‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’ and Other Stories 
by Vernon Lee, edited by Aaron Worth.
Oxford, 352 pp., £7.99, September 2022, 978 0 19 883754 1
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‘Aren’t you tired​ of them? One hears nothing else nowadays.’ The peevish Mrs Snowdon, a character in Mary Louisa Molesworth’s ‘The Story of the Rippling Train’ (1887), is grumbling about the popularity of ghost stories. Nevertheless, she is gripped by the one that follows. Accounts of the supernatural proliferated in the 19th century, as the certainties of orthodox religion were undermined and the hard realities of industry and commerce became increasingly oppressive. People were eager to read about incidents that transcended the everyday, and that might confirm or at least imply an existence beyond the grave. Spiritualism flourished and séances were held in drawing rooms across the land. The Society for Psychical Research (founded in 1882) attempted to formulate a rational approach to paranormal phenomena, or ‘human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models’ (it was mostly interested in hypnotism, telepathy, mediumship, apparitions and haunted houses). The society is still going strong. You can join for £84 a year.

The expansion of the periodical press during the 19th century created a competitive market for short fiction, and writers met the appetite for the supernatural in diverse ways. ‘The Story of the Rippling Train’ (published in Longman’s Magazine) concerns the ghost of a young woman, Maud, whose elaborate dress catches fire, leaving her horribly disfigured and condemned to an agonising death. Such accidents were common in an age of flowing skirts, candles and open fires, and women might well have been haunted by the thought of following Maud into the flames. The tale was designed to create a pleasurable shudder, but also voiced fears that were widely shared, if not always acknowledged. Molesworth, a prolific writer who had separated from her husband and was financially responsible for her children, combined her output of morally upright literature for girls (another thriving market) with stories of respectable people confronting visitors from the afterlife. The spirits who drift through her pages are doleful, but they have a wholesome intent. They are not threatening in the least. Those who encounter them are usually improved by the experience – shaken out of complacency, and more alert to the suffering of others. Molesworth had been taught by William Gaskell, the Unitarian minister and husband of Elizabeth Gaskell, who was another accomplished practitioner of supernatural fiction. Gaskell’s ghost stories, more ambitious and substantial than Molesworth’s (try her unforgettable ‘Old Nurse’s Story’), were also written with serious purpose. She could chill the blood, but she wanted to unsettle comfortable assumptions about the operations of vice and vengeance in the world of the living.

Many of the best ghost stories were written by women (Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Margaret Oliphant, Edith Nesbit and Edith Wharton all made notable contributions to the tradition), and they often depicted extremes of female experience. The phantoms in these stories carried warnings, admonitions or silent appeals for justice. Violet Paget, who wrote as Vernon Lee, learned from this body of writing, and from Gaskell especially. But the moral drive of High Victorian literature was alien to her, and she confounded the expectations that had formed around supernatural fiction written by women. Spiritual guidance is rare in her stories. Her ghosts are usually the undoing of those who encounter them; they represent compulsive desires rather than fears, and the glamour of history more than the anxieties of modern life. Lee’s tales speak for those who are in love with the past.

Lee was an English writer who wrote at a sceptical distance from England. Born in France in 1856, she spent her early years shifting around on the Continent with a domineering mother and ineffectual father. Eventually the family settled in Florence, largely because Lee’s half-brother, the poet Eugene Lee-Hamilton, was struck by paralysis in 1873, and became bed-bound. A measure of stability was good for the teenage Lee, and she soon saw Italy as her home. She was precociously learned and astonishingly productive, publishing over her lifetime a stream of essays, stories, novels and drama, as well as pioneering work on theories of aesthetics and art, together with studies of history, music and literature. She was influenced by the work of Walter Pater, and by her friendships with Henry James, Robert Browning and John Singer Sargent. But she was never swayed to the extent that she relinquished her intellectual independence. An atheist and materialist, she had no time for contemporary flirtations with the occult. In 1885 she attended a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research, then overseen by Frederic W.H. Myers and Edmund Gurney, observing to her mother that she had found the proceedings ‘a very dull business, consisting mainly of avowals of failed experiments. Gurney looks weary and embittered. The rest singularly water on the brain.’

Lee was hardly suited to writing ghost stories. But, like other unmarried women of her generation, she needed an income and understood the market. When she approached William Blackwood (a publisher associated with the supernatural) with ‘Oke of Okehurst’, one of her strongest tales, she was delighted by ‘an astounding letter’ offering to publish it ‘as a shilling dreadful, which of course I shall accept’. It’s difficult to imagine Pater publishing a ‘shilling dreadful’. But Pater had a salary, and Lee did not. Her supernatural stories were skilfully calculated to please readers, and they have remained her most widely read works. There are good reasons for their prominence. They embed Lee’s most challenging and original thinking in vivid and entertaining narratives, many of which linger in the mind long after the details of her theoretical arguments have faded. Aaron Worth’s careful edition of these stories, with an introduction that does justice to their centrality in her oeuvre, includes Lee’s own discussions of the genre. In her preface to Hauntings: Fantastic Stories (1890), a collection of four of her most celebrated ghost stories, she claimed:

My four little tales are of no genuine ghosts in the scientific sense; they tell of no hauntings such as could be contributed by the Society for Psychical Research, of no spectres that can be caught in definite places and made to dictate judicial evidence. My ghosts are what you call spurious ghosts (according to me the only genuine ones), of whom I can affirm only one thing, that they haunted certain brains, and have haunted, among others, my own and my friends.

The ‘spurious ghosts’ of Hauntings emerge from European memory, and they are not well disposed to those who succumb to their charms. ‘Amour Dure’ is the story of Spiridion Trepka, a Polish historian, whose scholarly enquiries in Italy gradually concentrate on the nefarious doings of Medea da Carpi, a 16th-century beauty. Academic interest develops into a deranged obsession, as the hapless Trepka unearths examples of Medea’s handwriting and broods over a portrait in which she wears a gold collar inscribed with the ominous motto ‘Amour Dure – Dure Amour’ (‘Love Endures – Hard Love’). Medea, though dead for hundreds of years, proves as lively as ever, and finally uses the besotted Trepka as an instrument of long-delayed revenge. A letter for Trepka arrives on 16th-century paper and in Medea’s hand, arranging a tryst: ‘Look out, in the left aisle, for a lady wearing a black mantle, and holding a rose.’ Boundaries between fantasy and fact seem to dissolve, as the magnetism of the past frustrates the aspirations of the present. The narrators of these stories have their own projects – they are painters, musicians or writers – but their plans come to nothing. They are overwhelmed by their longing to possess forgotten forms of beauty. Trepka’s days as a hopeful young historian are over.

Lee shares some themes with her contemporaries. Heinrich Heine’s 1853 essay ‘The Gods in Exile’ imagines disguised Greek gods wandering disconsolately through the Christian world, and this conceit was picked up by a generation of writers who had turned away from Christianity. They lament the old ‘Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day’, as Swinburne put it in his sorrowful ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ (1866). Pater’s ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’ (1886) and his ‘Apollo in Picardy’ (1893) depict Dionysus and Apollo living, with calamitous consequences, in medieval France. Pater characteristically overlays these stories with plangent regret. Thirteenth-century Auxerre is an uncomfortable place for a Greek god. Dionysus is no longer his old bacchanalian self:

With all the regular beauty of a pagan god, he has suffered after a manner of which we must suppose pagan gods incapable. It was as if one of those fair, triumphant beings had cast in his lot with the creatures of an age later than his own, people of larger spiritual capacity and assuredly of a larger capacity for melancholy.

Lee’s ‘Dionysus in the Euganean Hills’ (1921) pays homage to Pater, and adopts his tone: ‘Exile like this, implying an in-and-out existence of alternate mysterious appearance and disappearance is, therefore, a kind of haunting; the gods who had it partaking of the nature of ghosts even more than all gods do, revenants as they are from other ages.’ Her late story ‘Marsyas in Flanders’, published in 1927, owes much to ‘Apollo in Picardy’. But the story suggests a connection between the crucified Christ and Marsyas, the mythical satyr flayed by Apollo, that would have disconcerted the more cautious Pater.

‘Dionea’, a story from Hauntings, features a quite different kind of returned deity. Here Lee describes the reappearance of the divine Aphrodite in latter-day Italy. There is nothing tragic about this cruel goddess. First appearing as a shipwrecked child in need of charity, Dionea causes chaos in her community as she grows. Like Medea, she exploits her helpless male worshippers, driving Waldemar, the sculptor who is using her as a model, to madness and death. The narrator, supposedly writing a book about the survival of pagan deities (another never-to-be-completed project), is baffled by her presence. Magnificently strong, compellingly beautiful and utterly ruthless, Dionea is the antithesis of Molesworth’s mournful Maud. She has become an intoxicating vision of a woman freed from all social and ethical restraint. Lee had experienced her share of masculine condescension, and no doubt took satisfaction in her fictions of pitiless female dominance. Pater’s story of Denys L’Auxerrois concludes with his being torn to pieces by a frenzied mob, and his heart is buried ‘in a dark corner of the cathedral’. But Lee’s unvanquished Dionea sails away into the Mediterranean sunlight ‘in a Greek boat … singing words in an unknown tongue, the white pigeons circling around her’. Pater counted Lee as a disciple, but she had her own point to make about female sovereignty.

‘Oke of Okehurst’ is, unusually among these stories, set in England. Alice Oke, like Trepka, has been fatally ensnared by her dream of union with a long-dead lover, convincing herself that she is the reincarnation of the woman loved by the poet Christopher Lovelock in the 17th century. Her dull, uncomprehending husband becomes crazed with jealousy, and the story ends in bloodshed. The oddly detached narrator, an artist who has been employed to paint portraits of Alice and her husband, is fascinated by the unfolding disaster, and no portraits are completed. Instead, he coolly observes Alice, an etiolated fin-de-siècle creature, as she wafts around the old house – ‘exquisite’, ‘strange’, ‘exotic’. She ‘did not trouble herself about her husband in the very least’ and insists on being painted in the ‘yellow drawing room’ that he fears and loathes (yellow was the colour for such a rebellion: one of Lee’s supernatural stories was published in the Yellow Book).

Lovelock is among Lee’s ‘spurious ghosts’, and whether or not Alice’s devotion has in fact summoned him from the grave remains uncertain. In this ambiguity Lee anticipates other writers. James wrote of his admiration for ‘the special savour’ of Hauntings, but in rather patronising terms. ‘The supernatural story, the subject wrought in fantasy, is not the class of fiction I myself most cherish … But that only makes my enjoyment of your artistry more of a subjection.’ Worth notes that James may have been more impressed than he was willing to admit. After Hauntings appeared, he returned to writing supernatural fiction, aligning himself with Lee’s reformulation of the mid-century conventions. His equivocal The Turn of the Screw (1898) has much in common with ‘Oke of Okehurst’.

Lee’sinterest in the imprints that aesthetic experiences leave on the body led her to develop a theory of empathy, a term sometimes confused with sympathy (an older word, primarily referring to the exercise of compassion). The need for sympathy in human relations had been central to George Eliot’s intensely moral interpretation of what art can do for us: ‘The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies,’ she wrote in her 1856 essay on ‘The Natural History of German Life’. Empathy, as Lee understood it, operates on different, less assertively ethical terms. Her fullest definition can be found in The Beautiful: An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics (1913). In this groundbreaking exploration of empathy (the word is translated from the German Einfühlung, or ‘feeling into’) Lee shows how we can enter the experience of others as we look at pictures, listen to music or reach out to touch a sculpture.

For Lee, empathy is rooted in physical memory: ‘the mysterious importance, the attraction or repulsion, possessed by shapes, audible as well as visible, according to their empathic character’. What would it be like to live and feel within another body? Or to connect with lives caught in the web of history? These are the themes she had explored in her ghost stories. ‘Am I turning novelist instead of historian?’ Trepka wonders, before he turns into a victim. Is empathy always to be welcomed? Perhaps not. In Hauntings, Lee suggests that its potential obliteration of the self is dangerous. Imaginative collaboration between the present and the past can overturn the haunted brain’s certitudes. Allow yourself to be entranced by the past, and your attempts to place yourself in the contemporary world may be paralysed.

The four stories collected in Hauntings form a coherent group. Others of Lee’s ghost stories experiment with different formal strategies, and are sometimes more playful. ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’ has the feel of a folk tale, and here too an irresistible woman is the ruin of a love-struck young man. In ‘The Doll’, among the eeriest of these stories, the spirit of an unhappy woman merges with the life-sized doll made in her image after her death. If a woman’s devotees might be trapped in their empathic identification, so too might the woman herself. ‘The Legend of Madame Krasinska’, set in Florence, suggests that this kind of association might after all have something in common with Eliot’s concept of sympathy. The wealthy and thoughtless Madame Krasinska, who lives for pleasure, appears at a fancy-dress ball dressed as Sora Lena, a pitiful old woman whose shabby figure has become a familiar sight in Florence as she shambles through the streets in search of her dead sons. Sora Lena hangs herself at the moment of Krasinska’s perverse triumph at the ball. Empathy then shades into sympathy, as Krasinska finds that she cannot control the consequences of her crass assumption of Sora Lena’s identity, and must share her misery. In a resolution that echoes that of Gaskell’s ‘The Poor Clare’, Krasinska becomes a nun, devoted to the service of those she had mocked: ‘Ah, the old! The old! It is so much, much worse for them than for any others. Have you ever tried to imagine what it is to be poor and forsaken and old?’

‘The Legend of Madame Krasinska’ is an exception among Lee’s ghost stories. Its cautionary message would not have been altogether appropriate for the Yellow Book (where ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’ appeared) but it was a good fit for the more sober pages of The Fortnightly Review, where it was published in 1890. The florid tale of ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’, which first appeared in French in 1896, and in English in 1909 (in the English Review), scorns any notion of sympathetic duty. A vicious and unrepentant Don Juan, living in 17th-century Spain, requests protection from the ludicrously ornate statue of the Madonna, the revered Virgin of the Seven Daggers, who presides over a ‘pompous, pedantic and contorted’ church in Granada. Despite her devotee’s history of spectacular sin, the Virgin acknowledges Don Juan’s prayer and promises salvation. Reassured, he goes on to commit further crimes in order to resurrect, in hope of seducing, the legendary 14th-century Moorish Infanta buried beneath the Alhambra. When he is beheaded on the orders of the chief eunuch (who, inconveniently, has also been restored to life), Don Juan is horrified to discover that he has become a disembodied ghost. He nevertheless ascends to heaven as a reward for his loyalty to the Virgin.

This scathing burlesque can be attributed in part to Lee’s unhappiness at the failure of her long-term partnership with the poet Mary Robinson, who left her to marry the Orientalist James Darmesteter in 1888. The trip to southern Spain that inspired the story was undertaken so that Lee could recover from a nervous collapse. But the story isn’t just the product of a bad break-up. The Virgin’s heart was pierced with the daggers of her seven sorrows; Lee, knowing the feeling, at first found nothing to restore her spirits in Spain. She couldn’t rid herself of the belief that Spain was infected by death. ‘You hit upon death wherever you go, you meet your own funeral, you sit with dead women.’ Depressed but self-aware, she began to wonder whether this response was simply due to her distress. ‘Perhaps it is the fault of my illness that I should have received so gloomy an impression of this place, and so far, of Spain.’ Aesthetic models of associative identification carry intellectual weight, and make a perfect starting point for ghost stories. They might also close the mind to the possibility of healing and change. Don Juan’s unearned redemption is outrageous, and we might feel that Mozart did the proper thing in dragging his Don Giovanni off to hell. But Lee’s version offers a wonderful moment of transfiguration as hopelessness is left behind and the sinner floats upwards

through the cupola of the church, his heart suddenly filled with a consciousness of extraordinary virtue; the gold transparency at the top of the dome expanded; its rays grew redder and more golden, and there burst from it at last a golden moon crescent, on which stood, in her farthingale of puce and her stomacher of seed-pearl, her big black eyes fixed mildly upon him, the Virgin of the Seven Daggers.

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