Review of C. Maxwell and P. Pulham, eds., Vernon Lee, Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics,

Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham, eds., Vernon Lee, Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics, Palgrave Macmillan, « Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture ». [2006] pp. 210.

This is an important collection of essays, completed by an excellent chronology and bibliography which must be recommended to all specialists or students of Vernon Lee and the fin de siècle. After a very good introductory synthesis reminding the reader of the basic facts about Vernon Lee, who “achieved literary celebrity during the 1880s and 1890s” in London and at home, in Italy, where she was “the pivotal figure in the gatherings of the leading cosmopolitan intellectuals who lived around or visited the cultural centre of Florence” (1), Maxwell and Pulham then look for the reasons for the decline of this “writer who valued her ‘outsiderism’,” and whose works –because of the exceptional longevity of a “literary career [which] began in 1880 and ended in 1932” (19)—“transcend the calcified categories of ‘Victorian’ and ‘Modernist’ periodization” (19). What caused her to be relegated to “embarrassing late Victorians” (2)? Was it her “unpatriotic pacifism in the face of World War I” ? Her attitude to decadence (“her stated belief in art for life’s sake—not for art’s—sake”) ? (9) Her“romantic friendships”? The rivalry of male authors and critics?

These questions are variously addressed in each of the essays in this wide-ranging collection cleverly divided into four sections: “Creative Connections”, “Decadent Dissolutions”, “Queer Contexts”, “Art and Argument”.

In “Vernon Lee and Eugene Lee-Hamilton,” Catherine Maxwell offers an illuminating account of Eugene’s bed-bound life and of his work in relation to his sister’s, his “agent and proxy” (23), and almost a collaborator, since she “kept a look out for suitable subjects” (25), as well as for suitable young women friends for him… And, indeed, Eugene was attracted to VL’s friend Mary Robinson (dedicating his New Medusa (1882) to her, and opposing her marriage as strongly as his sister did) and to Kit Anstruther-Thomson.

Maxwell convincingly shows Eugene’s equally seminal influence on Lee, whose male characters (Magnus, Spiridion Trepka) were drawn from Eugene, while echoes from his poem The Mandolin can be heard in her “Wicked Voice”, or from his New Medusa in her “Dionea”. Ottilie, an 18th century Idyll (1883) is based on her relationship to her brother, to whom she dedicated Baldwin (1886).

Maxwell insists on the affectionate correspondence between them throughout their lives and on Lee’s help to his widow after his death (1907), and proves that “both produced work striking for its eroticism and violence” and were “inspired by what they claimed to loathe” (36).

In “Vernon Lee and the Pater Circle,” Laurel Brake documents the biographical and literary relationship between Lee and Pater, and their London-based, shared ‘set’:  Henry James, Mary Robinson, Walter Pater’s sisters Hester and Clara, the Humphry Wards and a key moment in their history:  1884-85, when “remarkably, Mary Ward, Lee and Walter Pater all published first novels within four months of one another”:  Miss Brown (Lee), Miss Bretherton (Ward) and Marius the Epicurian (Pater)” (40-41).

The notorious “Pater and Lee Disruption” after Miss Brown is analysed from Pater’s embarrassed position at the public’s “perception of these publications as a cluster” (49), even though “each novel occupies a different market niche in its first edition” (50). Brake shows how wary Pater was of public scrutiny, especially after his 1874 “personal admonishment in the University for his compromising love letters to the undergraduate William Money Hardinge;” his “first novel being in the press just weeks after Miss Brown, while reviews of Lee’s novel both linked his name with Lee’s allegedly ‘Paterian’ views, and with the excesses of the aesthetes and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” must have been a serious source of anxiety (47).

Yet, Pater’s influence on Lee’s Belcaro (1881), on “The Child in the Vatican” (an explicit echo to Pater’s “The Child in the House” (Macmillan’s Magazine Aug. 1878), and on her critique of Ruskin, cannot be overlooked, “though ‘disciple’ may overstate Lee’s active interrogation of Pater’s positions and writing. Lee and Pater were friends and colleagues in the early 1880s… although they differed and even argued… the number of their shared interests –in aesthetics, the Renaissance, Italy, (homo)sexuality, and the supernatural/unconscious—is persuasive in helping us believe that their relationship survived the rift of Miss Brown in some form.” (55)

Reviewers were particularly sensitive, as Brake is, to the parallels between Miss Brown, with “its attack on marriage and its portrait of an independent woman disgusted by heterosexual love [which] might prove ideologically rather than morally objectionable to readers” (51) and Marius’s (religious) quest, [which] involves extensive exposure to pagan alternatives, some of them violent and ‘coarse’, while the reiterated presence of male friendship and the absence of a convincing heterosexual courtship might occasion comments among those familiar with Pater’s work…” (52)

Catherine Anne Wiley, in “’Warming Me Like a Cordial’: the Ethos of the Body in Vernon Lee’s Aesthetics”, argues that “despite Lee’s scepticism towards the Aesthetic movement, … [she was] sympathetic to these trends… [and] increasingly interested in the interactions between the mind and the body with regard to aesthetic experience”. “A kind of radical empathy takes place”, Lee writes, “the reader’s psyche is invaded, widened, and sensitized, made receptive to the presence of the other within the self, the self within the other, rooted in the inclusive sensuous experience of the body…” (59) The reader is invited to “share what reads … as a physical experience, something like lying in a whirlpool”. An experience which, in the present reviewer’s opinion, is very close to the “oceanic feeling” analysed by Romain Rolland. Lee’s “engagement of the body” is highlighted in Wiley’s study of ‘The Lake of Charlemagne: An Apology of Association’ (in Juvenilia 1887), where Lee refers to “an all-encompassing medium in which the soul floated with languid enjoyment” (1887, I. 35-6). This, however, occasionally overflows into “an intense discomfort of spirit” which Lee vents in her “unbridled writing”, as in “The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists”, whose “disturbing intensity of sensuality and desire emanating from” Lee’s descriptions (68) and study of the influence of Italian travel on sixteenth century English playwrights is particularly striking and violent.

In his remarkable “Vernon Lee, Decadent Contamination and the Productivist Ethos,” Denis Denisoff points out the paradoxical link between Max Nordau’s theses and Lee and other writers associated with Decadence (Baudelaire, Huysmans, Rachilde, Wilde), who vilify the “ consumerist ethos that looked to taste, pleasure, and conspicuous consumption as the markers of success” (84). In a context marked by reactions to the depression years of the 1880s such as the New Unionism, the Fabian Society (formed in 1884), the Match Girls’ strike (1888), the London Dock strike (1889), and the formation of the Labour Representation Committee that would eventually lead to the Labour Party (1900)”, “social upheavals and Decadent authors were seen as linked against the bourgeoisie”, and “commodity culture became both the site of contestation and an instrument of attack” (77).

Lee, who attended Fabian meetings, was acquainted with social reformers like Cunninghame Graham and George Bernard Shaw, and read Marx’s Das Kapital (1887), “situates her values within a more socialist trajectory of aesthetics that she sees running through Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris” (79). In a dazzlingly written analysis of “Oke of Okehurst,” Denisoff shows how, “in accord with the common conception of production as energized and masculine and consumption as passive and feminine,” “Lee genders her two models of Decadence” (84): “It is as if the heroine [Alice Oke] stimulates a proliferation of her image through the artist’s mass production” but “his mass production of inadequate copies stymies the exchange of labour for money and clogs economic flow.” A failure which is “the flawed product of a masculine Decadence” (83).

Stefano Evangelista’s study convincingly insists on Lee’s troubled relation with “the gender of aestheticism,” showing how “constrained [she was] within a masculine discourse created by male homosexual authors such as Pater and Symonds” (92), among others (like Henry James, Oscar Wilde). As a result, “Lee writes simultaneously within and against aestheticism” (103), as Miss Brown shows: Anne, “the only sexual radical” (101), “embodies a deviant model of femininity which stands defiantly not only outside the marriage market … but also outside the patterns of sexual deviance of the aesthetic set” (101).

Yet, even though Lee makes “a neat distinction between ‘healthy pleasure’ and ‘pain’, that is, perversion”, and “a problematic distinction between ‘healthy pleasure and unhealthy pleasure (97)–a distinction for which she was charged with Puritanism–, she is unmistakeably marked by Pater and “in direct opposition to Ruskin”, as Belcaro, Euphorion (1884), “The Child in the Vatican”, “Amour dure” (“a deconstruction of the myth of the femme fatale promulgated by Pater’s Mona Lisa” (105) show. Indeed, “Paterian impressionism gives Lee an antipositivist historiographical model that substitutes emotion for science” (95).

Evangelista then focuses on Lee’s more troubled relationship with Symonds, whom she met in England in the early 1880s. Characterized by “estrangement and competition”, “anxiety of ownership” and “sexual jealousy of a very personal nature” (Mary Robinson being his protégée”) (99), Symonds’s “heavily gendered language” (98) in their correspondence reveals his “eagerness to establish a master-pupil relationship” (98).  He repeatedly “plac[es] Lee’s writings in a gap between the feminine and the masculine,” clearly considering her “experiments in the male-defined field of aesthetic criticism as acts of gender transgression” (98).

But in her 1895 “Valedictory”, written at a time when “Pater and Symonds were both dead” and “when the trials of Oscar Wilde would bring aesthetic culture to a scandalous end” (109), Lee shows that for her, “aestheticism, its theories of art and its sexual politics, are no longer a field of writing but of reading” (110), and, indeed, a thing of the past.

In “The Snake Lady and the Bruised Bodley Head: Vernon Lee and Oscar Wilde in the Yellow Book”, Margaret Stetz very compellingly argues that “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”, published in The Yellow Book of July 1896, when Wilde was “halfway through his sentence of two years at hard labour” (113) [NB: he was released from prison in 1897] is “as much a political allegory as a fairy tale” (113).

If Stetz underlines the “ambivalence of John Lane, owner of the Bodley Head firm, who had reason to identify with Wilde, as well as to abhor and shun him” (113), she reminds the reader that Lane’s authors all “produced work for the Bodley Head, in the years 1895 to 1897, that alluded to Oscar Wilde’s case sub-textually and that was designed to move the public to reconsider its verdict upon him” (117).

Lee’s “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” is “rich in borrowings from contemporaneous, late nineteenth century sources, constructed purposefully to be in dialogue with Wilde’s ‘A House of Pomegranates’ and brimming with allusions … to … ‘The Young King” and ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’” (116). “These resemblances,” according to Stetz, “are Lee’s artistic and political gestures of homage to a fallen, disgraced master of this form” (117). Published in 1896, “when he was in the depths of shame” (117), they are to be seen as the expression of Lee’s sympathy for a fellow aesthete, disciple of W. Pater, and sexual dissident,” and an argument “for a mitigation of Wilde’s unjust punishment” (113).

Even though “some ten years earlier, she had mocked him [in Miss Brown]; and for a decade afterwards he had kept clear of her,” Lee now “quite clearly identified with Wilde’s plight” (117). Perhaps, Stetz offers, because she shared with Wilde “a sense of foreignness, of un-Englishness or even anti-Englishness. Lee’s own culture [was] pan-European”, and she enjoyed Wilde’s “undercurrent of Irish irony and his mockery of the English in general” (114). There were personal reasons too: Wilde’s kindness to Eugene; Lee’s allegiance to Lady Brooke, the Ranee of Sarawak, who also helped Oscar Wilde and his wife Constance.

“Reading portraits” and “decoding desire” in her beautiful study of “Duality and Desire in Louis Norber”t, Patricia Pulham shows that “parallel love stories” and “other forms of duality” (123) characterize Lee’s intricate story (aptly subtitled “a two-fold romance”), thus “concealing a sexual subtext within the complexity of its narrative form” (123). Indeed, “Lee’s focus on the doubling of past and present loves … offers her a covert way in which to play with the performance of gender and sexuality”, with “covert expressions of desire … mediated … through the portrait” (125). Pulham demonstrates that in Louis Norbert “the characters… are ‘masks’ to be worn by real-life actors, who presumably can play more than one role, be more than one person,” which “implies ‘masking’ and ‘make-up’” and “also leads us to re-read the conflict between discovery and invention that informs the novel” (135). Pulham then examines “how [this destabilization] permits expressions of homoerotic desire in the context of the protagonists’ seemingly heterosexual couplings” (125): “ the archaeologist, who responds erotically to all three of the other protagonists –Lady Venetia, Artemisia, and Louis Norbert—arguably appears trapped in an infantile, undifferentiated, sexuality” (128).

“Used as a kind of mirror” (130), and “perceive[d by Lee] to act as a revelation” (131), the portrait, Pulham argues, “constitute[es] the author’s ‘self’ through the ‘other’” (130): it  “gives the sitter’s temperament merged in the temperament of the painter” (Hortus Vitae, 141-2; quoted by Pulham 129). Norbert is “both ghostly and yet not a ghost. His image seemingly acts as a meeting-point for a nexus of encoded desires that mirror the portrait’s ‘tangible’ intangibility and remain spectral, hovering above, and beyond the text” (139).

Grace Brockington’s superb study, “Performing Pacifism: The Battle Between Artist and Author in The Ballet of the Nations”, focuses on Lee’s “diabolical danse macabre … written during the first twelve months of WWI, when the battle seemed interminable” (143). Tellingly, “even before it reached the press, Lee was planning a longer, un-illustrated edition to appear after the war. [Satan the Waster, 1920] The Ballet was never staged, and is considered as provisional by critics, and yet “is remarkable because it raises the curtain on a neglected world of wartime cultural debate” (157). The trouble lay in Lee’s relationship with the illustrator, Maxwell Armfield: “Armfield chooses to illustrate, and vindicate, the aestheticism which Lee’s text lampoons, rather than to visualize the battle field which is the real subject of her polemic” (153). “Whereas Lee surrendered the privilege of aesthetic autonomy to the imperative need for propaganda against militarism, Armfield championed aestheticism as a form of pacifist resistance in its own right” (146). Lee’s wartime aesthetics vindicated “Art for life’s sake,” whereas Armfield supported the pacifist politics of art for art’s sake.

Brockington offers a striking portrait of Lee as a pacifist activist “stranded in England, where she felt exiled from her domicile in Florence, and alien to the fervour of British self-affirmation,” “refus[ing] to vilify Germany” (147) and indicting all parties, thus “highlight[ing] the ambiguity of [her] own national identity,” but conducting “a vociferous campaign for peace through writing and membership of the Union for Democratic Control (UDC), a pacifist pressure group” (148).

In “Plural anomalies: gender and sexuality in bio-critical readings of Vernon Lee”, Jo Briggs vindicates, in no uncertain terms, Lee as a subversive ground-breaking art critic. Briggs points out “posterity’s divergent treatment” of Lee and of Berenson, although he “wrote in a very similar way on the same subject” (164). Critics’ tendency to see her texts as “coded forms of sexual expression” (161) proves that, “as Richard Dellamora has observed, … ‘antihomophobic inquiry tends to ignore other aspects of dissidence; for example the connections between sexual and cultural dissidence in cultural production by women.” (Dellamora 1999, 5) quoted 164.

“Given the prominence of the body in contemporaneous thinking on aesthetics” (165), especially in the work of Carl Lange, Theodor Lipps, Karl Groos and William James, who “put forward the idea that emotions were the result, rather than the cause, of physical changes in the body” (Principles of Psychology 1890, quoted 164), “it is unsurprising that the body should have been the focus of their [Lee’s and Anstruther-Thomson’s] work, as it was in many contemporaries’ writings on the same subject, including Berenson’s” (165). Moreover, Lee is “on more familiar terms with the theories of Lange and James which are central to her engagement with aesthetics, whereas Berenson is interested in aesthetics only [from the point of view of an art-historian]” (166). “Lee’s idea of aesthetic empathy, according to which the viewer responds emotionally and physically to the art object, is … much more abstract [than Berenson’s]” (166) and much more modern, Berenson being mainly interested in figural art.

Briggs is particularly sensitive to the gradual exclusion of women from “[the] increasingly professionalized world [of art history] (170): “The articles and reminiscences pubished by Berenson’s pupils, especially post WWII, ensured the preservation of his reputation at almost exactly the same time as Lee being re-read by Gardner for insights into “the lesbian imagination”. … Indeed … the gender of art history in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century became masculine” (171).

In “The Handling of Words: Reader-Response Victorian Style”, Christa Zorn studies Lee’s pioneering collection of essays written over a time span of over thirty years (1891-1923) and published in 1923 as “one of the first attempts of a literary critic to address seriously questions of literary value from a scientific angle” (174).  “[I]nclud[ing] loosely connected thoughts on writing as a craft, the aesthetics of the novel, and psychological speculations on reader and writer, all accompanied by case studies of nineteenth century works, 500 words randomly selected from each” (174), The Handling of Words is an “important step in the history of reception theories that conceive literature as a form of interaction; in Lee’s view, an interaction of the life of the present with the life of the past” (189), and was hailed by Royal A. Gettmann and David Seed or David Lodge.

Lee, like Richards, aims at the “demystification of the reading process” (179); “treating the subjectivity of reader and writer as two sides of the same process mediated by the text” (180), and aiming at explaining “the phenomenon of a creature being apparently invaded from within by the personality of another creature” (1923 and 1992, 22). Thanks to empathy (Einfühlung: “feeling oneself into’ an object of art 181), “the literary work is returned to life by the reader’s re-experiencing the writer’s creative process” (183). Lee’s “unravelling of a text through a virtual reader undermines the conception of eighteenth and nineteenth century aesthetics since Kant, which had been determined by its distance from real life, providing a contemplative space for a viewer not called into action. Aesthetic Entruckheit (removal and rapt absorption) from life and from the material self had originally created the objects of art that could then be studied in themselves” (186).

Sophie Geoffroy

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