The Anglo-German Correspondence of Vernon Lee and Irene Forbes-Mosse during World War I ; Women Writers’ Friendship Transcending Enemy Lines
Edited by Herward Sieberg and Christa Zorn. With a Foreword by Phyllis Mannocchi.Lewiston/Lampeter : Edwin Mellen Press, 2014. 463 pages.
Book review by Sophie Geoffroy
This eagerly awaited book is the first published edition of Vernon Lee’s letters since the volume edited and privately printed by Irene Cooper Willis in 1937: Vernon Lee’s Selected Letters Home. Not only is it the first edition of letters thought lost in a period of trouble (1914-1918), but it is also the very first critical edition of Lee’s letters ever published.
As the editors write:
Given the extreme difficulties under which Europeans exchanged letters during the war, it is almost a miracle that so many of Lee’s and Forbes-Mosse’s letters have been preserved. Censorship, delayed or forwarded letters, and both writers’ movements between places even during the war years, have complicated the preservation of these letters. (Sieberg and Zorn 32)
The impressive list of acknowledgements to private owners, copyright holders, archivists, scholars, institutional supports and sponsors testifies to the authors’ ethical framework and academic and scientific standing as Lee and Forbes-Mosse scholars.
So does the very clear, crisp, vigorous and masterly foreword by the major Vernon Lee scholar: Phyllis Mannocchi (Colby College).
The table of contents conveniently provides a brief summary of the contents of the 108 letters: 41 letters dating from 1914, 33 letters dating from 1915, 19 letters dating from 1916, 7 letters dating from 1917, 8 letters dating from 1918.
Sieberg and Zorn’s comprehensive general introduction is highly commendable for the completeness and accuracy of their presentation of the letters themselves and for the solid theoretical background they rely on, as much as for their well-informed discussion of the assumptions of modern historiography.
Their textual and technical considerations about the chosen methodology are exemplary too, providing a most useful tool for anyone involved in textual scholarship and genetic criticism: what are the different preliminary steps prior to the « reading » of private letters? Zorn and Sieberg’s impeccable scientific and intellectual rigour turn the evocation of the careful work entailed by their initially serendipitous discovery into a breath-taking scientific account.
Indeed, such an edition is a linguistic tour de force, given the predicament of censorship which impacted communication across the borders during the war by forbidding sealed letters between members of the belligerent countries and allowing only open letters written in the Censor’s language :
I will now write open letters in German. If You should even get this, please use the Italian way through Fortunata (Casa Cambi, Viale Alessandro Volta) or the bank. And write in German since Your letter written in German did arrive. (Lee in Sieberg and Zorn 43-4)
The language issue is made more tricky still by Lee and Forbes-Mosse’s resorting to abbreviations so as to evade censorship – and indeed one is thankful to Zorn and Sieberg for solving the riddle of some of those allusive letters.
Equally complex is Lee and Forbes-Mosse’s cosmopolitan fluent use of several languages, or translanguaging, when German, French, English, Italian and Latin sentences and phrases are mixed (e. g. Lee’s letter to I. Forbes-Mosse dated 19 sept. 1914, in Sieberg and Zorn 73-74).
Zorn and Sieberg have happily chosen to publish the letters in their original languages with a translation into English, thus enabling international readers to discover the wide range of I. Forbes-Mosse and Lee’s interests and involvement in contemporary issues in their respective countries and across the borders.
Scholars will be happy to discover new details about Vernon Lee’s translations of Irene Forbes-Mosse or of Irene’s cousin, the economist Lujo Brentano.
The transcriptions of V. Lee and I. Forbes-Mosse’s letters are accompanied by copious and impeccable footnotes which generously provide a wealth of illuminating and enlivening supplementary details: letter-writing practices, personal relationships, relevant historical events, summaries and reviews of the articles and the books cited, all of which enhances the actual quality of the letters by a most welcome historical and theoretical context.
V. Lee and I. Forbes-Mosse’s respect and affection for members of the former’s household (Carlo Rivai and Fortunata Mazzoli) or the latter’s (Beppa and her sister), or close life-long friends of theirs (Evelyn Wimbush…) are particularly touching, as well as V. Lee’s looking for Mabel Price’s young nephew, Owen Price, missing since 22 August 1914, or helping a German nurse to get a job, or expressing her sympathy for prisoners of war of all countries, or campaigning tirelessly in favour of Belgian refugees…
The biographies of well-known personalities which can found in the footnotes enhance Vernon Lee’s relations with Maria Krebs Waser (V. Lee’s teacher Marie Schüpbach’s daughter), Elisabeth von Arnim, Irene Cooper-Willis, Bertrand Russell, the Ranee, Lady Ottoline and Philip Morrell, Henry Noel Braisford, to name but a few.
The reader also encounters feminists like Elena French-Cini (president of the Federazione Femminile Toscana e del Consiglio Nazionale delle Donne Italiane), or like Isabella O. Ford and her sisters, Emily and Bessie, founders of the Leeds Women Suffrage Society. The preparation of the Hague Congress of Women (28 April-10 May 1915) features prominently in Lee and Forbes-Mosse’s letters, too.
Feminism and pacifism are one and the same thing for Lee, who goes as far as to ask I. Forbes-Mosse to
[d]onate the annual lease to the unemployed. Not the soldiers’ widows. I have also refused to give money to the English ones. I loathe everything that has to do with the war, and I would like to give the annual lease money to the unemployed female workers. (Lee in Sieberg and Zorn 60)
Zorn and Sieberg’s footnotes also extensively present the newspapers of the time being cited in the letters. These are remarkably clear presentations and commentaries, complete with the names and biographies of political leaders and introductions to political movements or groups, among which the UDC (Union of Democratic Control) and its members (Frances W. Hirst, Charles P. Trevelyan, John Burns, Ralph Norman Angell, Ramsay MacDonald, Ponsonby, Edmund Dene Morel). One cannot but welcome the complete bibliography of all the articles V. Lee published in the Labour Leader, provided on page 48.
With these letters come newspaper clippings faithfully transcribed : a fantastic glimpse into the experience of reading news from past times of war, which shows that censorship did not quite quench communication nor did it completely stifle the circulation of literary items and news from other countries.
This book restores and enlarges our knowledge of two major underrated writers, giving us an insight into the modes of their letter writing practices and the function of these documents, between the private, intimate sphere and the public sphere. Indeed, giving vent to the two friends’ heartfelt indignations or enthusiasms, their letters were often a springboard for notes, articles, or even books. This is evidenced thanks to Zorn and Sieberg’s references to the complete V. Lee literary production, good summaries of which are provided (Althea, Louis Norbert, Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child, Satan the Waster...)
The originality of the book also lies in the fact that the political entanglements are unveiled by the two-way exchanges of letters, which crudely and poignantly reveal how ensnared public opinion was, on both sides. The pro-German references, the presentation of any situation seen from two different, and conflicting, viewpoints, make us aware of the incredibly complex trap and tangled up skein in which cosmopolitan friends like V. Lee and I. Forbes-Mosse found themselves.
They both denounce propaganda, as in the case of the dumdum cartridges. They both fight against the rumours amplified and circulated by the media ; sometimes they fail and are mistaken, as in the case of the « news » of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht’s murder reported in… 1914.
V. Lee, who had been a staunch supporter of the Boers’ cause, analyses the causes of this 1914-1918 war. In no way, according to her, can it be ascribed solely to narrowly European bitternesses and dislikes, be they inherited from former centuries. WWI was the aftermath and a replica of the Boers war, the two Morocco crises (very clearly explained, Sieberg and Zorn 54), the Italo-Turkish (Tripolitan) war (1911-12), which « both Lee and I. Forbes-Mosse had vehemently abhorred » (Sieberg and Zorn 71). At stake are colonial and commercial issues. Once started, the war is fed by propaganda and fuelled by « an unconscious drive to mimicry » (Lee in Sieberg and Zorn 71).
Indeed, by September 1914 the word « Pro-Boer » has become a synonym of « pacifist », and V. Lee keeps complaining about the absence of a real opposition –except the UDC– to the government –contrary to the Boers war time. Now, as Zorn subtly remarks, « German public opinion being massively pro-Boer, had caused strong anti-German feelings in Britain » (Sieberg and Zorn 38).
A masterpiece indeed, Sieberg and Zorn’s exemplary edition is a model of its kind and a must-read reference book, not only for all Lee scholars and Irene Forbes-Mosse specialists, but also for historians. The general public will appreciate the lively dialogue between two friends whose deep feelings for one another were hurt and whose most intimate beliefs in humanity were challenged by the horrors of bloodshed and hatred , but who, each in her own way, kept working for peace in the midst of adversity.
« J’appelle héros, seuls, ceux qui furent grands par le cœur. » Romain Rolland
 Killed in action, Mons battle (22-28 August 1914).