The Archival Traces of Desire: Vernon Lee's Failed Sexuality and the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History
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Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.1/2 (2005) 51-75



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The Archival Traces of Desire:

Vernon Lee's Failed Sexuality and the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History

Monash University, Australia

My interest in Vernon Lee (1856–1935) grew out of a project on the use of code by women who did not want to use sexological or psychological terms to describe their love for other women.1 After reading Phyllis Mannocchi's article about the extensive correspondence between Vernon Lee and Clementina ("Kit") Anstruther-Thomson that, she hinted, contained such a code, I was hooked. But perhaps I should also have paid heed to Rosemarie Bodenheimer, who, in her discussion of George Eliot's letters, asked the following questions: "What do we look for in letters? What [End Page 51] do we do with them?"2 These questions came back to haunt me in their starkest form during my research in Vernon Lee's papers at Colby College. What happens when you don't find what you are looking for? And what was I now to do with what I had found? This article traces that journey. In the first part I track the evolving narratives that have shaped Vernon Lee's profile in the public and scholarly domain and that have been influential in promoting a particular mythology about Lee's "failed sexuality." In the second I turn to the archive itself to look for the textual traces of Lee's relationships with Kit Anstruther-Thomson and Mary Robinson (better known from her published work as Mary Duclaux), two women who have been constructed as her primary loves.3 As I will discuss throughout this essay, the practice of reading holograph manuscripts is a process that involves the scholar as an interpreter of textual material, and, as such, she or he is intimately implicated in the construction of meaning and knowledge.

In 1904, several years after the break with her intimate friend "Kit" Anstruther-Thomson, Vernon Lee revisited her friend's family home in Scotland and wrote to her in remembrance of things long past:

Coming from Thornton the day before yesterday I felt I was travelling, with such an odd, vague yet poignant expectancy into my own past. . . . At Kilconquhar you came to fetch me, now just seventeen years ago, the first time I came to Charleton; you had a beret deep over your head, & we picked up an old lady's blue hat box, somewhere near the big willows on the road. And at Largo, on the pier, they were dancing, that evening (there was a fire balloon & we took it for the moon) on which, coming home, I got the news that the first great friendship and love of my life had come to an end; that evening when the little white rose on my pillow told me that a new, greater, eternal (I think, dear Kit!) one had begun.4

Before I had even begun my research in Vernon Lee's archive, the image of that white rose was in my mind from Phyllis Mannocchi's lovingly detailed description of its material existence in the archive: "The symbol of their romantic friendship and intellectual partnership, chosen by the two women themselves, is a small pressed rose, preserved in an envelope, then tucked among a sheaf of letters written by Vernon to Kit during 1887 and 1888. [End Page 52] On the envelope, Vernon has written 'Kit/Charleton Aug 24/Neue Liebe, Neues Leben [New Love, New Life].'"5 Since I wanted to see the rose, it was among the first items I requested when I set foot in the Miller Reading Room at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. I was devastated when the curator told me it could not be found.6 I became fixated on viewing the rose and during the weeks of my research repeatedly asked the curator, "Have you found it?" What is it about the image of the rose that was so intriguing...