ in Flanders" (1831)--also made its first appearance in 1900, but Lee chose not to reprint it until it appeared in For Maurice. The two similar items collected in Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales--the title story and "St Eudaemon and His Orange Tree"--are somewhat lighter in tone, cast in the same whimsical mould as the mock-legendary fantasies of Anatole France and Richard Garnett. Sister Benevenuta and the Christ Child, a more earnest story closer in spirit to The Legend of Madame Krasinska, was published in book form in 1906.

The fifth story in For Maurice, dated 1900, is "The Doll". It is odd without being supernatural, and like the three remaining stories in Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales--"A Wedding Chest", "The Lady and Death" and "The Featureless Wisdom"--it is a relatively slight anecdote inspired by a work of art. The more meditative tales from Pope Jacynth are slightly more interesting in the context of fantastic fiction, although the conte cruel "A Wedding Chest" is the only one likely to appeal to aficionados of horror fiction. In much the same way that the legendary fantasies had been preceded by the more substantial "Legend of Madame Krasinska", these meditative pieces had been preceded by a more extensive account of "Ravenna and Her Ghosts" (1894), more essay than story, which Lee eventually chose to add to a 1908 reprint of her non-fiction collection Limbo and Other Essays, whose first edition had been issued in 1897.

The vogue for supernatural fiction that encouraged many dabblers in the late 1880s and early 1990s faded out as the dawn of the new century approached. Many British writers found it politic to suppress the supernatural aspects of their fiction after 1900, and Lee was no exception. As the end of the nineteenth century approached she became deeply depressed by the failure of her work to find a wide audience, and she toyed with the notion of giving up, while simultaneously attempting to diversify her output into more commercial channels. Her best-known works were published at around this time, beginning with the light essays in travel journalism making up Genius Loci: Notes on Places (1899).

Peter Gunn, the author of Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856-1935 (1964), considers Ariadne in Mantua: A Romance in Five Acts--which was written in 1899-1900 although it was not published until 1903 and remained unproduced until 1916--to be her most self-revealing work. In support of that claim, he argues that it is the melancholy Duke of Mantua, who has turned misogynist since being disappointed in love, rather than his opposite number--a self-sacrificing girl disguised as a male singer--who serves as the primary mouthpiece for the author's own feelings.

Penelope Brandling: A Tale of the Welsh Coast in the Eighteenth Century (1903), was a further attempt to do popular commercial work, although it was not nearly as successful as its immediate predecessors. It is a non-supernatural Gothic romance in which a spirited young bride is terrorized by a family of wreckers whose menacing spearhead is a sinister clergyman. It is melodramatic enough, but its brevity--it is a novella published in the same slim format as Ottilie--counted against it. Lee's inability to spin the tale out to novel length is probably testimony to the discomfort she felt in keeping her intellectual impulses under a tight rein; no further experiment of this kind appeared until 1914, when the more substantial Louis Norbert: A Two-fold Romance was published (although Gunn suggests that it was probably written some years earlier).

If Penelope Brandling may be considered a direct ancestor of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, then Louis Norbert is the most obvious literary ancestor of A. S. Byatt's Possession. It is an epistolary novel whose subject-matter and narrative method were far better suited to Lee's interests and temperament, taking the form of correspondence between the middle-aged Lady Venetia Hammond and a much younger male identified only as "the Archaeologist". The correspondence relates their separate discoveries in England and Italy concerning the life of one Louis Norbert de Caritan, whose tomb they have discovered together in Pisa, bearing a date (1684) two years later than that attached to a portrait of him that hangs in Lady Venetia's old home, in what is known as "the Ghost's room".

The two correspondents set out to recover, to the extent that they can, the story of the unfortunate young man's life, attempting to penetrate the secret of his true identity and to figure out the exact manner of his premature death. The difference in their methods--he is a painstaking sceptic, while she relies on visionary intuition--is mirrored in their attitudes to the relationship which develops between them. The hopes and possibilities inherent in that relationship are eventually slain as cruelly as poor Louis Norbert, who died not knowing that he was--if Lady Venetia's intuitions can be trusted--the son of the Sun King and the rightful heir to the throne of France. By far the most heartfelt passage in the novel describes the Archaeologist's inarticulate panic as he approaches a crucial meeting with the woman to whom he is now desperately attracted--a passage which suggests that he is far more closely modelled on the author than Lady Venetia.

Although Louis Norbert is only a metaphorical ghost there is a certain kinship between his story and that of "Oke of Okehurst". The claustrophobic intensity of the earlier novella is, however, replaced by a far more playful delight in recalling the political intrigues of the seventeenth century and mixing the staple ingredients of historical romance. It might have fared far better in the marketplace had the ending not been so determinedly frustrating. This insistent anti-romantic note echoes the one sounded in an even lighter work that Lee had produced a year earlier: the last and most distinctive of all her fantasies, "The Gods and Ritter Tanhuser". This was the story she chose as the lead item in For Maurice, presumably because she thought it closest in spirit to the work which the book's dedicatee--the writer Maurice Baring--had enjoyed so much as a child, The Prince of the Hundred Soups.

"The Gods and Ritter Tanhuser" is the most relaxed and comical of Lee's many tales of Christianity and Paganism in conflict. Whereas "The Virgin of the Seven Daggers" and "Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady" had looked back from the heyday of the Decadent movement at the legendary recapitulations of Romanticism, "The Gods and Ritter Tanhuser" looks back contentedly and conservatively at an erotic legend that had been recapitulated more than once by the great exemplars of Decadence, most notably in Aubrey Beardsley's Under the Hill (1897). Its lightness belies the reputation Lee had acquired by this time of being an irascible, argumentative and relentless pursuer of mostly-unfashionable causes, many of which had been displayed in her two collections of sociological essays, Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies (1908) and Vital Lies: Studies of Some Varieties of Recent Obscurantism (2 volumes, 1912).

Although Lee's crusading efforts won her some new friends--including H. G. Wells, who addressed her as "Sister in Utopia"--they also made her enemies, none more prolifically than the fervent pacifism that had cost her a few of her English friends during the Boer War and was to cost her a lot more during the Great War. She was moved by the latter tragedy--whose tragic nature she anticipated long before the majority of her contemporaries were forced to recognise it--to pen a critical allegory, The Ballet of the Nations: A Present-Day Morality (1915), which she expanded after the war's end into Satan the Waster: A Philosophic War Trilogy (1920), but these works should not be reckoned as examples of supernatural fiction.

Vernon Lee never saw her supernatural stories as central elements of her literary endeavour--they were always diversions from more serious work--but they have lasted far better than her essays on art, most of which now seem relentlessly dull as well as maddeningly unfocused. Lee could never put her heart into the composition of fiction with the same wild intensity that her half-brother Eugene Lee-Hamilton brought to his magnificently lurid historical novel The Lord of the Dark Red Star (1903), but this did not work entirely to her disadvantage. It was her scrupulous refusal to give way entirely to the fever of creativity, and her insistence on maintaining a carefully-controlled distance from passionate involvement, that gave her best supernatural fiction its balance, force and flavour.

The fact that Vernon Lee forbade any biography, and insisted that her early letters to her family should be kept safe from public scrutiny until 1980, lent further fuel to the rumours which circulated while she was alive to the effect that she had something to hide. Peter Gunn, who offers the usual biographer's excuses for violating the prohibitions his subject had laid down, is careful to avoid overmuch prurient speculation, but he scrupulously lists all of her close female friends. He states that she formed a "passionate attachment" to a married woman named Annie Meyer in 1878 and alleges that she was subsequently very disappointed when Mary Robinson married James Darmsteter in 1887. He opines that Lee's regard for her sometime collaborator on various works on aesthetic theory, Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, who preferred to be known as Kit, was "stronger than mere affection" and that Lee "wanted something deeper" than Anstruther-Thomson was eventually willing to provide.

Anstruther-Thomson, in whose company Lee spent at least half of every year from 1889-1898, nursed Lee through one of her most protracted neurasthenic episodes. She also tended to Lee's mother and half-brother--Gunn credits her with partial responsibility for Eugene's recovery--before suffering a breakdown of her own in 1897. When, after recovering, she decided that her first duty in future should be to another sick friend, Christine Head, Lee was devastated--but only for a while.

Gunn concludes, on the basis of this sort of evidence, that "Vernon Lee was unable to recognize in herself the natural human desires, or to express them in a natural, human way. If the presence of bodily wants could not be denied, still those wants could be to all intents and purposes ignored, and that was what she did. But the imagination and emotions were real, and, try to curb them as she might, they dominated her to the very end."

This might be true, although it is unlikely to seem so to anyone who holds the view that there is no way to express "natural human desires", whether they are recognized as such or not, that is more natural or human than writing. The pattern of Lee's published works suggests, however, that she was better equipped to deal with whatever "bodily wants" she had than this summary is prepared to credit, and she seems to have been well able to subject both her imagination and her emotions to the dominion of her intellect. It is at least possible that the spectrum of Lee's desires and the extent of her self-knowledge were more extensive than her biographer was prepared to concede. The combination of secret frustration and the power of her imagination may help to explain why the supernatural fiction she wrote is so distinctively intense, but the fact that she wrote so little of it, and that it changed its character so markedly as her career progressed, is surely testimony to her success in subjecting her inner life to a workable discipline.

In common with many other writers whose sexuality was troubled, ambiguous or unorthodox, Lee dressed her early literary accounts of sexual passion with a pretended objectivity that tended to represent erotic attraction as a dangerous fever and evaluated its effects with a clinical and cynical sarcasm. It is the qualified fervour of this attitude that gives the four stories making up Hauntings their power, and it was the gradual relaxation of that fervour that reduced the intensity of her later work, allowing its ironic element to dissolve by slow degrees into measured slapstick. Hauntings remains one of the landmark collections of British supernatural fiction, and its readers may well regret that Lee never produced another like it, but the best of the rest of her supernatural fiction serves to provide a flirtatious philosophical counterweight to its steadfast grimness, and to testify that she was ready and able to learn such lessons as were to be found in it.

When, late in life, Vernon Lee was invited to contribute to the series of "Today & Tomorrow" pamphlets launched by J. B. S. Haldane's Daedalus; or, Science and the Future her offering was Proteus; or, The Future of Intelligence (1925). There, with her customary dry wit, she observed that: "Intelligence....has quietly stripped from our moral valuations that half-supernatural, half-aesthetic halo which is but the shrunken religious involucrum wherein they came into the world. The 'problem of evil' has already become the problem not of its toleration by God, but of its diminution by man." There is no better account or explanation of the evolution of her supernatural fiction from "Winthrop's Adventure" to "The Gods and Ritter Tanhuser", via "Amour Dure".


availability

Lee titles can be hard to track down, but it's worth trying the specialist sellers of used books. For bookshop links see the infinity plus bookshop.

Titles to look for:

  • A Phantom Lover: A Fantastic Story. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1886.
  • Hauntings. London: Heinemann, 1890.
  • Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales. London: Grant Richards, 1904.
  • For Maurice: Five Unlikely Tales. London: John Lane, 1927.
  • The Snake Lady and Other Stories. New York: Grove Press, 1954.
  • Supernatural Tales. London: Peter Owen, 1955.
  • Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales. London: Peter Owen, 1956.

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