HAUNTINGS  by Vernon Lee

Edited by David G. Rowlands

Ash-Tree Press, 2002;  xx + 380 pp; £31.00/US$50/CDN$65; ISBN 1-55310-1030-1

Review by Alexis Lykiard



     In the Introduction to her still stimulating and very worthwhile book The Handling Of Words (1923), ‘Vernon Lee’ notes that “the efficacy of all writing depends not more on the Writer than on the Reader, without whose active response, whose output of experience, feeling and imagination, the living phenomenon, the only reality, of Literary Art cannot take place.”But if ever anyone deserved good (empathetic rather than just appreciative) readers, it is this profoundly evocative, prodigiously erudite author, so widely praised by her contemporaries yet so unfairly neglected by ours.

      Who was this writer who, like so many Victorian women, felt constrained to adopt a male pseudonym, and why should we read her today? Such questions are amply answered by this superb, comprehensive new publication, so excellently and enthusiastically edited by David Rowlands. All a reviewer can do in this instance is underline, for those needing to be convinced, that this is in every respect an essential book!

         Violet Paget (1856-1935) had a highly cultured, aristocratic, European background. Of Anglo-French parentage, she was born in France and died in Italy – that country she seems to have known and loved best, and where she spent most of her long and productive writing life. During her frequent visits to England she  associated with the British intelligentsia of the day; her friends and admirers included Rossetti, Browning, Wilde, Whistler, James, Hardy, Gosse, Pater and H.G.Wells. A friend from childhood, John Singer Sargent, painted a captivating portrait of the twenty five year old author, who had recently published Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy – work acclaimed then and still influential now.

        Sargent depicts an imaginative, scholarly yet amused and amusing personality, whose rather androgynous features finely suggest the wittily  sociable Lesbian she seems to have been. Not, of course, that her more intimate relationships (then by necessity discreet), nor our latterday speculations thereon, now matter. For as David Rowlands sensibly remarks: she was an exceptional writer, one of the greatest in the field of the macabre. Certainly she was sensitive enough to write convincingly from both male or female viewpoints. During her lifetime she was esteemed, and towards the end of it Montague Summers could write (in his terrific anthology The Supernatural Omnibus, 1931): “even LeFanu and M.R.James cannot be ranked above the genius of this lady.” I’d agree with Rowlands that, seventy years on, this still appears a shrewd and perceptive assessment. In a handful of classic stories, you hear (to quote her own words from one of Rowlands’s personal favourite tales, ‘Winthrop’s Adventure’), “the notes of a strange, exquisite voice”.

         The eponymous protagonist of that fine story “cared too much for all kinds of art to devote himself exclusively to any one” and “had too ungovernable a fancy, and too uncontrollable a love of detail”. This may sound a bit like harsh authorial self-analysis, since Lee herself wrote so much and in so many forms and genres! She was cultural and social historian, poet, essayist, novelist, travel and short story writer, aesthetician and literary critic, art expert and grammarian; she relished classical mythology, the civilisation of the Renaissance and of 18th century Italy. Yet she was no ‘ivory tower’ type: her later political and pacifist writings were praised by none other than the contentious G.B. Shaw, and her interests and achievements remained remarkably multifaceted.

       This isn’t to suggest she was too formidably cerebral, however, for that very ‘love of detail’ is one of her main delights. ‘Winthrop’s Adventure’, for instance, has a casual aside about the old nobleman who had “rather a contempt for singers… since they left nothing behind them that could be collected, except indeed in the case of Madame Banti, one of whose lungs he possessed in spirits of  wine.” Lee’s tone, her flavour and wit are unique. E.F. Bleiler, astute as always, notes  how “Lee’s stories are really in a category by themselves. Intelligent, amusingly ironic, imaginative, original…” A splendid, if lesser-known story, ‘St.Eudaemon and his Orange-Tree’, reveals that uncommon quality of charm – as when the unassuming saint gently deflates the pretensions of his learned colleagues: “He stated drily that he had undergone no temptations of an unusual sort, and no persecutions worth considering.” The same rare quality is present in the witty ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’, while ‘Pope Jacynth’, with its lapidary prose and entertainingly sardonic view of ecclesiastical mythology outdoes Corvo. In such stories Lee shows herself to be a marvellous fabulist, a fabler of marvels in every sense, but the charm can be double-edged: she’s a true spellbinder. “Together with this charm” (as Winthrop narrates) “a terrible cold seemed to sink into my heart”.

       Certainly that terrible chill of the genuine macabre is present also in some of her best and best-known narratives. That brilliant and gruesome tale ‘Amour Dure’, for example, remains unsettling and resonant on each re-reading. David Rowlands in one illuminating footnote directs readers towards Graham Greene’s own admiration for this story, and a later significant link with the film of The Third Man. Finest of all, for me, is ‘Oke of Okehurst’ (originally, ‘A Phantom Lover’), a most ambiguous yet inexorably grim story, whose artist-narrator is based on Lee’s old friend Sargent. But readers will have many treats in store here: ‘Dionea’, the tale of a foundling with the evil eye, who becomes a fully-fledged femme fatale, is another such. Its narrator, Dr Alessandro declares: “Reality… is always prosaic: at least when investigated into by bald old gentlemen like me. And yet, it does not look so. The world, at times, seems to be playing at being poetic, mysterious, full of wonder and romance.”

     “Playing at being poetic” was not anything Lee herself did, though she must fully have understood the implications of the phrase: her half-brother was that now neglected Victorian poet and sonneteer Eugene Lee-Hamilton. The late George MacBeth, himself a specialist in the poetic macabre, described how Eugene’s poetry, “first undertaken as a palliative for his sufferings, soon became the image of his disease in all its nightmare horror.”  The lyrical monologues of Lee-Hamilton (1845-1907), an invalid from his twenties, “earn him the rank of Webster to Browning’s Shakespeare”. Indeed, in his best sonnets, like ‘Lost Years’, a poignant yearning for the remembered past transcends indulgence or nostalgia: “And now my manhood goes where goes the song/Of captive birds, the cry of crippled things…” This mournful note of physical or emotional loss and deprivation creeps into his half-sister’s prose too, although her toughmindedness and sense of humour always preserved her and her superior talent.

     While a deeply serious artist, Lee was also an unpretentious and playful one who seldom took her hypercivilised self too seriously. In the midst of some aesthetic discussion – such as that thought-provoking rarity the ‘Introduction: For Maurice’, very properly included in full here – she’s able to break off and add in brackets: “(Full stop, because people complain of the length of my sentences.)”! Here she reveals, too, how close she came to becoming a French rather than English writer; “the loss and the gain which may come from mastering one’s business as a writer”, and “the shocking prosaic practicality in the vocation of a writer, something… warranted to kill off any emotion, no matter how genuine, in the attempt to communicate it to readers.”

Her present-day readers may reckon Vernon Lee an unusually allusive – and therefore elusive – sort of writer: good classical educations, reference-books and polymaths alike are all in shorter supply than they once were! But such readers should persevere with this original, atmospheric and poetic author for they will be well-rewarded. Lee may occasionally seem dated, but only in the best way; generally, her impeccable tales of artists, musicians, scholars and clerics, of pagan survivals and Christian superstitions, are fascinating and resonant. The only tale I found hard going was ‘The Gods and Ritter Tannhûser’, and once again I’m in agreement with Rowlands, who notes in all fairness that even this prolonged whimsical piece has its admirers, the distinguished Everett Bleiler for one.

       True, her prose can be complex, but its detail is apposite as well as exquisite, precise rather than merely precious; Lee works by subtle suggestion to render a very vivid atmosphere of times past, of  horrors either actual or imagined. She creates an extraordinary world of the fantastic, though rarely does she ever indulge in elaboration for its own sake. She’s a brainy but far from dotty writer, and her curious imagination, unlike for example Corvo’s, is not of the over-ornate, fussily camp variety. Lee most oddly resembles some exotic Jamesian hybrid – a splendid unholy trinity, combining Henry’s passionate intelligence, his aesthetic preoccupations with form and stylistic experiment; William’s philosophic rigour, and M.R.’s sly wit and ghoulish scholarly fancies.

      The above should be recommendation enough, but congratulations are in order to all those concerned with the production of this voluminous collection. Superbly produced and finely edited, it’s altogether one of the two or three absolutely outstanding books that Ash-Tree have so far published.