The haunting stories of writer Vernon Lee
Once called the “cleverest woman in Europe,” Vernon Lee– an English essayist and novelist– has been mostly forgotten today.
However, recent endeavors have been made to bring her once-popular 19th century ghost stories back to life and show why this radical lesbian was once feared by the art world.
Vernon Lee: A rich life
Lee– whose real name was Violet Paget– was born 14 October 1856 in Boulogne-sur-Mer in France to British expatriate parents, Henry Ferguson Paget and Matilda Lee-Hamilton.
In 1873, she moved to Florence, Italy with her family, where she made friends with artists like the painter Telemaco Signorini and art and literature critic Mario Praz.
As Paget was half-sister of Eugene Jacob Lee-Hamilton by her mother’s first marriage, she took her sister’s surname to create a masculine pseudonym later on because she wanted to be taken seriously.
When the First World War happened, she became a member of the anti-militarist Union of Democratic Control because of her pacific views.
She also played the harpsichord, and listened to 18th century music played by her mother on the piano.
The writings of Vernon Lee
In 1880, her collection of essays– which had originally appeared in Fraser’s Magazine– was published under her pseudonym, Vernon Lee.
Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy focused on Italian artists like dramatists Carlo Goldoni and Carlo Gozzi, as well aspoet-librettist Pietro Metastasio.
She next published essay collections Belcaro (1881) and Euphorion (1884), and became an authority on the Italian Renaissance.
In total, she wrote more than 30 books, including a play and several collections of stories. Her most powerful work was the allegorical post-First World War drama, Satan the Waster, in 1920.
Meanwhile, her short stories had the theme of hauntings and possessions with her 1895 story “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” being published in The Yellow Book.
Because of their power, Lee’s stories have always been included in a number of Victorian short story collections. Likewise, there is usually a lesbian subtext in her stories.
Vernon Lee’s ghosts
Described as an engaged feminist, Lee had been called the “cleverest woman in Europe.”
Henry James said she was “a tiger-cat” (in response to being parodied in one of her stories) while George Bernard Shaw ranked her in greatness with Queen Elizabeth I in relation to her work on Satan the Waster.
Meanwhile, Angela Leighton said Lee’s ghost stories were “an expression, not of otherworldly supernaturalism but of this-worldly aestheticism.”
Lee was also an out lesbian, having long-term relationships with Mary Robinson, Kit Anstruther-Thomson, Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, and Amy Levy.
She died on 13 February 1935 in San Gervasio Bresciano, Italy.