Vernon Lee and Sexuality

In more recent years, scholars have paid particular interest to Vernon Lee’s sexuality, the reason for such interest on Lee’s sexuality comes down to the way in which it influenced her writing and ultimately reflected a rejection of Victorian patriarchy. Vernon Lee never married, “close friendships with men were rare in Violet’s life. With the exception of Maurice Baring some years later, her intimate friendships were with women, most of them intellectually her inferiors.”[1] Lee’s sexuality may seem irrelevant to her writing, however the themes within her short stories reflect on the struggles and circumstances faced in her own life.

In Amour Dure, the ghost of Medea is known to have had romantic relationships with five men, in a society obsessed with the ideal woman and the idea of women being innocent and pure, the concept of women having multiple relationships ruined the Victorian angelic vision of women. Regardless of Medea’s romantic relationships and sexualised image, Lee expresses Medea in a positive light, “fancy a woman of superlative beauty, of the highest courage and calmness, a woman of many resources, of genius.”[2] The fin de siècle was a time when the term “New Woman” emerged, coined by Sarah Grand in her 1894 essay ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question,’ and it represented a new found independence for women including the way they dressed, behaved and the way that women were able to become more involved with the world, allowing women more control over their lives. Sally Ledger advises “the New Woman of the fin de sicle had a multiple identity. She was, variously, a feminist activist, a social reformer, a popular novelist, a suffragette playwright, a woman poet; she was also often a fictional construct, a discursive response to the activities of the late nineteenth-century women’s movement.”[3] Considering this idea, Medea’s representation as a liberated and promiscuous woman is received positively by Trepka, who admires the ghost of Medea regardless of her multiple love affairs.

Although Lee’s writing never directly detailed a same-sex couple, Victorian writing reflected representations of sex in a distorted way that hinted at these ideas in an acceptable manner, especially in gothic stories where ghosts functioned as the unseen, in the way that homosexuality was unseen in society.

The ghost Medea from Lee’s Amore Dure has a strong female agency, and arguably is used by Lee to reject typical expectations of women and their sexualities. During her lifetime, all of Medea’s husbands ended up dead, Trepka stresses ““All those who loved Medea da Carpi, who loved and who served her, died.”[4] Perhaps this is an attempt by Lee to show that Medea never had any romantic feelings towards men, and she resorted to murdering them to escape them and for her own gain. Emma Liggins proposes, “whilst lesbianism remained a well-kept secret, same-sex desire was beginning to be signalled in coded ways in late-Victorian texts, reflecting the sexological identification of the invert and homosexual. The new ghost story collections by women which proliferated at this time, such as Vernon Lee’s Hauntings (1890) […], capitalised on such contemporary debates about ‘other’ sexualities outside of the realms of heteronormativity and used the spectral encounter at the centre of the ghost story to address what remained ‘unseen’, unacknowledged, in women’s less than satisfying experiences of middle-class marriage.”[5] This idea can be applied to the character of Medea, Trepka’s supernatural encounter with Medea can be said to exemplify the flaws in heterosexual relationships, resulting in frequent deaths within the story. Medea is presented as an evil and selfish character, yet considering Lee’s intentions she may serve to represent a longed-for character in literature who defied male dominance and encouraged her own sexual desires whether that be heterosexual or homosexual, taking control of her own body in the only way she felt possible.

In Lee’s Oke of Okehurst, also from the Hauntings collection, Lee presents yet another femme fatale character. An artist tells the story of a summer spent he in a country house, as he creates a portrait of the aristocratic owners, Alice and William Oke. Over time, it becomes evident that the lady of the house is obsessed with an outrageous story of one of her ancestors, also Alice Oke, who was involved in the murder of Christopher Lovelock, a possible lover of hers. The living Alice becomes increasingly obsessed with her ancestor, wearing her clothes, and claiming a special bond with her murdered lover Lovelock. Alice increasingly drives her traditional and anxious husband William mad with embarrassment and dispair, and he eventually kills Alice and himself.

Lee ultimately presents us with two deadly women, one of the past and one of the present and in contrast to Amore Dure, it is the woman who is killed at the hands of her husband and it could be argued that it conforms with cultural stereotypes of gender at the time. However, Alice is able to dominate her husband William through bringing her ancestor Alice back from the grave and into consciousness. It is the past that clearly haunts Alice, who could also be considered a victim of the femme fatale of her ancestor. As Alice’s obsession with her ancestor Alice deepens, she is able to push her husband, into violence and murder. Mr Oke confesses, “I am very, very grateful to you,” he said, “and, indeed, I will do my best to try and be stronger. If only,” he added, with a sigh, “if only Alice would give me a moment’s breathing-time, and not go on day after day mocking me with her Lovelock.””[6] In contrast to the male-obsession with the femme fatale in Lee’s Amore Dure, here the reader is presented with a relationship between two women: one dead and one living. Alice’s infatuation with her deceased ancestor and desire to be just like her is eventually the cause of her death which some readers may view as the power that William had over his wife, although Alice’s husband may have given her exactly what she wants, to be a ghost able to join her ancestor in the afterlife and no longer be in a love triangle with her husband. Since Alice’s ancestor will never be physically present, at least if Alice were dead there is more possibility of the two connecting in the supernatural world.

Athena Vrettos explains,

“memory is revealed to be a collective rather than individual phenomenon, a network of past and present identities, of intrusive passions and alternate selves. Theories of ancestral memory seem to offer Lee a way to explore the fluidity and multiplicity of both the human psyche and human sexuality by identifying one’s most inexpressible emotions and transgressive desires as forms of inheritance, emotional traces from the evolutionary and familial past.”[7]

What this further suggests is Lee’s attempt to show sexuality as subconscious, it is never explicitly said that Alice has romantic feelings for her ancestor, yet her behaviour suggests otherwise. Lee’s use of the two Alice’s distanced by many years and the extreme lengths to be together reflects the difficulties in society for two women to establish a public, romantic relationship.

[1] Vineta Colby, Vernon Lee, A Literary Biography, (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2003), 63.

[2] Vernon Lee, “Amore Dure” in Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, (North Carolina: Project Gutenberg, 2015), iBooks edition, 38.

[3] Sally Ledger, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the fin de siècle, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 1.

[4] Lee, Amore Dure, 78.

[5] Emma Liggins, “Gendering the Spectral Encounter at the Fin de Siecle: Unspeakability in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Stories, Gothic Studies 15, 2 (2013): 38.

[6] Vernon Lee, “Oke of Okehurst” in Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, (North Carolina: Project Gutenberg, 2015), iBooks edition, 254.

[7] Athena Vrettos, “”In the clothes of dead people” Vernon Lee and Ancestral Memory” Victorian Studies 55, 2 (2013): 210. Accessed May 4, 2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.2979/victorianstudies.55.2.202.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A62503d5b9abe599ce8f1fb8bbdb9b6ea