Have you heard of Vernon Lee? She’s quite popular now within late-Victorian scholarly circles. She also has a small following among gothic fiction fans. She wrote a wonderful collection of stories called Hauntings and there are a couple good editions of these stories on the market today. My favorite is the Broadview Literary Edition Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales.
Vernon Lee was born Violet Paget. She took a man’s name for her publishing and travelled in the same social and literary circles as Walter Pater, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde. Most of Lee’s work is Aesthetic Criticism. Her book The Handling of Words (1923) was an important Response to Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction. Her Book Renaissance Fancies was an important response to the Decadent Movement in English Aestheticism.
Vernon Lee is often criticised for her morality – morality being a bad Victorian habit that had to be shaken off. I think this is a problematic way to read Lee. Her work is less a moral criticism and more of a remembrance of the human consequences for our choices. She demands that you look at the effect of your choices and she aims her demands at her fellow Aesthetes. Walter Pater understood Lee’s position and maintained a longtime correspondence.
I am a fan of her novel Miss Brown (1884). Criticised by her Aesthetic critics for being too long and poorly edited, the novel serves as a critique of Decadence. From the perspective of Anne Brown, a Lizzie Siddell figure who is the object of other men’s desires, Lee explores the concerns of women who were made symbolic objects and their own conflicting desires. Anne loves Hamlin but she also experiences sexual desire with another woman (for her own pleasure, despite the men who look on). The problem is that the novel is a three-decker when, I think, it should have been edited down to the size of Dorian Gray. However, it was the 1880s and brevity was not yet marketable.
What was marketable were her short stories published in places like The Artist and Journal of Home Culture and The Yellow Book. I was to direct your attention to one story in particular from the Yellow Book: “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady.”
Here’s a link courtesy of Mount Royal College’s Gaslight Project:
Lee craft’s a macabre fairy tale with a Decadent and jealous aristocrat, a beautiful youth (a teenaged boy of idealised beauty), and a cursed snake lady who comes to the boy and shows him the only love he has ever known.
There are elements of Aestheticism and Decadence (a good example of her love of Decadence done well), emotional empathy with the protagonist and the snake lady, subversive explorations of sexuality, beauty and youth, and an attention to setting and architectural detail that would make Huysmans proud.
I love this story. And I love Vernon Lee. Please enjoy the story link (it is a short story) and tell me what you think about Lee’s writing. I would also recommend a wonderful article written on this story by the great Margaret Stetz – a brilliant scholar who reads parallels between Prince Alberic and Oscar Wilde who was on trial and imprisoned at the time that Lee wrote and published the story. Lee, despite her satires of Wilde in Miss Brown, appreciated and respected Wilde. This story can be read as a beautiful lament for the injustices done to the man who inspired a generation of late-Victorians to change culture and establish England’s literary avant-garde.
Please enjoy and head over to the John Singer Sargeant Gallery to get details on the image I include on Vernon Lee that he painted.