Vernon Lee’s legacy

Vernon Lee was a prominent figure of nineteenth-century ghost stories during the fin de siècle, and after her literary popularity waned from cultural memory after her death in 1935 it is important to celebrate her literary achievements and rediscover her memory.

Born in France in 1856 to English parents, Vernon Lee spent much of her life in Italy where most of her short stories tend to be set. Vernon Lee is in fact a pseudonym, her real name Violet Paget, would have impacted the success and readership of her work in an era that was slowly becoming more respectful of women’s equality yet still doubtful of their capabilities. Victorian women were expected to conform to gender stereotypes which limited them to domesticated roles such as childbearing and taking care of the home. Kathryn Hughes summarises the “suffocating” gender expectations of women in the Victorian era in this YouTube video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkJJFX8Qn90

As Hughes demonstrates, expectations of women were to carry out their duties of being a wife and mother, writing would therefore be frowned upon and a pseudonym was a sensible way of gaining respect for her work.

For a chronology of Lee’s life and important moments, follow the link here: https://thesibylblog.com/violet-paget-vernon-lee-1856-1935-a-chronology/

Vernon Lee should be remembered not only for her literary achievements, but also her strong personality and opinions. According to Vineta Colby, “to modern readers she offers the satisfying spectacle of the economically independent woman of letters, apparently free – more or less – to say, write and do as she pleased.”[1] This statement summarises Lee’s personality perfectly, Lee defied expectations of women at a time when equality was a major issue and to the modern day reader who has an understanding of the difficulties in society during the early 19th century, Lee’s achievements can be appreciated more than ever. Colby’s biography, Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography, 2003 and more recently, the 2019 Vernon Lee Anniversary Conference in Florence which brought together academic lovers of Lee’s writing allows her memory to be rediscovered and given the attention it deserves. Lee’s apparent passion for the past and the supernatural is suggested to be due to “an evasion of an unhappy present: her adolescent self-consciousness of her plain if not positively ugly face, her irregular family life, an indifferent father, an ailing half-brother, a mother who she adored but who lavished her affection on her firstborn son.”[2]

Bailey’s Womens Prize for Fiction ‘Reclaim Her Name’ campaign

In the summer of 2020, Bailey’s (a sponsor of the Women’s Prize for Fiction), launched its ‘Reclaim Her Name’ campaign which published 25 titles which were originally published under male pseudonyms, under the female writer’s real name. The aim of the campaign was to recognise the nominated women’s literary achievements and celebrate them as women, something which was not possible at the time of their career. Among the female writers selected, Vernon Lee was one of them. The campaign was ultimately called “sloppy” for announcing that it would recognise novelists, however the nominated writers were writers of short stories rather than novels and in one case, a biography. The intentions of the campaign and the recognition it gave to female writers was absolutely a celebration of them, however some readers criticised Baileys for failing to acknowledge that not all women written under pseudonyms for sexist reasons, some women wanted to remain anonymous, and others felt they needed to write under a male pseudonym in order for their work to remain respected due to the genre of their writing. Thinking about this in relation to Lee, it is unlikely that her work would have had the same level of success had she have written her gothic ghost style stories under her own name, the genre was male dominated. Melissa Edmundson suggests “women writers took full advantage of this rising popularity of the Victorian ghost and used supernatural fiction to their financial advantage as well, selling their creative work to support themselves and their families. In this way, the short story has been an empowering form for women writers since the early nineteenth century. In the ghost story, women found their professional and social voices.”[3] At a time when men were preferred in the world of work over women, writing behind a pseudonym allowed Vernon Lee to be financially stable, self-sufficient and liberated from being tied down into a conventional marriage and in Lee’s case, married for financial gain over love, Lee was known to have multiple relationships with women and therefore did not fit the conventional mould in society. The supernatural aesthetic was empowering for Lee, allowing her to make rebellious arguments about issues concerning gender and sexuality.

H&M Studio: “Bold Opulence & Rebellious Charm collection”

Popular high street clothing shop H&M recently launched an Autumn/Winter 2020 collection inspired by Lee and her “radically fearless style.”[4] Six of H&M’s very own Studio muses were invited to co-create the images for the marketing campaign each individually styling the pieces as they see fit, to represent the carefree and defiant attitude they believe Vernon Lee had.

Although it may seem unlikely that Lee would ever have written Amore Dure wearing a sequinned dress and knee-high boots or that Lee was excessively fashion conscious, the clothing collection ultimately compliments her desire to break the mould and the effect that she had on the literary world. What is notably important of this clothing collection, however, is its incorporation of clothing for both women and men. Perhaps a snub to those who deemed Lee’s dress style as “mannish” and a celebration of who Vernon Lee was as a person, as well as a way of being inclusive of gender, opposed to the way in which society favoured men at the time of Lee’s writing.

Vernon Lee 2019: An Anniversary Conference, Florence. 30-31 May 2019. 

In 2019, scholars including Patricia Pulham organised a conference in memory of Vernon Lee and her literary achievements which was held at the British Institute and the Villa Il Palmerino, Italy. To end the event, speakers were invited to watch a special performance of Lee’s Ballet of the Nations: A Present Day Morality, 1915. The short story is an allegoric, pacifist satirical response to World War I which entails a bloody, violent global conflict between nations involved with the war.

The Ballet of the Nations: A Present Day Morality performance in Florence at the Vernon Lee Anniversary Conference.

Lee portrays the Nations in a violent manner, a reflection of her disagreement with war and political beliefs. As a lover of Europe, the idea of war was distressing to Lee and the hatreds between nations that the war was responsible for causing. Lee writes, “yet dance they did, lopping each other’s limbs and blinding each other with spits of blood and pellets of human flesh.”[5] Lee’s great disappointment and anger towards the war is clear, World War I resulted in around 40 million deaths which to many people the devastating losses caused by the war completely outweighed any positive gains. As a writer who has always written passionately and as she pleased, Lee felt compelled to write about the war in such a way that expressed her upset. However, Lee’s views gradually became disagreeable to those looking to defend the decision to go to war which had an effect on her reputation and popularity. According to Pulham, “she saw a further decline in her readership due to the unpopularity of the pacifist stance she adopted during World War I. However, there were other factors involved: her work was unstrategically disseminated, often published in several periodicals before being offered to book publishers, and the essay style in which she specialised began to seem outmoded in the changing literary climate of the early twentieth century.”[6] As literature was inspired by modernism and Ezra Pound’s 1928 phrase “make it new,” Lee’s literary popularity waned as her writing was mainly concerned with the past, modernism was an experimental form of literature and after the war writers made conscious efforts to break away from traditional forms of representation.

On the contrary, in the present-day Vernon Lee is celebrated and respected for her fearless writing style and as a feminist icon. The very writing style that caused her popularity to decline is one that the modern reader celebrates today. Pulham further suggests, “Lee has emerged as one of the leading writers whose work bridged the gap between late-Victorian aestheticism and early modernist writing, earning the interest of scholars who recognise that literary modernism owes more than its practitioners cared to admit. To modern readers she offers the satisfying spectacle of the economically independent woman of letters, apparently more or less free to say, write and do as she pleased.”[7]The Vernon Lee 2019: An Anniversary Conference was absolutely an example of Lee’s recent literary comeback and an appreciation of her from a new generation of readers and scholars.

For a useful introduction to Modernism, follow the link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLyzxBY5sqE

Works cited: 

[1] Catherine Maxwell, “Vernon Lee, Woman of Letters,” Women: A Cultural Review 15, 3 (2004): page 345, accessed May 10 2021.

[2] Vinetta Colby, Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography, (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2003), 29.

[3] Melissa Edmundson, Avenging Angels: Ghost Stories by Victorian Women Writers, (Brighton: Victorian Secrets Limited, 2018), 5.

[4] “H&M Studio AW20 brings together bold opulence and rebellious charm,” H&M, September 8, 2020, accessed May 11, 2021, https://about.hm.com/news/general-news-2020/h-m-studio-aw20-brings-together-bold-opulence-and-rebellious-cha.html

[5] Vernon Lee, The Ballet of the Nations: A Present Day Morality, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915), 27.

[6] Patricia Pulham, Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 9.

[7] Pulham, Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics, 9.