Reading guide to Vernon Lee’s short story, Amore Dure

Plot summary

In the summer of 1885, Polish historian Trepka travels to Urbania in Italy to write on the history of the area and expresses his disappointment at the deserted streets which differ to the expectations that he had, he was expecting a much livelier village like the one he recalls in the past, yet as Trepka stresses – this is the present, not the past.

Trepka’s spirits are lifted as he comes across the story of Medea da Carpi, yet murder and violence appear to be associated with every man that she has been romantically involved with. At fourteen, Medea was married by proxy to Giovanfrancesco Pico. However, Pierluigi Orsini, the Duke of Stimigliano annulled the marriage somehow. Pico was not able allowed to plead his case to protect his marriage and abducts Medea who he declares he is in love with. Medea manages to escape and when Pico is found, he has been stabbed in the chest. Medea then marries the Duke of Stimigliano but two years later, the Duke is found dead. Medea frightfully flees Urbania, and turns to the Duke Guidalfonso II, claiming she had played no part in the Duke of Stimigliano’s death. Guidalfonso is amazed by Medea’s beauty, despite his marriage to Maddalena Varano with whom he has been happily married. Guidalfonso accuses Maddalena of ill-conduct and after she dies suddenly, the Duke remarries only two days later to Medea.

After a conspiracy for the murder of Cardinal Robert (the Duke’s son) is found, Medea is removed from the palace and put into a convent permanently under guard. It is obvious that Medea is involved, yet a fellow conspirator refuses to implicate her even under severe torture. Medea managed to send a portrait of herself and a letter to Prinzivalle degli Ordelaffi who breaks off his engagement and attempts to kill the Duke. Ordelaffi is tortured and is promised a quick death if he implicates Medea, but he refuses and dies after hours of torture. Robert becomes tired of Medea and orders that she should be strangled in the convent, stressing that only women should carry out the strangulation.

Trepka wondered what Medea looked like and on September 28th, he comes across her portrait and is striken by her beauty. Medea appears to seize Trepka’s mind, and he confesses to the Vice-prefects son that Medea haunts him. Trepka becomes increasingly infatuated by Medea and he expresses disgust at the ill treatment she received by the men she was involved with and justifies her actions towards her deceased lovers.

By December, Trepka seems to have lost his sanity and believes he has seen Medea in the street. The second time he sees her, he receives a letter which asks him to meet at the church at nine o’clock that evening where he finds Medea surrounded by ghosts. Two days later, Trepka confusingly learns the church has not been used “in the memory of man”[7]. To prove he’s not insane, Trepka goes back to the Church and receives a rose from Medea which turns to dust, realising the crowd are dead men and women who only exist to him. Medea vanishes as he goes towards her, but finds a letter addressed to him which requests him to take the charm out of the Duke’s statue on Christmas Eve.

Trepka destroys the charm, and his final diary entry ends when he can hear Medea on the stairs to his room, “A step on the staircase! It is she! It is she! At last, Medea, Medea! Ah! AMOUR DURE – DURE AMOUR!”[8]

A note reveals the mutilation of the Duke’s statue and that Trepka was found, stabbed through the heart, “by an unknown hand”.

Common themes

Supernatural

The supernatural is a prominent theme throughout Amore Dure and is a force that is stronger than love, for Trepka at least. Lee presents Trepka’s diary as a reader’s insight to his personal life and thoughts, which are ultimately eye-opening to the reader. As a historian, an individual who aims to observe and analyse facts in an objective manner, it is surprising to follow Trepka’s thought processes and experiences as he gradually becomes further captivated and vulnerable to the ghost of Medea and her possession of him. The power of the supernatural is strong enough to break down Trepka and lead him astray of his historical work and is ultimately the cause of his death. Lee expresses the power of the supernatural even on those of the soundest minds, demonstrating that individuals can all be broken down in some way. Andrew Smith suggests “the fin-de-siecle ghost story also seems to represent this backward turn, but in important ways also suggests that the past needs to be cast off, as its return represents the presence of malign forces and also a particular type of story-telling that this new gothic aesthetic needs to move beyond.” In Amore Dure, the ghost of the past, Medea, is nothing other than detrimental to Trepka’s wellbeing even though he is convinced of his feelings towards her, it serves the purpose of demonstrating how individuals from the past prove damaging to those of the present, providing Lee with a means of expressing her anxieties in a society preferential of males.

Trepka declares “the possession of a woman like Medea is a happiness to great for a mortal man; it would turn his head; make him forget even what he owed her; no man must survive long enough who conceives himself to have a right over her it is a kind of sacrilege. And only death, the willingness to pay for such happiness by death, can at all make a man worthy of being her lover; he must be willing to love and suffer and die.”[1] Lee represents the ghost of Medea to be superior to the living, although Medea has her evil ways, Trepka thinks of Medea as the pinnacle of existence, or perhaps inexistence. Angela Leighton indicates how the nineteenth century was “an age which craves ghost stories of all kinds. Sceptical of the supernatural yet nostalgic for it the age turns to ghost stories to assure its lost faith.”[2] Furthermore, supernatural stories can explore sexual freedom and multiple relationships. In Amore Dure, Medea has romantic relationships with five men and Lee ultimately challenges the Victorian ideas of what a woman was expected to be.

Romance

Lee portrays romance to be extremely dangerous, or deadly in this case! Medea represents what we know to be a femme fatale or enchantress, she lures men into deadly traps using her good looks for her own benefit and power gains.

Kristen Lee defines and exemplifies a femme fatale in this brief YouTube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLdWsuBI6vc

Men who become romantically involved/infatuated with Medea know of their possible fate and her malicious nature yet are not discouraged by it, they will do anything for her love. Prior to Trepka removing the charm, he ponders “would it be possible to live in order to love another woman? Nay, would it be possible to drag on a life like this one after the happiness of tomorrow? Impossible; the others died, and I must die.”[3] Love is not without sacrifice in this case, which perhaps links to circumstances of Lee’s own private love affairs. Sally Newman suggests, “it doesn’t seem that anyone has much doubt about Vernon Lee’s place in lesbian history. While narratives of Vernon Lee’s life and work vary in many respects, reflecting in fascinating ways the historical context of their production, I can only conclude that the specter of “the lesbian” has always haunted her.”[4] It is common knowledge that Lee had romantic relationships with female friends, but it is important to remember that previous circumstances in society implicated Lee’s ability to speak and behave freely regarding her sexuality. The fin de siècle was a time where contemporary culture was embraced, and “studies in the 1980s and 1890s found evidence in a wide range of 1890s texts and images of deep anxieties about sexual and racial identities.”[5] It can certainly be argued that Trepka’s complex infatuation with Merdea compares to the difficulties Lee experienced in her own relationships, Trepka knew the dangers of pursuing his obsession with Merdea and Lee will have been fully aware of the difficulties of pursing a public lesbian relationship, romance was dangerous for both Trepka and Lee. The fin-de-siecle was a turning point for literature and culture and perhaps Lee aimed to demonstrate women’s power and lack of reliance on men through the use of Medea and her apparent disposal of men when she no longer needs them, if she ever needed them at all. Patricia Pulham proposes, “women’s writings are only ever a form of confession or autobiography. In other words, women prove through their writings that they are forever unable to escape from the self”[6] and this further supports the idea that Lee’s own circumstances prompted her to express romance using the supernatural, during a time when female writers had the space to do so.

Works cited:

[1] Vernon Lee, “Amore Dure” in Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales (North Carolina: Project Gutenberg, 2015), iBooks edition, page 42.

[2] Angela Leighton, “Ghosts, Aestheticism and “Vernon Lee”,” Victorian Literature and Culture 28, 1 (2000): 1, accessed May 4 2021.

[3] Lee, Amore Dure, page 79. 

[4] Sally Newman, “The Archival Traces of Desire: Vernon Lee’s Failed Sexuality and the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, No. 1/2 (2005): 55, accessed May 5 2021.

[5] Josephine Guy, The Edinburgh Companion to Fin De Siecle Literature, Culture and the Arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 3.

[6] Patricia Pullham and Catherine Maxwell, Vernon Lee: Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006): 163.

[7] Lee, Amore Dure, 68.

[8]Lee, Amore Dure, 86.