- Essays on Vernon Lee
In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary and cultural circles, Violet Paget—better known by her pseudonym Vernon Lee—was an impressive personality. Excellent as an intellectual networker in Britain and Continental Europe, passionate in her romantic female friendships, provocative in her associations with avant-garde Aesthetes and Decadents, outspoken in her defence of some unpopular causes (including pacifism), and offensive at one time or another to many of her friends and fellow scholars, Lee produced a formidable oeuvre, ranging from aesthetic philosophy and cultural history to supernatural stories, travel writing and biography. And yet, despite her sophisticated mind and extensive output, Vernon Lee was virtually expunged from subsequent accounts of the period. Indeed, her contemporaries were the first to undercut her reputation by recasting her scholarly work as an inappropriate meddling in a male domain, her prolific output of forty-three books and numerous articles as tiresomely garrulous, and her style as ungraceful and excessive. Privately, for example, Max Beerbohm sneered at Lee as “a dreadful little bore and busybody” with “a crow to pick, ever so coyly, with Nietzsche, or a wee lance to break with Mr. Carlyle.” Virginia Woolf termed her writing [End Page 319] “slack and untidy,” and Symonds and Bernard Berenson complained about her plagiarising tendencies and the “rather hasty & coarsely-grinding mill of her brain.”
Over the past twenty years, feminist critics have sought to rebut such criticisms and to recover Lee’s contribution to intellectual thought at the turn of the century. As part of this project, Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham have produced the first edited collection of critical essays devoted to Lee’s work. Their crisply efficient introduction and chronology outline the case for revising Lee’s status in the academy. Her prominence in influential intellectual circles is one reason for her importance. She associated with the likes of Henry James, Walter Pater, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Mary Ward and Robert Browning in Britain and with Michael Field, Ouida, Anatole France and Eliza Lynn Linton in Italy. These networks not only provided Lee with literary models and critical methods (via Pater and Symonds especially), but also with an environment that entertained radical views on art and tolerated unorthodox sexual identities and same-sex relationships. Maxwell and Pulham argue that Lee’s status as outsider—woman in the male domain of historical scholarship, lesbian in a determinedly heterosexual culture—strengthened her confidence in challenging established disciplines. Her interest in new scientific thought and the psychological and physiological dimensions of aesthetic experience, for example, in some ways prefigured modernist thinking about the artistic process. At the same time, Lee never entirely retreated from the mainstream cultural milieu, as demonstrated in her gradual move from “pure” aestheticism to an insistence on the ethical responsibilities of art. For these reasons, both reactionaries and radicals came to distrust her. Conservatives were repelled by her Decadent interest in beautiful physical sensation and themes of violence and sexual perversity; her avant-garde friends felt betrayed by her satirical mockery of aesthetic culture in the roman à clef, Miss Brown. It took late twentieth-century psychoanalytic and feminist approaches to prompt reassessment of Lee’s intellectual and literary experimentation from the 1880s onwards.
The collection’s ten essays are arranged thematically; taken overall, they give a good indication of the breadth and significance of Lee’s accomplishments, particularly in fiction and aesthetic theory. Broadly speaking, two core preoccupations transcend the thematic structure of the volume. The most pervasive of these is Lee’s status as a sexual dissident. One whole section—“Queer Contexts”—is devoted to revealing [End Page 320] the homosexual subtexts, codes and implications of her writing; the same topic surfaces in the two biographical essays; and it informs the analysis of Lee’s reformulations of Aestheticism and Decadence. In their introduction, the editors remind readers that there is no conclusive evidence to indicate whether Lee acted on or repressed her lesbianism (though they imply that she went further than a “Boston marriage” in at least two cases), and they offer...