Sensibility, Sensitivity, and Heterotopia in Vernon Lee’s ‘it-narrative’: A Critical Introduction to ‘Biographie d’une Monnaie’(1870), by Anthony Teets and Sophie Geoffroy

By Anthony Teets, in collaboration with Sophie Geoffroy

The recent ‘turn to things’ in critical theory has prompted a great deal of reflection of the eighteenth century subgenre the ‘it-narrative.’ Variously called ‘object narratives,’ ‘novels of circulation,’ or just ‘it-narratives,’ Mark Blackwell, in The Secret Life of Things (2007) defines this category roughly as “an odd subgenre of the novel, a type of prose fiction in which inanimate objects (coins, waistcoats, pins, corkscrews, coaches) or animals, (dogs, fleas, cats, ponies) serve as the central characters.”[i] In the narratives, material objects enjoy a “consciousness…and thus a perspective…of their own,” which points in the direction of subjectivity and the role ‘it-narratives’ played in its development. In “Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales,” Jonathan Lamb adds that “they were autobiographies of things and creatures—dogs,  coins, and articles of dress were popular—and they exploited two of the century’s dominant preoccupations, one with the ancient doctrine of metempsychosis and the other with the modern theory of sympathy.”[ii]

Though at first one might consider these as mere period pieces and curiosities of the eighteenth century, they did have an afterlife in nineteenth-century British literature. At least two of the articles in The Secret Life of Things attempt to trace the shifts that occur in the Victorian ‘it-narratives.’ Although there are many Victorian ‘it-narratives’, there are also many cases of intertextuality and citation of earlier works that appear in novels. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2), Lydgate is introduced as a talented young boy whose wide reading included an ‘it-narrative.’ Lydgate read everything that he could get his hands on, “something he must read, when he was not riding the pony, or running and hunting, or listening to the talk of men. All this was true of him at ten years of age; he had then read through Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea, which was neither milk for babes, nor any chalk mixture meant to pass for milk, and it had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid.” (Eliot 1980 (1871-2): 172)[iii] Published only a year after Lee’s “Biographie d’une monnaie” Eliot’s description sounds very much like what Mlle. Violet Paget might have been doing with her leisure time.[iv] Like Eliot’s Lydgate, Violet Paget’s childhood would contain a space of reading and writing that would be very significant in later life.

Though Christopher Flint identifies Charles Glidon’s The Golden Spy (1709) as having “initiated the popularity of…the speaking object” into British fiction, Chrysal (1762), by Charles Johnstone, is one of the better-known ‘it-narratives’ of the eighteenth century now gaining critical attention.[v] If the young Violet Paget was like Eliot’s Lydgate and had been reading Chrysal, she would have learned enough to set her coin talking and to send it circulating through the European publishing houses. Unlike Lydgate, Violet Paget was already writing her own ‘it-narrative’. Written for cash, Johnstone’s story in four volumes records the peregrinations and opinions of a coin. It is more or less the mint from which all other ‘it-narratives’ derive their characters, and as Liz Bellamy argues “the novel of circulation…presents an image of society bound by economic relationships, which in practice unite everybody in a complex commercial system.” (Bellamy 1998: 128)[vi]

In Lee’s “Biographie d’une monnaie” both of the features Lamb designates as the eighteenth century’s “dominant preoccupations” are still present. There is no question as to why this should be so. As late as the early twentieth century, in The Handling of Words (1923), a mature and aging Lee still recalls that her mother was responsible for her early education which consisted among other things, of great doses of Voltaire.[vii] As Vineta Colby observes on Lee’s inheritance from Mrs. Matilda Paget

she had acquired a residual eighteenth century Enlightenment humanitarianism, a distrust of established authority, a de haut en bas sympathy for the poor. Mrs. Paget’s only passionate social commitment—which her daughter shared wholly—was antivivisectionism. (Colby 2003: 118)

Lee’s preoccupations with antivivisectionism and empathy theory are related to Lamb’s “metempsychosis” and “modern sympathy.” Not only does a concern with the welfare of animals relate to the ethics of sympathy, but the complex philosophical network of ideas Lee espoused in her youth, laid the groundwork for her later development of the literary conceit the “culture ghost” as well as her theory of aesthetic empathy.[viii] I propose to read this first literary attempt as a developmental and transformative exercise whereby Lee established the direction of her future career as writer while formulating an ethical sensibility, as well as sensitivity. While bearing in mind that it was written at the age of fourteen in the French language and published in the Lausanne journal La Famille (1870), I emphasize its importance in her subsequent literary career.

In her biography of Vernon Lee, Vineta Colby refers to the piece with the title “Les aventures d’une piece de monnaie,” (Colby 2003: 11) however in the Colby College Vernon Lee Collection the actual document bears the title “Biographie d’une monnaie.” When she quotes from Violet’s personal correspondence, Colby gives the correct title as it appears in the library holding: “She [Mrs. Turner] made me promise to send her my Biographie d’une monnaie to Thun and to write to her (16 June 1870).” (Colby 2003: 16) This juvenilia is not an extract from a diary or a journal but a fifteen page edited, corrected, and much pasted copy. The title appears in script and on the last page gives the name of the author “Mlle. V.P.” (Violet Paget).  This was to be the first and the last publication in which Lee would appear under this name, for hereafter she apparently realized the vital importance of being “Vernon”.

The fact that Lee’s first work has found its way out of the Colby library and back into circulation may be regarded as an important moment in Victorian literary scholarship. It is part of the recuperation process that Carol Poster writes about in her article “Oxidization is a Feminist Issue,” for many of these works by Victorian female writers “were printed on acid paper, are currently oxidizing, and if they are not recovered within the next one or two decades will physically disintegrate and be permanently unrecoverable” (Poster 1996: 287).[ix] There is a sense of this urgency present every time I have visited the library stacks and watched tiny paper bits fall onto the desk or photocopier glass as I open one of the volumes of the Nineteenth Century, Contemporary Review, or Cornhill Magazine. Yet every photocopy is a small victory and a means of liberating a voice before it fades into nonexistence. Poster’s argument supports projects like the Doughty Library, Virago, the Victorian Woman Writer’s Project, and the Brown Woman Writers Project, Richard Dellamora’s Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies , and now we may add Pr. Sophie Geoffroy’s “Sibyl.” Publishing “Biographie d’une monnaie” here should also be understood as repayment to Lee herself when as a young woman she devoted countless hours to the task of recuperating eighteenth-century Italian music and literature.

In the “Retrospective Chapter” which Lee added to the 1907 republication of her Studies on the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), Lee observes:

My eighteenth century lore was acquired at an age (more precisely between fifteen and twenty) when some of us are still the creatures of an unconscious play instinct. And the Italy of the eighteenth century accidently opened to me, became, so to speak, the hay loft, the tool house, the remote lumber room full of discarded mysteries and of lurking ghosts, where a half grown young prig might satisfy, in unsuspicious gravity, mere child-like instincts of make-believe and romance…(Lee 1907: xvi)

Ironically, Lee has much to say, in this essay looking back from thirty five years later, about the thankless task of literary recuperation. We can learn from her enthusiasm and energy for long before the days of photocopiers, PDF files, and emails, she was performing the work of scholarship that only a genuine lover of history and literature could accomplish. She speaks of the enchantment she discovered in the dusty old volumes in a manner that might well reflect the current state of utter neglect in which we find so much Victorian female writing:

An old book of cantatas of Porpora, an old volume of plays by Carlo Gozzi, does not affect us in the same manner as a darkened canvas by Titian, or a yellowed folio of Shakespeare; these latter have passed through too many hands, been looked at by too many eyes; they retain the personality of none of their owners. But the volume of Gozzi’s plays was probably touched last by hands which had clapped applause to Truffaldini-Sacchi or Pantalone-Darbes; the notes in the book of cantatas may last have been glanced over by singers who learned to sing them from Porpora himself; with this dust, which we shake reluctantly off the old volumes, vanishes we know not what subtle remains of personality. (Lee 1880 : Studies 293)

Here we are celebrating of course, the publication of one of Vernon Lee’s juvenilia in the small but very articulate voice of a talented fourteen year old girl then as yet unknown to the world. Mlle V.P was an “enfant précoce” according to her friend Giovanni Ruffini. The little circle of adults she entertained in Paris with her vividly detailed correspondence and lively conversation was only an extension of her own family who now began to grow and become a world of art and letters she was so ready to inhabit. Violet’s literary interests were encouraged by her parents and by her half brother Eugene-Lee Hamilton who even undertook her tutoring in various subjects. He often reported to their mother on her quick mind, rapid progress, her ease of comprehension, and even her “genius.” At fourteen years of age, two of her best friends were adult women who were already accomplished novelists: Mrs. Henrietta Camilla Jackson Jenkins (1807-1885) and Camilla Boinville de Chastel Turner (1793-1874). These women treated the young Violet with respect and enjoyed her correspondence which they describe as vividly descriptive and indicative of a future literary career.

When Violet announced her grand scheme of writing a history of Italian music and literature at age seventeen, Mrs. Turner wisely counseled her to go slowly but to begin by writing articles of forty to fifty pages in length. Lee followed her advice and set about immediately in reading everything she could find on the famous eighteenth century composer Metastasio. The same year she began her historical research (1873), the Paget family finally settled down to live permanently in Florence. Violet began submitting articles on aesthetic topics for publication. First, for La rivista europea, she wrote appreciative essays on English novelists and a strong critical piece on the lack of aesthetic appreciation of Italian art by the Italians. In The British Quarterly Review and Fraser’s Magazine she realized her first paid work. Finally, through her articles and essays on Italian music written for Frazer’s Magazine, she would eventually have enough material to present her Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880). The field work Lee did over the nine years from her first publication to this excellent book has always been recognized as an outstanding accomplishment.

Subjectivity and a sense of self are inseparable from the naming process, and especially for the Victorian female writer for whom presentation was everything. Violet’s choice of a literary pseudonym involved more than a little reflection “but more than expediency was involved in becoming Vernon Lee.” As Colby observes “[a]lthough she used both names interchangeably in her personal life, her use of the pseudonym…in all her published work suggests that she preferred the strong masculine ring of Vernon to the flowery feminine of Violet.” And so it was that “by 1875 she had firmly decided to be Vernon Lee.” (Colby 2003: 2) Sally Newman has recently added further clarity to Lee’s insistence on the importance of being Vernon. She quotes Lee’s executor Irene Cooper Willis referring specifically to the Colby collection from whence “Biographie d’une monnaie” emerges: “I must ask you to call [the catalogue] the Vernon Lee issue. Except to mere acquaintances she was never known as Miss Paget: and she would have objected strongly to being referred to as Violet Paget in connection with her writings and papers. She was always known and thought of by her friends as Vernon Lee” (Newman 2005: 51).  Becoming Vernon Lee however was only the beginning of a process of psychological self-discovery and displays of genius or talent.

Over the years since her death in 1935, critics have slowly pieced together Lee’s biography in spite of her testamentary instruction “I absolutely prohibit any biography of me. My life is my own and I leave that to nobody” (Gunn 1964: ix). The fact that she published under a male pseudonym has not helped Lee in the sense that Poster refers to in observing that “Nineteenth century cross-dressing has resulted in twentieth century canonicity” (Poster 1996: 288). Only in the last decade has Lee begun to receive the kind of critical attention she deserves, and as critics investigate her life every fresh detail prompts a series of questions. These mostly concern the historical construction of her intellectual pursuits, literary affiliations, collaborations, and her sexuality.  Irene Cooper Willis was largely responsible for the dissemination of Lee’s work “when in 1952 she transferred the literary effects of Vernon Lee to the library of Colby College, Waterville, Maine…” (Gunn 1964: ix). It is due to Willis that we have “Biographie d’une monnaie.” This first work in particular deserves special attention because it provides a wide range of Lee’s earliest interests among which are found an interest in an eighteenth century subgenre, a fascination with numismatics and Roman history, slavery, the evil eye (Ital. jetatante, or jettatore), sympathy, sensibility, and materialism.

“Qu’y-a-t-il donc d’extraordinaire en toi? Me direz-vous” (“What then is extraordinary about you? You will ask.”) The opening question that young Violet’s coin asks of the reader might be considered prefatory to any engagement with the subgenre of ‘it-narratives.’ Why would one find the biography of an object worth reading? Several sophisticated answers have been given to this question, among them in Igor Kopytoff’s seminal article “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” Kopytoff, an anthropologist specialized in the history of slavery, argues through analogy that the Western tendency to dichotomize persons and things is neither historical nor accurate. His argument initially appears disconcerting since it is only through something like the rational dichotomy imposed on modern consciousness that we continually reassert and struggle for the liberty and dignity of persons. Kopytoff’s focus is on the “shift away from this all-or-none view toward a processual perspective, in which marginality and ambiguity of status are at the core of the slave’s social identity” (Appadurai 1983: 65). It is perhaps our inattention to the “commoditization process” (hereafter “commodification”) that has led us to want to bury the memory of slavery, to forget about it, to refuse talking about it. In this context, the ‘it-narrative’ emerges as a particularly poignant response in abolitionist and anti-slavery rhetoric, and as Lamb observes: “slave narratives closely follow the narrative pattern laid down by things. They preserve the convention of the title page where the autobiography of a pin, feather, or coin is always written or related by itself” (Lamb 2004: 158).

In Violet Paget’s narrative, the biography of the circulating coin travelling on its trajectory from the time of Hadrian to the nineteenth century is interesting for its imaginative encounter with slaves and its sensibility in response to their plight. This sympathetic sensibility she bestows upon her coin in lending it subjectivity and determining its origin is accomplished through a reflective and refractive process. The first hand the coin passes into is that of the young patrician Attilius who proposes a wager to the gladiator Nicias. His much larger opponent, Berbex is stands over him like the giant Goliath threatening a little David. Nicias’ grandfather Sparamixas is a Persian slave brought to Rome as a prisoner from the wars of the Romans against the Arsacides. When Nicias goes coin in hand to visit his grandfather Sparamixas, he tells him that any money he wins from successful combat will go towards buying his freedom. The little coin as narrator of the story becomes part of a universal brotherhood (currency) and an agent of freedom by being a token that can buy freedom. As Sparamixas spends the coin in a bakery shop, it learns while passing from one hand to another that Nicias has won against Berbex. The coin rejoices at the news: “Que j’étais aise d’apprendre que ce bon vieillard et son enfant étaient heureux!” (Paget 1870: 235) Happy to have learned this good news, the coin narrator shows that it is not insensitive to the plight of human slaves but is glad to celebrate in their liberation.

The Nicias episode is one of the longest portions of the narrative and attention to its placement at the beginning of “Biographie d’une monnaie” mirrors the final act of kindness that concludes the coin’s biography. In The Politics of Sensibility, Markman Ellis examines slavery in light of the ‘it-narrative’ suggesting that the subgenre occupies the intersection between eighteenth century sentimental literature and the growth of the anti-slavery movements.[x] While Lee’s little narrative is not exactly about slavery, it offers a striking reflection on the commodity status of Sparamixus under the Roman Empire.

In his contribution to Mark Blackwell’s The Secret Life of Things, Ellis’s essay “Suffering Things: Lapdogs, Slaves, and Counter-Sensibility,” further refines his original argument in The Politics of Sensibility by adding the notion of “counter-sensibility”: “a particular trope which depicts an animal being lavished with sympathy while humans suffer nearby.”[xi] Liz Bellamy, who refers to ‘it-narratives’ as ‘novels of ‘circulation’, considers a story about an animal to have initiated the vogue for ‘it-narratives’: “It was really only from the mid-century, with the publication in 1751 of Francis Coventry’s story of a Bologna lapdog, Pompey the Little, that the novel of circulation became established as an autonomous narrative form within Britain.” (Bellamy 1998: 119)[xii] While there is no reason to insist as Bellamy does, that only fictions that feature an animal can really be successful in convincing the reader of the greater realism of the novel (i.e., animals have feelings and coins do not), it is interesting that Lee chose a coin over an animal to convey her message about sympathy with slaves. Though she wrote an early article expressing her antivivisectionist sentiments, her interest in numismatics is what really resounds in “Biographie d’une monnaie.”[xiii] Whether the narrator object in the story is sentient or inanimate, the expression of sympathy with the plight of the slave, or condition of slavery holds all the same.

This observation is also made in Lamb’s article where the degrading and disgraceful treatment of fellow humans as related in slave narratives often shows them driven “towards powerful nonhuman sympathies.” In reacting to his condition of “near-extinction” akin to “a life in death,” Frederick Douglas wrote “I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own.” (Douglas 159) The ‘it-narratives’ Markman Ellis describes often display a very painful awareness of this “counter-sensibility,” but Lamb’s essay goes much further by bringing attention to “the desire for metamorphosis experienced by slaves whose links to their kind have been broken.” He observes that ”sometimes animality acts as the cause as well as the effect of this transformation, introducing a sinister intimacy into the process of unkindness when brutality makes brutes of victims, and brutalisers are themselves brutalized” (Lamb 2004: 165). I cannot discuss at length the rich analysis of Lamb’s article but I want to highlight his dystopian conclusion as an accurate description of so many ‘it-narratives’ and yet in marked contrast to Violet Paget’s ‘it-narrative.’ He writes:

Because kindness is only the projection of defeated self-love; because tenderness can originate in perversity and tend towards violence; and because the real sense of another’s loss calques upon a presentiment of the extinction of our own identity, we should worry not about extending sympathy, but that it is already too disgracefully extended. (Lamb 2004: 166)

While eighteenth-century ‘it-narratives’ may have offered confusing instructions in how to demonstrate sensibility and sympathy for the plight of others, Violet’s coin seems to be already equipped with a different kind of knowledge and forethought. I will be arguing that the narrative space of “Biographie d’une monnaie” is heterotopic. While sensitivity and sensibility are words that may be used to describe some aspects of the ethical and psychological terms sympathy and empathy, it is important to recognize that the narrative spaces of juvenilia are unique. Not only do they serve as places to negotiate complex terms of subjectivity and identity, but they always remain as important elements of biography.

What makes Violet’s story unique is the kind of biographical attention she gives to an inanimate object. It is after all “the cultural biography of a thing” in Kopytoff’s sense because it answers some of the questions about the coin that he would suggest to anthropologists writing biographies of things today:

In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask questions similar to those one asks about people: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its ‘status’ and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? What are the recognized “ages” or periods in a thing’s “life,” and what are the cultural markers for them? How does the things’ use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?” (Appadurai 1983:  66-7)

The narrator coin has a sympathetic attitude toward humans and does not appear shocked at the bad things they do, but simply records their actions. The coin itself is the protagonist in the narrative as it tells its biography from its birth out of a “casque de cuivre” (copper helmet): “A l’hôtel des monnaies, le casque fut métamorphosé par la fonte en une masse de belles monnaies portant l’effigie d’Adrien” (Paget 1870: 234). The coin’s physical appearance, including its tarnishing after having survived a thousand-year burial, is told along with the many peregrinations of its career. The complexities I refer to have to do with Violet’s subtle manipulation of the narrating voice of the inanimate object. A coin that is narrating its own life is technically considered an autobiography, however things become complicated when one considers slave narratives.

A slave narrative, as Bill Brown argues at length following Kopytoff, is really a biography of a thing when that category (the slave) is considered “negotium,” or a commodity.[xiv] This blurring of the person/thing dichotomy is what has always troubled the classification of slave narratives. We must forgive these literary transgressions as being strange and unusual problems from the point of view of a child. In contrast to the ‘it-narratives’ in Lamb’s article, Violet’s utopian conclusion seems to expand the spatiality of the narrative by juxtaposing various historical periods in one single narrative frame. The last episode describes how the coin passes into the hands of two kind men who happen to be in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. They find a hungry little beggar boy on the street and take him into a bakery to purchase him some bread. The coin is included in the change returned from their transaction, and when they discover it to be an antique, they place it in a nice little display box where its trajectory comes to a final happy ending. The sensitivity the coin expresses in the opening toward the plight of Sparamixas is mirrored by the concluding episode.

There is a sense that the coin itself remains intact through all the incidents and survives all of the hands it passes through, clean or unclean. The material existence of the object is what provides the connection and seems to have remained with Lee in later life when she returned to discuss her early fascination with coins. In Limbo, and Other Essays (1897), she describes the space of childhood in which she wrote her “Biographie d’une monnaie.”[xv] Neither utopian nor dystopian, the space of the “Children’s Rabbit’s House” or “Rabbits’ Villa” is more like Michel Foucault’s heterotopia as he defines this term in his essay “Des Espaces Autres”.[xvi] Yet here in this childhood space that registers so many themes, one might also detect a consciousness of the Freudian fort-da game in which the child negotiates the mother’s absence and presence. Certainly “Limbo” allows for a reading of that space as transformational, transitional, and heterotopic.

By referring to the mirror as the perfect example of a “mixed or joint experience,” Foucault emphasizes its spatiality as a kind of “placeless place:”

In the mirror I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. (Foucault 1986: 24)

Foucault goes on to classify heterotopias into the subcategories of “crisis” and “deviation.” The former corresponds here to the space of adolescence, of “boarding schools” and “the heterosexual honeymoon” which Foucault describes as slowly “disappearing” today as sexual “other spaces.” Deviation heteropias, by contrast, are on the rise as spaces “in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed.” Though Foucault does not apply his term to literature in this essay, it has been successfully applied to children’s literature by other critics negotiating his terms. Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux’s important article “L’Enfant dans les textes de Vernon Lee” traces the theme of childhood in various works providing numerous examples of what Foucault would call the “crisis heterotopias.” She discusses Lee’s tale “Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child” (1906) recalling how the cloister serves as a transitional space where education leads to “la découverte de la Loi”, or Lacan’s Symbolic:

Ce texte, fort riche sur le plan symbolique, décrit d’abord l’éducation des petites filles comme une véritable entreprise de censure et d’incarcération, matérialisée par l’image du couvent. En même temps, ce monde carcéral quasi piranésien, partout associé à une enfance dont on refuse l’évolution, évoque le carcan de l’éducation, de la socialisation, qui fait coïncider l’entrée dans le régime de la communication avec la découverte de la Loi. (Geoffroy-Menoux 1998: 256)[xvii]

I want to argue that the space the coin inhabits in “Biographie d’une monnaie” may be best described as a heterotopia, for in it the young Violet Paget negotiates the terms of her emerging subjectivity as an adolescent (crisis heterotopia). Furthermore, though she may not have had very much experience in life, I think one may argue that, as a teenager, Violet was already attempting to equip herself with some notion, however vague, of her own sexuality. Furthermore by describing the particular spatiality of the narrative we can remove our focus on the story from a sympathy tale, or ‘it-narrative’ to its other role in creating a space in which this “enfant précoce” could develop her literary talents. The flexibility of Thing Theory allows one to follow the trajectory of things without forcing narratives into rigid rules of periodization and genre.

By employing Foucault’s terminology to describe the space of a fourteen year old teenager’s narrative it may be possible to see how his appreciation of other spaces may be extended to what Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley have recently called “the queerness of children.”[xviii] Examining the fairy tale world of children as well as the fairy tales we tell about children, they suggest that “the story of the child shifts almost imperceptibly to the story of the adult at a key moment: the ending. If writing is an act of world-making, writing about the child is doubly so: not only do writers control the terms of the worlds they present, they also invent over and over again, the very idea of inventing humanity, of training it and watching it evolve” (Bruhm and Hurley 2004: xiii). I raise this distinction here in order to contrast Violet’s story with the ‘it-narratives’ written by adults for children.

In The Secret Life of Things, Bonnie Blackwell’s contribution “Corkscrews and Courtesans: Sex and Death in Circulation Novels” addresses the “reincarnation of object-novels as juvenilia” noting “that abruptly at the eighteenth century, the subgenre was miraculously repackaged as children’s literature, a guise it would maintain throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century.” (Blackwell, 280) Stressing the transformation as primarily a toning down of the illicit sexuality and the picaresque of the eighteenth century ‘it-narrative,’ Blackwell confirms that “the Victorian flourishing of it-novels, this time expressly packaged as adolescent literature” gives “an earnest education for children in the avoidance of cruelty and selfishness…” (Blackwell 2007: 284). “Biographie d’une monnaie” shares the utopian moral through its happy closure, but it may also be read in this different spatial sense as mapping a heterotopia.

The adult Vernon Lee wrote the essay “Limbo” as a nostalgic reflection on the Rabbit’s Villa, or play space she occupied as a child. She makes a very interesting comparison between this play space and Dante’s quite different literary “Limbo” reserved for un-christened dead babies. By juxtaposing these two spaces it may be stated that Lee is keenly aware of the potential of heterotopic space available to the child writer, and to the adult writer as well. “Limbo” traces the space of childhood quite vividly in the description of the little Rabbit’s Villa, yet the essay is also a sustained meditation on the child’s transformation into an adult. Borrowing a line from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “A Superscription” (sonnet 97), Lee calls Limbo “The Kingdom of Might-have-been.”[xix] Though wary of consigning the child-like souls of adults to these spaces, she also suspects that it may be possible to retain something of the child’s freedom through an “appreciation of others.” (Lee 1897: 17)

Describing her childhood love of coins as material objects of interest for their beauty, she makes a vivid contrast between that world and the adult space of economics, where the early “genius” “will surely be brought into the market” (Lee 1897: 6). In the essay that follows “Limbo” given the title “In Praise of Old Houses” Lee writes about this early interest in numismatics which led to the composition of “Biographie d’une monnaie”:

It all came back to me, a little while ago, when doing up for my young friend, L.V., sundry Roman coins long mislaid in a trunk, and which had formed my happiness at his age. Delightful things!—smooth and bright green like cabbage-leaves, or of a sorry brown, rough with rust and verdigris, but all leaving alike a perceptible portion of themselves in the paper bag, a delectable smell of copper on one’s hands. How often had I turned you round and round betwixt finger and thumb, trying to catch the slant of an inscription, or to get, in some special light, the film of effaced effigy—the chin of Nero, or the undulating, benevolent nose of Marcus Aurelius? (Lee 1897: 25-6)

By juxtaposing in a single narrative space multiple historical scenes that plot the trajectory of the talking coin, Violet can manipulate the conventional language of realism while experimenting with fantasy. Though the story itself quickly turns into a little girl’s object lesson that rehearses the reigns of many Roman emperors, the actions that the coin narrates are always full of vivid detail. Likewise the physical condition of the coin is always present as it is handled by various hands and passed from one episode to another. The physical act of touching the coin (“How often had I turned you round and round betwixt finger and thumb”), should be singled out in any psychoanalytic reading of the story.

The episode that best manipulates the fantastic, and what Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux calls the Victorian “prohibition of touch,” is that which follows the twelfth hand into which the coin passes. Since “Biographie d’une monnaie” otherwise seems to celebrate the fluidity of currency, this episode stands out. The painter “Fabio D” who is described as a good-looking thirty-eight year old man, kind and gentle, nevertheless possesses the “evil eye” and is capable of killing other men merely by looking at them. In a tale that includes only males, the extraordinary power Violet lends to gender suggests that she is quite aware of the phallic gaze here symbolized through the evil eye (jetatante). Geoffroy-Menoux, following Didier Anzieu’s Le Moi-Peau (1985), explains the double nature of this fascination as rooted in the contradictory Victorian cult of childhood where fascination is supplemented by the prohibition of touch. (Geoffroy-Menoux 1998: 251)

It may be argued that the primacy of the masculine element in the young Violet’s ‘it-narrative’ suggests that she is negotiating a transitional space in which the object may serve either as a kind of Winnicottian “transitional object,” or as a way to voice her concern with the overly-gendered Victorian world of publishing.[xx] In a letter she wrote to her papa about the trials of publishing her “Biographie d’une monnaie” Violet expresses frustration and impatience at the Swiss editors:

The 18 numbers of the Famille have come. I spend all day pasting them together, tant bien que mal. I send you one. Oh that Vulliet is a pig! Fancy leaving out the Ottoboni about which you were so very kind and which was truly the best I ever wrote. The idiot has made mistakes right and left which I have corrected. Fancy his writing Domicain instead of Dominiquin! Why does the fellow think that the great painter is called in Italian Dominicano! Does he think he was a Dominican monk! His real name was Domenico Zampieri, and Domenichino is the short for Domenico which means Dominique.[xxi]

The sharp analysis Violet displays here in distinguishing the correct etymology of the Italian name and negotiating the talents of her editor, demonstrates her advanced mental acumen and the frustrations she is experiencing already in a world of all-male publishers. This particular attitude toward editors and publishers would only increase with more experience, and it stands as a testament to the remarkable strength of character she displayed from early on. Nevertheless, there is the sense that the childhood Rabbit’s Villa will eventually disappear. The adult Lee writes of this passing of the child in “Limbo”:

It is the indefinable quality of nearly every child, and of all nice lads and girls; the quality which (though it can reach perfection in exceptional old people) usually vanishes, no one knows when exactly, into the Limbo marked by the Rabbit’s Villa, with its plates and teacups, mouldering on its wooden posts in the unweeded garden (Lee 1897: 15-16).

While this passage obviously addresses the inevitable changes that accompany the child’s growth into an adult, it may also serve as an extended metaphor for the disintegration of the physical world and objects one loved as a child, including the text as object.

The Rabbit’s Villa of Violet’s childhood would have to come to an end, or at least be consigned to a literary Limbo where heterotopia might still exist. The world of book publishing and essay writing would consume most of Lee’s adult life. In a review essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics  (“The Economic Dependence of Women”), Lee describes the “female homo” as living in a condition of slavery under patriarchy:

The home which she inhabits is his home, the food she eats is his food, the children she rears become, whether father or only patriarch, his children; and by a natural evolution, she herself…becomes, thus amalgamated with the man’s property, a piece of property herself, body and soul, a slave (often originally a captive, stolen, or bought), and what every slave naturally is, a chattel (Lee 1902: 75).[xxii]

Lee described Gilman’s book as a pivotal reading in her “conversion” to the Woman Question, yet one might argue that as early as age fourteen she was certainly already aware of the gender problems that must be addressed. Not only was she keenly aware of gender, but she had first hand knowledge of the reality of slavery. Her own grandfather, Edward Hamlin Adams “was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1777, coming from an old colonial family long established in Barbados.”[xxiii]

In conclusion, I want to again address the importance of the project of recuperation. The recovery of Lee’s juvenilia in some way does the very work the narrative describes. The little coin is taken aboard a pirate ship that wrecks, is buried for a thousand years, and a poor fisherman discovers it and puts it back into circulation. The adventures of Lee’s text may not be as exciting as those of her coin, yet they also contain their own twist of fate. It is a strange irony that Marguerite Yourcenar published a twentieth century novel reminiscent of the ‘it-narrative’ the year before Lee died. Denier du Rêve (1934), like “Biographie d’une monnaie” records the passing of a coin between nine hands on a single day. The novel translated into English as A Coin in Nine Hands, culminates in an assassination attempt in Fascist Italy of 1933, a feature the adult Lee would have treated with particular relish.[xxiv] A further indulgence in this irony leads one to recall that Yourcenar’s 1958 re-writing of her novel took place in Maine, not too far from where Lee’s “Biographie d’une monnaie” lies dormant as it were, in the Colby library waiting to be released back into the world of circulation.

Here I wish to extend my gratitude to Patricia A. Burdick (Colby Library Special Collections Librarian), Anna Graves (Colby Library Acting Special Collections Librarian), Dr. Adrienne Auslander-Munich (Professor of English, Director of Women’s Studies, SUNY Stony Brook), and Pr. Sophie Geoffroy (Université de La Réunion) whose open hands and kind attention have helped this project along. It is hoped that this publication will engender more critical interest in Lee’s writings and encourage other voices, still unheard, to emerge.  “Sibyl” aspires to provide the kind of cyberspace where future negotiations of Lee’s work may have a home in memory of one of English literature’s recovered female aesthetes.

[i] Mark Blackwell (Ed.) 2007. The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth Century England. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press. Though this text does not mention Lee’s work, it could well merit the critical attention of those exploring the afterlives of it-narratives in the nineteenth century. Blackwell stresses that the essays in the volume should be read as a contribution to Thing Theory as Bill Brown understands it in Things [2004], and in particular he notes that “Kopytoff’s category of thing-biography is doubly significant to this collection.” (12) For Kopytoff, see below.

[ii] Jonathan Lamb, 2004. “Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales.” Things Ed. Bill Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[iii] George Eliot (1871-2) 1980. Middlemarch. London and New York: Penguin.

[iv] Vernon Lee’s Biographie d’une monnaie (1870) is in the Colby College Library Special Collections (Tr.Rm. PR5115. P2A7. 1870) in Waterville, Maine. The copy in my possession is extracted from Lee’s journals, written in French, and unpublished. Vineta Colby notes that a revision of this text as Les aventures d’une piece de monnaie [was] published serially in the Lausanne journal La famille in May, June, and July 1870” in Colby, Vernon Lee, 11. See below.

[v] Christopher Flint (March 1998).  “Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteenth Century Prose Fiction”. PMLA. Vol. 113, No. 2. 212.

[vi] Liz Bellamy. 1998. Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth Century Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[vii] Vernon Lee, 1968. Handling of Words and Other Studies in Literary Psychology. Ed. Gettmann, Royal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[viii] A fine treatment of Lee’s theory of empathy as it relates to her fiction has recently been argued by Nicole Fluhr (Winter 2006). “Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings”. Victorian Studies. 287-94.

[ix] Carol Poster (Mar., 1996). College English. Vol. 58, No. 3. 287-306.

[x] Markman Ellis, 1996. The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender, and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[xi] Markman Ellis, “Suffering Things: Lapdogs, Slaves, and Counter-Sensibility.” The Secret Life of Things. [supra] 96.

[xii] Bellamy argues that “the use of an inhuman protagonist ensures that while the central character may be able to learn from its experiences, it cannot share these experiences with others. The banknote and guinea can accumulate knowledge of society, which can be contrasted with the ignorance and naivety of the human beings they encounter” (Bellamy 1998: 128).

[xiii] Vernon Lee, 1882. “Vivisection: An Evolutionist to Evolutionists,” Contemporary Review 41, pp. 788-811.

[xiv] Bill Brown (Winter 2006). “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny”. Critical Inquiry. 32: 175-207.

[xv] Vernon Lee, 1897. Limbo, and Other Essays. London: Grant Richards.

[xvi] Michel Foucault. (Spring, 1986) “Of Other Spaces.” Trans. Jay Miscowiec. Diacritics. Vol. 16, No. 1. 22-7. “Des Espaces Autres” was published by the French journal Architecture-Mouvement-Unité in October, 1984, the basis of a lecture given by Foucault in March 1967.

[xvii] Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux. 1998. “L’Enfant dans les textes de Vernon Lee”. Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens. No. 47. 251-63.

[xviii] Eds. Bruhm, Steven and Natasha Hurley. 2004. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

[xix] Limbo, 18. Recurring throughout her essay as kind of leitmotiv, Rossetti’s line “Look into my face: My name is Might-have-been” becomes transformed from word to musical refrain just as Rossetti himself also engaged in interartistic genre-crossing.

[xx] Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux explains that Anzieu’s theory of the “Moi-Peau” is influenced by Winnicott’s notion of the “holding” in which the mother establishes contact and thereby is interiorized by the infant. Anzieu takes Winnicott’s idea a step further by giving primacy to the mother’s touch: “L’interdit du toucher ne favorise la restructuration du Moi que si le Moi-Peau a été suffisamment acquis.” (1998, 262n.16)

[xxi] The Ottoboni Violet refers to here must be to member(s) of the Venetian family prominent in Rome in the seventeenth-century. The papacies of Alexander VIII Ottoboni and his nephew, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni are significant for their record of patronage of musical and visual artists. Since Violet devotes so much time to the arts in her story one can see why she would be frustrated by the editing of this episode. The letter here cited is from Irene Cooper Willis’ edition of Lee’s letters dated “Friday, 29th, [1870.]” Cooper Willis, Irene. 1937. Vernon Lee’s Letters. London: Privately Printed.

[xxii] “The Economic Dependence of Women” is also included in Lee’s Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies (1908) under the title “The Economic Parasitism of Women.” Cf. Gospels of Anarchy

[xxiii] Peter Gunn, 1964. Vernon Lee, Violet Paget, 1856-1935. London: Oxford University Press. 14. Gunn cites a letter to her lover Kit Anstruther-Thomson in which Lee makes light of her own ancestry: “Oh no, I am not descended from the “Kings of England till Edward III, the Counts of Flanders and Hainault, and many Kings of France”—I fear—only from a few inhuman and often rather drunken Jamaican planters, who have left me this bad constitution.” (15)

[xxiv] Marguerite Yourcenar (1934, 1959) 1971. Denier du Rêve. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. The translated text by Dori Katz has the title A Coin in Nine Hands. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982.


Primary sources

Eliot, George. (1871-2) 1980.  Middlemarch. London and New York: Penguin.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. 1898. Women and Economic; A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co.

Paget, Violet. 1870. “Biographie d’une monnaie”. Unpubl. Colby College Library Special Collections (Tr.Rm. PR5115. P2A7. 1870) in Waterville, Maine. Revised as “Les aventures d’une piece de monnaie.” 1870. La famille. Lausanne: May, June, July, pp. 233-334.

Lee, Vernon. 1880. Studies of the eighteenth Century in Italy. London: W. Satchell. Rpt. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907.

Lee, Vernon. 1882. “Vivisection: An Evolutionist to Evolutionists,” Contemporary Review 41, pp. 788-811.

Lee, Vernon. 1897. Limbo and Other Essays. London: Grant Richards.

Lee, Vernon. 1968. Handling of Words and Other Studies in Literary Psychology. (Ed.) Gettmann, Royal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Lee, Vernon. 1908. “The Economic Parasitism of Women.” Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies.

Yourcenar, Marguerite. (1934, 1959) 1971. Denier du Rêve. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. Transl. Dori Katz. 1982. A Coin in Nine Hands. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Secondary sources

Anzieu, Didier. 1985. Le Moi-Peau. Paris : Dunod.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1983. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bellamy, Liz. 1998. Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth Century Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blackwell, Mark ed.. 2007. The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth Century England. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.

Bill Brown. 2004. Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Bill. 2006. “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny.” Critical Inquiry. 32: 175-207.

Colby, Vineta. 2003. Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography. University of Virginia Press.

Cooper Willis, Irene. 1937. Vernon Lee’s Letters. London: Privately Printed.

Ellis, Markman. 1996. The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender, and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, Markman.  “Suffering Things: Lapdogs, Slaves, and Counter-Sensibility.” Blackwell, Mark ed.. 2007. The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth Century England. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.

Flint, Christopher. 1998.  “Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteenth Century Prose Fiction”. PMLA. Vol. 113, No. 2. 212.

Fluhr, Nicole. 2006. “Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings”. Victorian Studies. 287-94.

Foucault, Michel. 1984. “Des Espaces Autres.” Architecture-Mouvement-Unité. Transl. Jay Miscowiec. 1986. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics. Vol. 16, No. 1. 22-7

Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie. 1998. “L’Enfant dans les textes de Vernon Lee”. Cahiers victoriens et edouardiens. No. 47. 251-63.

Gunn, Peter. 1964. Vernon Lee-Violet Paget, 1856-1935, London: Oxford University Press.

Kopytoff, Igor. 1983. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Appadurai, Arjun. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lamb, Jonathan. 2004. “Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales.” Things. Ed. Bill Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Newman, Sally. 2005. “The Archival Traces of Desire: Vernon Lee’s Failed Sexuality and the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. Vol. 14, Nos. ½, January/April 2005, pp. 51-75.

Poster, Carol. 1996. “Oxidization is a Feminist Issue.” College English. Vol. 58, No. 3. 287-306.

Bruhm, Steven and Natasha Hurley (eds.) 2004. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children.  Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

1 Response to Sensibility, Sensitivity, and Heterotopia in Vernon Lee’s ‘it-narrative’: A Critical Introduction to ‘Biographie d’une Monnaie’(1870), by Anthony Teets and Sophie Geoffroy

  1. Pingback: Sensibility, Sensitivity, and Heterotopia in Vernon Lee’s ‘it-narrative’: A Critical Introduction to ‘Biographie d’une Monnaie’(1870) – The Sibyl

Leave a Reply