Review: Vernon Lee, Hauntings

Vernon Lee wrote in an essay that the supernatural and the arts were diametrically opposed to each other. So, of course, she wrote three collections of supernatural stories over the course of her long (1856 – 1935) life.

Violet Page before she became the androgynous Vernon Lee

Violet Paget before she became the androgynous Vernon Lee

How do we get past such an obvious contradiction? By reading her stories. And there we find the synthesis by which Vernon Lee reconciled her thesis and antithesis. According to Lee, the supernatural thrives on vagueness, suggestiveness, multiple meanings, and connotations, while the arts define and give distinct limits to what they portray. So the resolution is to have the arts suggest, not define. And that is the secret to Vernon Lee’s supernatural stories. Vernon Lee’s ghosts are not some bogeymen out of M. R. James, appearing before mere mortals in frightening form. No, they are stealthy, insidious, all but invisible. It’s hard to tell they are there, let alone what they are.

I mentioned in a recent post that Gertrude Atherton, another writer of supernatural stories, was friends with Henry James. Well, so was Vernon Lee, and Lee shares in James’s subtlety without his ponderousness. Think of James’s The Turn of the Screw, and then wonder that Vernon Lee probably thought that story not quite subtle enough. For Lee’s ghosts are often out of sight altogether, as in “Oke of Okehurst.” Indeed, the ghost of “A Wicked Voice” is but a sound. Even when the supernatural is set directly in front of the narrator, as in “Dionea,” the narrator and the reader are left to wonder, “Did we really see it?”

Vernon Lee, eluding the artistry of John Singer Sargent

Vernon Lee, eluding the artistry of John Singer Sargent

Violet Paget, who used the pen name of Vernon Lee, was something of a contradiction herself. She was an immensely erudite woman, recognized as a expert on Italian music of the 18th century, and a popular essayist on learned subjects of the day, yet her works have been mostly forgotten. She was an independent woman who dressed as a man, an English woman who lived most of her life in Italy. She was considered a fascinating, intelligent, and witty conversationalist by many, and yet others found her long-winded, pretentious, and rambling.

If any of this intrigues you, consider tracking down the volume Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, edited by Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham (2006), which includes all the stories from Lee’s collection Hauntings: Fantastic Stories (1890), plus three other stories taken from her two later collections. Besides being annotated and more readily available than the original works, this volume also contains Lee’s essay, “Faustus and Helena: Notes on the Supernatural in Art” (1880, 1881) in which Lee explains her views on those two subjects in some detail. Yes, it’s included as an appendix, and no one ever reads those. But read this one first, before you read Lee’s stories. I guarantee you will appreciate her stories all the more.

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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4 Responses to Review: Vernon Lee, Hauntings

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    Your first picture caption says “Page” rather than “Paget”.
    “eluding” JSS’s artistry? I don’t get it.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Error corrected, thank you!

      I was joking about how Vernon Lee embodied ambiguities and contradictions, and Sargent’s portrait could be considered a completed work, or a preparatory sketch for a complete (painted) portrait.

  2. crimsonprose says:

    This ‘vagueness’ and ‘suggestiveness’ is the very essence of the supernatural. Which is why it fails to respond to scientific investigation. And as a writer, clearly she’d got it sussed: to suggest, to intimate, is more erotic, romantic, horrific, repulsive, than to graphically describe.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      And on her own terms, she makes it work. Curiously enough, this also well describes why Gertrude Atherton’s shorter supernatural stories work better than her longer ones: she doesn’t get the chance to ruin the atmosphere with heavy-handed moralism. It’s probably why Poe, and even moreso Lovecraft, elicit such different reactions. It turns on whether the reader takes their adjective-laden language as connotative or denotative.

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