87 years ago, Violet Paget passed away at her Villa Il Palmerino in Florence.
The painter Berthe Noufflard, whose beautiful portraits of Vernon Lee truly deserve a public exhibition, and who was “Miss Paget’s” friend over the last ten years of her life when she used to stay at,the Noufflards’ homes in Paris and in Fresnay-le-Long (Normandy) every year for a few weeks, was devastated. On hearing about the sad news, she started writing a diary recollecting the happy or striking memories of her conversations with Vernon Lee.
Here are a few pictures of the happy moments they spent together at Fresnay-le-Long, captured by André Noufflard’s camera and extracted from his films.
For longer extracts from André Noufflard’s films (courtesy of Geneviève Noufflard and of Mémoire Normande, where the films were restored and are housed), see our Vimeo channel VERNON LEE ONLINE. It presents interviews of the painters’ youngest daughter, Geneviève Noufflard, and many other documents! Discover Vernon Lee, moving and smiling, as perhaps you never imagined she could be!
Thanks for your continued support, and we hope to welcome you onboard the International Vernon Lee Society soon!
We are delighted to share the organisers’ Call for Papers of a Conference on Vernon Lee’s aesthetics, to be held on at Churchill College, Cambridge on the 12th and 13th September 2022, which is to be held in person unless the situation compels them to organise it differently. The complete call is to be found at https://fass.open.ac.uk/research/conferences/VLAE/cfp
“Vernon Lee was the penname of Violet Paget (1856-1935). She has been best known for her contributions to supernatural fiction, such as Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales (1889), and For Maurice, Five Unlikely Stories (1927).
However, with the rise of interest in empathy, her work on aesthetics is enjoying somewhat of a revival. She, together with her partner Clementina ‘Kit’ Anstruther-Thompson performed several empirical studies concerning viewers’ reactions to visual art. She also made cogent criticisms of German aesthetic theories of Einfühlung in Beauty and Ugliness (1912), attempting to refine the theory into acceptable form. Lee closely followed this with The Beautiful: An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics (1913), Music and Its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses to Music (1923) as well as collaborating on, editing and introducing Anstruther-Thomson’s Art and Man: Essays and Fragments (1924). As well as being an inheritor of a nineteenth century German tradition, she can be seen as a precursor of Formalism and an influence on current aesthetic theory via her work on empathy. Papers are invited on all aspects of her work in aesthetics.
Submissions should be around 5000 words (for a 35 – 40 minute presentation) and prepared for blind review. The closing date for submissions is 1st July 2022.
We would particularly like to encourage submissions on:
Aesthetics and collaboration
Aesthetic senses and sensuality
We welcome work that is interdisciplinary, or from the fields of English Literature, Philosophy, Music, and Queer and Gender Studies, but this list is far from exhaustive.
If you would like to discuss potential ideas, the organisers would be delighted to hear from you.”
The Genius Loci is that portion of nations and civilisations which, while it speaks aloud in their philosophy and poetry and music, and is written clearly in the shapes of their buildings, addresses itself to the initiate minds in their humbler habits, kindly and gracious, sometimes childish and funny : in the little boxes for winter-starved birds in German and Swiss villages ; the wheels for friendly storks, and the be-ribboned Christmas trees on newly carpentered roofs ; in these as much as in the classic ever-green garlands which Italians and Greeks hang even now round their church doors, or the dionysiac bunch of grapes still placed by the vintners of Burgundy between the broken stone fingers of the Mother of Christ. Things, all these, which involve for their heartfelt recognition just what the war and its war-breeding settlement have made, for the time being, an end of ; and what judicious persons warned me against mentioning on my title page. To wit, Peace and Goodwill.
You doubtless remember that the English speaking angels present at the Nativity ventured on the (rather rash ?) announcement that peace and goodwill were coming upon earth ; whereas the wilier angels of Latin speech made the proviso that men must possess goodwill before the could witness any such desirable novelty : Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, i.e., and on Earth Peace to, through or by reason of (dative or ablative), men of goodwill. But whichever way we choose to interpret this doubtful passage of the Scripture, this much is, to me, certain –namely, that the Genius Loci is a little divinity whose delicate and protean manifestations betoken, nay require, the presence of that peace and goodwill. That is why I am glad to have consecrated so much paper and ink and passionate care to his, albeit seemingly frivolous, service.
(Vernon Lee, Dedication of The Golden Keys to Mona Taylor, Florence, October 1924)
with this charming piece from Vernon Lee’s collection Hortus Vitae, we wish you all a merry Christmas!
avecce charmant texte extrait du recueil de Vernon Lee Hortus Vitae nous vous souhaitons un très joyeux Noël.
We hope to find you refreshed and happily looking forward to a joyful optimistic leap into 2022, with our exciting forthcoming Vernon Lee event in Boulogne-sur-Mer (France) and perhaps in England too.
Nous espérons vous retrouver reposés et en pleine forme pour envisager avec joie de plonger bientôt dans la nouvelle année et ses promesses passionnantes: nos retrouvailles en France à l’occasion de l’AG de l’IVLS et du colloque de Boulogne-sur-Mer, et peut-être en Angleterre également.
Best season greetings
Joyeux Noël à tous et toutes!
A STAGE JEWEL
Vernon Lee, Hortus Vitae
“It doesn’t seem to be precisely what is meant by old paste,” she answered, repeating the expression I had just made use of, while she handed me the diamond hoop across the table. “It’s too like real stones, you know. I think it must be a stage jewel.”
As I fastened the brooch again in my dress, I was aware of a sudden little change in my feelings. I was no longer pleased. Not that I had hoped my diamonds might prove real; you cannot buy real diamonds, even in imagination, for four francs, which was the precise sum I had expended on these, and there were seven of them, all uncommonly large. Nor can I say that the words “old paste” had possessed, on my lips, any plain or positive meaning. But stage jewel, somehow … My moral temperature had altered: I was dreadfully conscious that I was no longer pleased. Now, I had been, and to an absurd degree.
Perhaps because it was Christmas Eve, when I suddenly found myself inside that curiosity shop, pricing the diamonds, and not without an emotion of guilty extravagance, and of the difficulty of not buying if the price proved too high…. As is always the case with me at that season, my soul was irradiated with a vague sense of festivity, perhaps with the lights of rows of long-extinguished Christmas trees in the fog of many years, like the lights of the shops caught up and diffused in the moist twilight. I had felt an inner call for a Christmas present; and, so far, nobody had given me one. So I had paid the money and driven back into the dark, soughing country with the diamond hoop loose in my pocket. I had felt so very pleased…. And now those two cursed words “stage jewel” had come and spoilt it all.
For the first time I felt it was very, very hard that my box should have been broken open last autumn and all my valuables, my Real (the word became colossal), not stage, jewels stolen. It was brought home to me for the first time that the man who did it must have been very, very wicked; and that codes of law, police and even prisons could afford satisfaction to my feelings. Since, oddly enough, I had really not minded much at the time, nor let my pleasure in that wonderful old castle, where I had just arrived with the violated trunk, be in the least diminished by the circumstance. Indeed, such is the subtle, sophistic power of self-conceit, that the pleasure of finding, or thinking I found, that I did not mind the loss of those things had really, I believe, prevented me minding it. Though, of course, every now and then I had wished I might see again the little old-fashioned fleur-de-lysed star which had been my mother’s (my heart smote me for not feeling sufficiently how much she would have suffered at my losing it). And I remembered how much I had liked to play with those opals of the Queen of Hearts, which seemed the essence of pale-blue winter days with a little red flame of sunset in the midst; or, rather, like tiny lunar worlds, mysterious shining lakes and burning volcanoes in their heart. Of course, I had not been indifferent: that would have taken away all charm from the serenity with which I had enjoyed my loss. But I had been serene, delightfully serene. And now!…
There was something vaguely vulgar, odious, unpardonable about false stones. I had always maintained there was not, but the stage jewel made me feel it. Mankind has sound instincts, rooting in untold depths of fitness; and superfine persons, setting themselves against them, reveal their superficiality, their lack of normal intuition and sound judgment, while fancying themselves superior. And mankind (save among barbarous Byzantine and Lombard kings, who encrusted their iron crowns impartially with balas rubies, antique cameos, and bottle glass)–mankind has always shown an instinct against sham jewels and their wearers. It is an unreasoned manifestation of the belief in truth as the supreme necessity for individuals and races, without which, as we know, there would be an end of commerce, the administration of justice, government, even family life (for birds, who have no such sense, are proverbially ignorant of their father), and everything which we call civilization. Real precious stones were perhaps created by Nature, and sham stones allowed to be created by man, as one of those moral symbols in which the universe abounds: a mysterious object-lesson of the difference between truth and falsehood.
Real diamonds and rubies, I believe, require quite a different degree of heat to melt them than mere glass or paste; and you can amuse yourself, if you like, by throwing them in the fire. In the Middle Ages rubies, but only real ones, were sovereign remedies for various diseases, among others the one which carried off Lorenzo the Magnificent; and in the seventeenth century it was currently reported that the minions of the Duke of Orleans had required pounded diamonds to poison poor Madame Henriette in that glass of chicory water. And as to pearls, real ones go yellow if unworn for a few months, and have to be sunk fathoms deep in the sea, in safes with chains and anchors, and detectives sitting day and night upon the beach, and sentries in sentry-boxes; none of which occurs with imitations. Likewise you stamp on a real pearl, while you must be quite careful not to crush a sham one. All these are obvious differences revealing the nobility of the real thing, though not necessarily adding to its charm. But, then, there is the undoubted greater beauty, the wonderful je ne sais quoi, the depth of colour, purity of substance, effulgence of fire, of real gems, which we all recognize, although it is usual to have them tested by an expert before buying. And, when all is said and done, there is the difference in intrinsic value. And you need not imagine that value is a figment. Political economy affords us two different standards of value, the Marxian and the Orthodox. So you cannot escape from believing in it. A thing is valuable either (a) according to the amount of labour it embodies, or (b) according to the amount of goods or money you can obtain in exchange for it. Now, only let your mind dwell upon the value (a) embodied in a pearl or diamond. The pearl fisher, who doubtless frequently gets drowned; let alone the oyster, which has to have a horrid mortal illness, neither of which happens to the mean-spirited artificer of Roman pearls; or the diamond seeker, seeking through deserts for months; the fine diamond merchant, dying in caravans, of the past; and, finally, the diamond-cutter, grinding that adamant for weeks far, far more indefatigably than to make the optic lenses which reveal hidden planets and galaxies. All that labour, danger, that weary, weary time embodied in a thing so tiny that, like Queen Mab, it can sit on an alderman’s forefinger! What could be more deeply satisfactory to think upon? And as to value (b) (the value in Exchange of Mill, Fawcett, Marshall, Say, Bastiat, Gide), just think what you could buy by selling a largish diamond, supposing you had one! And what unlikely prices (fabulous, even monstrous) are said to have been given, before and after dubious Madame de la Motte priced that great typical one, for diamond necklaces by queens and heroines of every degree!
Precious stones, therefore, are heaven-ordained symbols of what mankind values most highly–power over other folks’ labour, time, life, happiness, and honour. And that, no doubt, is the reason that when the irreproachable turn-out and perfect manners of pickpockets allow them to mix freely in our select little gatherings, it is legitimate for a lady to deck herself with artificial pearls and diamonds only to the exact extent that she has real ones safely deposited at the bank. Let her look younger and sound honester than perhaps answers to the precise reality; there is no deception in all that. But think of the dishonourableness of misleading other folk about one’s income….
My soul was chastened by the seriousness of these reflections and by the recognition of the moral difference between real stones and sham ones, and I was in a very bad humour. Suddenly there came faint sounds of guitars and a mandolin, and I remembered that the servants were giving a ball at the other end of the house, and that it was Christmas Eve. I rose from my table and opened the window, letting in the music with the pure icy air. The night had become quite clear; and in its wintry blue the big stars sparkled in a cluster between the branches of my pine tree. They made me think of the circlet which Tintoret’s Venus swoops down with over the head of the ruddy Bacchus and rose-white Ariadne. Those, also, I said to myself ill-humouredly, were probably stage jewels…. I cannot account for the sudden train of associations this word evoked: sweeping, magnificent gestures, star-like eyes, and a goddess’ brows shining through innumerable years; a bar or two of melodious ritornello; an ineffable sense of poetry and grandeur, and–but I am not sure–a note or two of a distant, distant voice. Could it be Malibran–or Catalani … and was my stage jewel bewitched, a kind of Solomon’s ring, conjuring up great spirits? All I can say is that I have rarely spent a Christmas Eve like that one, while the servants’ ball was going on at the other end of the house, furbishing my imitation diamonds with a silk handkerchief, alone, or perhaps not alone, in my study.
La femme de lettres aux talents multiples, romancière, nouvelliste, théoricienne, Vernon Lee a laissé sa marque très tôt dans le domaine de la littérature fantastique.
Plusieurs œuvres, notamment celles réunies dans le recueil Hauntings, d’autres encore comme Alberic and the Snake Lady, se servent d’un environnement teinté de surnaturel véritable ou suggéré pour poser les questions récurrentes de l’univers vernonien : l’oeuvre d’art (sculpture, portrait, musique), le genius loci (bien souvent l’Italie de la Renaissance ou du XVIIIe siècle, mais aussi de l’Antiquité gréco-romaine, l’Angleterre des grandes demeures jacobéennes), dans un entre-deux avec le présent, celui d’une époque plus récente, où la fascination venue du passé viendra bouleverser les repères.
Ces schémas narratifs, identifiés par les familiers des textes théoriques de Vernon Lee comme l’invasion de l’apollinien par le dionysiaque, abolissent les frontières entre le passé et le présent et entre les personnes.
Comment évaluer et comprendre le fantastique (conçu comme l’irruption du surnaturel dans le quotidien) lorsque Vernon Lee laisse entendre un processus essentiellement psychologique plus complexe qu’un phénomène purement surnaturel comme dans l’histoire de fantômes classique ? Y-a-t-il une marge d’interprétation entre, d’une part, la position adoptée par Vernon Lee dans ses écrits théoriques selon laquelle c’est la confrontation physique avec l’oeuvre d’art, le portrait, le lieu naturel ou bâti qui suscite une « empathie » et partant de là une sensation de hantise, et d’autre part, le postulat de tant de récits fantastiques qui accordent à certaines personnalités puissantes une existence post-mortem et la capacité de répondre à l’appel qu’un vivant, insatisfait de sa vie présente, leur lance ?
Plus largement, on pourra comparer Vernon Lee et d’autres auteurs qui partagent les mêmes prédilections tant géographiques qu’historiques et artistiques (notamment sa célébration de la Renaissance, une Renaissance décadente certes, souvent cruelle), évaluer sa place au sein d’une littérature en plein essor à la fin du XIXe siècle, la « New Romance », illustrée notamment par une autre femme de lettres, Marie Corelli, les inévitables parallélismes avec Oscar Wilde, et finalement, dans les récits qui témoignent d’un drame ancien qui fait planer sa malédiction sur les descendants des premiers protagonistes, évoquer des ressemblances avec Edgar Poë et même H.P. Lovecraft.
Finalement, la résurgence de l’Antiquité, ses œuvres d’art, ses dieux, relierait Vernon Lee à une galaxie littéraire qui rassemble des auteurs tels Prosper Mérimée, Arthur Machen, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Wilhelm Jensen, Robert W. Chambers, Théophile Gautier et bien d’autres, tandis que la fascination qu’exerce le portrait de la Renaissance, le portrait « hanté » n’est pas sans rappeler Robert Browning, les méditations de Walter Pater sur la Joconde, sans oublier, à des degrés divers, des romanciers comme Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James et James Branch Cabell, qui ont tous accordé un pouvoir quasi surnaturel à des portraits anciens, lorsque ces derniers sont évocateurs d’une grande tragédie.
Les communications seront acceptées en Français ou en Anglais.
Merci d’envoyer un résumé (300 mots) de votre proposition accompagné d’une courte présentation biographique au plus tard le 14 Avril 2022 à :
Nous sommes heureux d’annoncer que l’événement annuel de l’International Vernon Lee Society, co-organisatrice du colloque, aura lieu pendant ce colloque fort opportunément organisé dans le lieu de naissance de Vernon Lee.
CFP : International Conference, Université de la Côte d’Opale (Boulogne-sur-Mer, France)
Vernon Lee’s Fantastic Fiction
13-14 October 2022
The multitalented woman of letters, writer of fiction, and theoretician Vernon Lee (Violet Paget, 1856-1935) very early –and deeply—marked the field of fantastic literature.
Many of her works, like those gathered in the collection Hauntings or such as “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”, make use of a background immersed in the supernatural, be it real or suggested, to deal with questions that are recurrent in her work. Art works (sculptures, portraits, music) or the genius loci (often the spirit of Renaissance or Eighteenth Century Italy, but also Greek and Roman Antiquity, or the great Jacobean houses in England), often provide in-between, liminal spaces that border on the present and the past, broken into by a fascination with the historic that disrupts all topographical and temporal landmarks.
Readers familiar with Vernon Lee’s theoretical texts have identified narrative patterns such as the Apollonian being overwhelmed by the Dionysiac, or the frontier between past and present or between people being abolished.
This conference hopes to ask, if we consider the fantastic as the irruption of the supernatural in everyday life, how can we then assess and understand Lee’s fantastic fiction when her own texts and theory suggest a complex, fundamentally psychological process, rather than supernatural phenomena as described in classic ghost stories?
It is possible to argue that Lee’s chosen theoretical posture on the fantastic reveals itself when empathy is evoked by a work of art, a portrait, a natural place or a building which arouses a feeling of “hauntedness”. Yet at the core of so many ghost stories (some too, by Lee), there is the assumption that the powerful personalities of the past can be endowed with a supernatural existence being willed to do so by the dissatisfied living. So how should one interpret Lee’s fantastic texts?
This conference would like to interrogate Lee’s position on, and place within fantastic literature. We would also welcome broader comparisons between Vernon Lee and other writers who shared similar geographical, historical or artistic predilections. Lee’s decadent and cruel celebration of the Renaissance may situate her within the “New Romance” movement whicb boomed in the late 19th century and is exemplified by another woman of letters, Marie Corelli. There may also be the inevitable parallels with Oscar Wilde, or resemblances drawn between Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft’s ancient drama having cast a curse on the initial protagonist’s descendants.
Perhaps the resurgence and the revival of art works or of gods and goddesses from Antiquity may connect Vernon Lee with a literary galaxy gathering authors like Prosper Mérimée, Arthur Machen, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Wilhelm Jensen, Robert W. Chambers, Théophile Gautier and many others, while the fascination of Renaissance portraits or haunted portraits is reminiscent of Robert Browning, of Walter Pater’s meditations on Mona Lisa, not to mention, to different degrees, novelists like Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and James Branch Cabell, all of whom endowed old portraits suggestive of some great tragedy with quasi supernatural powers.
We invite papers in French or in English.
Please send you 300-word abstract and short personal resume no later that 14 April 2022 to Pr. Marc ROLLAND
We are delighted to announce that the annual event of the International Vernon Lee Society, co-organiser of the conference, is scheduled during this conference most aptly taking place in Vernon Lee’s own birthplace.
Yesterday was Violet Paget’s birthday. Born on 14th of October 1856 at Château St Léonard, Boulogne-sur-mer, she would have been 165 this year. When she was born, the doctor congratulated her mother with a typical understatement: “Madame, je n’ai rien à vous reprocher !” (Madam, I’ve nothing to blame you for)
Like every year since 2013, October 14 also marks our annual event, the 8th one since the creation of International Vernon Lee Society –doesn’t time fly! While we may be sorry we have to meet online again owing to sanitary restrictions, it cannot be denied that such cyber meetings do allow scattered Vernon Lee scholars like us to gather in a single, although virtual, place. And the general meeting of the IVLS will also be held online on October 26, with, hopefully, good news about our 2022 activities.
Now, 2021 also marks two important anniversaries. First, it is the centenary of the death of the humanist and art theoreticianClementina Anstruther-Thomson. The IVLS felt we must pay a tribute to the woman who was Vernon Lee’s long time partner and much else besides in her own right, quite apart from her romantic friendship for Lee.
Indeed, “Kit” Anstruther-Thomson belonged to the West London Ethical Society, and 2021 also happens to be the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of our partner association, Humanists UK founded in 1896 as the union of Ethical Societies. Our invited speaker, historian Madeleine Goodall, is a researcher in community history, the history of humanism and of the West London Ethical Society. She is the Humanist Heritage Coordinator for Humanists UK, researching and writing to celebrate the organisation’s 125th birthday, and has published an important article which attracted our attention: « Heroines of freethought: women of the early humanist movement »(Nov. 2020). She has developped the very resourceful website Humanist Heritage.
Madeleine Goodall’s lecture can be viewed here: “‘A Hundred Ways Other People Wouldn’t”: the Humanism of Clementina Anstruther-Thomson”.
We are particularly grateful for the members of Humanists UK for generously sharing their celebration with us. All the more so as their values and struggles have always been consistent with those that led to the Law of December 9, 1905 (Separation of church and state) in France.
“The freedom to think for ourselves is at the heart of the humanist philosophy, and humanists and freethinkers have long defended the right to do so, often in the face of significant persecution. The history of the humanist tendency contains the stories of many labelled heretics, infidels, or blasphemers, for pursuing their own reason and challenging the authority of the Church.” https://heritage.humanists.uk/themes-overview/
Today, when France is mourning for the barbaric murder of Samuel Paty, who taught History and Geography in Conflans Sainte Honorine and was decapitated for teaching secularism and freedom of belief (laïcité), freedom of speech and freedom of thought in accordance to the values and the rules of secular public education in France, we express our sympathy for our colleague’s family, friends and colleagues.
“The humanist commitment to reason, kindness, inclusivity, and freedom of thought, means the non-religious have always been the natural allies of education, whether under the label of ‘freethinkers’, ‘rationalists’, or ‘humanists’.” https://heritage.humanists.uk/themes-overview/
This year’s event would have been impossible without the involvement and brilliant suggestions of our communications officer, Dr. Sally Blackburn-Daniels or without computing engineer Richard Walter’s continued help and support as coordinator of the EMAN digital humanities platform at the UMR “Théorie et histoire des arts et des littératures de la modernité”, THALIM-CNRS-ENS-Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, who must be thanked for hosting this Zoom session. Warmest thanks are due to them all.
A. Mary F. RobinsonVictorian Poet and Modern Woman of LettersBy Patricia Rigg Born in England in 1857, Agnes Mary Frances Robinson contributed to cultural and literar currents from nineteenth-century Victorianism to twentieth-century modernism; she was equally at home in London and Paris and prolific in both English and French. Yet Robinson remains an enigma on many levels. This literary biography integrates Robinson’s unorthodox life with her development as a writer across genres. MORE DETAILS
456 Pages, 6 x 9 | 11 photos | Paperback 9780228008842 | Institutional hardcover 9780228008835 | eBook available Patricia Rigg is professor of English at Acadia University and the author of Robert Browning’s Romantic Irony in The Ring and the Book and Julia Augusta Webster: Victorian Aestheticism and the Woman Writer. “This is the most comprehensive study to date on A. Mary F. Robinson. Patricia Rigg should be congratulated for her painstaking, thorough research, which gathers previously unavailable archival material. Rigg gives attention to Robinson’s complete oeuvre in both English and French, offering much new material on her work in French especially, for a richer sense of Robinson’s full career.” Emily Harrington, University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Second Person Singular: Late Victorian Women Poets and the Bonds of Verse
The Sibyl is delighted to share with you an interview with one of the members of the International Vernon Lee Society, author Mary F Burns. Mary is the author of several books of historical fiction, and member of and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and a former member of the HNS Conference board of directors. She has been a regular panelist and speaker at the North American Historical Novel Society Conference.She lives in San Francisco.
THE SIBYL: Mary, how did you discover Vernon Lee, and what inspired you to write such vibrant and fun novels about her friendship with John Singer Sargent?
MARY: About twenty years ago, I wrote a couple of “cozy village” mysteries, literally set in my own ‘village’ of West Portal in San Francisco, with the emphasis on the intricacies of untraceable poisons and evanescent nanotechnology that required significant outlining, planning ahead and scrupulous, detailed planting of clues as well as red herrings—absolutely a requirement if you’re writing a mystery that is plot-driven and complicated. But then I fell in love—with John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and his friend Violet Paget (1856-1935, aka the writer Vernon Lee). I wrote an historical novel about him and his magnificent and at the time, maligned, portrait of ‘Madame X’, and Violet was a significant character in the story (Portraits of an Artist, 2010).
Their individual, quirky, wonderful, interesting personalities, combined with their life-long friendship, made such an impression on me that after the novel was finished, their voices and charming ways would not leave my mind. I had read so many letters of theirs, and biographies, and spent hours gazing at Sargent’s paintings and reading Violet’s essays, that these two fascinating people had a hold on me that compelled me to continue writing about them—I wanted everyone to know them as I had come to know them.
So naturally, I turned them into amateur sleuths and started writing a mystery series! Unlike my West Portal cozies, I wanted these new mysteries to primarily portray the characters of these two real-life people whom I loved so much, in addition to being a good mystery, of course.
THE SIBYL: What made you decide to write about Lee and Sargent as adults, before they had both become so well-known?
MARY: Having decided this was going to be a series (and in six years I have now written three), I decided to start when John and Violet were both twenty-one. That way, each book would advance a certain amount of time and I would be able to present the changes and development of the young artist and the young writer as they made their way into the upper echelons of their artistic and literary worlds. Thus, the mysteries that came their way to solve—typically a murder—would serve as the catalyst to delve into and reveal their true characters: how they would react and respond to murder and danger, why they would feel compelled to investigate it, and how their friendship and their unconventional upbringings and education would help or hinder their investigations.
THE SIBYL: The choice to narrate the story from Lee’s perspective is fascinating. What made you want to do this?
MARY: Violet Paget was by far the more pronounced, outgoing, feisty personality of the two, and I chose her voice to tell the stories, in First Person POV. While this has its drawbacks, it makes for a significantly ‘present’ character, as the reader is addressed directly, drawn into her thoughts and fears and doubts, and her sarcastic and irreverent approach to a woman’s life, career and chances of literary success in the late Victorian Age.
Here is how I introduced the series, in the Prologue in the first book, The Spoils of Avalon: Violet is writing in 1926, the year after her friend John died, an event which she feels gives her permission to now finally relate the interesting tales of murder and mayhem in which they were involved:
‘Sherlock Holmes isn’t the only one who solves mysteries, you know. In our youth, I and my friend Scamps—more formally known as John Singer Sargent—engaged in a fair amount of sleuthing ourselves.’
She goes on to mention that most of the people involved have also passed on, and then continues:
‘Modesty restrains me from naming the one who wields the Sherlockian mind, but let me just say, Scamps made an excellent Watson.’
I wanted to place Violet, with her keen, curious mind and waspish, often self-deprecatory and humorous commentary, at the center of the reader’s journey in this time and space, and as a foil and contrast to Sargent, whose personality was much more reserved, congenial and mellow. As Violet goes on to explain,
‘Nonetheless, as a detecting duo, we were extremely well-suited—he was observant with an artist’s eye for detail as well as the nuances of mood and tone, whereas I noticed things out of restless curiosity and, I must say, a suspicious nature attuned to finding fault.’
In the first mystery, it becomes rather obvious after a short time who the murderer is, but events occur so quickly, with rising urgency and threat, that the emphasis on Violet’s and John’s rapid detecting is much more interesting and important—if I do say so myself—than that the killer remain unknown until the very end. The second and third mysteries ‘The Love for Three Oranges’ and ‘The Unicorn in the Mirror’ are rather more complex, partly I think because I’m just getting better at writing mysteries!
THE SIBYL: What kind of research did you do, to bring these characters—these people—back to life?
MARY: I read so much of these two persons’ actual correspondence that I have been able to get a true sense of how they spoke, not only to each other, but about events of the day, their opinions, their friendships, successes and failures. John often refers to Vi as ‘old man,’ a common jocularity of the youth of the era, both men and women. Nicknames like ‘Scamps’ were also common among familiars. Sargent was known for his awkwardness in speaking, almost stammering at times, especially in more public situations, whereas Violet was voluble and incessantly talkative, as well as clever and opinionated. Henry James referred to her as a ‘formidable conversationalist.’
THE SIBYL: Can you tell us about your writing process?
MARY: In contrast to my earliest murder mysteries, which were carefully outlined and plotted in advance, my approach to writing about Violet and John’s exploits is more fully organic—once I’ve done the necessary research, I just start writing—their personalities take over pretty quickly, and before I know it, they’re telling me what to write and leading me into all sorts of interesting adventures. I start thinking and feeling like them, especially Violet, and as I work through the investigation along with them, I find out almost at the same time they do, who-done-it and why! Their particular ways of thinking and acting, in their own historical contexts—in short, who they are as persons of their era—have become critical and instrumental elements to solving the murders and crimes they investigate—truly character-driven historical fiction.
THE SIBYL: The novels avoid foregrounding both character’s sexualities, and doesn’t sensationalize their personal relationships. Why did you make this choice?
MARY: An important element of the lives and personalities of John and Violet was that they were both same-sex oriented; in writing about them I knew that this was a subject that had to be treated with subtlety, for a couple of reasons. First, the self-knowledge of their sexuality would have taken some time, both because of their unusual family lives, insular and peripatetic; and second, because of the mores, strictures and laws of the Victorian Age. Both of them, in later years, were well-acquainted with Oscar Wilde and other notorious gay men of the age—and they saw what happened to him because of his indiscreet behavior. Sargent’s career would have been in ruins if his same-sex inclinations were made public, although as long as men were discreet, nobody cared. Violet, given the separate lives that men and women lived in the Victorian Age, would have had more ‘cover’ for an intimate relationship with a woman friend. The ‘Boston Marriage,’ so-called in the United States, and the necessity of “spinsters” having to live together to make a viable economic household, were too common for anyone to draw anything sexual or ‘Sapphic’ from the occurrence. Neither Violet nor John were in any way religious, but social mores would have inhibited behavior that flaunted such activity.
Nonetheless, it has become clear in the scholarship of the last four decades that Sargent was definitely gay and engaged in physical intimacy with other men, from his own letters (not many of which are extant, as he destroyed much of his correspondence, like Henry James) as well as others’ letters and notes about him. The recent exhibition of drawings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum of Sargent’s African-American model Thomas McKellar are revelatory of Sargent’s sexual identity. It is less clear whether Violet engaged physically with any of the women with whom she formed relationships in later life, but she certainly preferred the company of women to that of men as intimate companions.
This sense of developing self-awareness is built into my characterizations of John and Violet in the mystery series, and I find it is important to interweave their growing consciousnesses into the stories themselves, which becomes more significant in the latest of the mysteries, The Unicorn in the Mirror, when they are both around twenty-six years of age.
THE SIBYL: What was your reasoning behind your choice to use the name Violet?
MARY: I think because I begin the timeline in 1879, before Violet was widely known as her non-de-plume Vernon Lee, and because she and Sargent had been friends since they were ten years old, it seemed more plausible that he would call her by her real name. It also allows for an interesting dualism of ‘personality’ by being able to contrast the private Violet Paget with the public Vernon Lee, as well as depict the often humorous situations that occur when people realize they are one and the same person. Finally, it serves as a handy vehicle for commenting (and having Violet comment) on the inequities that women authors had to face at that time.
THE SIBYL: What’s next for you Mary? Are any more mysteries in the works?
MARY: I have just finished the first two chapters of the next mystery, working title ‘The Eleventh Commandment,’ which centers around the scandal of 1885 in London of the ‘Shapira Scrolls,’ ancient texts of the Hebrew Book of Deuteronomy. The Muse forbids me to say more!
Mary’s novel ‘The Spoils of Avalon’ will be on sale as an ebook–99 cents/ 99 pence–from October 6-10. You can find out more about Mary through her website http://www.maryfburns.com
“Literature is the universal confidant, the spiritual director of mankind" Vernon Lee
Portrait de Miss Paget par Berthe Noufflard, 1932
"L’avantage d’être écrivain, même sans lecteurs, c’est de pouvoir éviter tout malentendu et toute déloyauté en mettant sous les yeux des autres ce qu’on pense sous forme de livre." VL, Lettre à Berthe Noufflard 26 juillet 1925
Miss Paget, portrait photographique par André Noufflard
« Mais si seulement les gens voulaient reconnaître dans leurs semblables : des semblables, l’autre soi-même du Bouddhisme ou du moins une pauvre bête aussi capable de souffrance et d’erreur que soi-même ! » (Vernon Lee, Lettre à Mathilde Hecht, 30 décembre 1921)