Encountering the Florentine Sibyl, by Sophie Geoffroy

The Florentine Sibyl

 “She should have lived in Olympian circles, discoursing.

She would have made a perfect Sibyl.”[7]

 

“Sibyl n. One of the women who, in ancient times, acted in various places as reputed mouthpiece of a god, uttering oracles and prophecies; pagan prophetess; fortune-teller, witch.

Sibylline. a.  Issuing from an ancient sibyl, oracular, mysteriously prophetic.” [The Concise Oxford Dictionary]

 “Sibylle : [sibil] n.f. (lat. sibylla). ANTIQ. Femme inspirée, qui transmettait les oracles des dieux.

Sibyllin, e. adj. 1. Relatif aux sibylles. Oracles sibyllins. 2. Litt. Dont le sens est difficile à saisir ; obscur, mystérieux. Un langage sibyllin. » [Le Petit Larousse]

« Sibyllin : secret, obscur. » [Dictionnaire des synonymes]

« Sibylle, sibyllin : voir devin » [Dictionnaire analogique]

Within the Fiesole community, Vernon Lee was a formidable presence recognized as a redoubtable priestess of high art. “When she talked she needed an exceptional amount of elbow-room and unlimited attention from her listener […]. Her unique personality, those intensely inquisitive (though not penetrating) eyes, almond-shaped and set slightly aslant in the small but long Hapsburg type of face, her slow, foreign articulation of the syllables of words and the peculiar range of her voice, compelled attention.”[8]

She was irresistible and “able to charm to the very end,”[9] because of “an extraordinary combination of inherited aptitudes, ‘attack’ from her maternal, slave-owning grandfather, Edward Hamlin Adams, and equably marked amiable address inherited from French ancestors through her father.”[10]

Percy Lubbock’s portrait brings to mind the sibylla’s powers of evoking and conjuring up the genius loci in her visions of distant places and people, and of voicing the gods’ oracles for the mortals seeking her advice:

“VL, tall (sic) and angular Vestal in her stiff collar and drab coat, fixed in rumination, absorbed and unheeding, her rugged face working in the toil of her burrowing thought. […] While she talked on, with her pungent and guttural deliberation, a scene unrolled, brilliantly peopled and displayed –a drama was evolved out of all the admonitions, curious and lovely, grand and grotesque, of the genius of this place and this hour. […] What a figure! Edith [Wharton] admired her, but scarce knew how to treat her. It was impossible to control, or to civilize Vernon Lee.”[11] On the other hand, Vernon Lee was equally intimidated by Wharton: “she is one of those terrificly (sic) strong and self contained natures who reduce me to awed silence…”[12]

Indeed, “[s]he was a magnificent improviser, an impressionist who straightaway spun her impressions into elaborate theories and then embroidered them.”[13] Henry James himself was impressed by her “uncanny” intelligence and “power of evoking the very warmth & scents of life as it went on in Italian towns and countryside.”

This was long after her caricatural Miss Brown (1884) and “Lady Tal”… After that, William James perceptively called her “Henry’s tiger-cat”, which certainly was a marked evolution in their relationship, from their first encounter (“Henry James is most devotedly civil to me”),[14] to his encouragements (“Henry James […] takes the most paternal interest in me as a novelist, says that Miss Brown is a very good title, and that he will do all in his power to push it on.”)[15] These friendly encouragements did not in the least inhibit her juvenile cruel sense of humour, though: “Pater limping about for gout and Henry James wrinkling his forehead as usual for tight boots.”[16] Maybe because she thought she had been H. James’s model for Christina Light in Roderick Hudson

However shameless and cheeky her initial reaction may have been face to her publisher’s reserves,[17]  careless and ambiguous her dedication (“To Henry James, I dedicate, for good luck, my first attempt at a novel”) to the very person whom she ridicules (“I am going to dedicate it to kind Mr James, who is most sweet and encouraging”),[18] or brazenly provocative her ulterior pose about the storm her book had caused among her shocked friends,[19] V. Lee ultimately recognized that it had been rather a blow: “John [Singer Sargent] tells me that his picture of Mme Gauthereau has had much the same effect in checking his success that Miss B has had with me.”[20] Only after the scandal had more or less subsided –according to her–[21], will she express her regrets: “my only vexation is that I shd. have caused the poor woman [Mrs Morris], whose life is far from happy, so much annoyance;”[22] and again: “I am sorry if I hurt Adah’s susceptibilities, & I regret the name of  Hamlin, which I had forgotten at the time, was that of one of her brothers.”[23] Typically, she seems here to have forgotten too that Hamlin was also the name of her own grandfather, i. e. her mother’s father: Edwin Hamlin Adams!

Whatever his disappointment, though, Henry James appeared to have overcome his hurt feelings, as Lee’s July 1885 letters to her family show: “James is very friendly, with that curious mixture of (I should think) absolute social & personal insincerity & extreme intellectual justice & plain-spokenness.”[24] Their relationship remained based on mutual appreciation: “[H. James] came to see me again yesterday afternoon. He says his plan through life has been never to lose an opportunity of seeing anything of any kind; he urges me to do the same. He says that chance may enable me to see more of English life, if I keep my wits about me. He is really very kind and wise, I think.”[25]

He was a more cautious admirer: “she is as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent which is saying a great deal. Her vigour and sweep are most rare and her talk superior altogether…. She is by far the most able mind in Florence.”[26]

And one may argue that the “germ” of some of his stories took their inspiration from some of her anecdotes. The following one, about phantom lovers, is strangely reminiscent of Henry James’s 1891 “Sir Edmund Orme” by her: “Going along, & talking of Oke of Okehurst, she informed me that ‘many people—ever so many—perhaps most nice people—have got phantom lovers’—clearly implying she had one herself. She told me also, with no sort of scepticism, that a young man whom Alice Callander had refused to marry & who died of a broken heart had driven her brother mad by always showing himself by her side. ‘When my brother had gone mad he no longer showed himself so much—probably because he was quite satisfied with having separated her from her husband.’”[27]

While the following one seems rather close to the plot of his “Author of Beltraffio”: “Her [Lady Burton’s] dramatic moment was the burning of her husband’s translation of an obscene Oriental poem, which he had worked at for 4 years in order to constitute her a fortune after his death, and the destruction of which cost her several thousand pounds.”[28]

This uneasy relationship lasted till their last meeting, on 29 July 1912. Two days later, on 1 August, Henry James, who was exhausted by Edith Wharton’s European tour, had a heart attack that forced him back to rest while taking an after-lunch walk with her around Cliveden grounds. Then he had a second stroke after dinner. On 2 August, E. Wharton lent him her car and driver who drove him back first to Howard Sturgis’s then to Lamb House.[29]

Generally speaking, her friends were all rather wary of her incisive mind, and she was sadly aware of this. She told Irene Cooper Willis “I am hard. I am cold. […] Loving [people] in the way you speak of, the way of being willing to do anything for them is intolerable to me. I cannot like, or love, at the expense of having my skin rubbed off. I can do without people. I find it more comfortable to do without them.”[30] “It was worth a journey to hear her pronounce: –“From my friends’ matrimonial adventures I avert my eyes and say: ‘There goes something primaeval!’”[31]

What she coolly writes about George Eliot’s attempts at befriending her is another case in point: “I met that eternal old Mrs Eliot in the Louvre, & couldn’t escape from her clutches till I had called. She said she had run after me for 2 years, that I had treated her with affronting coolness, that she almost imagined I didn’t care for her (I should think not, indeed!) but that she was quite willing to begin again; & asked me to lunch with her in London. She’s cracked I think, but one can’t help appreciating her energetic efforts at friendship.”[32]

Bernard Berenson bore the brunt of her severe remarks. Uncertain as to his ability to express himself in English because « English was not […] his birth tongue », and ashamed of his « penshyness » (his own term),[33] he often visited Vernon Lee at Il Palmerino, dutifully and bravely submitting his first papers to her. Each visit, according to his wife’s notes, was a trial: “V. Lee fearfully down on BB’s book—she  says it is an inferior kind of Symonds.”[34] “She tried to Vernonize him. He came home sick.”[35]

Indeed, such scathing remarks and proposals as the following could hardly have made him feel confident: “[your] ideas are not merely disconnected, unprepared by one another, but actually put to flight by other ideas of an irrelevant nature. . . . Would you like to come and read over your paper with me, and I will show you where it is all wrong?”[36]

He sighed in 1889: “Vernon Lee not only looked at me thro’ the wrong end of a telescope but what is even more disagreeable almost made me regard myself in the same way”.[37] Still, this unlikely “collaboration” went on. On January 25 1895, V. Lee sent him the following detailed discussion of his Lotto book:

“I want you to learn to write. You do not do justice to yourself. […] It is full of what I must call Symonds’ twaddle and truism, of assertions of vague and doubtful postulates, of repetition of things which vary between the truism and the gratuitous assumptions, all things I believe which have no organic connection with your own mind but are mere tricks of awkwardness and shyness.”

She bluntly suggested B. Berenson rewrote the first two chapters, and advised him to “avoid literary effects like the plague” since he had “no literary gift as such”. Only a proper “literary training” (presumably under her guidance) could save him from the following disgrace: “though you will hold the pen, and your mind think the thoughts, [your lines] on paper will be mere vague statements from other writers imitated unconsciously like any trick of manner.” A shame for which B. Berenson, never forgetting her condescending tone about “dry as dust scientists”,[38] would pay her back in her own coin in 1898, when his supremacy was unquestionable, in spite of his rivalry with the two Nortons (Charles Eliot and his son, Richard).[39]

But although little inclined to ecstatic rhapsodizing over her emotions and feelings –like the Victorian she was–,  Vernon Lee also acknowledged that “”being human creatures, we require the contact of other human beings.”[40] This is what makes her letters to her family, privately printed by Irene Cooper Willis, a touching and delightful (to us, modern readers) mixture of caricatures and poignant expression of love and friendship.

The gallery of portraits she draws from her youngest age is fresh, saucy and delightfully irreverent. “To day we saw Queen Isabella. Now I have seen the last Bourbon Kings, I mean the latest deposed. They certainly are not beauties. Ex-Francesco looked like a bandy legged gorilla and Ex-Isabella strongly brings to your remembrance La Fontaine’s “Grenouille qui voulait se faire boeuf et finit par crever,” substituting toad for frog.”[41]

Her letters wittily bring to life the famous figures of her times: here is “the wonderful O[scar] W[ilde] [who] […] talked a sort of lyrico-sarcastic maudlin cultschah for half an hour.”[42] Leslie Stephen: “a tall sort of solemn, scraggy lantern jawed Rubens type, who looked hideously shy & sat in complete silence for half an hour. On my taking my departure he shambled forward & stammered inaudibly that he was sorry he had had no opportunity of speaking to me!”[43] William Morris: “A thickset shockhaired, bearded man, powerful, common, rather like a railway porter or bargee, & not unlike a sort of grizzled Charles Grant…”.[44] Here are Edmund Gurney and his wife: “Mrs Gurney who is, as you know, a gardener’s daughter whom he has educated, Morris fashion, is a very fine, beautiful young woman, big, blonde, like some of Rubens’ younger types, with fine manners. Edmond Gurney is supposed to be marvellously handsome but is to me a mere fine butler with a dash of guardsman, with a very undecided manner. Evidently a man apt to give far too much weight to other people.”[45]

For Whistler, whom she met 12 June 1894, she had a marked dislike: “a mean, nagging spiteful sniggling little black thing, giving no indication of genius.”[46] But she was equally sarcastic about the Paris bohemians: “These people have stiff manners & extraordinary elegancies of speech. They all talk of Baudelaire as if he were the last new thing; and expatiate upon an article of Brunetière against him, as if it were the most important thing in the world. Sum total, literary mediocrity is the same all over the world.”[47]

She went as far as declining the Queen’s invitation: “The Queen seems to wish to see me, but I don’t know whether it will be possible to arrange it, as I have no clothes, among other difficulties.” (emphasis mine)[48] When she finally stooped to visit Windsor Castle, she found the Queen’s apartments “frightfully vulgar & dull, like a big hotel with occasional fine pictures & tapestries about; the whole impression very German./ There is an extraordinary want of stateliness & appearance about the whole thing, just the reverse of Oxford or Cambridge”.[49]

Such vocal faultfinding did not extend to all royalty, however, as her liking for the Empress Eugénie shows: “The conversation very soon ceased to be small talk, & went on to the condition of Germany … The German Emperor, Bavaria, Munich & the mad King, & the character of the English. I was immensely surprised that the Empress is very far from stupid; in fact, decidedly able, racy, and with a charming humorous turn, & an admirable hostess. She said nothing that was in the least conventional or vapid; & I had a feeling that all the immense interests among which her life had been spent had really given her a weight & reality of views. … She gives the idea of a very strong, Southern, carré, loyal, impulsive character.”[50]

She was fond of Mary’s parents, the Pearsall Smiths (“I like these people immensely… These people are absolutely tolerant … I never saw so united, independent & cheerful a family.”[51] And she extolled her close friends: she unreservedly admired Walter Pater, George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley or Robert Browning: “We found him and his sister, a sprightly old spruce spinster, of the name of Sarianna, in the drawing-room; he digesting his lunch, in considerable dishabille. He is a very fine, grandheaded amiable, simple old gentleman—quite of another sphere from all of the Rossettian poeticules. […] He talked a long time, in a mooning sort of way rather …; he has a great charm of complete unaffected grandpapaishness.”[52] And six years later: “Old Browning treated me like a long lost grandchild.”[53]

John Singer Sargent was one of the most faithful friends of all, an enduring friendship that lasted through their lives and was reinforced by common friends and based on mutual appreciation and understanding. She was notably enthusiastic about her friend’s work. Of his portrait of the Pailleron Children she wrote: “It is a splendid work […] which, so completely healthy and wholesome, does one good after all this scrofulous English art.”[54]

Indeed, as an art critic, V. Lee was particularly severe. One of her favourite targets was aestheticism because she suspected the Pre-Raphaelites of dubious intentions and insincerity (as her Miss Brown amply shows), and her description of the Rossetti pictures at the Leylands’ house is pointedly cantankerous: “they are half-lengths of women: one a vile caricature, with goitry throat, red hair & German housemaid sentiment, of Mrs Stillman, called “Veronica Veronese”—the others mainly of Mrs. Morris, making her look as if her face were covered with illshaven stubble, & altogether repulsive. The best is one of Lilith, a vealy woman […] in white with sealing wax lips & red ornaments. The pictures seem to me not merely ill painted & worse modelled, but coarse & repulsive; & to make mere painted harlots of women like Mrs Stillman & Mrs Morris requires a good deal. […] What particularly afflicted me in the Rossettis is the frightful discrepancy between the morbid coarseness of his paintings & the Dantesque delicacy of his poems.”[55]

She liked Gustave Moreau, however (“a sort of wonderful enamel coloured painter with a rather would be imagination à la Burne Jones.”),[56] loved Synge for his “fascinating combination of such realism, such goût du terroir with language full of poetic & rhetorical splendour”, was enthusiastic about Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland and Lord Jim by Kipling (« that, with all its muddled composition, is really the modern English epic, the real thing…”[57] as much as she hated Maeterlinck’s language (“that of a concierge’s lodge”).[58]

Whatever her influence on her circle, though, Vernon Lee never was a professional critic. She was more a dilettante than a specialist of a given subject. “Except for her Studies on the Eighteenth Century in Italy, which had its due, when published, as a classical work on a musical period, and some Renaissance essays, she wrote nothing that fell into an academic category. She was not a specialist in any branch of art, history or literature. The value and charm of the Genius Loci type of essay that she wrote depended, in a way, on its rarity. […] a subtle and highly cultured impressionability, collaborating with a store of learning and delicate associations and endowed with a fine eloquence.”[59]

“… in soul she was an artist,

forever selecting, rejecting, comparing and treasuring,

and it was the artist in her that her friends loved…”[60]

A sphinx-like character endowed with oracular powers, Vernon Lee was like a sibyl, or a medium, in that she was an artist, and as such almost mystically guided by the desire for Beauty and endowed with the god-like powers of revealing the invisible (the Past, the beautiful) to her fellow creatures. Looking for the genius loci, listening to the pagan gods like Walter Pater and a few others, one of the reasons that gained her the label “decadent” she so strongly denied is that she looked back. But on the other hand, considering art as a divinatory, initiatory and poetical experience (just like Plato), she believed not in art “for art’s sake”, but in the sometimes uncontrollable effects and immense powers of art, especially music, as pharmakon, or toxic remedy, and described the artist as a pharmakos, able to transform and to heal but also to harm and to kill.

In her musical texts, her musicians –uncanny singers or Wagnerian composers alike– are possessed and alienated by their art, and alienate and ultimately sacrifice their own life, body and soul. All for the sake of the triple magic of art: poesis, aisthesis, catharsis. Art is both “life enhancing” and diabolical. Such is the message of Vernon Lee’s texts –by no means a decadent message–: for “Art for Art’s sake”, she warned, “is like having [illegible] food for food’s sake; it’s a cutting down of the problems, making it manageable for some manipulation.”[61]

Vernon Lee was sphinx-like too because of her extreme modesty, and the way she kept blurring her own tracks, taking advantage of her liminal position and (borderline?) identity, her “in-betweenness”: the uprooted cosmopolitan born in France who was neither totally British nor Italian, nor indeed German; the sexually ambiguous Violet/Vernon, moved further and further away from her initial (popular?) reading public, away from her all-too-accessible early interests (the Italian folk-lore, popular culture and carnivalesque laughter of Tuscan Fairy Tales, The Prince of the Hundred Soups the authorship of which she denied) into more and more remote areas: the eighteenth century, and its long forgotten and neglected musicians.

Once she had succeeded in hiding herself from everyone, very few could catch the receding figure of the deaf prophetess: “It is certain that I can never imagine what I write being read, still less read by anyone in particular. I know all my writings tend more and more towards the soliloquy. […]  it makes one feel a bit lonely, as if one were the ‘vox clamans’ not in the desert, but inside a cupboard.”

The wall of her formidable erudition was another way of hiding, gagging or curbing her feelings and affects, as much as the veil of secrecy and ambiguities, a sure sign of her profound ambivalence, regarding her beliefs. She was, for example, loudly sceptical about the paranormal experiments of the Society for Psychical Research. On 10 July 1885, after going to an SPR meeting, she wrote to her mother: “The day before yesterday evening Alice & I went to a meeting of the Psychical Research for which Gurney sent me tickets. It was a very dull business, consisting mainly of avowals of failed experiments & fraudulent ghosts. Gurney looks weary & embittered. The rest singularly water on the brain.”[62] Later on, in a letter dated 20 August 1893, she was sorry for Mr Sidgwick: “It is rather sad that one of the finest minds in England, a great writer on Political Economy & Ethics, shd. give any of his time to collecting spurious ghost stories. But I suppose I am prejudiced, & that even spurious ghost stories ought to be investigated in a critical & scientific mind.”[63]

All these reveal the self-denial of this fin-de-siècle writer who professed to hate what she herself was (unconsciously?) doing  (her elaborate, hyper sophisticated, indeed baroque style of writing); who couldn’t help burning what she loved (Henry James in “Lady Tal”; her friends in Miss Brown), an incredibly awkward spinster suspected of not particularly liking children (hence Eugene’s reproach), who nevertheless wrote touchingly accurate and sensitive vindications of the rights of children (see “Divinities of Tuscan Summer Fields” (LINK) or Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child (LINK). Some of her stories (like “The Virgin of the Seven Daggers”) expressly indict religious establishments, especially the Roman Catholic Church, convents, and dolorism, and yet most of her fantastic stories are mystical: Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales (1904),[64] Sister Benvenuta and the Christ-Child :  an Eighteenth Century Legend (1906),  « The Virgin of the Seven Daggers ». Or even “The Doll”, whose narrator expresses her love for bygone people and times: “[I was] quite happy, because I was wandering among the ghosts of dead people.”

At the same time, concerning other religions, she was more open-minded than most, writing about Islam and its spread over Egypt, which she thought inevitable: “no slavery seems to me so bad as that to one’s own suspicions and panics.”[65] Or about Jews and Jesuits:

“I am rather amused at your seeing Jews everywhere; an uncle of mine similarly attributed all domestic difficulties to the machinations of the Jesuits. I neither like nor dislike Jews and I neither like nor dislike Christians and Aryains [sic]. … Excuse my frankness … it is useless to appeal to me with … anti-semitic –shall I say ?— arguments. The only strange thing about the Dreyfusard movement was that it should have been necessary: the military big wigs ought to have been cashiered at the end of a week, as national honour consists in decent national tribunals. There! ”[66]

Strongly Dreyfusard, Vernon Lee was engaged in other struggles too. She was an acknowledged pacifist.

“It was rare, in the pre-war period, to find a writer and an aesthete so in touch with European liberal opinion as she was, and so alive to the various national policies which led to the Great War. In that war she was an acknowledged pacifist, and in speech, writing and money supported propaganda for a just and reasonable peace. She was a generous subscriber to funds for the relief of victims of the war and of the miseries and injustices resulting from it. Her fine book, Satan the Waster, a veritable treasury of pacifist doctrine was reviewed in The Nation by Mr Bernard Shaw who wrote: –“VL has the whole European situation in the hollow of her hand … knows history philosophically … is a political psychologist.”[67] Shaw hailed her as “the English of the English. I take off my hat to the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism and salute her as the noblest Briton of them all.”

“She was at home in England, France, Germany and Italy. She had lived, sometimes for years at a time, in all these countries, and her study of international politics began in the days of the Franco-Prussian war, at the outbreak of which she was a girl of fourteen, staying in Paris. […] she felt the war deeply, and was torn by it more than most people, because she had roots in Germany, as well as in England, Italy and France. Fortunately for her, she died at her Italian home before the outbreak of the Italo-Abyssinian war.”[68]

Vernon Lee stormed against the Boer War (1899-1902), and the Italian war in Libya (1920-1932); the Great War shattered her.

There was no snobbish aloofness about her. She even designed the plans for the plumbing of Il Palmerino herself (with indications in Italian). Lee was sensitive to the predicaments of workers and showed her concern and her solidarity to women, whatever their origins, through such actions as going to evening schools during her trip to Scotland:

“The day before yesterday Emily took me to an evening school, or rather club for mill-women which is a kind of heirloom in the Ford family […] There are about a hundred women, some old, some quite children. Some young ladies taught them various kinds of needlework, singing, reading & writing, showed them photographs & talked with them. I had the entertaining of a tablefull. They were very eager to hear all about Italy […]”

She is genuinely impressed by their “sort of dignified & not at all offensive familiarity, by no means unlike Italians. […] The upper class on the other hand […] are rougher and more plebeian.”[69]

She was notably shocked by the alienation caused by industrialization: “It is a small town, containing about 1300 workmen; a town of blackness, black mud & cinders underfoot, and a forest of whirling wheels & whirring straps & chattering pistons overhead, with a deafening noise of machinery, furnace roar, steam hammers, etc of which you can have no conception. You see these steam hammers & scissors & punches cutting & snipping iron as if it were soft cheese; & pigs of metal coming out of ready made rivets from a machine worked by one man only. It is appalling to think of all these creatures living in this atmosphere & din for nine or ten hours, always doing one & the same thing; & after all the result to the poorer classes of all this mechanical complication seems merely to be setting a great number of men competing to do such work for lower salaries. I suppose Pareto wd enjoy it, but I didn’t.” (emphasis mine)[70]

She knowingly describes class divisions in England, of which, indeed, she has an inside view, too –as her occasionally ambiguous formulae disclose:

“The day before yesterday, I called on the very nice woman who last year was Mrs Cyril Flower, née de Rothschild of Paris, a name she has exchanged for the frightful name of Lady Battersea. Doesn’t it sound like the queen of the washerwomen? She has a very gorgeous & lovely house opposite the Marble Arch, but these gorgeous & lovely houses merely sicken me now. As we were going there, right in front of the house, on a bench in the park, we saw a couple of vagrants dead asleep—a ragged man thrown back with a tophat on, a ragged woman collapsed forward, her bonneted head over her knees; Kit said ‘they are probably asleep because they are drunk, & they are drunk because food is too dear’, and I daresay she was right. After that the Battersea house seemed a limbo of Hell.”[71]

Again, in a letter dated 26 August 1893, we can see her concrete, down-to-earth, heart-felt interest in other people’s daily lives:

“They [at Mansfield House, an offshoot of the new nonconformist college, Mansfield, at Oxford (with) an affiliated woman’s residence] keep a lawyer who can be consulted at a very low fee or gratuitously: the poor people suffer horribly from the expensiveness of legal advice, which, in a country without a code, implies ignorance of all their rights & legal duties. […] On the whole […] Mansfield House does more real work than Toynbee Hall. […] They are nearly all socialists, of one sort or another, and all of them actively employed in forming a parliamentary labour party and organising trade unions. … One of the men we saw, a journalist, is an odd Tolstoian mystic, an “anarchical communist.” … He is a very strange sympathetic dreamer. The others are more or less state socialists. Of course the anarchist wants the abolition of the state; still they live in peace together. They were all most simple & amiable, & we had a most interesting evening with them.”[72]

Or again, describing Canning Town, “the extreme easternmost part of London where the new docks are”: “awful slums, “almost pitch dark & inconceivably grimy & foul. […] At each dock gate there is a crowd of men waiting for employment; the average that get none is about one thousand a day in that set of docks alone. You can imagine the misery. The pay is 6d. an hour, but at best it is most intermittent work. […] I know this will interest you after Germinal.”[73]

There is a utopian dimension about Lee, as she can see into the future, like the leading European intellectual she was, with political views akin to those of GB Shaw. Definitely not an anarchist,[74] I contend that ideologically she paved the way for Mikhail Bakhtine’s, René Girard’s, or even sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories.[75] She attended numerous political meetings and her first-hand testimony about the lectures and meetings she goes to is extremely precious.

Her letters dated from the summer 1887, for instance, are full of detailed accounts of socialist, nihilist, positivist, or Fabian conferences : “We all […] went to […] St James Hall, where a socialist conference “for the Rich Classes” was going on in a small room. The audience was all well dressed, mainly women, with a sprinkling of aesthetic looking men. Stepniak the Nihilist & author of Underground Russia was in the chair, an alarming person with a face like the paw of a bear. The speaker was Champion […] a sort of St Just Le Vertueux, with a head ripe for the guillotine. He was moderate, & altho’ longwinded, interesting. I shall go there again next Saturday…”[76]

On 19 June 1887 she was taken by Miss Black to “a stormy conference between the moderate Socialists & the Immoderate ones. Morris will be there.”[77] In the same letter she mentioned going to the meeting of the Fabian Society (Mrs Besant also present), and gave a detailed account of it.

On 30 June 1887 Vernon Lee got closer to Stepniak, the Nihilist; met Champion the socialist on 2 July 1887 and liked him: “he impressed me very agreeably […] He has given great offence to his party by resisting all ideas of unparliamentary means (he was involved much to his annoyance in what he considered a ridiculous manifestation against Ld Salisbury lately and by addressing the upper classes. He seems to be a very serious, honest person. … Even, his adversaries speak of him with respect.”[78]

On 8 July 1887 she went to a “meeting, in a club room, of some people who call themselves ‘The Fellowship of the New Life.’ They are something between Socialists & Positivists; & live, but not in common, in a sort of settlement somewhere in the suburbs. They are very reasonable & nice & good.”[79]

After some more socialist meetings, she exclaimed contentedly: “I am really getting in England what I always hoped to get there, a thorough shaking about of all my ideas.”[80]

An artist, an engaged writer, a woman ahead of her times… to Vernon Lee’s multi-faceted character, to the complexity and depth of her elaborate work, we dedicate this journal.


[7] Irene Cooper Willis, “Preface” to Vernon Lee’s Letters, Privately printed, 1937, p. xiii.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cooper Willis, preface, op. cit., p. x.

[10] Cooper Willis, preface, op. cit., p. v.

[11] P. Lubbock’s portrait of V. Lee, quoted by Peter Gunn, Vernon Lee, Violet Paget, 1856-1935, London: Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 182.

[12] Unpublished letter to Mary Berenson, dated 28 November 1927, Berenson Archive.

[13] Cooper Willis, preface, op. cit., p. xiii.

[14] Letter dated 26 June 1884, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 150.

[15] Letter dated 8 July 1884, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 155.

[16] Letter dated  4 July 1884, to “dearest Eugène”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 152.

[17] “Blackwood is a brick […] and I have been playing, successfully, a game which scared everyone here. Mr Langford suggested my altering the whole catastrophe of Miss Brown—an insane notion. […] I told Bl.[ackwood] that Mr Garnett, who believes in astrology & has made out my horoscope, finds it in the stars that I am “kittle cattle to drive.” The game was a bold one, but the result is that I have my hands free.” Letter dated 30 July 1884, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 159.

[18] Ibid. HJ wrote her a letter about the dedication.

[19] The Lewis Campbells are “fervent admirers of Miss Brown & Dr Garnett [says] that in a sort of examination by numbers & votes […] about the most popular novel in America, Miss Brown had a large proportion.” Letter dated 27 June 1885, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 172.

[20] Letter dated 5 Sept. 1885, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 199.

[21] “Excepting the Rossettis everyone has got over Miss Brown.” Letter dated 1 Sept. 1885, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 196.

[22] Letter dated 13 July 1886, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 222.

[23] Letter dated 15 Aug. 1886, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 232.

[24] Letter dated 16 July 1885, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 177.

[25] Letter dated 25 July 1885,  to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 183.

[26] Henry James, letter dated from London, 1893 letter to his brother. Quoted in Gunn, op. cit., p. 2.

[27] Letter dated 20 July 1887, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 260.

[28] Letter dated 5 Sept. 1893, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 365.

[29] Henry James – Edith Wharton; Lettres 1900-1915. Paris: Seuil, “Le don des langues”, p. 310.

[30] Irene Cooper Willis, in Letters, op. cit., p. x.

[31] Irene Cooper Willis, “Preface” to Vernon Lee’s Letters, Privately printed, 1937, p. xiii.

[32] Letter dated 7 June 1887, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 243.

[33] Barbara Stratchey, Remarkable Relations, The Story of the Pearsall Smith Family, London: Victor Gollancz  Ltd., 1980, p. 172.

[34] Mary Berenson, Unpublished note, 31 March 1894, Berenson Archive.

[35] Mary Berenson, Unpublished note, 9 May 1894, Berenson Archive.

[36] Vernon Lee’s unpublished letter to Berenson about his paper on Renaissance Churches, dated from Il Palmerino, 8 January 1894; Berenson Archive.

[37] Ernest Samuels, Bernard Berenson, the Making of a Connoisseur, Cambridge, Mass. & London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 89.

[38] Especially as these nasty comments were often repeated to third parties: “you will recall what you said of him to Mrs Gardner in Venice (which was repeated to him the next day)… he cannot consider your attitude to him as in any way a friendly one.” Mary Berenson, unpublished letter to V. Lee, Berenson Archive.

[39]B. Berenson’s acute sense of his supremacy entailed a series of violent quarrels with V. Lee but also with other intellectuals and artists, like Obrist, Charles Loeser and even, in 1895, “Michael Field” (i.e. the nom de plume of two eccentric Englishwomen, Katherine Bradley (1848-1914) and her niece Edith Cooper (1862-1913). For a more detailed account of these, see my paper « Henry James & Family : Eleven Unpublished Letters », Sources, Presses Universitaires d’Orléans, N° 14, printemps 2003, p. 6-111). Accessible online at http://www.paradigme.com/sources/pageaccueil.htm

[40] Unpublished letter to Carlo Placci, dated 3 Jan. 1893, Biblioteca Marucelliana, Carteggio Placci.

[41] Letter dated Sunday 6 Aug. 1870, to her father, signed “Baby”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 18.

[42] Letter dated 22 June 1881, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 65.

[43] Letter dated 27 June 1881, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 67.

[44] Letter dated 5 July 1881, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p 70.

[45] Letter dated 21 June 1882, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 88.

[46] Letter, dated 12 June 1894,  to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 372.

[47] Letter dated 4 June 1887, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 241.

[48] Post card dated Thursday (nd, nm, 1893), to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 346.

[49] Letter dated 22 July 1893, to her father, in Letters, op. cit., p. 355.

[50] Letter dated 14 Sept 1893, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 368.

[51] Letter, dated 30 July 189, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 380.

[52] Letter dated 12 July 1881, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 75-76.

[53] Letter dated 11 June 1887, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 245.

[54] Letter dated 11 July 1883 to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 126.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Letter dated 7 June 1887, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 242.

[57] Unpublished letter, dated 1909, to Carlo Placci, Biblioteca Marucelliana, Carteggio Placci.

[58] Unpublished letter, dated 16 Nov. 1909, to Carlo Placci, Biblioteca Marucelliana, Carteggio Placci.

[59] Cooper Willis, preface, op. cit., p. xii.

[60] Cooper Willis, preface, op. cit., p. xiv.

[61] My emphasis. Unpublished letter dated 1893 [?], to Carlo Placci, Biblioteca Marucelliana, Carteggio Placci.

[62] Letter dated 12 July, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 176.

[63] Letter, dated Cambridge, 20 August 1893, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 360.

[64] Vernon Lee, Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales. London : Grant Richards, 1904. Rpt. London : Peter Owen, 1961. Contents: « Pope Jacynth », « The Lady and Death », « St Eudaemon and his Orange-Tree », « Dionea ».

[65] Unpublished letter dated 22 October 1911, to Carlo Placci, Biblioteca Marucelliana, Carteggio Placci.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Cooper Willis, preface, p. xiv.

[68] Cooper Willis, preface, p. xiv.

[69] Letter dated 18 Aug. 1886, to  “my dearest Mamma”, p. 233.

[70] Letter dated CHECK, to “my dearest Mamma”, from Adel Grange, p. 234.

[71] Letter dated 16 July 1893 to “my dearest Mamma”, p. 353.

[72] Letter dated 26 August 1893, to “my dearest Mamma”, p. 362.

[73] Letter dated ??? , to “my dearest Mamma”, p. 363. V. Lee wrote a review of Germinal in The Contemporary Review, which she mentions in a letter to her mother dated 9 Sept. 1893, in Letters, op. cit., p. 366.

[74] “[With Ethel Smyth] –“that very original composer”– “we talk Ibsen and anarchy until we are black in the face.” (Letter dated 9 Sept 1893, to “my dearest Mamma”, in Letters, op. cit., p. 367.

[75] Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction, critique sociale du jugement. Paris : Minuit, « Le sens commun », 1979. See the chapter on « Titres et quartiers de noblesse ».

[76] Letter dated 13 June 1887 to “my dearest Mamma”, p.  245.

[77] Letter dated 19 June 1887 to “my dearest Mamma”, p. 247.

[78] Letter dated 30 June 1887, to “my dearest Mamma”, p.  253.

[79] Letter dated 8 July 1887, to “my dearest Mamma”, p.  255.

[80] Letter dated 7 July 1893, to “my dearest Mamma”, p. 355-62.

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