Some European influences on the anti-war writings of Vernon Lee: E.D. Morel, Francis Delaisi and Marcel Sembat, by Angus Mitchell & Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin

Some European influences on the anti-war writings of Vernon Lee: E.D. Morel, Francis Delaisi and Marcel Sembat

Angus Mitchell & Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin

The later political writings of Vernon Lee have been unfairly neglected in many studies of the First World War.  She received a short but memorable mention in Helena Swanwick’s memoir I have been young, where she is described as “the caustic, the fastidious, the learned, the well-loved, and the very ‘difficult’…” (Swanwick 1935: 257). Despite this striking portrayal, Lee is surprisingly absent from Swanwick’s account of the Union of Democratic Control (U.D.C.), that organisation that opposed conscription, wartime censorship and military influences on government policy (Swanwick 1924). Other volumes dedicated to the history of the U.D.C. also manage to occlude the contribution of Lee in terms of her activism, her membership of the General Council, and her writings for the organisation’s paper.[1] Yet Lee’s interventions at this time are numerous and significant. In addition to the anti-war play The Ballet of the Nations, she published political articles in journals such as The Nation, New Statesman, Labour Leader, The U.D.C. and Atlantic Monthly. This vocal pacifism is not incongruous: as argued by Sally Blackburn-Daniels, Lee’s Victorian cosmopolitanism fluidly evolved into a committed anti-war stance (Blackburn-Daniels 2018). It is because of this political stance that she “earned a vital place within Britain’s distinguished radical tradition during World War I” (Mannocchi, n.d.).

In January 1925 Vernon Lee penned a brief obituary recollecting some of her encounters with the activist and politician, E.D. Morel: he was the most energetic figure involved in the U.D.C. (Lee, Unity, 12 January 1925).[2] Her comments are warm and empathetic. In her tribute, she celebrates Morel as an independent intellectual outsider, one who had also fought against the suffering and cruelty of war. Lee had collaborated closely with Morel during the First World War when they both served on the general committee of the U.D.C. She described him as a man with the countenance of a poet:

“with his curious mixture of very British with very French, Morel was not unlike Romain Rolland’s war-hero Clerambault, the sort of man who, on the Continent, would have been assassinated like Jaurès, Rathenau, and Matteotti. In our law-stickling England of the war years, he was merely put in a convict’s jacket for infringing unwittingly a regulation against sending pamphlets to neutral countries.” (Lee 1925)

Lee later dedicated The Ballet of the Nations to Romain Rolland, and her allusion to him in Morel’s obituary highlighted her regard for the latter. Rolland, a French internationalist and pacifist, was the first Professor of Music History at the Sorbonne. A dramatist, essayist, novelist, mystic and biographer, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 for his anti-war collection Au-dessus de la mêlée or Above the Battle. Rolland moved to Switzerland, condemning the war and arguing for the commonality of European culture. It was to his address in Switzerland that Morel had despatched, through a mutual friend, copies of his pamphlet Tsardom’s Part in the War.[3]

Figure 1: E.D. Morel (1873-1924) Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., USA; “No known restrictions on publication.”

Imprisoned for six months in 1917 for his breach of the Defence of the Realm Act by distributing anti-war pamphlets to a neutral country, Morel’s health was permanently compromised because of his incarceration.  Following his release from prison in January 1918, he spent some days with Lee and the Ford family, their Quaker friends, at their home near Leeds: “We thought him enormously aged and broken,” Lee wrote (1925). Six years later, in his mid-fifties, Morel died from physical and mental exhaustion. Lee’s short obituary ended with this reflection:

“what Morel was martyred for, in body and mind, during the war years, were the opinions which French Socialists like Sembat and Delaisi had been publishing before the war came and verified their prophecies.” (Lee 1925)

As in this piece, throughout her anti-war writings, Lee critically deploys an international frame of reference. In this tribute to Morel, she highlights his transformative shift from colonial reformer to anti-war protester. Only a few years previously, he had been feted for his activist work in the colonial sphere and his decade-long campaign exposing the atrocities committed against the people of central Africa. However, his repositioning as a pacifist organiser resulted in Morel’s marginalisation within the British political establishment.

In May 1911, Morel had been honoured with a testimonial luncheon in London where he was roundly congratulated for his enormous vitality running the Congo Reform Association.[4]  Through this association, activists exposed and contested the outrages of King Leopold II’s rule in the Congo. However, the crisis in international relations prompted Morel to re-orientate his efforts towards averting the impending war. For some years, Morel had been collaborating closely with a group of European intellectuals in order to try and extend his Congo reform campaign into the rest of Europe. In 1908 and with the help of the historian and activist Alice Stopford Green, he helped to establish the Ligue Internationale pour la défense des Indigènes dans le Bassin Conventionel du Congo. Forty or so European intellectuals lent their names to this cause. Many of them openly identified as socialists, pacifists and anti-imperialists while several were members of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme, founded in 1898 to defend the innocence of Captain Dreyfus. Their professional backgrounds were varied: literary luminaries, academics, politicians, explorers and scientists, most of them sympathetic with progressive socialist reforms.

Prominent among the group was Marcel Sembat (Fig. 2) who had a reputation as an inspired and outspoken voice. Sembat was a close collaborator with the socialist leader Jean Jaurès (also mentioned by Lee in Morel’s obituary) and part of a radical socialist phalanx in the French Chambre des Députés. Sembat was one of a group of politicians and public intellectuals who questioned the secret diplomacy and propaganda of pre-war Europe. He feared the peoples of the major European powers were being driven blindly towards Armageddon. He published his views in Faites un Roi, Sinon Faites la Paix (translated by Lee as “Make up your mind between Despotism and Peace”), predicting war from several years out and making a fervent appeal for peace and a rapprochement between France and Germany. The work was rapidly reprinted. He condemned war as a betrayal of the fundamental principles of the French republic and depicted militarism as inimical to humanity. He was not alone in this view; in 1911 the economist and socialist-pacifist Francis Delaisi (1873-1947) published La Guerre qui Vient (1911), later translated and published in the US as The Inevitable War (1915). Delaisi advocated for a united anti-war response from the working classes. Lee read both Sembat and Delaisi, and she reflected upon their premises and arguments.

Figure 2: Marcel Sembat (1862-1922) by Pierre Petit, New York Public Library Digital Collections

Morel’s close co-operation with European intellectuals over Congo reform had also brought him into contact with the work of both Sembat and Delaisi.  The following year and having watched the Agadir Crisis bring the world to the brink of war, Morel published Morocco in Diplomacy (1912), which mapped the years of diplomatic entanglement leading up to the Agadir crisis. In 1913, Morel and his fellow organisers began to wind up the Congo Reform Association and, from that point, he channelled instead his energies into trying to prevent war. By this point, Lee was highlighting the dangerous crossroads that faced the European nation states.

In late July 1914, Jaurès was shot down in the street in Paris and a few days later the world was at war. Sembat entered the French wartime cabinet as Minister of Public Works. In England, however, Morel found no government position able to accommodate his radical anti-war position. Instead he began work on establishing the Union of Democratic Control, comprising a group of politicians and public intellectuals opposed to war. One of the first people Morel approached to join the General Committee of the U.D.C. was Vernon Lee and she duly accepted. He also approached Stopford Green who declined because of her increasing commitment to the cause of Irish independence. Lee and Stopford Green had connected initially in the salons of metropolitan London in the 1880s. This part of Lee’s story is included in the paper we have recently published on the intellectual exchange of Lee and Stopford Green (Ní Bheacháin & Mitchell 2020).

Informed by her own contact with the European intellectual Left, Lee had been writing against war since 1910. Initially, her articles were published in the Liberal press, but her views gradually became unpalatable to those looking to defend the decision to go to war. After the outbreak of war, her name appeared with increasing regularity in the Labour Leader.  On 15 October 1914, an entire front-page article signed V.L.” appeared under the headline: “Germany’s Fear of Russia: French Socialist Minister’s Explanation. A Notable Quotation from Marcel Sembat“.[5]  Here Lee gave an overview of Sembat’s argument that the diplomacy among European nations before the war was propelling it towards a violent confrontation and not towards peace. The future stability of Europe depended upon Germany defending its eastern borders from the threat of Russia; therefore, other European powers, including Britain, should support Germany. For the Germans, it was the Franco-Russian alliance of 1891-94 and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 that seemed like a betrayal of civilized countries in support of barbarism. From this perspective, Tsarist Russia, not Germany, was the long-term threat to Europe.

Two years later, Lee published a two-part study entitled “Two French ‘Unheeded Warnings'”: the first piece focussed on Sembat’s “Faites un Roi, Sinon Faites La Paix”, while the second discussed Delaisi’s “La Guerre Qui Vient”. The first article was published in the September 1916 issue of The U.D.C. (the monthly journal edited by Morel); in it, Lee argued that peace was an active choice rather than an arrangement between nations that could be taken for granted (Fig. 3).

Figure 3: Title of Vernon Lee’s essay published in The U.D.C.

Lee noted how Sembat’s views had been moderated since he had joined the French cabinet; nevertheless, his arguments made before the war still applied. She once more appealed to the folly of French patriotism that sought revenge for defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and home rule for Alsace Lorraine. Two years into the war with unquantifiable suffering to France, Lee wondered:

“Was M. Sembat correct in his diagnosis and justified in his advice? None of us, and perhaps M. Sembat better than any other will be able to answer until this reeling and bloodshot present shall have been succeeded by a dispassionate future. We cannot judge these matters yet, but only, at best suspend our judgment and cultivate our powers of doubting; for we are all, whether burning for war or yearning for peace groping among deliberate lies, wilful mistakes, and worse still, among the dishonesty born of our anger, our hope, or our regret.” (Lee, September 1916, p. 128)                                                                                                                                                                     What is evident from these interventions is that Lee’s thinking was influenced by French intellectuals like Sembat, Delaisi and Rolland.  In her second piece for The U.D.C. in December 1916, Lee quotes extensively from Delaisi’s argument. Francis Delaisi (Fig. 4) was a complex and controversial figure, and what is interesting is how Vernon Lee is discussing the ideas and publications of these continental intellectuals who both engaged with and criticised each other in their analysis of the impending crisis. She presented these perspectives to the readership of platforms like that of The U.D.C., highlighting the diversity and complexity of opinion that existed abroad.

Figure 4: Francis Delaisi (1873-1947) [Creative Commons]

In her writings and her friendship with Morel, Lee was concerned with challenging official nationalist positions about the war.  Although her pacifism is generally assessed in terms of The Ballet of the Nations, Lee’s other anti-war writings reveal that her cosmopolitanism was informed by a deep love of Europe and by a sustained engagement with European intellectuals. In his cultural history of the Iron Curtain, Patrick Wright highlights this striking sentiment in his discussion of Lee’s piece on “Bach’s Christmas Music in England and in Germany” (Wright 389-90). In her paean to the power of music to heal, Lee concludes that the message of Bach’s composition is that “Enmity dies and is forgotten, being accidental, changeable, sterile, and against the grain of life. But peace and goodwill on earth is born for ever anew because it is born of the undying needs of our common humanity”. She reflects on the power of music to remind divided European peoples of their common bonds and to jolt them into recognising the artificial hatreds created by war:

“Never have we and they been closer together, more alike and akin than at this moment when War’s monstrous iron curtain, cut us off so utterly from one another.”

In her representation of national peoples united in suffering and in a common humanity, Lee hopes for reconciliation and peace.  The recent publication of the correspondence between Irene Forbes-Mosse and Lee reveals the latter’s emotional suffering during this period.  Lee’s pacifist politics were grounded in her personal sense of horror and loss as the cosmopolitanism of her childhood world was fractured and upended.  As is evident from her political writings and from her involvement in the U.D.C., Lee’s wartime thinking reveals diverse European influences and a deep emotional response to the traumatic consequences of international conflict and division.

[1] Swartz, The Union of Democratic Control, marginalizes Lee within his narrative and fails to reference her pamphlet Peace with Honour in his list of U.D.C. pamphlets. However, he does name her as a member of the organisation’s first General Council in 1914 (47) and she is still included as serving on the UDCGC in the 1917 list (224); also see Harris, Out of Control.

[2] Our thanks to Patricia Burdick at Colby College who most generously supplied copies of several of the Lee articles referenced in this article.

[3] For details on the arrest and conviction of Morel see Donald Mitchell, The politics of dissent: A biography of E.D. Morel (Bristol, 2014), pp. 132-144. Lee published an article in the U.D.C., 2:12, Oct. 1917 titled ‘Shall Prussia Restore the Tsar?’ – a reflection on the future risks for revolutionary Russia.

[4] See https://archive.org/details/publicpresentati00cromiala/mode/2up

[5] In a letter (18 September 1914) to Irene Forbes Mosse, Lee references Sembat’s book with the following comment: ‘The German position is rendered in a splendid, ingenious, generous manner.’ See (Sieberg and Zorn, 2014, 72).

Bibliography / Works Cited:

Blackburn-Daniels, Sally. “Separate in Interest, Unequal in Power: Cosmopolitanism and Pacifism in the Works of Vernon Lee.” Artisans de la paix et passeurs: Peacemakers and Bridgebuilders, edited by Sophie Geoffroy (Paris: Michel Houdiard Éditeur, 2018), pp. 215-227.

Delaisi, Francis. La Guerre qui Vient. Edition de la “Guerre Sociale”, 1911. Translated and published in the US as The Inevitable War. Small, Maynard & Co, 1915.

Harris, Sally. Out of Control: British Foreign Policy and the Union of Democratic Control, 1914-1918. The University of Hull Press, 1996.

Lee, Vernon. “Germany’s Fear of Russia: French Socialist Minister’s Explanation. A Notable Quotation from Marcel Sembat.” Labour Leader, 15 October 1914: 1-2.

Lee, Vernon. Peace with Honour (U.D.C. pamphlets).

Lee, Vernon. The Ballet of the Nations: A Present-Day Morality. Chatto and Windus, 1915.

Lee, Vernon. “Two French ‘Unheeded Warnings’: I – M. Sembat’s  “Faites un Roi, Sinon Faites la Paix”’, The U.D.C. 1:11, September 1916: 126-128.

Lee, Vernon. “Two French ‘Unheeded Warnings’: II – M. Delaisi’s  ‘La Guerre Qui Vient‘”, The U.D.C. 2:2, December 1916: 17-18.

Lee, Vernon. “Shall Prussia Restore the Tsar?” The U.D.C., 2:12, Oct. 1917.

Lee, Vernon. “From Vernon Lee.” Unity, 12 January 1925.

Mannocchi, Phyllis F., “The Development of Vernon Lee’s Politics”, The Sybil: A Journal of Vernon Lee Studies, https://thesibylblog.com/2017/04/20/web-documentaire-exclusif /https://videopress.com/v/6YDE1V3E

Mitchell, Angus. “Peace to End Peace”. Dublin Review of Books, 111, May 2019. https://www.drb.ie/essays/peace-to-end-peace

Mitchell, Donald. The politics of dissent: A biography of E.D. Morel (Bristol, 2014).

Morel, E.D. Morocco in Diplomacy (1912).

Morel, E.D. Tsardom’s Part in the War ( ).

Ní Bheacháin, Caoilfhionn & Angus Mitchell, “Alice Stopford Green and Vernon Lee: Salon Culture and Intellectual Exchange”, Journal of Victorian Culture, 2020, Vol. 25, No. 1: 77-94.

Rolland, Romain. Au-dessus de la mêlée or Above the Battle.

Sieberg, Howard and Christa Zorn (eds.).  The Anglo-German Correspondence of Vernon Lee and Irene Forbes-Mosse During World War I: Women Writers’ Friendship Transcending Enemy Lines, ed. Howard Sieberg and (Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2014).

Sembat. Faites un Roi, Sinon Faites la Paix ( ).

Stopford Green, Alice. The Public Presentation to Mr E.D. Morel ( ).

Swanwick, Helena. Builders of Peace, being ten years’ history of the Union of Democratic Control. (London: The Swarthmore Press, 1924).

Swanwick, Helena. I have been young. (London, 1935).

Swartz, Marvin. The Union of Democratic Control in British Politics during the First World War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

For details on the arrest and conviction of Morel see Donald Mitchell, The politics of dissent: A biography of E.D. Morel (Bristol, 2014), pp. 132-144.

Wright, Patrick. Iron Curtain: from Stage to Cold War (Oxford, 2007).


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