Victorian Literature Eugene Lee-Hamilton
Patricia Rigg
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0188


Born in London, England, Eugene Jacob Lee-Hamilton (1845–1907) carved out a life for himself as a poet after a severe, stress-induced paralysis signaled the end of his career as a diplomat in 1873 at the age of twenty-eight. He was educated in early life in France and Germany, subsequently attending but failing to graduate from Oxford and then working for the Foreign Office. Correspondence between Lee-Hamilton and his mother, beginning when he entered Oxford in 1864 and continuing when his diplomatic career began in 1869, forecasts his neurological collapse, which was later diagnosed as a self-induced reaction to stress. His recovery twenty years later was due in large part to his recognition that he might “will” himself to recover. During his extended state of paralysis, Lee-Hamilton lived in Florence with his mother and his half-sister, Violet Paget, the writer known as Vernon Lee. Lee-Hamilton was so ill that his mother and sister had to transcribe the poetry he dictated. Although he published seven books of poetry, which included lyric and dramatic poems, during his illness, he became known mainly for his Petrarchan sonnets. The New Medusa and Apollo and Marsyas, published in 1882 and 1884, respectively, successfully draw on his extensive knowledge of history and art, but he is best known for his seventh book of poetry, the autobiographical Sonnets of the Wingless Hours, the collection that depicts his illness and his recovery. By the time the volume was published in 1894, he had emerged from his neurasthenic paralysis after treatment by an eminent German neurologist, and he went on to travel in the United States and Canada. In 1898 he married the novelist and editor Annie Holdsworth and fathered a daughter who lived only two years and whose death inspired the sonnet sequence Mimma Bella. Although Lee-Hamilton and his wife published poetry and fiction together and he began a translation of Dante’s Inferno, his work was not received as well as it had been before his recovery from neurasthenia, and those who knew him accepted that once the link between his illness and his poetic talents no longer existed, the talents themselves seem to have waned. After a series of health catastrophes brought on in part by his daughter’s death, he died in Italy in 1907. His widow published Mimma Bella in 1908.


There is no formal biography of Eugene Lee-Hamilton. The most comprehensive study of his life and poetics is the unpublished dissertation of Lyon 1955 from Harvard. Much of the material that Lyon used to prepare his biography, including Lee-Hamilton’s correspondence with his mother and sister, is available in the Vernon Lee Collection at Colby College and in Gagel 2017 and Gagel 2021. Lee-Hamilton is also featured prominently in Vineta Colby’s literary biography of Vernon Lee (Colby 2003), which fleshes out Gunn 1964, and in Burdett Gardner’s psychological study of Vernon Lee (Gardner 1987). Rigg 2021 includes details about Lee-Hamilton’s life and illness in a literary biography of A. Mary F. Robinson. Villari 1908 writes about her friendship with Lee-Hamilton and about his illness, and Willis, Vernon Lee’s executrix, details Lee-Hamilton’s illness and recovery in the preface to her privately published letters of Vernon Lee (Willis 1937). Virtually all comprehensive studies of Vernon Lee mention Eugene Lee-Hamilton and his neurasthenic illness. Correspondence between Annie Holdsworth, who had taken the name Eliza Lee-Hamilton (Lee-Hamilton 1909), and the Royal Literary Fund is housed in the British Library.

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

    This study of Vernon Lee draws on the extensive Vernon Lee Collection at Colby College to create an insightful biography of Vernon Lee that discusses Eugene Lee-Hamilton, his illness, and the difficult domestic situation his needs caused for Vernon Lee.

  • Gagel, Amanda, ed. Selected Letters of Vernon Lee. Vol. 1, 1865–1884. New York: Routledge, 2017.

    This first volume of Lee’s letters includes some of the correspondence between Lee and her brother, as well as correspondence with friends such as A. Mary F. Robinson. Gagel’s sources are primarily from Colby College and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Lee’s letters in Italian, German, and French are translated for this English-language volume.

  • Gagel, Amanda, ed. Selected Letters of Vernon Lee. Vol 2, 1885–1889. New York: Routledge, 2021.

    This second volume of Lee’s letters continues the scholarly translations of the first volume and brings Lee’s correspondence with Lee-Hamilton up to the point of the onset of his recovery. Letters in Italian, German, and French are translated, and archival sources include the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and the Vernon Lee collection at Colby College.

  • Gardner, Burdett. The Lesbian Imagination (Victorian Style): A Psychological and Critical Study of Vernon Lee. New York: Garland, 1987.

    This book originated as a dissertation using primarily the material in the Vernon Lee Collection at Colby College. Although there are insightful comments about the source materials, Gardner adds a great deal of supposition and many assumptions that warrant careful treatment of this text.

  • Gunn, Peter. Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856–1935. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

    This is the first biography of Vernon Lee and contains references to Lee-Hamilton that are fleshed out more fully by Vineta Colby (Colby 2003).

  • Lee-Hamilton, Eliza. Letter to the Committee of the Royal Literary Fund. 14 September 1909. British Library Loan 96, Royal Literary Fund, 1/2805.

    In this application, available in the Manuscripts room of the British Library, Lee-Hamilton’s widow writes to the Royal Literary Fund for financial help that Lee-Hamilton had earlier rejected.

  • Lyon, Harvey T. “The Deep Reverberation of a Bell: The Life and Poetry of Eugene Lee-Hamilton.” PhD diss., Harvard, 1955.

    Lyon’s is the first extensive work on Lee-Hamilton, providing a great deal of biographical material and linking Lee-Hamilton’s poetic production to his illness, paralysis, and recovery.

  • Rigg, Patricia. A. Mary F. Robinson: Victorian Poet and Modern Woman of Letters. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2021.

    Rigg discusses Lee-Hamilton’s illness and recovery in the context of Robinson’s close friendship with Vernon Lee and her frequent visits to the family home of Lee and Lee-Hamilton.

  • Villari, Linda. “A Master of the Sonnet: Eugene Lee Hamilton.” Albany Review 3 (1908): 182–198.

    Villari was a close friend of Lee-Hamilton’s and includes in this obituary article details about his illness and his recovery. She also highlights the few healthy years Lee-Hamilton had left, during which he traveled in the United States and Canada.

  • Willis, Irene Cooper. “Preface.” In Vernon Lee’s Letters. Edited by Irene Cooper Willis, i–xiv. Privately Printed, 1937.

    Willis includes some of Lee-Hamilton’s letters to his mother and sister (1872–1873) in this publication of a selection of Vernon Lee’s letters. Willis was Lee’s executrix and published the letters privately. In the introduction, she offers insight into Lee-Hamilton’s illness and recovery.

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