Review of Dalla stanza accanto: Vernon Lee e Firenze settant’anni dopo

Dalla stanza accanto: Vernon Lee e Firenze settant’anni dopo: Atti del convegno internazionale di studi Firenze 26-27-28 maggio 2005.

A cura di Serena Cenni e Elisa Bizzoto. Firenze e Trento: Regione Toscana, Gabinetto G.P. Vieusseux, Università degli Studi di Trento, The British Institute of Florence, 2006.

In Asolando, which Robert Browning dedicated to his female patron, ‘Mrs. Arthur Bronson’ and which nowhere mentions his own dead wife, Elizabeth, is included a poem called ‘Inapprehensiveness.’ He and Katherine Bronson survey Asolo’s landscape, noticing ‘how the wall-growths wave’ and query together whether that was observed in a book by John Ruskin? Robert replies, instead, ‘Vernon Lee’. The collection was published the day of Browning’s death, 12 December 1889.

This book, Proceedings of the Conference on Vernon Lee and Florence, Seventy Years After, is a kaleidoscope, a tapestry, of essays, many of which repeat discussions of the same material, the same texts. Its sections, divided with repeated scenes of the Villa Palmerino’s vista, cover landscaping in ‘Firenze e lo spirito del luogo’, aesthetics and travel writings, polemics against war, and fiction and give several fine essays. Particularly to be commended are those by Cristina Acidini, Daniela Lamberini and Claudio Paolini on the English and the Florentine landscape and architecture.

The second section, ‘La critica estetica e la scrittura di viaggio,’ could be further divided between time and space, its discussions of Violet Paget/Vernon Lee’s early and brilliant study of the culture of Italy’s eighteenth century and of the Pre-Raphaelites separated from the writings on travel landscapes.

The third section has the aesthete Vernon Lee break from her mould, become the pacifist, and write incisively against the waste of war, ‘La saggistica militante.’ Its final essay really belongs to the fourth section, on her fictional writings, which are demonstrably about her factual relations, ‘La scrittura creative.’ (A minor point was the need for the Italian sections of the volume to be checked by an English proof-reader to avoid such errors as ‘Studies of the Einghteenth Century in Italy’ for ‘Eighteenth’, p. 73, and ‘powered’ for ‘powdered’, p. 337.)

Throughout this rich embroidery strides Vernon Lee, dressed mannishly, glimpsed through her characters, Miss Brown, Lady Tal, Ottilie, being Michelangelo-esque, and the brilliancy of her friendships with like minds, Walter Pater, Bernard Berenson, Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, her dysfunctional family, her women friends, and her ultimate loneliness shrouded in deafness. Rita Severi sends us to Kinta Beevor, p. 227, for that picture. She who had so loved the music of the eighteenth century, music as if heard from another room. Her cosmopolitan childhood discouraged her from the growing wasteful arms race fuelled by nationalism in Europe to living the ‘Republic of Letters,’ and to refuting ‘The Betrayal of the Intellectuals,’ ‘La trahison des clercs’ Julien Benda tellingly described.

As custodian of the English Cemetery I particularly delighted in this book for its opening up of vistas beyond our Giuseppe Poggi-enforced 1877 closure, its references (pp. 119,121) to Clara Novello and her son Conte Mario Gigliucci (whose ashes are buried with us); Franco Marucci’s paralleling of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (pronounced ‘Lee’) with Vernon Lee’s Miss Brown (pp. 187-88). In that year the newer Swiss-owned cemetery, the Cimitero degli Allori, was opened and that is where Violet Paget/Vernon Lee’s ashes lie, at the foot of her difficult half-brother’s grave (p. 198).

Throughout, the collection laments the loss of fame of Vernon Lee. The remedy could be the publication of her Collected Writings, or at the very least, the re-publication of Satan the Waster. Nicoletta Pireddu, p. 278, notes Vernon Lee on the writer as being a ‘magician’s apprentice,’ who must ‘approach his work in a humble spirit and with a heart purified by self-scepticism.’ That is the framework in which an editor also best functions. I found with Elizabeth Barrett Browning that what was needed far more than a biography, or literary study, was an edition to restore her to the pantheon, to the canon, from which Robert’s jealousy had excluded her.

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