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  • Vernon Lee and Elitism:Redefining British Aestheticism
  • Sarah Townley

How do we define British aestheticism when marginal writers are reintroduced into the literary-historical frame? As far as our traditional understanding of the movement goes, British aestheticism has borne a complicated, often vexed relationship with figures who might be perceived as marginal in relation to its core artistic and philosophical ideals. In 1888 Walter Pater asserted that the artist must write for "the scholar and the scholarly conscience." 1 This, he claimed, "necessitates a central need of a select few, those 'men of a finer thread.'" 2 High literary art demands a skilled reader who possesses "a certain kind of temperament." 3 In effect, Pater's polemic excludes the general reader and the reading public at large from participating in literary culture. 4 Historicist studies in the late 1970s tended to look at the movement through the lens of Pater's "select few"; to a large degree, such studies reaffirmed the elitist and exclusionary principles upon which the movement was traditionally defined. 5 When feminist criticism revisited accounts of aestheticism in the 1980s and 1990s, it was precisely in order to revise our understanding of the movement's elitist principles; whilst recovering female writers, feminist critics sought to show that women as well as men contributed to aestheticism. In the process, feminist scholarship defined a broader, more inclusive and capacious movement in which the link between art's social utility and aesthetic value was redefined so that aestheticism was open in principle to anyone, including the public at large. One consequence, however, of this expansion of aestheticism was the marginalization of its traditional emphasis on artistic integrity and stylistic supremacy. Nicholas Shrimpton has noticed this trend, arguing that "The opportunistic use of 'aestheticism' as a chronological catch-all has ... drawbacks. Yes, it is good to find an excuse for reviving interest in Lucas Malet or Alice Meynell. But the term 'Aesthetic' has been stretched so thin that it is [End Page 523] in danger of collapsing." 6 This article uses recent debates about aestheticism's membership to explore larger questions about canonicity and the grounds upon which we recuperate and revalue hitherto marginalized late-nineteenth-century writers to focus in particular on the reputation of Vernon Lee.

Many of the recent studies that contribute towards Vernon Lee's recovery highlight the way she theorizes a socially engaged aestheticism—that is, an aestheticism that extends the movement's contested fields of reception to a broader public. In short, these studies suggest that Lee revises the elitism of Pater's aestheticism. When feminist criticism brought Lee back to our attention after years of critical neglect, it aligned her with a reactionary group of writers whose artistic principles can be read in terms of an anti-aestheticist polemic. For example, in Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades's Women and British Aestheticism (1999), Diana Maltz focuses on Vernon Lee's promotion of "the gallery tour as a catalyst for sharpening universal aesthetic sensibility," 7 whilst Dennis Denisoff traces Lee's feminist retheorization of aestheticism through the lens of her lesbian desires, thinking about how she constructs "literary tools of contestation for women who wished to articulate their unsanctioned emotional needs and desires." 8 Studies such as these suggest that for Lee aesthetic appreciation is corporeal, communal and inclusive rather than intellectual, individualistic and elitist. Since Lee's feminist-led recuperation, other studies have portrayed her theorization of artistic appreciation in a similar way. Christa Zorn, for example, has argued that Lee's aestheticism is markedly different from that of Pater and Wilde: "Unlike Pater and Wilde, she did not fashion her aesthetics as a cult of the artistic individual but consistently redirected her view toward the audience." 9 In a similar way, Angela Leighton argues that "Lee challenges the authority of authorship by seeing the work as a body (of words) which lends itself to strange transactions of touch," "the writer ... has no greater knowledge of the work than anyone else." Rather than a tool for authorial self-expression, then, as far as Leighton is concerned, Lee's aesthetic is centred on an elusive, ghostlike "interaction and interplay" between writer and reader. Without...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 523-538
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-14
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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