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Vernon Lee

Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography

Vineta Colby
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 404
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wrr6q
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    Vernon Lee
    Book Description:

    Vernon Lee, born Violet Paget in 1856 to English parents who lived on the Continent, bridged two worlds and many cultures. She was a Victorian by birth but lived into the second quarter of the twentieth century. Her chosen home was Italy, but she spent part of every year in England, where she published over the years an impressive number of books: novels, short stories, travel essays, studies of Italian art and music, psychological aesthetics, polemics. She was widely recognized as a woman of letters and moved freely in major literary and social circles, meeting and at times having close friendships with a huge number of the major writers and intellectuals of her time, among them Robert Browning, Walter Pater, Henry James, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Bernard Berenson, and Mario Praz. Although she never committed herself to one program of political activism, she was an advocate for feminism and social reform and during World War I was an ardent pacifist. In her last years she watched with dismay the emergence of fascism.

    Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography recovers this crowded and intellectually eventful life from her previously unpublished letters and journals, as well as from her books themselves. Vineta Colby also explores Lee's troubled personal life, from her childhood in an eccentric expatriate family to her several unhappy love affairs with women to her frank recognition that her work, brilliant as some of it was, remained unappreciated. Through it all, Vernon Lee clung to her faith in the life of the mind, and through Colby's engaging biographical narrative, she emerges today as a writer worthy of renewed attention and admiration.

    Victorian Literature and Culture Series

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2389-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. 1 THE INFANT PRODIGY
    (pp. 1-24)

    English by nationality, french by accident of birth, Vernon Lee was Italian by choice. Italy was the subject of her best writing and the object of her quest as a scholar and traveler. There are in fact two Italys in Vernon Lee’s life: the country in which she lived for more than half a century and the country she created in her imagination and re-created in her work. For her, Italy was a refuge, an escape from what she perceived as the encroaching evils of modern society and, in a way that she did not perhaps recognize herself, an escape...

  6. 2 THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY AND AFTER
    (pp. 25-42)

    Launching her ambitious project to write a history of eighteenth-century Italian opera, Violet Paget became Vernon Lee. She was no longer the precocious child seeking to impress her family but, as she saw herself many years later, “a half-baked polyglot scribbler of sixteen.” Thirty-five years later, when she added a “Retrospective Chapter” to the 1907 second edition ofStudies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy,she looked back with an air of diffidence, almost apologetically, to her youthful naïveté. Yet for all her later protests that “myEighteenth Centurymust be brimful of presumptuousness and folly,” there was a distinct...

  7. 3 BELCARO: DEFINING A SELF
    (pp. 43-59)

    By 1880, the year in whichstudies of the eighteenth Century in Italywas published in England, there were important changes in the Paget family. Their wandering life ended in 1873 when they settled in Florence in a house near the Arno at 12 via Solferino. In early 1882 they moved to 5 via Garibaldi, then in the spring of 1889 to a country house, Il Palmerino, in Maiano, a short distance from Fiesole and within easy reach of Florence. This was to be Violet’s home until her death in 1935. Mrs. Paget had come into her inheritance at last,...

  8. 4 THE LESSON OF THE MASTER: PATER AND EUPHORION
    (pp. 60-77)

    Even in her sheltered existence at the casa paget, “baby,” as her family called her, had been part of a cosmopolitan Anglo-Florentine society that kept abreast of the news from England. Eugene had been at Oxford during the 1860s when the Greats (Literae Humaniores) curriculum was significantly altered by Benjamin Jowett, who introduced the study of Plato. With it, as Linda Dowling writes inHellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford,was also introduced “the spirit of Mill’s ringing dictum inOn Liberty—that one’s first duty as a thinker is ‘to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead’...

  9. 5 THE TELLER AND THE TALES
    (pp. 78-94)

    When twenty-four-year-old violet paget visited london in June 1881 as a guest of Mary Robinson and her family, her confidence in herself as a writer was solid. In addition to her much praisedStudies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy,she had published essays on art, aesthetics, and music in prestigious journals likeFraser’s,theCornhill,and theContemporary Review.She arrived on the London literary scene as something of a prodigy, a genteel young woman who wrote and talked authoritatively on an immense number of subjects. That scene, however, was crowded with literary celebrities. Her youth and her significant...

  10. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. 6 MISS BROWN
    (pp. 95-110)

    In the years from 1881 to 1884 violet paget emerged from her sheltered existence in Florence—a life in many ways so purely of the mind that she arrived in London a social innocent. During this period, in addition to writing reviews and articles for English periodicals, she was seeingBelcarothrough the press, arranging for the publication ofOttilieand her whimsicalThe Prince of the Hundred Soups,researching and writingThe Countess of Albany,collecting her essays forEuphorion,germinating the essays that were to appear inBaldwin(1886), and writing the three-volume novelMiss Brown,published by...

  12. 7 THE BURIED LIFE
    (pp. 111-129)

    The journal entry that closed the momentous year 1884 was the first open expression of a fear that was to plague Violet Paget for the rest of her life. It was not mistrust of her ability to observe, interpret, and report correctly and, by her lights, eloquently on all manner of subjects. AlthoughMiss Brownhad failed, she had no doubts of her vocation as a writer or of her power to command an audience of educated, thoughtful readers. But for the first time she confronted the possibility that her moral judgment was fallible and that its principal victim might...

  13. 8 “THIS CLEVER WOMAN WHO CALLS HERSELF VERNON LEE”
    (pp. 130-151)

    Although most of the essays collected injuveniliawere written sometime before the book was published, Vernon Lee’s introduction, dated New Year’s 1887, offers a prophetic framework for the stormy events of that year. The title itself is dismissive: the work of her youth, whatever its merits, is finished, labeled, and put away. Something new must replace it, and the title implies that what follows will be different in spirit, work of sober maturity. Like the writings of the romantic poets, these essays plangently record a loss. Compensations are granted, but they can never replace the loss. Vernon Lee uses...

  14. 9 AESTHETICS AND THE HEALTH OF THE SOUL
    (pp. 152-172)

    Aesthetics in late nineteenth-century england was largely appreciative and descriptive. Much as they differed in their approaches, Ruskin and Pater shared a vision of art as the noblest expression of which humanity was capable, uplifting and therefore beneficial to the individual as well as to society as a whole. Although the conflict between art and morality had not been resolved, and “art for art’s sake” remained a slogan for several generations of young iconoclasts, the common ground had been firmly settled in midcentury when Baudelaire denounced “the childish utopianism of the school of art for art’s sake in ruling out...

  15. 10 LABORA ET NOLI CONTRISTARI
    (pp. 173-188)

    Three times in violet paget’s life she experienced the emotional trauma of rejection a by woman she loved. The first of these, the quarrel with Annie Meyer provoked by the stubborn and impetuous natures of both women, left sad memories but no permanent scars. Violet had the benefits of the natural resilience of youth and the timely entry of Mary Robinson into her life. When Mary abandoned her for marriage, she was more deeply wounded than she would ever again be, but another timely appearance, Kit Anstruther-Thomson, helped to restore her mental health. In the end, it was her dedication...

  16. 11 HANDLING WORDS: FROM PRACTICE TO THEORY
    (pp. 189-209)

    Apology came as spontaneously to violet paget as the wounding thrust. Her last encounter with Edith Wharton, which left her “bitterly ashamed” for her “unjustifiable words,” was part of a lifetime pattern of behavior. Quick to speak (and write) and even quicker to judge, she had since her youth caused embarrassment and sometimes pain to others. It was neither malice nor hot temper that provoked these outbursts so much as sheer obtuseness, an innocence all the more astonishing in light of her long exposure to a worldly European society. But the peculiar hothouse atmosphere of her childhood, the social and...

  17. 12 MUSIC: THE APOLLONIAN QUEST
    (pp. 210-223)

    Vernon lee never collected her writings on music in a single volume as she did her essays on writing inThe Handling of Words.Her only book devoted to the subject isMusic and Its Lovers,her last major publication, in 1932. Based on more than twenty years of research, it is the least interesting of her works because it deals neither with the history of music and its performance nor, except in the most abstract and subjective manner, with the aesthetics of music. Intended originally as an extension of her work with Kit Anstruther-Thomson on psychological aesthetics, it would...

  18. 13 DEMONS, GHOSTS, AND THE GENIUS LOCI: STORIES OF THE SUPERNATURAL
    (pp. 224-246)

    One day in the early 1880s, a small boy visited the bookstore Hatchard’s in London to spend some money he had received from his governess as a reward for doing his lessons well. By his own account years later, the boy, Maurice Baring, novelist, dramatist, essayist, and longtime friend of Vernon Lee’s, chose “a book calledThe Prince of the Hundred Soupsbecause of the cover. It was by Vernon Lee, an Italian puppet show in narrative, about a Doge who had to eat a particular kind of soup every day for a hundred days.” Delighted with the story and...

  19. 14 DEMONS, GHOSTS, AND THE GENIUS LOCI: TRAVEL WRITING
    (pp. 247-269)

    Whether travel inspired vernon lee’s stories of the supernatural or her stories were an excuse for travel writing is immaterial. Thegenius lociwas equally at home in both genres. It flourished in works of pure imagination like the ghost stories and her verse dramaAriadne in Mantua,in her histories of Renaissance and eighteenth-century Italian culture, and in the many essays she wrote over her lifetime recording her travel impressions. Fiction and fact overlapped at her will. In her stories of the supernatural she invented historical and literary sources. In her histories she introduced legends—some traditional, some of...

  20. 15 “SISTER IN UTOPIA”: THE AESTHETE AS POLEMICIST
    (pp. 270-291)

    There is no evidence that max beerbohm, a fellow Italophile who lived for many years in Rapallo, no great distance from Florence, ever met Vernon Lee, but he knew her work. In his library he had a copy of herGospels of Anarchy,which, as he did with many of his books, he “improved” with his comments and illustrations, some by him, others clipped from magazines or newspapers. Pasted on the title page of his copy is a sketch of a woman in black bonnet and dress, seated in profile like Whistler’s mother or his Thomas Carlyle and stirring a...

  21. 16 A WILDERNESS OF WOLVES
    (pp. 292-309)

    In her biography of maurice baring, ethel smyth published a photo of Vernon Lee taken in early 1914 at the resort town of Sestri Levante on the Gulf of Genoa. She was traveling with her old friend Mona Taylor and Mona’s sister-in-law Margery, who snapped the picture. Heavily dressed in an overcoat and grasping a walking stick, she is seated on a stone bench, posed in three-quarters profile. Her large hat does not conceal the bony face and heavy jaw nor the melancholy expression as she looks off into the distance. Smyth wrote that Vernon Lee “jestingly expressed gratification at...

  22. 17 HUNTING PROTEUS: THE LAST YEARS
    (pp. 310-334)

    Among vernon lee’s unpublished papers at colby college is a collection of notes written between 1931 and 1934 to which she gave the title “Lore of the Ego.” They are a series of reflections on the past, on aging, a kind of summing up of her readings in psychology and philosophy. What is most striking about them is their quality of forward rather than backward looking. By this period of her life she had lost many of her oldest friends; she was witnessing the emerging of militarism and Fascism in the country she most loved and threats to peace everywhere;...

  23. AFTERWORD
    (pp. 335-336)

    Vernon lee believed that it was her misfortune to have been born before her time, a Victorian who should have been a modern. Women poets and novelists were acceptable, within the boundaries of Victorian society. But a woman who ventured into intellectual history, aesthetics, and psychology with her bold self-assurance confronted formidable obstacles. In the twentieth century, when she might rightfully have established her claims to authority as a woman of letters, she was a relic of Victorianism. Her aestheticism was Walter Pater’s; her psychology a product of what she herself called “those ingenuous, unpsychological days”; her experiments in psychological...

  24. NOTES
    (pp. 337-362)
  25. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 363-372)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 373-388)
  27. Back Matter
    (pp. 389-390)