Vernon Lee

Vernon Lee (pen name of Violet Paget, October 14, 1856 – February 13, 1935) was a British writer.

Born in France to cosmopolitan British parents, she had a nomadic childhood and was educated at home by governesses and tutors. She was a precocious child and wrote in French and Italian, and also spoke German. Her story “Les Aventures d’une Pièce de Monnaie” was published in a Swiss newspaper in 1870, when she was thirteen. While still in her teens, she published three articles on English women novelists in an Italian journal. Lee adopted a male pen name in 1877, believing that she would only be taken seriously as a nonfiction author if she adopted a male pseudonym. She published her first book, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, in 1880.

Her first fiction book in English was the collection of Tuscan Fairy Tales, published anonymously in 1880. She then published the short story “A Culture-Ghost; or, Winthrop’s Adventure” in Fraser’s Magazine, in January 1881. In 1883, she published the novella Ottilie: An Eighteenth-Century Idyll, and the novel The Prince of the Hundred Soups: A Puppet Show in Narrative. In the following year, she published the satirical novel Miss Brown (1884). In her lifetime, she published articles, novels, essays and short stories, and explored topics such as aesthetics, psychology, music criticism, art history, travel writing, supernatural fiction, satire, pacifism, and women’s rights. In 1924, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Durham.

Lee led a cosmopolitan lifestyle, and travelled extensively through Europe, with extended stays in France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy, where she lived for most of her adult life. Vernon Lee maintained an androgynous appearance and adopted a masculine pseudonym for her publications. She was a feminist and a fervent pacifist, and had long-term love relationships with a married woman named Annie Meyer (from 1878 to 1881), Bella Duffy (around 1878), Mary Robinson (from 1879 to 1887), Clementina Anstruther-Thomson (from 1889 to 1898), and Amy Levy (around 1886). Irene Cooper Willis, writer and later lawyer, became her collaborator and long-time companion from 1911 and administered her estate after Vernon Lee’s death.

Vernon Lee was a friend of Oscar Wilde and John Singer Sargent, and a great admirer of Henry James, whom she met frequently. She was also acquainted with Robert Browning, William Morris, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, Ada Leverson, the Rossettis, Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell, Ethel Smith, Edith Wharton and Nathalie Barney, whose salon in Paris she visited on her trips to France.

According to Lee’s biographer Vineta Colby, “she was too late to be a Victorian, too early to be a Modernist.” She was admired by H. G. Wells, who called her his “Sister in Utopia”. In a letter to his brother William James, Henry James wrote about Vernon Lee: “(…) she is as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent—which is saying a great deal. Her vigour and sweep of intellect are most rare and her talk superior altogether, but I don’t agree with you at all about her ‘style,’  (…) There is a great second-rate element in her first-rateness. At any rate, draw it mild with her on the question of friendship. She’s a tiger-cat”. George Bernard Shaw described her as a figure of “the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism.

Vernon Lee spent the last years of her life in seclusion, as she suffered from increasing deafness. She died of heart failure on the 13th February 1935, at the age of 78.

Virginia Woolf, who had an ambiguous view of Vernon Lee’s writing style, included her nonetheless in a female pantheon on her essay A Room of One’s Own: “There are Jane Harrison’s books on Greek archaeology; Vernon Lee’s books on aesthetics; Gertrude Bell’s books on Persia. There are books on all sorts of subjects which a generation ago no woman could have touched.” Woolf also wrote, in  Portraits“I never spoke to her. But in a sense, the true sense, I who love beauty always feel, I knew Vernon Lee.”

Books

Novels

  • The Prince of the Hundred Soups: A Puppet Show in Narrative (1883)
  • Miss Brown (1884)
  • Penelope Brandling: A Tale of the Welsh Coast in the Eighteenth Century (1903)
  • Louis Norbert. A Twofold Romance (1914)

Novellas

  • Ottilie: An Eighteenth Century Idyl (1883)
  • A Phantom Lover: A Fantastic Story (1886)
  • The Legend of Madame Krasinska (1903)

Short stories

  • Hauntings. Fantastic Stories (1890)
  • Vanitas: Polite Stories (1892)
  • Pope Jacynth – And Other Fantastic Tales (1904)
  • Ravenna and Her Ghosts (1907)
  • For Maurice. Five Unlikely Stories (1927)
  • Snake Lady and Other Stories (1954, posthumously published)
  • Supernatural Tales (1955, posthumously published)
  • The Virgin of the Seven Daggers – And Other Chilling Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1962, posthumously published)

Drama

  • Ariadne in Mantua: a Romance in Five Acts (1903)
  • Satan the Waster: A Philosophic War Trilogy (1920)

Nonfiction

  • Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880)
  • Belcaro, Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions (1881)
  • The Countess of Albany (1884)
  • Euphorion: Being Studies of the Antique and the Mediaeval in the Renaissance (1884)
  • Baldwin: Being Dialogues on Views and Aspirations (1886)
  • Juvenilia, Being a second series of essays on sundry aesthetical questions (1887)
  • Althea: Dialogues on Aspirations & Duties (1894)
  • Renaissance Fancies And Studies Being A Sequel To Euphorion (1895)
  • Art and Life (1896)
  • Limbo and Other Essays (1897)
  • Genius Loci: Notes on Places (1899)
  • The Child In The Vatican (1900)
  • In Umbria: A Study of Artistic Personality (1901)
  • Chapelmaster Kreisler A Study of Musical Romanticists (1901)
  • Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of life (1903)
  • The Enchanted Woods, and Other Essays on the Genius of Places (1905)
  • Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child, an eighteenth-century legend (1906)
  • The Spirit of Rome: Leaves from a Diary (1906)
  • The Sentimental Traveller. Notes on Places (1908)
  • Gospels of Anarchy & Other Contemporary Studies (1908)
  • Laurus Nobilis: Chapters on Art and Life (1909)
  • In Praise of Old Gardens (1912)
  • Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics (1912)
  • Vital Lies: Studies of Some Varieties of Recent Obscurantism (1912)
  • The Beautiful. An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics (1913)
  • The Tower of the Mirrors and Other Essays on the Spirit of Places (1914)
  • The Ballet of the Nations. A Present-Day Morality (1915)
  • The Handling of Words and Other Studies in Literary Psychology (1923)
  • Proteus or The Future Of Intelligence (1925)
  • The Golden Keys and Other Essays on the Genius Loci (1925)
  • The Poet’s Eye, Notes on Some Differences Between Verse and Prose (1926)
  • Music and its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses to Music (1932)

Letters

  • Private Letters. With a Preface by Irene Cooper Willis. Privately Printed, 1937
  • The Anglo-German Correspondence of Vernon Lee and Irene Forbes-Mosse During World War I. Women Writer’s Friendship Transcending Enemy Lines, ed. Herward Sieberg / Christa Zorn, 2014
  • Selected Letters of Vernon Lee, 1856–1935, Volume I, 1865–1884, ed. Amanda Gagel, 2017
  • Selected Letters of Vernon Lee, 1856–1935, Volume II, 1885–1889, ed. Sophie Geoffroy, 2020

About her

  • Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography, by Vineta Colby (2003)
  • Vernon Lee. Writers and their Work, by Sandeep Kandola (2010)
  • Vernon Lee. Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics. Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth Century Writing and Culture, by Patricia Pulham / Catherine Maxwell (2006)
  • Vernon Lee. Aesthetics, History and the Victorian Female Intellectual, by Christa Zorn (2003)
  • The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, ed. Lorna Sage (1999)
  • The Lesbian Imagination (Victorian style): A psychological and critical study of “Vernon Lee”, by Burdett Gardner (1987)
  • Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856–1935, by Peter Gunn (1964)
  • The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century, by Vineta Colby (1970)
  • Victorian Sexual Dissidence, ed. Richard Dellamora (1999)
  • Marketing the Author: Authorial Personae, Narrative Selves and Self-Fashioning, 1880-1930, ed. Marysa Demoor (2004)
  • Aestheticism and Decadence: A Selected Annotated Bibliography, by Linda Dowling (1977)
  • Women’s Literary Collaboration, Queerness and Late-Victorian Culture, by Jill Ehnenn (2008)
  • Feminist Forerunners: (New) Womanism and Feminism in the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Ann Heilmann (2003)
  • Second Sight: The Visionary Imagination in Late Victorian Literature, by Catherine Maxwell (2009)
  • Victorian Sappho, by Yopie Prins (1999)
  • Art and the Transitional Object in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Tales, by Patricia Pulham (2008)
  • Women’s Fiction and the Great War, by Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate (1997)
  • The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England, by Talia Schaffer (2000)
  • Intimate Friends: Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928, by Martha Vicinus (2004)
  • “Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson: a Study of Love and Collaboration Between Romantic Friends”, by Phyllis F. Mannocchi. Women’s Studies 12 (February 1986): 129-48.
  • Written Lives, by Javier Marías (2006, tr. Margaret Jull Costa, essay ‘Vernon Lee, the Tiger Cat’. Original: Vidas Escritas, 2000)
  • “From Dionysus to Dionea: Vernon Lee’s Portraits”, by Catherine Maxwell. Word & Image 13: 3 (July-Sept. 1997), 253-69.
  • “Sappho, Mary Wakefield, and Vernon Lee’s ‘A Wicked Voice’”, by Catherine Maxwell. The Modern Language Review 102, No. 4 (Oct. 2007), pp. 960-974.
  • “The Archival Traces of Desire : Vernon Lee’s Failed Sexuality and the History of the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History”, by Sally Newman. Journal of the History of Sexuality. University of Texas Press. Vol. 14, n°1-2, January/April 2005 : 51-75.
  • “’I found for you a scarlet blossom rare’: Reconsidering the Friendship of Amy Levy and Vernon Lee”, by Patricia Pulham. Conference Proceedings of Amy Levy: a Colloquium. University of Southampton, Sept. 2002.
  • Fin de siècle/Fin du Globe: Fears and Fantasies of the Late Nineteenth Century, ed. John Stokes (1992)
  • “Fiction is the Best Revenge: Portraits of Henry James by Four Women Writers”, by Adeline R. Tintner. Turn of the Century Women 2:2 Winter (1985), pp. 42-9.
  • “The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siècle Femme Fatale?”, by Martha Vicinus. Journal of the History of Homosexuality 5 (1994), 90-114.
  • “Vernon Lee and the Victorian Aesthetic Movement: ‘Feminine Souls’ and Shifting Sites of Contest”, by Lois Agnew. Nineteenth Century Prose 26: 2 (1999): 127-42.
  • Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, 2 vols., ed. E.F. Bleiler (1985)
  • “Productive Decadence: ‘The Queer Comradeship of Outlawed Thought’: Vernon Lee, Max Nordau, and Oscar Wilde”, by Richard Dellamora. New Literary History 35 (2005): 1-18.
  • Nineteenth Century British Women Writers, ed. Abigail Burnham Bloom (2000)
  • Aestheticism and Sexual Parody: 1840-1940, by Dennis Denisoff (2001)
  • “Letters from Edith Wharton to Vernon Lee”, by Hilda M.   Colby Library Quarterly (February 1953): 139-44.
  • “Women and the Ends of Art History: Vision and Corporeality in Nineteenth Century Discourse”, by Hilary Fraser. Victorian Studies 42: 1 (1988-89), 77-100.
  • “Evelyn De Morgan, Vernon Lee and Assimilation from Without”, by Hilary Fraser. Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies  NS 14 (Spring, 2005), 75-90.
  • The Victorians and the Eighteenth Century: Reassessing the Tradition, ed. Francis O’Gorman and Kathleen Turner (2004)
  • “Violet Paget to Sarah Orne Jewett”, by Richard    Colby Library Quarterly (December 1970): 235-43.
  • “The Strain of Sympathy: A. Mary F. Robinson, The New Arcadia, and Vernon Lee”, by Emily    Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 61, no. 1 (2006): 66-98.
  • “Imitations of Marriage: Crossdressed Couples in Contemporary Lesbian Fiction”, by Anne.    Feminist Studies 18.3 (1992): 609-624.
  • “Vernon Lee: New Woman?”, by Sondeep   Women’s Writing, 12:3 (2005), pp. 97-118.
  • Unfolding the South: Nineteenth Century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy 1789-1900, ed. Alison Chapman and Jane Stabler (2003)
  • Women and British Aestheticism, ed. Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades (2000)
  • Lesbian Panic: Homoeroticism in Modern British Women’s Fiction, by Patricia Juliana Smith (1997)

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