Vernon Lee, Aesthetics and Empathy: Conference Notes, Suzy Corrigan, Teesside University

As an undergraduate student, I was advised by my tutor to compile a book of every word I came across that I didn’t understand to help me to expand my academic vocabulary. The word, ‘interdisciplinary’ has now been added! It perfectly describes the conference I recently attended. ‘Vernon Lee, Aesthetics and Empathy’ was hosted by The International Vernon Lee Society (IVLS), organised by Dr Sally Blackburn-Daniels and Professor Derek Matravers, and set in the grounds of Churchill College, Cambridge.

My new word connected all the speakers who each brought a variety of specialisms, from English scholars, philosophers, language theorists, novelists, historiographers, to graduates of fine arts. They came from the USA, France, Germany, Italy and the UK. This eclectic mix of specialisms, knowledge, and studies served to highlight the broad scope of interests into the work and complex mind of the author, Vernon Lee. What an incredible combination.

Conference poster: Vernon Lee, Aesthetics and Empathy

The day’s proceedings started when Derek and Sally officially welcomed everyone to the conference. We began with keynote speaker, Professor Jesse Prinz, a distinguished Professor of philosophy, and Director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary (there is that word again), Science Studies at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York. His paper, ‘Is Aesthetic Experience Embodied? Lessons from Vernon Lee,’ began with an overview of Vernon Lee’s theories of Empathy and her promotion of an embodied approach. He went on to outline comparisons between Lee and Kit’s theories of how they perceived art and how it is viewed and appreciated, highlighting their differences. 

Next to speak was Anna Shane whose paper, “‘In contact with a whole living, breathing thing”: Vernon Lee’s embodied historiography and collections’ discussed Lee’s short stories, Amour Dure (1887) and The Image (1896) (reprinted as The Doll in 1927) Anna suggested that the characters in Lee’s Gothic stories were far more likely to come into intimate, and even erotic contact with others through things, rather than bodies.  I enjoyed Anna’s paper and her fresh approach to Lee’s Gothic stories gave me food for thought. 

David Romand, a philosopher, historian of knowledge, language theorist, and currently an associate at Centre Gilles Gaston Granger, Aix-Marselle University, France. His paper, ‘Theodor Lipps’s Psychological Aesthetics and Its Impact on Vernon Lee’s Aesthetic Thought’ concentrated on the work of German philosopher Theodor Lipps who was known for his theory regarding aesthetics, and created the framework for the concept of Einfühlung (empathy) which Lee was deeply concerned with. David pointed out that Lee both admired and criticised Lipps as a matter of course in her personality. I found this paper particularly fascinating especially regarding the concept if aestheticism. 

Lunch followed. As I sat surrounded by doctors and professors, I had to pinch myself that this wasn’t a dream. Listening, learning, and absorbing their combined knowledge and understanding and their diverse research into Lee, whom I admire deeply, and just being able to share my undergraduate’s thoughts with them was extremely humbling.

Having briefly spoken to Katerina Harris over lunch I was looking forward to hearing her paper, ‘The Pace of Renaissance Art, Through Vernon Lee’s Eyes and Ears.’ Katerina is a recent graduate of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. On a personal level, Katerina was my favourite speaker of the day. Her paper was delivered from a point of view as an Art Historian which allowed the interdisciplinary concept to take a new turn. Katerina’s interest was originally in tombs and effigies and the sense of these bodies created by artists, appearing to fall into a deep sleep. Admitting she found Vernon Lee by accident, she spoke of the sense of rhythm and movement that Lee feels when she sees a work of art, that the rhythm and movement are what Lee brings to the piece of art. She posits that when Lee hears music, her body reacts to the sound, and the experience of music effects other senses, such as sight and smell. Katerina suggests that Lee thought that music was not just a part of looking at art, but a part of making art. That the relationship between music and art came before she created this theory, that Lee ultimately lets her body speak first.  I admit my own interest in Lee is through her use of music and therefore found this paper most relatable to my own research. Her observation that in Renaissance Italy, where mass was always sung in Latin, a language which the congregation didn’t understand, therefore it was merely the noise to them, which led Lee to capture the theory that music was the experience of viewing rather than story telling. This was a lightbulb moment for me. I would have loved to have spoken to Katerina about her paper in more depth, but unfortunately, she had to leave early. So, if you are reading this blog Katerina, may I say how much I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Professor of Philosophy at Lancaster University Alison Stone was next to speak next but was unable to attend. Derek Matravers kindly read her paper, ‘Vernon Lee’s Art-Philosophy: from Anti-Ruskinism to True Aestheticism.’. It provided a comprehensive study of Lee’s art-philosophy, and anti-Ruskinism ideology, differentiating between beauty and goodness, and asking whether art must be morally ‘good’ to be considered aesthetically ‘good.’ 

Afternoon tea followed and then it was the turn of author Mary F. Burns from San Francisco. Her paper, ‘Punctuation and the Writer/reader relationship: Adding to Vernon Lee’s Consideration of The Ambassadors.’ Mary’s talk discusses Lee’s book The Handling of Words and Other Studies in Literary Psychology (1923) in which she takes six authors, including Henry James, and chooses 500 words at random from their books. She then proceeds to critique them based on her understanding of what the writer/reader relationship is and how the handling of the words by the author has an effect on the reader.  Mary quotes Lee, “The degree of life in a writers style depends upon the amount of activity which he imposes upon his reader.” From the excerpt, Lee notes a total of 137 verbs, 71 adjectives, and 48 adverbs! Mary explains Lee’s theory, which suggests that the writer compels the reader to execute specific mental movements which evoke and rearrange past images and feelings. Mary further posits that the specific placement of punctuation can impose the writer’s mental attitude on the reader. What a delightful insight into an author’s delivery of prose and dialogue. Not only was Mary’s paper thoroughly engaging, entertaining and enlightening. She was a very gracious and endearing lady, who spoke to me, not as an undergraduate, but as a fellow academic who shared love of literature. Mary, if you are reading this blog, thank you for being so warm and engaging. I hope our paths cross again one day. 

That concluded the first day of speakers. What a wonderful day it was. What an interdisciplinary day! After a brief time to change and freshen up, we headed out for dinner and drinks. Again, as I did at lunch, I sat surrounded by incredible minds, who were interacting with each other, complimenting each other’s work and speaking about current issues. To be involved was a pleasure and an inspiration to me. 

Day two began with the second keynote speaker, Associate Professor Elisa Bizzotto of Iuav University of Venice, who delivered, ‘Vernon Lee and the Aesthetics of Folklore: An Archival and Transcultural Research.’ Elisa shared her incredible research illuminating new dimensions to Vernon Lee and focused on folklore and fairy tales. Elisa drew attention to Lee’s The Prince of the Hundred Soups, a story for children and then explained the possibility that Lee wrote Tuscan Fairy Tales, which were published in 1880 under an anonymous author. This naturally prompted discussion about why she would remain anonymous. 

Thomas Petraschka refuted the claim that Lee’s work on Aesthetics left German philosophers ‘unimpressed’ and demonstrated how she was well regarded both professionally and personally. He also provided a detailed insight into how Lee’s work was influence by Theordore Lipps and how her Beauty and Ugliness caused her to change some of her opinions, yet stand her ground on others.

Dr Sally Blackburn-Daniels explained how a ‘single author study’ can’t possibly be considered as too restricting when the author is as diverse and multi-faceted as Vernon Lee. Sally’s talk on Aesthetics and war explained how Lee’s Ballet of the Nations acted as a powerful allegory for the wastefulness of war and expressed the “fury of the moment” in reaction to World War One.

Scarlette-Electra LeBlanc discussed the figure of the powerful female aesthetic in Lee’s Oke of Okehurst and considered how the concept of ‘returning the male gaze’ relates to it. Scarlette explained how Lee created, and sustains, ghosts in her work by utilising the mechanisms of imagination and association, follow up questions considered how the artist/muse relationship is transformed to goddess/worshipper. 

Chunlin Men gave an amazing detailed talk on Aesthetic Abstractions and Decadent Political Economy Theories, and posited Lee as an interdisciplinary mix of literature and politics. Chunlin revealed Lee’s strong opinions and reactions to Karl Marx’s capitalist ideology by showing photographs of her personal annotations. 

As the organisers thanked everyone for attending; the conference was drawn to a close. An incredible experience for me as an undergraduate. It was truly inspiring and thought-provoking. Dr Sally Blackburn-Daniels generously gave me the opportunity to write this blog and I am extremely grateful to her. Had I been asked five years ago to attend a conference; I would have made some excuse to avoid it. Wrongly assuming that it would be stuffy and boring, when in fact it was a wonderful and inspiring experience. As I move ahead into my postgraduate studies, I am now determined to embrace the idea of interdisciplinary study in my future research, especially when it comes to the incredible and versatile Violet Paget!

Suzy Corrigan has recently graduated with a first in BA (hons) English Studies, during which Suzy received The Ede and Ravenscroft prize for Humanities, as well as the Jane Burke prize for best dissertation. Suzy’s dissertation focused on the use of music in fin-de-siècle literature, predominantly the work of Vernon Lee and her interest in the castrato singer. Suzy is moving onto her Master’s this autumn in English Literature, and she intends to develop this research into the inclusion of music as a metaphor and its ability to convey emotion and empathy, and as encoding for homoeroticism, The New Woman, and gender identities. As a mature student, Suzy recently returned to education after a career in performing arts, where her experience has provided her with an insight into the act of musical performance.  Looking ahead, Suzy’s aim is to apply for funding to undertake a PhD to further research the allegorical role of music in fin-de-siecle literature.  

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