Вільні Спірти розуміють один одного, об’єднуються через кордони / Free spirits understand each other, unite across borders (Vernon Lee July 18, 1934)

Dear readers, Шановні читачі,

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine left me literally speechless these days. History tests our humanist, pacifist, idealistic convictions by placing us in a situation analogous to that of our parents or grandparents who, in their lifetime, experienced the war, either fighting on the battlefield or witnessing events. How can one stand by and watch such a ruthless attack on peace, Putin’s war of occupation? What can we say or do to help our Ukrainian brothers and sisters under siege?

Like Vernon Lee perceptively wrote to her friend  Mathilde Hecht : “Our statesmen, in their vindictive panic, are preparing for the future wars … of revenge that will surpass all that we have seen! Never, under the pretext of punishing bad faith and inhumanity, have people been treated (…) with such bad faith and inhumanity; never has militarism and all that goes with it has never triumphed to this point.” (Vernon Lee, letter to Mathilde Hecht, February 8, 1921)

First, posting here a simple flag, without comment, 2 days ago, was a first testimony of our solidarity with the Ukrainian people who are valiantly resisting the oppressor and fighting to enforce their rights, and our rights too: the right of all peoples to self-determination. Then, I looked for a message to convey : The Sibyl must carry light in these dark times. Could Vernon Lee be a source of inspiration, a source of hope?

She too lived under the bombs, in a furnished apartment in London, during the First World War, and the terrible situation of the Ukrainian people under the bombs makes her testimony more actual than ever:

“I live with a «respirator» against chlorine bombs in my drawer and a bucket of sand in my fireplace! That’s where we are now! Notice that in the event that such a bomb shortens my days, my executor happens to be Mrs Forbes-Mosse with whom I am quarrelling just like with my local chauvinists here and who, I think, will not want to set foot in Italy ever again. Oh hatred, dear Mathilde, the stupid, stupid hatred!” (letter to Mathilde Hecht, June 16, 1915)

The letters exhanged between Vernon Lee and her close friend, Irene Forbes-Mosse, in the remarkable edition of Christa Zorn and Herward Sieberg, The Anglo-German Correspondence of Vernon Lee and Irene Forbes-Mosse during World War I ; Women Writers’ Friendship Transcending Enemy Lines, show not only the immediate disasters of a European war, but also the long lasting consequences of propaganda and of censorship. Let us pray for Free spirits to remain united across borders!

Let’s remember that Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) was marked by a cosmopolitan and nomadic childhood due to political upheavals in Europe from the French Revolution to the Franco-Prussian war and perhaps a certain transgenerational experience of exile. She confides in her French friend the painter Berthe Noufflard, who quotes her in her Journal:

« My grandfather had been a professor in Poland — my father had been raised there — and then worked there as an engineer — he had been involved in the construction of the Warsaw-Moscow railway. He never forgot the horror of the Russian and Prussian persecutions. He emigrated to France with Poles in 1849. –he was even part of the National Guard in Paris” (Miss Paget, Journal de Berthe Noufflard, 28 July 1934)

Her sensitivity to the cause of Poland and Finland resonates today in particular: “In London, during the war, I was approached, invited by young Polish patriots – Very charming — <forming a club>– kind to the highest degree — who asked me if the English radicals could not take an interest in the cause of Poland. … Finns too — an art critic I saw a lot then — There was nothing to be done. … And the Polish cause, the Finnish cause, were stories which our allies wouldn’t hear of.” (Miss Paget, Journal de Berthe Noufflard, 28/07/1934)

Let us not forget her friendship for the poet and diplomat Peter (“Peter”) Boutourline (Petr Dmitrievich Buturlin; 1859–1895), born in Florence, who left for Kiev, Tagantcha, in January 1885, to whom she dedicated “Oke of Okehurst; Or, The Phantom Lover and who appeared in other works of hers.

A weaver of ties, a tireless polemicist in favour of a more enlightened and just model of society, Vernon Lee strongly supported the fight against fascism and during the First World War made her Villa Il Palmerino an international asylum for refugees in the heart of Europe. Faced with the rise of fear before the Second World War she declared: «We should group everywhere those who are not afraid, who are not afraid to take risks» (Miss Paget, Journal de Berthe Noufflard, 20/07/1934) She was then 78 years old…

On the eve of her death, the last book she read was a geopolitical work by Jules Romains, Problèmes européens (Paris: Flammarion, 1933), which stated in particular: “It is banal to note that the justification of European nationalisms and antagonisms for ethnographic reasons is not serious.” (p. 21)

A viewpoint shared with Lee’s friend, Romain Rolland, who wrote to her in 1910:

“A country’s language has nothing to do with its nationality. We do not have the idea of claiming Geneva or Brussels because people speak French there (…) What matters alone (and more and more, in the course of history), is the will of a people, its moral attractions, the strength of common traditions, the personal character of its civilization.  (…) As long as I live, I will not cease to defend the rights of the oppressed and conquered peoples–and above all, those of our Europe who are great moral personalities, secular souls: Alsace, Poland, Finland, etc.” (Romain Rolland to Miss Paget, 3 July 1910, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Manuscrits)

Here is what Lee wrote:

“I believe that in the depths of my horror at participating in this war, despite all the good or bad reasons for doing so, there has always been the intuition that today … the international entanglement, the enormity of the human masses and the complexity of all our civilization, necessarily turns every war into an attack on the unknown – the means and the concomitant circumstances so monstrously exceed all prediction and all will.

Finally, I only hope for some peace, a viable regime, out of all the chaos of bad influences and abominable passions that the war unleashed, at least in our lifetime, dear Mathilde. ” (Vernon Lee, letter to Mathilde Hecht, 36 Fitz James Avenue, West Kensington, London W, 21 May 1919)

But hope endured. Vernon Lee fought against the war, she fought for peace, with all her might. How? by her open letters, and by her ART. One must read or reread the revolutionary pacifist text that she wrote during the war years, in exile in London far from her home in Florence: Satan the Waster, a philosophic war trilogy (1920), developped from her Ballet of the Nations: A Present-Day Morality (1915) dedicated to Romain Rolland and to “men of goodwill” and recently translated into Italian: Satana il Dilapidore. This avant-garde political fable boldly expresses Lee’s vision of the political situation in the West and her intellectual and personal commitment from the beginning of the 20th century to the interwar period (South Africa, France, Germany, Alsace, Italy, England, Ireland, India, Russia, Poland, Finland, etc.). It was masterfully represented at Villa Il Palmerino in 2019 (see here) on the advice of Sally Blackburn-Daniels (see here), directed by Angeliki Papoulia and produced by Federica Parretti.

Beyond her love for this geographical Europe which she crossed every year throughout her life, Vernon Lee called for a political Europe. She contributed to its construction, because she believed in dialogue and peace within a true Concert of Nations.

She too would have stood up for Ukraine.

STOP the Russian war in Ukraine!

Зупинити російську війну в Україні


Herward Sieberg 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. With a Foreword by Phyllis Mannocchi. Lewiston/Lampeter : Edwin Mellen Press, 2014. 463 pages.

Blackburn-Daniels, S., (2020) “A Present-Day Morality for the Present Day”, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 2020(30). doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.2931

Gagel, Amanda, “Vernon Lee’s Satan the Waster: Pacifism and the Avant-Garde”, Brewminate, May 21, 2019 https://brewminate.com/vernon-lees-satan-the-waster-pacifism-and-the-avant-garde

Blackburn-Daniels, Sally & Sophie Geoffroy (2021) “Traces of the exotic” in Vernon Lee’s “Oke of Okehurst; Or, The Phantom Lover”, Women’s Writing, 28:4, 569-588, DOI: 10.1080/09699082.2021.1985294

Geoffroy, Sophie (ed.), Artisans de la paix et passeurs/Peacemakers and bridgebuilders, Paris: Michel Houdiard ed., 2018.

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