Victorian Literature Vernon Lee
by
Stefano Evangelista
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0079

Introduction

Vernon Lee (b. 1856–d. 1935) is the pen name of the prolific author and critic Violet Paget. Lee was a cosmopolitan intellectual who lived most of her life in Continental Europe, although she published nearly all of her work in Britain. Her output is immensely varied: it comprises over forty volumes, which range from music criticism to fiction, travel writing, and a large body of essays on aesthetics and art appreciation. Lee was close to a number of influential late Victorian authors, including Walter Pater (by many considered the single most important influence on her), John Addington Symonds, Henry James, and the art critic Bernhard Berenson. Today Lee is best known for her supernatural tales, especially those collected in Hauntings (1890), but during her lifetime she was noted for her studies of art and aesthetics, including Belcaro (1881), Euphorion (1884), and Renaissance Fancies and Studies (1895). Her novel Miss Brown (1884) is a satire of the Pre-Raphaelite and aesthetic circles popular in the 1880s, which caused a controversy at the time because of its thinly veiled portrayal of various members of these groups. Together with her intimate friend Clementina (“Kit”) Anstruther-Thomson, Lee devised psychological aesthetics, a controversial “scientific” method of assessing the effect of art on the body expounded in Beauty and Ugliness (1912) and The Beautiful (1913). Like many of her late Victorian contemporaries, Lee suffered a period of neglect during the modernist decades, but her work is now attracting again both general readers and academics in the wake of the resurgent interest in aestheticism, the fin de siècle, and the gendering of decadence.

General Overviews

There is at the moment no general introduction to Lee, although some of the scholarship from the 1980s and early 1990s often adopts an introductory or general tone, as this was the time when critics were trying to reintroduce Lee into mainstream scholarship. Students approaching Lee for the first time might find it useful to start from some of these earlier works, such as Colby 1970, which have laid the foundation for more specialized recent approaches. The last few years have seen not only an explosion of Lee criticism in the form of individual essays and articles, but also the appearance of the excellent new biography Colby 2003 and the first critical monographs and collections entirely devoted to Lee. Of the monographs, Zorn 2003 offers the most comprehensive overview. Of the edited collections, Maxwell and Pulham 2006 is the most authoritative. Cenni and Bizzotto 2006 is more mixed, most of the essays being shorter pieces. The latter will be mostly useful to students and researchers interested in Lee’s relationship with Italy. The Sybil is an online journal devoted to Lee studies, while the literary periodical Colby Library Quarterly often prints essays on Lee, as well as some primary documents such as letters.

  • Cenni, Serena, and Elisa Bizzotto, eds. Dalla stanza accanto: Vernon Lee e Firenze settant’anni dopo. Papers presented at an international conference held in Florence on 26–28 May 2005. Florence: Consiglio Regionale Toscana, 2006.

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    The proceedings of a conference on Lee. Some of the essays are in English, some in Italian, some by well-known Lee scholars. There is an emphasis on the Florentine context in many pieces, but the themes and approaches are varied. Topics include Florence, travel writing, aesthetics, and genre—the essay and fiction.

  • Colby, Vineta. “The Puritan Aesthete: Vernon Lee.” In The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. By Vineta Colby, 235–304. New York: New York University Press, 1970.

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    An important document in the recent renaissance of interest in Lee, and a good place to start for students approaching Lee for the first time. Colby formulates an influential argument on Lee’s Puritanism—that is, her resistance to certain strands of aestheticism identified mainly with Pater.

  • Colby, Vineta. Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.

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    A biography that pays close attention to Lee’s writings and intellectual context as well as her life.

  • Colby Library Quarterly.

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    A scholarly literary journal, with frequent articles on Lee owing to the presence of her unpublished letters and manuscripts in the Colby College Archive, Waterville, Maine.

  • Maxwell, Catherine, and Patricia Pulham, eds. Vernon Lee: Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

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    An important collection of essays by leading Lee scholars that is one of the most comprehensive studies to date. The individual contributions cover most of Lee’s works and are divided into clusters that deal specifically with Lee’s intellectual context, her involvement in Decadent culture, queer readings, and aesthetics.

  • Sibyl.

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    An electronic journal devoted to Lee, edited by Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux. It is part of the Oscholars family, a group of e-journals that specialize in the fin de siècle. The Sibyl publishes English and French articles and some reprints of Lee’s texts. It contains an excellent updated but not annotated bibliography of primary texts, translations, and scholarship of Lee in several languages.

  • Zorn, Christa. Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2003.

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    A comprehensive and authoritative study of Lee. It is, like Colby, concerned with recuperating Lee from modernist neglect, but it is more oriented toward literary criticism than Colby. Zorn stresses Lee’s ambiguous position between literary periods, identities, and genres. The book contains studies of all her major works.

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