- Vernon Lee at the Margins of the Twentieth Century:World War I, Pacifism, and Post-Victorian Aestheticism
When World War I began, Vernon Lee was on her annual summer trip to England and unable to return to her home, Il Palmerino, in Italy until the war ended. This was a painful experience, and she longed throughout her stay to return to Tuscany. In a 1919 letter to Logan Pearsall Smith, Lee expressed relief to be back on her hillside, among her furniture, "all so unchanged." She also expressed surprise at finding herself so unchanged: "Unchanged as ghosts are. For in this Elysian empty peacefulness, there is a sense of ... well! Shall we say finality? A looking on—and as little as possible of that—on a world one no longer belongs to & has no duties towards; for it must be pleasant to feel, as I suppose ghosts do, that they have no limbs or vitals of voice, but my eyes ... the most they can do is to rustle & disappear, which is what I am hastily (& agreeably) doing."1 She represented herself to Smith as a spectral, disappearing presence, a remnant of the past, silent and receding, with no responsibility for or obligation to the present. This self-characterization, however, seems somewhat disingenuous. Lee's role in the public intellectual drama was far from over. She published six more books before her death in 1935, including her enormous and angry response to the war, Satan the Waster (1920).2 She continued to study and engage with the most recent developments in the humanities and social sciences until her final days. If she no longer belonged to the present, she certainly continued to feel a sense of duty, a responsibility as an intellectual, to engage with and intervene in public debate.
Six years after sending this letter, Vernon Lee published a short work entitled Proteus, or The Future of Intelligence (1925) in Kegan Paul's Today and Tomorrow Series. The series, as its name suggests, positioned [End Page 313] itself at the forefront of public intellectual debate in the late 1920s and was described by the press as shocking, intoxicating, and designed to "[scuttle] ... human complacency."3 It endeavored to represent the most decisively modern or novel turns in twentieth-century thinking. What place then did Vernon Lee, an aging representative of what George Bernard Shaw referred to as "the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism," have in such a series?4 How could a hastily disappearing ghost scuttle human complacency? The dust jacket for Proteus, or The Future of Intelligence seems to struggle with this, billing Lee as an author "who for forty years has been known as an authority on art, literature, poetry, and other subjects" while heralding the novelty of her "new theory of intelligence" and the "revolutions" this quality "may yet accomplish." Lee is at once of the past and the future, a remnant of Victorian aestheticism who is devoted, almost stubbornly, to innovative thinking. This article uses Lee's peculiar temporal positioning in the teens, twenties, and thirties to ask questions about the politics of aestheticism in the twentieth century.5 What does it mean for yesterday's avant-garde to become understood as an old guard? And what kinds of cultural critique does this temporally marginal position enable? Lee purposefully occupies the margins of the twentieth century, remaining detached so that she can more effectively engage with and critique the modern moment. She insists upon her separateness from the present, and she draws on a highly anachronistic set of aesthetic strategies while responding to contemporary political problems. Attending to Lee's performance of marginality, detachment, and anachronism in her pacifist writings allows us to periodize aestheticism differently and to consider its modes of political engagement in a new light.
While much has been said recently about those figures who force us to reconsider the Victorian/modern divide,6 there were many who endeavored to reinscribe that divide, writers such as Vernon Lee or her fellow post-Victorian aesthete Max Beerbohm, who insisted that they belonged to a past Victorian moment regardless of their lengthy stay in the twentieth century.7 While these figures thought...