Anatomical Venuses, Androgynous Boys, or the Renaissance Cassone


by Anthony TEETS


Things, as I before remarked, do not give themselves without some wooing;
and courtship is the secret of true possession.[1]


Much has been written about the imagery in Vernon Lee’s short stories, novels, and historiography. In fact so much has been written about her sexuality that little is left to the imagination. Yet, paradoxically, we know very little about her sexual life because she was a very private person who preferred not to leave behind an official record of her intimate relationships. There are many items missing from Lee’s account of herself. Yet, when one reads the introductory remarks to Art and Man (1924), Beauty and Ugliness (1912), and scattered references in Music and Its Lovers (1932), her candidness in writing about Kit Anstruther-Thomson can leave no doubt of her devotion and intense love. The numerous dedications in her books and short stories refer to particular women that critics understandably want to somehow figure into her life. Catherine Maxwell has recently devoted much care and caution in researching the person behind the initials M.W. in the dedication of “A Wicked Voice.” “A Wedding Chest,” the short story I will examine here, also bears the name of a dedicatee and a series of dates that invites reflection: “To Marie Spartali Stillman 1879-1904.”

The questions form themselves. Can one intuit from the feelings of tender emotion in scattered references enough evidence to label Lee as a lesbian? If we do have sufficient evidence to present such a statement what good would it do? Who would we be trying to convince, and what difference would it make? All of these questions have been addressed regarding other authors, and have received answers in myriad ways by many highly qualified critics. The intricacy of biographical writing figures into the work of what Judith Butler has called “giving an account of oneself.” Throughout her work, Butler has devoted exceptional care to sorting out the problems of subjectivity, the paradoxes that arise in claims, and what the claims mean. What, for example, does it mean to say “I”?

In a memorial essay written after Roland Barthes’ tragic death in 1981, Tzvetan Todorov observes:

It was necessary, in order to impose his truth upon others, to limit the field of application of his statements to the minimum: to himself…. It was necessary, in order to cease being a terrorist, to become an egoist and to offer, in his books, not only a discourse (which always remains an injunction) but also a being: a subject without a predicate.[2]

In many ways Lee might qualify as the perfect candidate for Barthes’ “terrorist.” Personal to the extreme, the “I” which Todorov treats so gingerly was sometimes a weapon of defense in Lee’s latest cause. The short reflective pieces in Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life (1904) are held together by the first person singular almost as trees congregate to make a forest. Every time the “I” is invoked, it adds a strand to the intricate web of the texts. Lee describes this as, “Knowing One’s Mind,”:

Knowing one’s mind … is a first step to filling one’s own place instead of littering unprofitably over creation at large, and insofar also to doing one’s own work. Life, I am willing to admit, is not all private garden, nor should we attempt to make it.[3]

The “I” asserts, affirms, questions, hesitates, and confirms. Above all, it contradicts.  But if the “garden of life” is an “I,” a sense or place of subjectivity, is it also a burial plot as Burdett Gardner suggests, where mid-Victorians like Lee buried their “lesbian phalluses”?

I am not interested here in giving an account of Lee’s sexual identity, nor do I want to break Lee’s precious bone and suck out “la substantifique moelle.” Here rather, I want an object to speak for itself. I want to invoke “A Wedding Chest” to rise up on one corner and dance across the museum floor. Things speak, and the voice of things can be heard if we are willing to listen. In “A Wedding Chest” a cassone speaks for a period of history that is no longer available except to those willing to dig in the archives. We cannot know what it was to actually have been born in 1856. Born in France, of Welsh, French, and Polish extraction, Lee was also a self-described “mid-Victorian” who lived in Italy through the Edwardian period, and died at the start of WWII (1935). That was Vernon Lee’s trajectory in life. Lee’s generation is gone though there still may be a few around who knew her. What we can try to do, is to understand the world she lived in by focusing on the things evoked in her writings. Things are constructed, destroyed and sometimes left alone in her short stories. What are their uses in her creative writing, and how do they provide a basis for understanding Lee’s theoretical writings? A close look at material objects,  places, portraits, toys, plants, jewels, and (the inevitable) wedding chest, –in short, all the things that crowd their way into her writings, can help us to understand how they shape and are shaped by Lee.

Martha Vicinus’ “The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siècle Femme Fatale?” and Patricia Pulham’s “Colouring the Past: Death, Desire and Homosexuality in Vernon Lee’s ‘A Wedding Chest’,” have shown quite suggestively how one may read Lee’s recurrent imagery. They do so however, in order to suggest ways of “reading things into texts.” What is meant by this is quite simple. I will argue that both of these excellent essays, while having many worthy things to say about Lee’s text, miss the point of “A Wedding Chest” by not addressing it at all. In their essays the cassone is just another thing.

When writers write about things, they do so generally for very specific reasons. Something about the thing in question must strike them as worthy enough of their attention to merit the time spent writing. This is how Willa Cather came to the conclusion that most of the things in novels should probably be thrown out of the window, and that only the “thing not named” in her “novel démeublé” was worth keeping.[4] It is probably for this reason that Gertrude Stein found the benches in museum galleries to be such wonderful places to have a lie down.[5] When writing about tender buttons and other things, Stein suddenly rises from recumbence and stirs with life. Likewise, paying attention or dismissing Cather’s bicycle makes all the difference in how one reads “Unsentimental Tommy.” Instead of merely pushing buttons and spinning wheels, we might learn something by following the trajectories of things.

Both of the essays reviewed here will address a particular thing that Lee wrote about in her short story “A Wedding Chest. ” Since this review essay is also an attempt to explore how Lee used material culture in her short stories to give voice to things that would otherwise go unnoticed, areas of Vicinus’ and Pulham’s essays that explore the boundaries between persons and objects will be highlighted. In the choice of objects in Lee’s short story available for critical attention these critics have each chosen particular characters. Thus, Vicinus focuses on Lee’s creation of Troilo Baglioni as a type of the “Adolescent Boy” that surfaces so often in late nineteenth century literature. Pulham concentrates her attention on the female adolescent in Lee’s narrative. Monna Maddalena becomes for her, a kind of doll or “Anatomical Venus.” Like the adolescent boy, the Anatomical Venus becomes a kind of thing blurring the boundaries of object/person relations. Rather than focus on the thing that circulates throughout the story, the cassone, these critics circulate around it. The missing item in these otherwise excellent contributions to “Lee studies” needs to be put back into focus.

Adolescent boys and their problems

Boys misbehave, that is what they do. Vicinus’ essay “The Adolescent Boy” should be read in light of her ongoing “effort to trace the ways in which homosexuals of both sexes drew from similar cultural materials to fashion images that recast long-standing stereotypes.” Not only does Vicinus bring her enormous erudition to an analysis of the production of images (the cultural material of the late nineteenth century) but she wishes to apply this to an understanding of psychosexuality. In claiming that “the presentation of the extremes of emotional pleasure and social peril was a means of arguing both covertly and overtly the centrality of their love,” Vicinus helps people speak.[6] Critical attention is placed throughout her essay on the figure of the “adolescent boy” who was “as troubling for the turn-of-the-century artist as the better-known predatory woman.” The thesis that “his protean nature displayed a double desire—to love a boy and to be a boy” is quite clear. Whether intentionally or not, Vicinus immediately speaks of the “adolescent boy” as a kind of repository for Victorian emotions: “Throughout Europe the boy became a vessel into which an author—and a reader—could pour his or her anxieties, fantasies and sexual desires.” Like the “homosexual artist” from the Michael Field’s poem quoted a little later, the adolescent boy is “…a plan, a work of some strange passion/…A thing it hides and cherishes to fashion.”

Within this context however, Lee’s story appears as corpus vile, and surprisingly Lee also becomes altered from the context of her own biography. Vicinus states that Lee was an American citizen, a minor error and one she does not allow into print for a third time in her recent Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. Much more important is the oversight that occurs in Vicinus’ rendering of Lee’s “lesbianism” as it relates to her story.[7] The trouble with Lee’s boys is that they are always troubled. Whether Prince Alberic who falls for a “snake lady,” or Troilo Baglioni who murders a young lady and stuffs her into a wedding chest along with her illegitimate baby, these boys are in trouble. What becomes apparent is that the roles these youngsters perform have nothing to do with the way “lesbians” should or do act. It becomes difficult to understand how these literary objects are really lesbians.

In her statement that “even though contemporaries recognized her [Lee] as a lesbian and either accepted or laughed at her intense friendships, the lesbian subtext of much of her writing has been ignored,” Vicinus commits an oversight that must be corrected. In fact, if any aspect of Lee’s subjectivity has characterized the general tone of scholarship it has been the directives provided in Burdett Gardner’s psychobiography of Lee, The Lesbian Imagination (Victorian Style).[8] Not only should Gardner’s condescending title be understood as an accurate image of his critical bias, but it should have alerted Vicinus to the danger of following his lead uncritically. Likewise when Vicinus comments that “Lee could not rise above her distaste for condescending men…” and that “her bristling intellectuality attracted respect, but few friends” she refers to Ethyl Smyth’s gossipy As Time Went On… (1936).

Peter Gunn, in his biography of Lee reflects that “Both women desired to shine in company; and there was a strong element of rivalry, even perhaps of over-compensating assertiveness, in Ethyl Smyth’s relationship with Vernon Lee, which makes itself felt in her writing…”[9] While acknowledging the plausible truth in Smyth’s assessments of Lee, Gunn’s biography provides a more balanced reading than what is found in Vicinus’ essay.[10] At this juncture, a third problem is encountered because we have two “lesbians” fighting and we don’t even know if either of them qualifies as adolescent boys, or lesbians. It should be apparent that the “rivalry” and “over-compensating assertiveness” certainly expected of adolescent boys, is not really an essential trait of all lesbians. An additional problem arises with Vicinus’ model when we observe the various really nasty girls in Lee’s short stories. The eponymous heroine of “Dionea” walks away from the scene of a horrible crime, and the story ends with her being spotted offshore, possibly on her way to the next crime.  Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw’s (Lady Tal) “odious tomboy of a cousin” has “atrocious manners” and always mispronounces Mr. Jervaise Marion’s name (read Henry James) “Mary Anne.”[11] Upon recognizing himself in the character of Mr. Marion in 1893, James broke his friendship with Lee. Lee’s tomboys are a fact to be reckoned with for they are cut from the same cloth as her adolescent boys.

 On Rakes, and Other Rogues

Lee’s tale is a rather sad one that contains violence, betrayal, and vendetta. Belonging more to the “cloak and dagger” genre than to the fairy tale she professed was so central to Italian Renaissance style, “A Wedding Chest” is set in a particular historical time and place.[12] It would have been read by her peers as typical of the kind of literature one would find in Victorian reviews. These pieces were designed for a target audience, perhaps a male readership that travelled to Italy wishing to become familiar on a first hand basis with the products of the Italian Renaissance. Lee’s relationship to this “man’s world” is negotiated in several ways, but perhaps the most obvious is her adoption of the name Vernon Lee which indicated that she was a writer. The fact that she came to prefer that name over the name she was given at birth (Violet Paget) signifies a space for her subjectivity that she wished to be respected. When critics like Burdett Gardner pepper their writings about Lee with careless and casual switching back and forth from “Violet” to “Vernon” they are indicating their complete ignorance of, and/or disrespect for the author’s wishes. On the other hand, the adoption of a pseudonym could be interpreted by Lee’s peers as a political defiance. As Christa Zorn notes: “When the female intellectual emerged as an identifiable cultural figure, men’s strictures turned overly defensive, suggesting an entrenched male intellectual establishment…The uneasiness of Victorian writers toward “clever” women is clearly felt in J.A. Symonds’s correspondence with Vernon Lee.”[13]

An example of this kind of literary piece is Albert Kinross’s (1870-1929) “The Chronicler of the Baglioni,” published in The Cornhill Magazine.[14] This story reinvents Matarazzo’s account of the political struggles for power between the infamous Baglioni family and the Oddi. The bad Baglioni and the odious Oddi were rival families of the fifteenth century Perugia in Italy’s central state Umbria. Both had their share of rotten eggs, rakes, and rogues, little balls of testosterone walking around on legs. According to the Perugian chronicler Matarazzo these boys were so bad one couldn’t help but fall in love with them for their beauty was such as could not to be found anywhere. The great scholar describes these boys by reference to Ganymede the paramour of great Zeus himself. To this, John Addington Symonds adds in his study the absence of hair on their faces. One detects a slight swoon as he raptures in his pedophilia at the sight of these boys of Perugia.

The key to crack the code of Kinross’s “The Chronicler of Baglioni” is not the lads but the “Amazon” heroine Simonetta Baglioni, “she that went later to Florence and was drawn by Sandro Botticelli on a panel that is now lost, for all the inscriptions one may read and all the conjectures of the specialists.”[15] Kinross has removed the historical ‘Semonetto,’ son of Ridolfo Baglioni, and replaced him with a beautiful “Amazon” daughter (Simonetta). The intrigues of the story must have proven irresistible to Victorians for whom Italy represented the strange and mysterious other. Moreover, acquaintance and familiarity with the Chronicles of Matarazzo, translated into the English language by Edward Strachan Morgan (1905), could provide these men with intellectual and cultural capital. Kinross’s Simonetta is the equivalent of a Perugian Jeanne d’Arc. She is also a blatant parody of John Addington Symonds’ Simonetto. A comparison of two passages clarify Kinross’s objective. The first is from Symonds’ chapter on Perugia in Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe:

The first glimpse we get of these young athletes in Matarazzo’s chronicle is on the occasion of a sudden assault upon Perugia made by the Oddi and the exiles of their faction in September, 1495. The foes of the Baglioni entered the gates and began breaking the iron chains, serragli, which barred the streets against advancing cavalry. None of the noble house were on the alert except young Simonetto, a lad of eighteen, fierce and cruel, who had not yet began to shave his chin. [16]

Now a slightly longer passage from Kinross’ “The Chronicler of the Baglioni:

Till September 17, 1495, for three months and eight days, Perugia was at peace. Then Niccolo, who had long lain ready in the dark, discovered his opportunity. The Baglioni had at last relaxed their watchfulness. It was the day of Adriano’s wedding, and the whole family had gathered to a great feasty in the palace of Guido Baglioni, that stood on the far side of town. Only Simonetta, who hated her cousin’s bride, was absent, urging in excuse that she still wore mourning for Ridolfo. Niccolo’s sudden assault, therefore, was well-timed.
Unchallenged he rode in at the city gates and began breaking the iron chains (serragli) that barred the streets against advancing cavalry. Simonetta heard the marching of the Oddi, the beating of the hammers on the chains. Swiftly she sent a messenger to disturb the marriage feast; and then looking round, she beheld Francesco Matarazzo[17]

Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) and John Addington Symonds’ Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe (1880) both contain memorable chapters on the Baglioni.[18] While attending closely to the ancient chroniclers Matarazzo and Frolliere, and to the historiography of Italian scholars de Sanctis and Villari, borrowing and citing as the need arose, Symonds is above all interested in the artistic cultural products of the Renaissance as they form and shape the personality. Burckhardt’s chapter on “The State as a Work of Art” draws specifically on the history of despotism in Perugia as an illustration of his thesis that “the greatest crimes of the fifteenth century are most frequent in the smallest states.” The adolescent boys are really divine rogues.

In Euphorion: Being Studies of the Antique and the Medieval in the Renaissance, Vernon Lee would follow this thesis in her own historiography of the Italian Renaissance. She also describes the rakes and rogues of the Baglioni, but with much more stress on their contradictory characters, as if to make them ready for the stage:

We are astonished at the strange anomaly in the tastes and deeds of the Renaissance villains; we are amazed before their portraits. These men who in the frightful light of their own misdeeds, appear to us as complete demons or complete madmen, have yet much that is amiable and much that is sane; they stickle at no abominable lust, yet they are no bestial sybarites; they are brave, sober, frugal, enduring like any puritan; they are treacherous rapacious cruel, utterly indifferent to the sufferings of their enemies, yet they are gentle in manner, passionately fond of letters and art, superb in their works of public utility…[19]

Unlike Burckhardt and Symonds, Lee questioned the premise that the irony of this history was always productive of positive and beneficial results. Rather than focus exclusively on the artistic products of Italy, she devotes a chapter to the study of its effects on a foreign culture (Elizabethan England):

But the Englishmen of the sixteenth century were astonished and fascinated by the evil of Italy: the dark pools of horror, the dabs of infamy which had met them ever and anon in the brilliant southern cities, haunted them like nightmare, bespattered for them the clear blue sky, and danced, black and horrible spots, before the face of the sun…And the sin of the Renaissance, which the art of Italy could neither pourtray [sic] nor perceive; appeared on the stage decked in superb and awful garb by the tragic imagination of Elizabethan England.[20]

By changing the perspective, making England a slave to the Italian imagination and passion, Lee describes what was also happening to her contemporaries. The Victorians Kinross and Lee address are still being shaped and fashioned by the image of Renaissance Italy. rather than the origin of the gaze, Lee exerts control over her subject matter.

Whether or not she had read Kinross’s literary contribution, her own story resembles his gender crossing while reversing the sex of his character back to the adolescent boy. Kinross’s exercise in cross-dressing and gender-crossing would probably not have raised any Victorian eyebrows. It would have confirmed Symonds’ own suggestion that the period was characterized as a curious cauldron, a mixture of good and evil. For Symonds, personality was the key to understanding and explaining the contradictions of the Italian Renaissance for, “these conditions, eminently favorable to the growth of arts and the pursuit of science, were no less conducive to the hypertrophy of passions, and to the full development of ferocious and inhuman personalities.”[21] By bringing Kinross’s story into the orbit of this discussion, one can clearly see that even casual encounters with gender in late-Victorian texts almost invariably trigger certain predictable critical responses.

In a recent article on Vernon Lee, Jo Briggs makes the astute observation that most contemporary critical accounts of Lee’s “sexual dissidence” invariably cite the authority of Burdett Gardner’s psychobiography.[22] For Briggs, the problem resides in the fact that the same critics hesitate to remark about the gender trouble they encounter in her male peers. Lee’s peers often denigrated her work while admiring her intellect (J. A. Symonds, Bernard Berenson, and Henry James serve as examples.) What critics refer to as Lee’s irascible nature “rivalry” and “over-compensating assertiveness” should be read contextually. A particularly good example of this is provided by Briggs’ assessment of the young Bernard Berenson who first met Lee in 1889.[23] Vicinus excellent article on the relationship between Berenson and the Michael Fields does exactly the kind of work Briggs calls for in her article. If Berenson’s relationship with the Michael Fields was troubled because of his estranging the couple from each other, with Lee the problems were over Berenson’s insistence that she had plagiarized his work.

Both Lee and Berenson were obsessed with the Italian Renaissance. They shared an intellectual passion that extended to philosophy, psychology, and history as well. While Berenson became increasingly involved in connoisseurship treating his passion as a career and a means of making hard cash, Lee remained always theoretical in her approach. Their differences led them to the inevitable debacle in 1897 when Berenson accused Lee and Kit Anstruther Thomson of plagiarizing his theories of the emotive response to art. A close reading of their individual works however shows each writer developing a unique theory. While Lee’s interest in the theory of empathy (Einfühlung) led her to Groos, Wundt, and Theodor Lipps, Berenson’s “tactile values” respond to Adolf Hildebrand’s notions of the development of the senses and how it applies to art. What is true of both is their mutual passion for the Italian art of the Renaissance.

Kinross’s narrative shares in this Victorian obsession with the Italian Renaissance history and art. His contribution to The Cornhill Magazine should remind us of the “lure” of the Renaissance and the complex attraction it represented to men like Browning, Swinburne, Symonds, and Berenson. The elaborate game of desire and seduction that drew them closer to a remote and mysterious history of crime, passion, and art, also promised others entry into the closed circle of elite intellectuals and aristocrats. While Kinross’s story mirrors the Victorian passion for the Italian Renaissance it is also a parody of the extremes to which aesthetes such as Swinburne were willing to go in creating ridiculous femmes fatales.[24] His reference to “Bella Simonetta” as an Amazon should be read in this playful light.

Lee’s “A Wedding Chest” was originally published in Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales (1904). It appears at first reading to be a displaced contribution (a missing item) to the five “unlikely stories” collected in For Maurice (1927). In its style it recalls the “culture-ghosts” of that collection, and Troilo Baglioni reminds one of the elaborate descriptions found in “The Virgin of the Seven Daggers.” Though Vicinus is correct to focus on the pivotal role of Troilo Baglioni as the type of liminal character she describes in “The Adolescent Boy,” the story is really not about him. As the title suggests, the story is about ‘A Wedding Chest,’ and, as if to reinforce the point, the cassone is represented in the museum card description with which it opens.[25]

 Anatomical Venuses, dolls, and semivir idols . . . things not so nice

. . . her own private charnel house[26]

If Vicinus’ essay focuses on the adolescent boy as representative of the lesbian imagination in Lee’s story, Patricia Pulham’s essay takes an interesting second route through the body of Troilo Baglioni’s victim Monna Maddalena. Here Pulham brilliantly suggests first that the body of the character of Monna Maddalena might be read as a doll, or toy, then an art object, and finally a Winnicottian “transitional object.” This is based on “the hypotheses put forward by D.W. Winnicott, in Playing and Reality (1971), in which he argues that adults transfer their childhood engagement with ‘toys’ or transitional objects’ to art and cultural objects.”[27] Not only does the body of the girl become a transitional object, but “the past in Lee’s tale “A Wedding Chest” functions as a kind of Winnicottian ‘potential space’ in which the transitional object takes center stage. Viewed within Winnicott’s theoretical framework, the predominance of the ‘Past’ in Lee’s work suggests not only an historical past, but also a psychic past that is grounded in childhood, in which the mother is forever absent, and yet present, and in which those art objects which inhabit the past become ‘transitional objects’ or ‘toys.’”[28]

What is of particular interest here is the suggestion that “in this story her body is transformed into a form of ‘doll’ over which her lovers fight for possession.’ She goes a step further to add that the presence of naked women in Lee’s oeuvre is to be remarked and great still is the fact that these women are generally already dead. Their bodies are cut up, bloody, and bruised, “and in “A Wedding Chest,” as we shall see, the dead and naked body of Maddalena is wounded and defiled. In this inanimate state, the bodies of these dead women, still, silent and stained with colour, double as ‘dolls.’”[29]

Unfortunately, Pulham turns like Vicinus, to Burdett Gardner as the recognized authority in all things Lee. The sentence quoted above is followed by a direct transition into the work of Gardner: “It would seem that this is how Burdett Gardner, an early critic of Lee’s works, sees them. For Gardner, these dead women are examples of the ‘semivir idol’ which he defines as the “feminine counterpart” of [Lee’s] own idealized image that manifests itself in ‘dolls, images, statues, pictures, puppets, and the dead.”[30] But Gardner also sees this as manifest in Lee’s style because of a deep unhappiness due to her lesbianism: “If her style holds a monotony of sepulchral associations, those associations report with sincerity and integrity the state of her own private charnel house. They are not the result of a facile copying of verbal effects.”[31]

Another passage from Burdett Gardner’s chapter seven on “The Semivir Idol” qualifies his observations and demonstrates his manner of procedure:

Frustrated by an inner check upon the normal channels of a shared life, she communicates through subtle parables, allegories, and symbols, the plight of her entangled soul. All of her writings, therefore, have an intensely personal relevance. To expose this will not appreciably contribute to their meaning and value as literature, both of which depend upon a different kind of relevance, but we may certainly hope to increase their value as human documents and possibly to explain their failure as judged by the stock canons of literature.[32]

Gardner’s explanation of Lee’s “entangled soul” relies on his estimate that the bloody bruised body mentioned above is a reflection of it. He writes “in this figure, the real subject of a great part of Miss Paget’s fiction, we have the projected object of her self-love. We shall refer to that object henceforth as the semivir idol.”[33] He then goes on to analyze Lee’s “A Wedding Chest” noting that the revenge plot is subordinate to length she devotes to the burial of Monna Maddalena. Gardner is upset about the burial plot. Yet the importance attributed to Monna Maddalena’s dead and bruised body is capital for him, and if he can succeed in proving “her chief interest in the story [was] the apotheosis of the corpse of Maddalena,” then he will also be able to say much about Lee’s “Lesbian Imagination”:

From the examples before us, the dominant features of the semivir idol are clear. Although dead herself, she has an invincible power of attracting the living, but, when offered passionate love, she incontinently seeks the death of the lover. In this respect, she exhibits the Violet-“Vernon” dualism experienced by Violet’s friends. Her status is parallel to the Platonic ideal in its relation to the actual world. Transcending reality she has no part in it; but she forever haunts and disturbs its complacent order, and occasionally beckons some part of it into momentarily assuming her shape.[34]

The problem with this kind of criticism is that it leads Gardner to make judgments about people (lesbians) that merely confirm what he had thought before engaging in complex understanding of gender. The image of the “lesbian” as it appears in his work is supposedly rescued by his addition of the qualifier “Victorian”:

In her fiction she has traced in dark arabesques of evil her suspicions of her own soul’s health; in her essays and dialogues she has candidly exhibited the ironic predicament of the Victorian Lesbian. Properly understood, she is not only an original and “authentic” voice of her period but, as a spokesman for the cramped and cabined ego, one of the great confessors of all mankind.[35]

If Gardner has not made his point clear from the arrangement of his title with its parenthetic subtitle “Victorian Style,” then here in the last paragraph of his dissertation he boldly claims the universality of his essentialist reading by distinguishing Lee as “one of the great confessors of all mankind.” Lee is swallowed up into the universality of an essentialist reading that deplores her existence and hopes she will go away. She once made it very clear that she had no interest in the dichotomies and polarities of Der Mensch and das Weib, femina ac vir, “man and woman.” In her correspondence and her review of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book Woman and Economics (which Pulham described elsewhere as a “Transatlantic Alliance,”) Lee voices her opinions about the economic slavery of women, and she addresses her “conversion” to the Woman Question. She embraces a universality that is not ignorant of difference but sensitive to it.[36]

The Garden where Things Come to Rest

Lee’s “lesbian imagination” according to Gardner’s analysis is no garden at all, but a kind of burial ground where she ritualizes the internment of her “semivir idol.” He is hostile and angry about Lee’s existence. It bothers him that she could write these fantastic tales, and he wants to know her secrets, to dig up her garden and find out where she has buried her bone. The bone in question is Gardner’s critical tool, the “semivir idol” also known as the “lesbian phallus.” There is nothing wrong with writing about things like this, but it becomes very difficult to add to the complexity the dogged belief that there is something out there in the backyard. The imagery of burial and resurrection receives quite a different interpretation in the work of Angela Leighton and Jan Marsh.

The tantalizing question of Lee’s dedicatee “Marie Spartali Stillman,” may be cleared up by looking at Lee’s possible sources for the garden description in “A Wedding Chest.” Jan Marsh, in “’The old Tuscan rapture’: The Response to Italy and its art in the Work of Marie Spartali Stillman” mentions missing word a particular Spartali painting attracted Vernon Lee’s attention[37] “The Enchanted Garden of Messr Ansaldo,” (1889) “is a small, highly decorative and decorated piece depicting an incident from the Decameron in which Ansaldo attempts to seduce the (married) Dianora by magically turning winter into summer.”[38] Lee includes an appreciation of this particular piece in her Limbo and Other Essays:

We must imagine [Boccaccio’s] magic flower garden rather as a corner—they still exist on every hillside—or orchard connected with the fields of wheat and olives below by the long tunnels of vine trellis and dying away into them with the great tufts of lavender and rosemary and fennel on the grassy bank under the cherry trees. This piece of terraced ground along which the water—spurted from the dolphin’s mouth or the siren’s breasts—runs through the walled channels, refreshing impartially violets and salads, lilies and tall flowering onions, under the branches of the peach tree and the pomegranate to where in the shade of the great pink oleander tufts, it pours out below into the big tank for the maids to rinse their linen in the evening. [39]

This garden is similar to the one in Lee’s “A Wedding Chest” where Desiderio of Castiglione del Lago buries the cassone (now a coffin):

This garden, within the walls of the city on the side of Porta Eburnea, was pleasantly situated, and abounding in flowers and trees, useful both for their fruit and their shade, and rich likewise in all herbs as thyme, marjoram, fennel and many others, that prudent housewives desire for their kitchen; all watered by stone canals, ingeniously constructed by Ser Piero, which were fed from a fountain where you might see a mermaid squeezing the water from her breasts, subtle device of the same Piero…[40]

In Gardner’s garden he cannot see the flowers for the water that he quickly channels into another psycho-imagery. He is mostly interested in the body of Monna Maddalena for it represents the semivir idol he is keen to follow. Unfortunately, in spite of having obtained an excellent connection through Winnicott’s notion of the transitional object, Pulham falls back on Gardner’s paltry Freudian reading. The phallic imagery connected with the body is used against Lee in Gardner. Pulham takes a different direction when she associates it with art objects.

What is surprising is that little effort is spent on the analysis of the baby that appeared in the coffin along with Monna Maddalena. Gardner does not mention it at all except in a direct quote from the story. The dead infant is taken out of the coffin:

But the body of the child, which had been found in the wedding chest, they threw down a place near Saint Heraculanus, where the refuse and offal and dead animals are thrown, called the Sardegna; because it was the bastard of Ser Troilo, et infamiae scelerisque partum.[41]

This passage may perhaps be clarified by reference to Peter Gunn’s biography. He cites a letter written to Vernon Lee from her brother Eugene in October 1904. They had been estranged from one another since the death of Mrs. Paget (their mother) in March 1896, when Eugene moved away and married Annie Holdsworth in 1898. Annie gave birth to a little girl (Persis) that “did not survive infancy and died on 2nd October 1904.” In the letter Eugene describes his grief to Lee:

We laid her in her little white coffin with her doll yesterday evening at sunset, just opposite Mamma’s grave, to which I gave some of her flowers… I am grateful for your kind words. But had you given her a single smile or penny toy while she was alive, it would have been more to the purpose, and would have left you none the poorer, –perhaps even a little richer.[42]

The passage is striking in its revelation about Lee’s sternness regarding her own niece and though its connection to the story is only conjecture it might help to understand the association of infant mortality and early death which was a general Victorian concern. The need to go beyond the story and find that the “origins” of Lee’s “lesbian imagination” or her “troubled soul” in some supposed “lesbian” phallic fixation is far more conjectural.

Angela Leighton has described Lee’s interest in the Renaissance past as part of a general Victorian association that changed over time:

The picture of Italy as a framed moment of the past, ghostly with absence yet hauntingly recuperable, provides the energy of much later Victorian writing… In particular, the idea of the Renaissance gives to aestheticism one of its key, recurrent images: that of the resurrected body. While early Victorian women writers claimed Italy as a body of their own, an instrument of song and suffering, later aesthetes find in it a body figured almost for its own sake, impersonal, inhuman, and the sign, therefore, of a materialist aesthetic which subversively challenges many of the values of high Victorianism.[43]

Might the body in Desiderio’s cassone not be understood as an image of the Renaissance itself being resurrected from the past? If, as Leighton argues, “the Renaissance is thus dreamed as an artwork come to life, a beautiful body restored, as well as just a word, ‘the Renaissance,’ made flesh” then it may be plausible to argue that the scene in which Desiderio becomes a resurrectionist digging up the cassone/coffin,  is an image of the work these Victorians were doing. Lee’s reference to the body of Julia “daughter of the Emperor Augustus Caesar, who was discovered buried on the Appian way, and incontinently fell into dust—a marvelous thing” may be a reference to Symonds’s A Short History of the Renaissance in Italy (1893) where that story is told. Or it may also refer to Symonds’s poem “The Corpse of Julia,” with its celebrated lines: “Of this real resurrection from the tomb/ The tale of buried Julia is for me.”[44]

Pulham has a different explanation, for the body of Maddalena as she sees it, is “an ‘auto-icon’ ‘signifying a representation that consists of the thing itself.’” Moreover, it is also an Anatomical Venus, a “fetish,” or “a ‘lost object preserved by virtue of the fetish substitute’ which represents not only the “impossible” feminine phallus but an “imagined” maternal body.”[45] The anatomical Venus of which Pulham writes is a very interesting and plausible explanans for Lee’s imaginative writing. Although one need not take it as far as Gardner goes in his “semivir idol” there are many references in Lee’s works to mysterious dolls and to the naked women Pulham describes.[46]

As Pulham notes, the anatomical Venus was a kind of wax doll “constructed ostensibly for medical purposes, but were often given long hair, invitingly posed on silk cushions, and wore pearl necklaces.” Ludmilla Jordanova has explained these wax models in terms of ‘body image’ and the “representational logic” of realism in philosophy and the creative arts[47] Lee was certainly aware of the existence of these dolls, and it is possible that she visited the famous La Specola museum in Florence where they are kept. In The Spirit of Rome (Spring, 1902) she writes about an encounter with what she took to be an anatomical Venus: “We went into another palace yard; and there was a shop with three young men working at a huge sawdust doll, with porcelain sandalled feet. I thought it was a doll for displaying surgical apparatus, but it turned out to be a female saint…”[48]

In short, all of Pulham’s suggestions are designed to help understand Lee’s “A Wedding Chest,” and that is why it is difficult to understand why she falls back on Gardner. That is explained when she refers to Martha Vicinus’ argument about the adolescent boy in Victorian literature. Since it has already been shown here that Vicinus accepts quite uncritically Gardner’s basic premise about an essential “lesbianism,” it might also be true that Pulham thinks that Lee’s story can actually be blanketed in this manner, and that Freudian Thing really explains everything. I suggest that there is a missing item from these accounts; the main piece of art, the art object has been completely ignored in these discussions. I will argue that the cassone is the thing resurrected, and that this explanation requires a turn to material culture which is where I am headed.

 ‘A Wedding Chest’: The Missing Item

If Pulham and Vicinus have missed the cassone’s central place in ‘A Wedding Chest’ it is perhaps due to the fact the title itself suggests the unspecified. The indefinite article in general signals a person, thing or event that has not been clearly defined. It does not indicate a specific object, but one of a group. Unlike for example, Henry James’ “The Figure in the Carpet,” Lee’s “A Wedding Chest” offers a reversal in its title that contradicts the specificity of the cassone in the museum card. If the tile had read “The Wedding Chest” the reader would begin to search for some clue in the story as to which wedding chest was being indicated in the title. Since the opening of the story is preceded by the description of a particular wedding chest, the idea becomes clearer that some specific thing is in fact being identified:

No. 428. A panel (five feet by two feet three inches) formerly the front of a cassone or coffer, intended to contain the garments and jewels of a bride. Subject: ‘The Triumph of Love.’ ‘Umbrian school of the Fifteenth century.’ In the right hand corner is a half-effaced inscription: Desider…de Civitate Lac…me…ecit. This valuable painting is unfortunately much damaged by damp and mineral corrosives, owing probably to its having contained at one time buried treasure. Bequeathed in 1878 by the widow of the Rev. Lawson Stone, Late Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.[49]

What Lee performs in her short story is an example of ekphrastic or interartistic descriptive writing. Since the wedding chest is not any real one but a product of Lee’s imagination, it is what John Hollander calls a “notional ekphrasis,” meaning the description of an imagined work of art REF?. What needs to be explained is how the description of the wedding chest relates to the material culture of the historical objects. If we overlook this central point in Lee’s text, then we have failed to understand that “A Wedding Chest” is really about ‘the’ wedding chest in the museum card that opens the story. “No ideas but in things.” The refrain from William Carlos Williams’ “A Sort of Song” (1944) was a direct rejection of the kind of complex poems of Eliot and Pound. Thing Theory is not a return to Williams’ rejection of literary allusions and “foreign” terms, but an engagement with the materiality in texts, recognition of “the social life of things” (Appadurai). By looking at the way in which the cassone moves about, is buried, resurrected, commodified, singularized, and decommodified, we can see that Lee has written what Igor Kopytoff has called “the cultural biography” of a thing.

As I have suggested elsewhere, the cassone in “A Wedding Chest” may be read as a parody of the connoisseurship practices and the masculinist rhetoric of Lee’s peers. Instead of bringing things into Lee’s text we may also meditate on the things that are already there and what they do. My argument is not to abandon discussion of adolescent boys, anatomical Venuses, fetishes, but to enrich these critical tools by focusing on what is already in the text.

Notes to the text

[1] Lee, Vernon, “A Hotel Sitting Room,” in Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life, (London, New York: John Lane: The Bodley Head, 1904), 86.

[2] Todorov, Tzvetan, “The Last Roland Barthes,” trans. Richard Howard, Critical Inquiry, vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), 453.

[3] Lee, Vernon, Hortus Vitae Essays on the Gardening of Life, (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1904), 106. The garden imagery will be important in this essay by way of contrasting Lee’s own use of it with that of Burdett gardner (see below.)

[4] Cather, Willa, “The Novel Demeuble,” Not Under Forty, (New York: Alfred A. Knopff, 1964), 51.

[5] Sandbank, Shimon, “Poetic Speech and the Silence of Art,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 46, No. 3, (Summer 1994), 232.

[6] Vicinus, Martha, “The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siècle Femme Fatale?,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 51 (Summer, 1994), 90-114, see also Dellamora, Richard (ed.), Victorian Sexual Dissidence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 83-109, and Vicinus, Martha, Intimate Friends: Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928, (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 152-170.

[7] Catherine Maxwell has previously noted this “completely inaccurate statement” in her review of Richard Dellamora (ed.), Victorian Sexual Dissidence (1999), see Catherine Maxwell, The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 31, North American Short Stories and Short Fictions (2001), pp. 271-272.

[8] Gardner, Burdett, The Lesbian Imagination (Victorian Style): A Psychological and Critical Study of “Vernon Lee,” [Harvard Dissertations in American and English Literature, ed. Orgel, Stephen], (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1987).

[9] Gunn, Peter, Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856-1935, (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 133.

[10] The uncritical acceptance of secondary opinion over the biographical contextualization available through Gunn’s biography (which Vicinus quotes) reflects poorly on Lee. Following Gardner’s lead and remaining critical of Gunn might misinform readers who would otherwise not know that both accounts contain their share of bias.

[11] Lee, Vernon, “Lady Tal,” in Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, ed. Elaine Showalter, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 231.

[12] Lee, Vernon, Renaissance Fancies and Studies: Being a Sequel to Euphorion, (London: Smith & Elder, 1895) 102.

[13] Zorn, Christa, Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003), 11.

[14] Kinross, Albert, “The Chronicler of the Baglioni,” Cornhill Magazine, ed. George Smith, (London: Smith & Elder) Vol. 14, (Jan-June, 1903). Kinross, an American, obtained copyright for his story before it appeared in The Cornhill Magazine.

[15] Kinross, 788.

[16] Symonds, John Addington, Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe, Vol. I, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880), 212-213

[17] Kinross, 790-791

[18] Burckhardt, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S.G.C. Middlemore, (London: Penguin, 1990)

[19] Lee, Vernon, Euphorion: Being Studies of the Antique and the Medieval in the Renaissance, (rpt. Boston: Robert Brothers, 1884).

[20] Euphorion, 107-108.

[21] Symonds, John Addington, Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe 206.

[22] Briggs, Jo, “The Reception of Vernon Lee’s Writings on Aesthetics,” in Vernon Lee: Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics, ed. Pulham, Patricia and Catherine Maxwell, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).

[23] Bernard Berenson (1865-1959).

[24] The myth of the Bella Simonetta is credited to Algernon Swinburne, whose “Notes on Designs of the Old Masters at Florence,” mentions a “veiled head of Simonetta,” in Botticelli’s Spring. See Fortnightly Review, 4 (July, 1868).

[25] The term cassone, which is mentioned in the museum card, refers to an antique bridal chest, an ambiguously gendered object. The scholarship on Italian bridal chests is immense. See Baskins, Cristelle, Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[26] Gardner, 590.

[27] Pulham, Patricia, “Colouring the Past: Death, Desire and Homosexuality in Vernon Lee’s ‘A Wedding Chest’,” Critical Survey, 19, No. 1, 2007.

[28] Pulham, 7.

[29] Ibid, 8.

[30] 8.

[31] Gardner, 590.

[32] Gardner, 313.

[33] Ibid. 311, 315.

[34] 338-9.

[35] 592.

[36] Pulham, Patricia, “A Transatlantic Alliance: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Vernon Lee,” in Feminist Forerunners: New Womanism and Feminism in the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Ann Heilmann, (London: Pabdora Press, 2003), 34-43.

[37] Marsh, Jan, “’The old Tuscan rapture’: The Response to Italy and its art in the Work of Marie Spartali Stillman,” in Unfolding the South; Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy, (eds.) Alison Chapman and Stabler, Jane, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003), 159-182. Marie Spartali Stillman (1843-1927) “was a British born artist whose parents were part of the Greek diaspora from Ottoman oppression in the 1820’s and 1830’s, migrating to join the cultured Anglo-Greek community in London.” (160).

[38] Marsh, 176.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Lee, Vernon, “A Wedding Chest,” Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, (eds.) Catherine Maxwell and Pulham, Patricia, (Ontario, Canada: Broadview Editions, 2006), 237-8.

[41] “A Wedding Chest,” 239 The Latin quote is translated “and the child of infamy and wickedness.”

[42] Gunn, Peter, 163.

[43] Leighton, Angela, “Resurrections of the Body: Women Writers and the Idea of the Renaissance,” in Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy, 223.

[44] Symonds, J. A., Many Moods: A Volume of Verse, (John Murray: London, 1878), 30.

[45] Pulham, 14.

[46] Examples include Lee’s retelling of the Boccaccian tale of Nastagio degli Onesti in Ravenna and her Ghosts (1907), “The Doll,” in For Maurice: Five Unlikely Stories (London: John Lane, 1927).

[47] Jordanova, Ludmilla, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 45.

[48] Lee, Vernon, The Spirit of Rome and Laurus Nobilis, (rpt. Adamant, 2005), (Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz, 1910), 79.

[49] “A Wedding Chest,” 229.








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