She’s a tiger-cat!

Miranda Seymour

  • Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography by Vineta Colby
    Virginia, 387 pp, £32.50, May 2003, ISBN 0 8139 2158 9

Returning to her aunt’s villa in Florence in 1899, after an intense but short-lived affair with Axel Munthe, Ottoline Morrell was an ideal candidate to become one of the acolytes who received intellectual instruction and an occasional chaste kiss from the intelligent, abrasive and mannishly attired châtelaine of Il Palmerino in Fiesole. Vernon Lee, as Violet Paget was widely known, was then in her early forties. She had recently lost both her mother, from whom she had received scant affection, and the company of her most faithful woman friend, a tweedy, kind-hearted dog-lover called Kit Anstruther-Thomson. Ottoline’s arrival was timely and her willingness to be taught seductive. Unfortunately, she had already decided to take a course in political economy and Roman history at Somerville. Wistfully, Paget put in a rival claim, offering a course in ‘psychology, which is in great measure my study, and political economy, of which I know a little. I can teach you infinitely less than any person at Oxford,’ she continued with uncharacteristic modesty, ‘but I think we might think things out together, which is sometimes quite as fruitful.’

Perhaps it was Violet Paget’s intensity which scared Ottoline off; perhaps it was the ox tongue stewed in chocolate and the birds’ claw omelettes which had been served up at Il Palmerino by a whimsical cook. She turned down both this overture and the next, while remaining an admiring and respectful friend. It may, nevertheless, have been her memory of Paget’s demanding nature which caused her, in 1915, to attempt the rescue of the latest female recruit, Irene Cooper Willis, by introducing her to Bertrand Russell. Ottoline decided Irene could be more usefully employed in providing Russell with children, but Irene, while happy to act as his research assistant, preferred not to stand between Russell and Ottoline at a time when their own volatile love affair was still in progress. A clever and confident young woman, she managed to remain friendly with Violet Paget while maintaining her own independence.

Ottoline Morrell’s correspondence shows that she heard a good deal at Il Palmerino in 1899 about its owner’s recent and savage falling-out with Bernard Berenson over accusations that she had stolen his ideas and published them as her own. (There was some truth in this: Berenson had discussed his ideas over the stewed tongue at the villa but had not expected them to appear subsequently as the aesthetic views of Violet Paget and her artistic collaborator, Miss Anstruther-Thomson.) No mention seems to have been made during Ottoline’s visits of the supernatural stories on which Paget was working intermittently. Paget herself had no high regard for them: Gothic stories were in fashion; for her, they were light relief from a life dedicated to intellectual endeavour. Her more serious work remains, for good reason, neglected, but the best of the ghost stories have remained in print. Richly exotic and fanciful, they were admired by Italo Calvino and Isak Dinesen, among others.

Calvino’s favourite was ‘Amour Dure’, the story of Medea da Carpi, a Renaissance woman whose beauty destroys those who aspire to love her. ‘A Wicked Voice’, loosely based on the life of the castrato Farinelli, reworks the same theme, with the voice first enchanting and then destroying all who are fated to hear it. The best of Lee’s stories, however, is ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’, in which a young boy’s fairy godmother, Oriana, has been condemned to take the form of a grass snake until she can find a lover trusting enough to kiss her fangs. She is hacked to pieces by the lackeys of Alberic’s jealous uncle and Alberic dies of grief shortly afterwards. The servants sent to clear his room discover that the snake has vanished. In its place lies ‘the body of a woman, naked, and miserably disfigured with blows and sabre cuts’. It was wise of Vineta Colby to resist the temptation to explore the erotic implications of Alberic’s love for a snake, but she might usefully have connected the author’s sensitivity to the mutilated corpse of Oriana instead of concentrating on the lush and haunting atmosphere of the stories. Predominantly set in the Italian past, they express a sense of loss and yearning which emerged from Lee’s own experience of deprivation.

Vernon Lee’s father was a silent, acquiescent man, dominated by a formidable wife who, while willing to encourage her precocious daughter’s intellectual aspirations – Lee was only 14 when her first writings were published in 1870 – was far more closely attached to Eugene Lee-Hamilton, the son of her first marriage. The family, as was common at that time for those with little money and a craving for sunshine, lived an itinerant life, moving every six months to a new set of rented rooms as they shifted from France, to Switzerland, Italy, Germany and back again. Lee was eager to emphasise that her parents took no interest in monuments, panoramic views, churches or local colour. ‘We never saw any sights,’ she wrote in The Sentimental Traveller (1908): instead, she read voraciously, was casually instructed by a string of governesses and acquired an enduring love of music from listening to Mrs Paget play the piano (rather well). Eugene, preparing to study modern languages at Oxford, passed some of his own education on to his young half-sister. For the most part, however, she was left to her own devices.

Henry James’s story ‘The Pupil’ was partly based on the unsettled childhood of his friend John Singer Sargent, but he might as well have been describing Violet Paget’s youth. It was Mrs Sargent, encountered when Violet was ten, who became the first of a series of surrogate mothers willing to provide the affection and intellectual stimulus that she failed to find at home. John Singer Sargent was almost her exact contemporary; encouraged by his mother, the two children visited museums, went to the opera, gathered what they rather hoped were ancient artefacts, and made up stories. It was with Sargent that Paget fell under the spell of Rome, acted out gory episodes from English history and gazed, in Bologna, at the portrait of Farinelli which would haunt her later imaginings; Sargent’s mother, given a free rein by the nonchalant Mrs Paget, introduced the girl to the absorbing society of transplanted Anglo-America. Taken to the hospitable home of William Wetmore Story in Rome, a handsome apartment in the Palazzo Barberini, she met people who had known George Eliot, Thackeray, the Brownings. This, even at the age of 12, was a world where she felt instantly at home.

Among the many details uncovered by Colby, it is intriguing to learn that another of Paget’s surrogate mothers was Cornelia Boinville de Chastel Turner, the unmarried partner of an Italian republican called Giovanni Ruffini. Ruffini had become friendly in 1868 with Eugene, who effected the introduction; Cornelia, in earlier years, had enjoyed a brief flirtation with Shelley before her husband, Thomas Turner, carried her out of danger to a remote corner of Devon. Her letters, edited by the late Felicitas Corrigan, allude to ‘dear Shelley’ with near risible frequency; like Teresa Guiccioli, Cornelia Turner wanted nobody to forget that she had been loved, however briefly, by a celebrated poet.

Cornelia Turner shared with Ruffini a healthy disregard for conventional behaviour; and their influence on Paget at a time when she was planning to write a Life of Metastasio and what she ambitiously described as ‘a grand historical musical novel’ – it was never completed – was considerable. Already opinionated, she was encouraged to write for the Italian journal La Rivista; here, using her new pseudonym in order to escape any possibility of condescension to a female writer, ‘H. Vernon Lee’ pronounced Sterne to be more rewarding than Fielding (largely on moral grounds), Maria Edgeworth to write more enjoyably than Jane Austen, Villette to be superior to Jane Eyre, and a certain Mrs Jenkin to be a finer writer by far, in the realistic mode, than George Eliot. (Mrs Jenkin was a close friend of the Ruffinis.)

At 15, Vernon Lee was already attracting publishers – something her half-brother had failed to do. In 1873, when she was 17, Eugene Lee-Hamilton began to show signs of the psychosomatic illness which made an invalid of him for the next twenty years. Unable to support himself in an independent life, Eugene used illness to re-create himself as his mother’s needy child. In 1896, the year of Mrs Paget’s death, he made a prompt recovery and became an enthusiastic traveller, taking buggy rides over the Kansas prairie, cycling around England and making himself popular with hostesses who admired his considerable skills as a raconteur. He died in 1907, having suffered a sudden relapse after the death of his only daughter.

Glinting through what is, despite Colby’s best efforts, a worthy attempt to revive interest in work which nobody other than Edward Casaubon or a masochist could be impatient to read is another, infinitely more fascinating book. This tells Lee’s personal story and, in particular, the story of her complicated relationship with Eugene. Sexually and emotionally, the siblings were, to say the least, pretty odd. Lee discovered at an early age that she preferred the company of her own sex, yet could not bear to be touched. Displays of emotion frightened her, although her feelings were intense. Mary Robinson, the first great love of her life, lived with the family for seven years before, to their dismay, announcing her engagement to a man who, if Lee’s own description is to be trusted, could have inspired one of her most extravagant ghost stories. James Darmesteter was, she told her alarmed mother and Eugene,

a dwarf, a humpback, a cripple from birth, in so grievous and horrible a way that one can scarcely look at this quivering, suffering mass of distortion when he is quiet, still less when he drags himself across the room. He looks as if all his misshapen little body (he is the size of a boy of ten) would fall to pieces, and his hand, even on a hot day, was cold like a snake.

This hysterical response was rapidly topped by that of Eugene, who, trembling with horror at the ‘scrofulous abortion’ such a mismatch might produce, decided to make his sister responsible for guaranteeing a platonic marriage. It was, he declared, her duty to prevent any intimacy between the couple; she was urged to instruct them on the importance of birth control. The nervous breakdown which Lee suffered during this year was as much due to Eugene’s bizarre behaviour as to the defection of her beloved Mary; years later, she took her revenge by telling her half-brother that a man of his tainted blood had no right to father a child. (The ‘taint’ was the neurosis to which she ascribed her own frequent mental breakdowns.) When Eugene’s child died a year later, he was quick to remind Vernon of the pain that her warnings had caused, managing to imply that she had been partly responsible for his daughter’s death.

It is not surprising that Lee turned to the past for comfort and inspiration. The Renaissance was where she felt most at home. Writing at the time when the period was being rediscovered by Villari, Burckhardt, Michelet and Pater, she shared Ruskin’s difficulty in reconciling an epoch of artistic and literary splendour with a world of extreme violence. Initially, she decided to celebrate the influence of this dark side to Renaissance life by pointing to its influence on Jacobean drama; later, however, she described this as ‘childish morbidness’ and squared her conscience by presenting bloodshed and brutality as a facet, rather than the whole story, of Renaissance life.

Such cautious recantation was not typical of Lee, in either her work or her life. Few literary women have displayed so excruciating a lack of tact and so little understanding of the need for discretion. Berenson’s rage at her calm appropriation of his ideas was as baffling to Lee as the better-masked anger of Henry James, when he discovered that the novel she had dedicated to him, Miss Brown, contained diminishing portraits of a large number of his acquaintances. William and Lucy Rossetti appeared as a stodgy reviewer with a shallow, garrulous wife obsessed by the charms of her children. William and Jane Morris never forgave her for a clearly recognisable account of them as a foolishly doting husband with a lower-class wife. Wilde didn’t speak to her again for ten years after finding himself described as fat-cheeked and elephantine, ‘scattering epigrams of not remarkably brilliant wit’.

Despite the chilly reception given to Miss Brown, Lee went on putting friends into her books. Eight years later, in 1892, she burned her bridges with Henry James by ridiculing him in ‘Lady Tal’ as a balding, overweight expatriate of ‘dainty but frugal’ habits. James had previously spoken of Lee as one of the most brilliant women of the time: now he called her ‘blackguardly’ and warned his brother to cancel his plans to visit her in Florence. ‘She’s a tiger-cat!’

By this time, Lee had become a fixture of Florentine society, ridiculed for the ardent young women who gathered around her to learn about psychology, art and aesthetics, respected, however grudgingly, for her intellect and for the passion of her beliefs. ‘Poor dear dreadful little lady!’ wrote Max Beerbohm, who had never met her. ‘Always having a crow to pick, ever so coyly with Nietzsche, or a wee lance to break with Mr Carlyle . . . What a dreadful little bore and busy-body!’ This was unnecessarily vicious. Edith Wharton and the redoubtable composer Ethel Smyth both admired Lee and relished her sharp but risky wit. (Sir Frederick Leighton was described to friends as a cross between a Greek god and a head waiter.) H.G. Wells, ‘one of the greatest and dearest of living persons’, remained her unlikely champion and friend until 1914 when, with uncommon pluck, she refused to support militarism. Wells, a fervent jingoist, was disgusted. ‘Whatever losses or gains this war brings, it has, I fear, lost "Vernon Lee". But we shall do our best to reconquer her,’ he wrote with blustering condescension. They never spoke to each other again. Wells was not the only friend who found Lee’s calls for pacifism as intolerable as her warm espousal of German culture. Visitors ceased to call at Il Palmerino; there was little comfort in reading that Shaw, who shared her anti-militaristic views, had saluted her in print as ‘the noblest Briton of them all’.

Courage was a quality Vernon Lee had never lacked; she needed it in her last years when money problems obliged her to rent out Il Palmerino while she moved to a nearby cottage. Here, deaf and increasingly unwell, one of her enduring comforts was an unlikely but staunch friendship with Maurice Baring. To him, as to no other man, she was willing not only to act as a mentor but to show an open, unguarded affection. In a letter written to Baring two months before her death in 1935, she made fun of the fact that inaccurate reports of her 80th birthday – she was 78 – had resulted in her being unexpectedly deluged with flowers by strangers, as if, she commented, she were a Florentine chapel. Acknowledging the arrival of Baring’s latest book, she apologised for being obliged to use a displeasingly Fascist stamp to send back a letter saying only ‘dear, incomparable, unreliable Historian, thanks, thanks, thanks, thanks, THANKS from your affect. Vernon.’

Baring shared with Mario Praz admiration for Vernon Lee as one of a dying breed, an elegant and erudite woman who chose females for her companions, but could never bring herself to take the risk of an intimate relationship. ‘I cannot like, or love, at the expense of having my skin rubbed off,’ she wrote; instead, she channelled her emotions into her work. Berenson, who grudgingly conceded the power of her descriptive gifts, may have thought he was having the last word when he recalled that ‘she spent her life in three pursuits: writing, pumping people and in her love affairs with lady friends.’ In this biography Vineta Colby reveals a richer, more vulnerable personality.