Anatomical Venuses, Androgynous Boys, or the Renaissance Cassone

Things, as I before remarked, do not give themselves without some wooing;
and courtship is the secret of true possession.[1]


Much has been written about the imagery in Vernon Lee’s short stories, novels, and historiography. In fact so much has been written about her sexuality that little is left to the imagination. Yet, paradoxically, we know very little about her sexual life because she was a very private person who preferred not to leave behind an official record of her intimate relationships. There are many items missing from Lee’s account of herself. Yet, when one reads the introductory remarks to Art and Man (1924), Beauty and Ugliness (1912), and scattered references in Music and Its Lovers (1932), her candidness in writing about Kit Anstruther-Thomson can leave no doubt of her devotion and intense love. The numerous dedications in her books and short stories refer to particular women that critics understandably want to somehow figure into her life. Catherine Maxwell has recently devoted much care and caution in researching the person behind the initials M.W. in the dedication of “A Wicked Voice.” “A Wedding Chest,” the short story I will examine here, also bears the name of a dedicatee and a series of dates that invites reflection: “To Marie Spartali Stillman 1879-1904.”

The questions form themselves. Can one intuit from the feelings of tender emotion in scattered references enough evidence to label Lee as a lesbian? If we do have sufficient evidence to present such a statement what good would it do? Who would we be trying to convince, and what difference would it make? All of these questions have been addressed regarding other authors, and have received answers in myriad ways by many highly qualified critics. The intricacy of biographical writing figures into the work of what Judith Butler has called “giving an account of oneself.” Throughout her work, Butler has devoted exceptional care to sorting out the problems of subjectivity, the paradoxes that arise in claims, and what the claims mean. What, for example, does it mean to say “I”?

In a memorial essay written after Roland Barthes’ tragic death in 1981, Tzvetan Todorov observes:

It was necessary, in order to impose his truth upon others, to limit the field of application of his statements to the minimum: to himself…. It was necessary, in order to cease being a terrorist, to become an egoist and to offer, in his books, not only a discourse (which always remains an injunction) but also a being: a subject without a predicate.[2]

In many ways Lee might qualify as the perfect candidate for Barthes’ “terrorist.” Personal to the extreme, the “I” which Todorov treats so gingerly was sometimes a weapon of defense in Lee’s latest cause. The short reflective pieces in Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life (1904) are held together by the first person singular almost as trees congregate to make a forest. Every time the “I” is invoked, it adds a strand to the intricate web of the texts. Lee describes this as, “Knowing One’s Mind,”:

Knowing one’s mind … is a first step to filling one’s own place instead of littering unprofitably over creation at large, and insofar also to doing one’s own work. Life, I am willing to admit, is not all private garden, nor should we attempt to make it.[3]

The “I” asserts, affirms, questions, hesitates, and confirms. Above all, it contradicts.  But if the “garden of life” is an “I,” a sense or place of subjectivity, is it also a burial plot as Burdett Gardner suggests, where mid-Victorians like Lee buried their “lesbian phalluses”?

I am not interested here in giving an account of Lee’s sexual identity, nor do I want to break Lee’s precious bone and suck out “la substantifique moelle.” Here rather, I want an object to speak for itself. I want to invoke “A Wedding Chest” to rise up on one corner and dance across the museum floor. Things speak, and the voice of things can be heard if we are willing to listen. In “A Wedding Chest” a cassone speaks for a period of history that is no longer available except to those willing to dig in the archives. We cannot know what it was to actually have been born in 1856. Born in France, of Welsh, French, and Polish extraction, Lee was also a self-described “mid-Victorian” who lived in Italy through the Edwardian period, and died at the start of WWII (1935). That was Vernon Lee’s trajectory in life. Lee’s generation is gone though there still may be a few around who knew her. What we can try to do, is to understand the world she lived in by focusing on the things evoked in her writings. Things are constructed, destroyed and sometimes left alone in her short stories. What are their uses in her creative writing, and how do they provide a basis for understanding Lee’s theoretical writings? A close look at material objects,  places, portraits, toys, plants, jewels, and (the inevitable) wedding chest, –in short, all the things that crowd their way into her writings, can help us to understand how they shape and are shaped by Lee.

Martha Vicinus’ “The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siècle Femme Fatale?” and Patricia Pulham’s “Colouring the Past: Death, Desire and Homosexuality in Vernon Lee’s ‘A Wedding Chest’,” have shown quite suggestively how one may read Lee’s recurrent imagery. They do so however, in order to suggest ways of “reading things into texts.” What is meant by this is quite simple. I will argue that both of these excellent essays, while having many worthy things to say about Lee’s text, miss the point of “A Wedding Chest” by not addressing it at all. In their essays the cassone is just another thing.

When writers write about things, they do so generally for very specific reasons. Something about the thing in question must strike them as worthy enough of their attention to merit the time spent writing. This is how Willa Cather came to the conclusion that most of the things in novels should probably be thrown out of the window, and that only the “thing not named” in her “novel démeublé” was worth keeping.[4] It is probably for this reason that Gertrude Stein found the benches in museum galleries to be such wonderful places to have a lie down.[5] When writing about tender buttons and other things, Stein suddenly rises from recumbence and stirs with life. Likewise, paying attention or dismissing Cather’s bicycle makes all the difference in how one reads “Unsentimental Tommy.” Instead of merely pushing buttons and spinning wheels, we might learn something by following the trajectories of things.

Both of the essays reviewed here will address a particular thing that Lee wrote about in her short story “A Wedding Chest. ” Since this review essay is also an attempt to explore how Lee used material culture in her short stories to give voice to things that would otherwise go unnoticed, areas of Vicinus’ and Pulham’s essays that explore the boundaries between persons and objects will be highlighted. In the choice of objects in Lee’s short story available for critical attention these critics have each chosen particular characters. Thus, Vicinus focuses on Lee’s creation of Troilo Baglioni as a type of the “Adolescent Boy” that surfaces so often in late nineteenth century literature. Pulham concentrates her attention on the female adolescent in Lee’s narrative. Monna Maddalena becomes for her, a kind of doll or “Anatomical Venus.” Like the adolescent boy, the Anatomical Venus becomes a kind of thing blurring the boundaries of object/person relations. Rather than focus on the thing that circulates throughout the story, the cassone, these critics circulate around it. The missing item in these otherwise excellent contributions to “Lee studies” needs to be put back into focus.

Adolescent boys and their problems

Boys misbehave, that is what they do. Vicinus’ essay “The Adolescent Boy” should be read in light of her ongoing “effort to trace the ways in which homosexuals of both sexes drew from similar cultural materials to fashion images that recast long-standing stereotypes.” Not only does Vicinus bring her enormous erudition to an analysis of the production of images (the cultural material of the late nineteenth century) but she wishes to apply this to an understanding of psychosexuality. In claiming that “the presentation of the extremes of emotional pleasure and social peril was a means of arguing both covertly and overtly the centrality of their love,” Vicinus helps people speak.[6] Critical attention is placed throughout her essay on the figure of the “adolescent boy” who was “as troubling for the turn-of-the-century artist as the better-known predatory woman.” The thesis that “his protean nature displayed a double desire—to love a boy and to be a boy” is quite clear. Whether intentionally or not, Vicinus immediately speaks of the “adolescent boy” as a kind of repository for Victorian emotions: “Throughout Europe the boy became a vessel into which an author—and a reader—could pour his or her anxieties, fantasies and sexual desires.” Like the “homosexual artist” from the Michael Field’s poem quoted a little later, the adolescent boy is “…a plan, a work of some strange passion/…A thing it hides and cherishes to fashion.”

Within this context however, Lee’s story appears as corpus vile, and surprisingly Lee also becomes altered from the context of her own biography. Vicinus states that Lee was an American citizen, a minor error and one she does not allow into print for a third time in her recent Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. Much more important is the oversight that occurs in Vicinus’ rendering of Lee’s “lesbianism” as it relates to her story.[7] The trouble with Lee’s boys is that they are always troubled. Whether Prince Alberic who falls for a “snake lady,” or Troilo Baglioni who murders a young lady and stuffs her into a wedding chest along with her illegitimate baby, these boys are in trouble. What becomes apparent is that the roles these youngsters perform have nothing to do with the way “lesbians” should or do act. It becomes difficult to understand how these literary objects are really lesbians.

In her statement that “even though contemporaries recognized her [Lee] as a lesbian and either accepted or laughed at her intense friendships, the lesbian subtext of much of her writing has been ignored,” Vicinus commits an oversight that must be corrected. In fact, if any aspect of Lee’s subjectivity has characterized the general tone of scholarship it has been the directives provided in Burdett Gardner’s psychobiography of Lee, The Lesbian Imagination (Victorian Style).[8] Not only should Gardner’s condescending title be understood as an accurate image of his critical bias, but it should have alerted Vicinus to the danger of following his lead uncritically. Likewise when Vicinus comments that “Lee could not rise above her distaste for condescending men…” and that “her bristling intellectuality attracted respect, but few friends” she refers to Ethyl Smyth’s gossipy As Time Went On… (1936).

Peter Gunn, in his biography of Lee reflects that “Both women desired to shine in company; and there was a strong element of rivalry, even perhaps of over-compensating assertiveness, in Ethyl Smyth’s relationship with Vernon Lee, which makes itself felt in her writing…”[9] While acknowledging the plausible truth in Smyth’s assessments of Lee, Gunn’s biography provides a more balanced reading than what is found in Vicinus’ essay.[10] At this juncture, a third problem is encountered because we have two “lesbians” fighting and we don’t even know if either of them qualifies as adolescent boys, or lesbians. It should be apparent that the “rivalry” and “over-compensating assertiveness” certainly expected of adolescent boys, is not really an essential trait of all lesbians. An additional problem arises with Vicinus’ model when we observe the various really nasty girls in Lee’s short stories. The eponymous heroine of “Dionea” walks away from the scene of a horrible crime, and the story ends with her being spotted offshore, possibly on her way to the next crime.  Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw’s (Lady Tal) “odious tomboy of a cousin” has “atrocious manners” and always mispronounces Mr. Jervaise Marion’s name (read Henry James) “Mary Anne.”[11] Upon recognizing himself in the character of Mr. Marion in 1893, James broke his friendship with Lee. Lee’s tomboys are a fact to be reckoned with for they are cut from the same cloth as her adolescent boys.

 On Rakes, and Other Rogues

Lee’s tale is a rather sad one that contains violence, betrayal, and vendetta. Belonging more to the “cloak and dagger” genre than to the fairy tale she professed was so central to Italian Renaissance style, “A Wedding Chest” is set in a particular historical time and place.[12] It would have been read by her peers as typical of the kind of literature one would find in Victorian reviews. These pieces were designed for a target audience, perhaps a male readership that travelled to Italy wishing to become familiar on a first hand basis with the products of the Italian Renaissance. Lee’s relationship to this “man’s world” is negotiated in several ways, but perhaps the most obvious is her adoption of the name Vernon Lee which indicated that she was a writer. The fact that she came to prefer that name over the name she was given at birth (Violet Paget) signifies a space for her subjectivity that she wished to be respected. When critics like Burdett Gardner pepper their writings about Lee with careless and casual switching back and forth from “Violet” to “Vernon” they are indicating their complete ignorance of, and/or disrespect for the author’s wishes. On the other hand, the adoption of a pseudonym could be interpreted by Lee’s peers as a political defiance. As Christa Zorn notes: “When the female intellectual emerged as an identifiable cultural figure, men’s strictures turned overly defensive, suggesting an entrenched male intellectual establishment…The uneasiness of Victorian writers toward “clever” women is clearly felt in J.A. Symonds’s correspondence with Vernon Lee.”[13]

An example of this kind of literary piece is Albert Kinross’s (1870-1929) “The Chronicler of the Baglioni,” published in The Cornhill Magazine.[14] This story reinvents Matarazzo’s account of the political struggles for power between the infamous Baglioni family and the Oddi. The bad Baglioni and the odious Oddi were rival families of the fifteenth century Perugia in Italy’s central state Umbria. Both had their share of rotten eggs, rakes, and rogues, little balls of testosterone walking around on legs. According to the Perugian chronicler Matarazzo these boys were so bad one couldn’t help but fall in love with them for their beauty was such as could not to be found anywhere. The great scholar describes these boys by reference to Ganymede the paramour of great Zeus himself. To this, John Addington Symonds adds in his study the absence of hair on their faces. One detects a slight swoon as he raptures in his pedophilia at the sight of these boys of Perugia.

The key to crack the code of Kinross’s “The Chronicler of Baglioni” is not the lads but the “Amazon” heroine Simonetta Baglioni, “she that went later to Florence and was drawn by Sandro Botticelli on a panel that is now lost, for all the inscriptions one may read and all the conjectures of the specialists.”[15] Kinross has removed the historical ‘Semonetto,’ son of Ridolfo Baglioni, and replaced him with a beautiful “Amazon” daughter (Simonetta). The intrigues of the story must have proven irresistible to Victorians for whom Italy represented the strange and mysterious other. Moreover, acquaintance and familiarity with the Chronicles of Matarazzo, translated into the English language by Edward Strachan Morgan (1905), could provide these men with intellectual and cultural capital. Kinross’s Simonetta is the equivalent of a Perugian Jeanne d’Arc. She is also a blatant parody of John Addington Symonds’ Simonetto. A comparison of two passages clarify Kinross’s objective. The first is from Symonds’ chapter on Perugia in Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe:

The first glimpse we get of these young athletes in Matarazzo’s chronicle is on the occasion of a sudden assault upon Perugia made by the Oddi and the exiles of their faction in September, 1495. The foes of the Baglioni entered the gates and began breaking the iron chains, serragli, which barred the streets against advancing cavalry. None of the noble house were on the alert except young Simonetto, a lad of eighteen, fierce and cruel, who had not yet began to shave his chin. [16]

Now a slightly longer passage from Kinross’ “The Chronicler of the Baglioni:

Till September 17, 1495, for three months and eight days, Perugia was at peace. Then Niccolo, who had long lain ready in the dark, discovered his opportunity. The Baglioni had at last relaxed their watchfulness. It was the day of Adriano’s wedding, and the whole family had gathered to a great feasty in the palace of Guido Baglioni, that stood on the far side of town. Only Simonetta, who hated her cousin’s bride, was absent, urging in excuse that she still wore mourning for Ridolfo. Niccolo’s sudden assault, therefore, was well-timed.
Unchallenged he rode in at the city gates and began breaking the iron chains (serragli) that barred the streets against advancing cavalry. Simonetta heard the marching of the Oddi, the beating of the hammers on the chains. Swiftly she sent a messenger to disturb the marriage feast; and then looking round, she beheld Francesco Matarazzo[17]

Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) and John Addington Symonds’ Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe (1880) both contain memorable chapters on the Baglioni.[18] While attending closely to the ancient chroniclers Matarazzo and Frolliere, and to the historiography of Italian scholars de Sanctis and Villari, borrowing and citing as the need arose, Symonds is above all interested in the artistic cultural products of the Renaissance as they form and shape the personality. Burckhardt’s chapter on “The State as a Work of Art” draws specifically on the history of despotism in Perugia as an illustration of his thesis that “the greatest crimes of the fifteenth century are most frequent in the smallest states.” The adolescent boys are really divine rogues.

In Euphorion: Being Studies of the Antique and the Medieval in the Renaissance, Vernon Lee would follow this thesis in her own historiography of the Italian Renaissance. She also describes the rakes and rogues of the Baglioni, but with much more stress on their contradictory characters, as if to make them ready for the stage:

We are astonished at the strange anomaly in the tastes and deeds of the Renaissance villains; we are amazed before their portraits. These men who in the frightful light of their own misdeeds, appear to us as complete demons or complete madmen, have yet much that is amiable and much that is sane; they stickle at no abominable lust, yet they are no bestial sybarites; they are brave, sober, frugal, enduring like any puritan; they are treacherous rapacious cruel, utterly indifferent to the sufferings of their enemies, yet they are gentle in manner, passionately fond of letters and art, superb in their works of public utility…[19]

Unlike Burckhardt and Symonds, Lee questioned the premise that the irony of this history was always productive of positive and beneficial results. Rather than focus exclusively on the artistic products of Italy, she devotes a chapter to the study of its effects on a foreign culture (Elizabethan England):

But the Englishmen of the sixteenth century were astonished and fascinated by the evil of Italy: the dark pools of horror, the dabs of infamy which had met them ever and anon in the brilliant southern cities, haunted them like nightmare, bespattered for them the clear blue sky, and danced, black and horrible spots, before the face of the sun…And the sin of the Renaissance, which the art of Italy could neither pourtray [sic] nor perceive; appeared on the stage decked in superb and awful garb by the tragic imagination of Elizabethan England.[20]

By changing the perspective, making England a slave to the Italian imagination and passion, Lee describes what was also happening to her contemporaries. The Victorians Kinross and Lee address are still being shaped and fashioned by the image of Renaissance Italy. rather than the origin of the gaze, Lee exerts control over her subject matter.

Whether or not she had read Kinross’s literary contribution, her own story resembles his gender crossing while reversing the sex of his character back to the adolescent boy. Kinross’s exercise in cross-dressing and gender-crossing would probably not have raised any Victorian eyebrows. It would have confirmed Symonds’ own suggestion that the period was characterized as a curious cauldron, a mixture of good and evil. For Symonds, personality was the key to understanding and explaining the contradictions of the Italian Renaissance for, “these conditions, eminently favorable to the growth of arts and the pursuit of science, were no less conducive to the hypertrophy of passions, and to the full development of ferocious and inhuman personalities.”[21] By bringing Kinross’s story into the orbit of this discussion, one can clearly see that even casual encounters with gender in late-Victorian texts almost invariably trigger certain predictable critical responses.

In a recent article on Vernon Lee, Jo Briggs makes the astute observation that most contemporary critical accounts of Lee’s “sexual dissidence” invariably cite the authority of Burdett Gardner’s psychobiography.[22] For Briggs, the problem resides in the fact that the same critics hesitate to remark about the gender trouble they encounter in her male peers. Lee’s peers often denigrated her work while admiring her intellect (J. A. Symonds, Bernard Berenson, and Henry James serve as examples.) What critics refer to as Lee’s irascible nature “rivalry” and “over-compensating assertiveness” should be read contextually. A particularly good example of this is provided by Briggs’ assessment of the young Bernard Berenson who first met Lee in 1889.[23] Vicinus excellent article on the relationship between Berenson and the Michael Fields does exactly the kind of work Briggs calls for in her article. If Berenson’s relationship with the Michael Fields was troubled because of his estranging the couple from each other, with Lee the problems were over Berenson’s insistence that she had plagiarized his work.

Both Lee and Berenson were obsessed with the Italian Renaissance. They shared an intellectual passion that extended to philosophy, psychology, and history as well. While Berenson became increasingly involved in connoisseurship treating his passion as a career and a means of making hard cash, Lee remained always theoretical in her approach. Their differences led them to the inevitable debacle in 1897 when Berenson accused Lee and Kit Anstruther Thomson of plagiarizing his theories of the emotive response to art. A close reading of their individual works however shows each writer developing a unique theory. While Lee’s interest in the theory of empathy (Einfühlung) led her to Groos, Wundt, and Theodor Lipps, Berenson’s “tactile values” respond to Adolf Hildebrand’s notions of the development of the senses and how it applies to art. What is true of both is their mutual passion for the Italian art of the Renaissance.

Kinross’s narrative shares in this Victorian obsession with the Italian Renaissance history and art. His contribution to The Cornhill Magazine should remind us of the “lure” of the Renaissance and the complex attraction it represented to men like Browning, Swinburne, Symonds, and Berenson. The elaborate game of desire and seduction that drew them closer to a remote and mysterious history of crime, passion, and art, also promised others entry into the closed circle of elite intellectuals and aristocrats. While Kinross’s story mirrors the Victorian passion for the Italian Renaissance it is also a parody of the extremes to which aesthetes such as Swinburne were willing to go in creating ridiculous femmes fatales.[24] His reference to “Bella Simonetta” as an Amazon should be read in this playful light.

Lee’s “A Wedding Chest” was originally published in Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales (1904). It appears at first reading to be a displaced contribution (a missing item) to the five “unlikely stories” collected in For Maurice (1927). In its style it recalls the “culture-ghosts” of that collection, and Troilo Baglioni reminds one of the elaborate descriptions found in “The Virgin of the Seven Daggers.” Though Vicinus is correct to focus on the pivotal role of Troilo Baglioni as the type of liminal character she describes in “The Adolescent Boy,” the story is really not about him. As the title suggests, the story is about ‘A Wedding Chest,’ and, as if to reinforce the point, the cassone is represented in the museum card description with which it opens.[25]

 Anatomical Venuses, dolls, and semivir idols . . . things not so nice

. . . her own private charnel house[26]

If Vicinus’ essay focuses on the adolescent boy as representative of the lesbian imagination in Lee’s story, Patricia Pulham’s essay takes an interesting second route through the body of Troilo Baglioni’s victim Monna Maddalena. Here Pulham brilliantly suggests first that the body of the character of Monna Maddalena might be read as a doll, or toy, then an art object, and finally a Winnicottian “transitional object.” This is based on “the hypotheses put forward by D.W. Winnicott, in Playing and Reality (1971), in which he argues that adults transfer their childhood engagement with ‘toys’ or transitional objects’ to art and cultural objects.”[27] Not only does the body of the girl become a transitional object, but “the past in Lee’s tale “A Wedding Chest” functions as a kind of Winnicottian ‘potential space’ in which the transitional object takes center stage. Viewed within Winnicott’s theoretical framework, the predominance of the ‘Past’ in Lee’s work suggests not only an historical past, but also a psychic past that is grounded in childhood, in which the mother is forever absent, and yet present, and in which those art objects which inhabit the past become ‘transitional objects’ or ‘toys.’”[28]

What is of particular interest here is the suggestion that “in this story her body is transformed into a form of ‘doll’ over which her lovers fight for possession.’ She goes a step further to add that the presence of naked women in Lee’s oeuvre is to be remarked and great still is the fact that these women are generally already dead. Their bodies are cut up, bloody, and bruised, “and in “A Wedding Chest,” as we shall see, the dead and naked body of Maddalena is wounded and defiled. In this inanimate state, the bodies of these dead women, still, silent and stained with colour, double as ‘dolls.’”[29]

Unfortunately, Pulham turns like Vicinus, to Burdett Gardner as the recognized authority in all things Lee. The sentence quoted above is followed by a direct transition into the work of Gardner: “It would seem that this is how Burdett Gardner, an early critic of Lee’s works, sees them. For Gardner, these dead women are examples of the ‘semivir idol’ which he defines as the “feminine counterpart” of [Lee’s] own idealized image that manifests itself in ‘dolls, images, statues, pictures, puppets, and the dead.”[30] But Gardner also sees this as manifest in Lee’s style because of a deep unhappiness due to her lesbianism: “If her style holds a monotony of sepulchral associations, those associations report with sincerity and integrity the state of her own private charnel house. They are not the result of a facile copying of verbal effects.”[31]

Another passage from Burdett Gardner’s chapter seven on “The Semivir Idol” qualifies his observations and demonstrates his manner of procedure:

Frustrated by an inner check upon the normal channels of a shared life, she communicates through subtle parables, allegories, and symbols, the plight of her entangled soul. All of her writings, therefore, have an intensely personal relevance. To expose this will not appreciably contribute to their meaning and value as literature, both of which depend upon a different kind of relevance, but we may certainly hope to increase their value as human documents and possibly to explain their failure as judged by the stock canons of literature.[32]

Gardner’s explanation of Lee’s “entangled soul” relies on his estimate that the bloody bruised body mentioned above is a reflection of it. He writes “in this figure, the real subject of a great part of Miss Paget’s fiction, we have the projected object of her self-love. We shall refer to that object henceforth as the semivir idol.”[33] He then goes on to analyze Lee’s “A Wedding Chest” noting that the revenge plot is subordinate to length she devotes to the burial of Monna Maddalena. Gardner is upset about the burial plot. Yet the importance attributed to Monna Maddalena’s dead and bruised body is capital for him, and if he can succeed in proving “her chief interest in the story [was] the apotheosis of the corpse of Maddalena,” then he will also be able to say much about Lee’s “Lesbian Imagination”:

From the examples before us, the dominant features of the semivir idol are clear. Although dead herself, she has an invincible power of attracting the living, but, when offered passionate love, she incontinently seeks the death of the lover. In this respect, she exhibits the Violet-“Vernon” dualism experienced by Violet’s friends. Her status is parallel to the Platonic ideal in its relation to the actual world. Transcending reality she has no part in it; but she forever haunts and disturbs its complacent order, and occasionally beckons some part of it into momentarily assuming her shape.[34]

The problem with this kind of criticism is that it leads Gardner to make judgments about people (lesbians) that merely confirm what he had thought before engaging in complex understanding of gender. The image of the “lesbian” as it appears in his work is supposedly rescued by his addition of the qualifier “Victorian”:

In her fiction she has traced in dark arabesques of evil her suspicions of her own soul’s health; in her essays and dialogues she has candidly exhibited the ironic predicament of the Victorian Lesbian. Properly understood, she is not only an original and “authentic” voice of her period but, as a spokesman for the cramped and cabined ego, one of the great confessors of all mankind.[35]

If Gardner has not made his point clear from the arrangement of his title with its parenthetic subtitle “Victorian Style,” then here in the last paragraph of his dissertation he boldly claims the universality of his essentialist reading by distinguishing Lee as “one of the great confessors of all mankind.” Lee is swallowed up into the universality of an essentialist reading that deplores her existence and hopes she will go away. She once made it very clear that she had no interest in the dichotomies and polarities of Der Mensch and das Weib, femina ac vir, “man and woman.” In her correspondence and her review of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s book Woman and Economics (which Pulham described elsewhere as a “Transatlantic Alliance,”) Lee voices her opinions about the economic slavery of women, and she addresses her “conversion” to the Woman Question. She embraces a universality that is not ignorant of difference but sensitive to it.[36]

The Garden where Things Come to Rest

Lee’s “lesbian imagination” according to Gardner’s analysis is no garden at all, but a kind of burial ground where she ritualizes the internment of her “semivir idol.” He is hostile and angry about Lee’s existence. It bothers him that she could write these fantastic tales, and he wants to know her secrets, to dig up her garden and find out where she has buried her bone. The bone in question is Gardner’s critical tool, the “semivir idol” also known as the “lesbian phallus.” There is nothing wrong with writing about things like this, but it becomes very difficult to add to the complexity the dogged belief that there is something out there in the backyard. The imagery of burial and resurrection receives quite a different interpretation in the work of Angela Leighton and Jan Marsh.

The tantalizing question of Lee’s dedicatee “Marie Spartali Stillman,” may be cleared up by looking at Lee’s possible sources for the garden description in “A Wedding Chest.” Jan Marsh, in “’The old Tuscan rapture’: The Response to Italy and its art in the Work of Marie Spartali Stillman” mentions missing word a particular Spartali painting attracted Vernon Lee’s attention[37] “The Enchanted Garden of Messr Ansaldo,” (1889) “is a small, highly decorative and decorated piece depicting an incident from the Decameron in which Ansaldo attempts to seduce the (married) Dianora by magically turning winter into summer.”[38] Lee includes an appreciation of this particular piece in her Limbo and Other Essays:

We must imagine [Boccaccio’s] magic flower garden rather as a corner—they still exist on every hillside—or orchard connected with the fields of wheat and olives below by the long tunnels of vine trellis and dying away into them with the great tufts of lavender and rosemary and fennel on the grassy bank under the cherry trees. This piece of terraced ground along which the water—spurted from the dolphin’s mouth or the siren’s breasts—runs through the walled channels, refreshing impartially violets and salads, lilies and tall flowering onions, under the branches of the peach tree and the pomegranate to where in the shade of the great pink oleander tufts, it pours out below into the big tank for the maids to rinse their linen in the evening. [39]

This garden is similar to the one in Lee’s “A Wedding Chest” where Desiderio of Castiglione del Lago buries the cassone (now a coffin):

This garden, within the walls of the city on the side of Porta Eburnea, was pleasantly situated, and abounding in flowers and trees, useful both for their fruit and their shade, and rich likewise in all herbs as thyme, marjoram, fennel and many others, that prudent housewives desire for their kitchen; all watered by stone canals, ingeniously constructed by Ser Piero, which were fed from a fountain where you might see a mermaid squeezing the water from her breasts, subtle device of the same Piero…[40]

In Gardner’s garden he cannot see the flowers for the water that he quickly channels into another psycho-imagery. He is mostly interested in the body of Monna Maddalena for it represents the semivir idol he is keen to follow. Unfortunately, in spite of having obtained an excellent connection through Winnicott’s notion of the transitional object, Pulham falls back on Gardner’s paltry Freudian reading. The phallic imagery connected with the body is used against Lee in Gardner. Pulham takes a different direction when she associates it with art objects.

What is surprising is that little effort is spent on the analysis of the baby that appeared in the coffin along with Monna Maddalena. Gardner does not mention it at all except in a direct quote from the story. The dead infant is taken out of the coffin:

But the body of the child, which had been found in the wedding chest, they threw down a place near Saint Heraculanus, where the refuse and offal and dead animals are thrown, called the Sardegna; because it was the bastard of Ser Troilo, et infamiae scelerisque partum.[41]

This passage may perhaps be clarified by reference to Peter Gunn’s biography. He cites a letter written to Vernon Lee from her brother Eugene in October 1904. They had been estranged from one another since the death of Mrs. Paget (their mother) in March 1896, when Eugene moved away and married Annie Holdsworth in 1898. Annie gave birth to a little girl (Persis) that “did not survive infancy and died on 2nd October 1904.” In the letter Eugene describes his grief to Lee:

We laid her in her little white coffin with her doll yesterday evening at sunset, just opposite Mamma’s grave, to which I gave some of her flowers… I am grateful for your kind words. But had you given her a single smile or penny toy while she was alive, it would have been more to the purpose, and would have left you none the poorer, –perhaps even a little richer.[42]

The passage is striking in its revelation about Lee’s sternness regarding her own niece and though its connection to the story is only conjecture it might help to understand the association of infant mortality and early death which was a general Victorian concern. The need to go beyond the story and find that the “origins” of Lee’s “lesbian imagination” or her “troubled soul” in some supposed “lesbian” phallic fixation is far more conjectural.

Angela Leighton has described Lee’s interest in the Renaissance past as part of a general Victorian association that changed over time:

The picture of Italy as a framed moment of the past, ghostly with absence yet hauntingly recuperable, provides the energy of much later Victorian writing… In particular, the idea of the Renaissance gives to aestheticism one of its key, recurrent images: that of the resurrected body. While early Victorian women writers claimed Italy as a body of their own, an instrument of song and suffering, later aesthetes find in it a body figured almost for its own sake, impersonal, inhuman, and the sign, therefore, of a materialist aesthetic which subversively challenges many of the values of high Victorianism.[43]

Might the body in Desiderio’s cassone not be understood as an image of the Renaissance itself being resurrected from the past? If, as Leighton argues, “the Renaissance is thus dreamed as an artwork come to life, a beautiful body restored, as well as just a word, ‘the Renaissance,’ made flesh” then it may be plausible to argue that the scene in which Desiderio becomes a resurrectionist digging up the cassone/coffin,  is an image of the work these Victorians were doing. Lee’s reference to the body of Julia “daughter of the Emperor Augustus Caesar, who was discovered buried on the Appian way, and incontinently fell into dust—a marvelous thing” may be a reference to Symonds’s A Short History of the Renaissance in Italy (1893) where that story is told. Or it may also refer to Symonds’s poem “The Corpse of Julia,” with its celebrated lines: “Of this real resurrection from the tomb/ The tale of buried Julia is for me.”[44]

Pulham has a different explanation, for the body of Maddalena as she sees it, is “an ‘auto-icon’ ‘signifying a representation that consists of the thing itself.’” Moreover, it is also an Anatomical Venus, a “fetish,” or “a ‘lost object preserved by virtue of the fetish substitute’ which represents not only the “impossible” feminine phallus but an “imagined” maternal body.”[45] The anatomical Venus of which Pulham writes is a very interesting and plausible explanans for Lee’s imaginative writing. Although one need not take it as far as Gardner goes in his “semivir idol” there are many references in Lee’s works to mysterious dolls and to the naked women Pulham describes.[46]

As Pulham notes, the anatomical Venus was a kind of wax doll “constructed ostensibly for medical purposes, but were often given long hair, invitingly posed on silk cushions, and wore pearl necklaces.” Ludmilla Jordanova has explained these wax models in terms of ‘body image’ and the “representational logic” of realism in philosophy and the creative arts[47] Lee was certainly aware of the existence of these dolls, and it is possible that she visited the famous La Specola museum in Florence where they are kept. In The Spirit of Rome (Spring, 1902) she writes about an encounter with what she took to be an anatomical Venus: “We went into another palace yard; and there was a shop with three young men working at a huge sawdust doll, with porcelain sandalled feet. I thought it was a doll for displaying surgical apparatus, but it turned out to be a female saint…”[48]

In short, all of Pulham’s suggestions are designed to help understand Lee’s “A Wedding Chest,” and that is why it is difficult to understand why she falls back on Gardner. That is explained when she refers to Martha Vicinus’ argument about the adolescent boy in Victorian literature. Since it has already been shown here that Vicinus accepts quite uncritically Gardner’s basic premise about an essential “lesbianism,” it might also be true that Pulham thinks that Lee’s story can actually be blanketed in this manner, and that Freudian Thing really explains everything. I suggest that there is a missing item from these accounts; the main piece of art, the art object has been completely ignored in these discussions. I will argue that the cassone is the thing resurrected, and that this explanation requires a turn to material culture which is where I am headed.

 ‘A Wedding Chest’: The Missing Item

If Pulham and Vicinus have missed the cassone’s central place in ‘A Wedding Chest’ it is perhaps due to the fact the title itself suggests the unspecified. The indefinite article in general signals a person, thing or event that has not been clearly defined. It does not indicate a specific object, but one of a group. Unlike for example, Henry James’ “The Figure in the Carpet,” Lee’s “A Wedding Chest” offers a reversal in its title that contradicts the specificity of the cassone in the museum card. If the tile had read “The Wedding Chest” the reader would begin to search for some clue in the story as to which wedding chest was being indicated in the title. Since the opening of the story is preceded by the description of a particular wedding chest, the idea becomes clearer that some specific thing is in fact being identified:

No. 428. A panel (five feet by two feet three inches) formerly the front of a cassone or coffer, intended to contain the garments and jewels of a bride. Subject: ‘The Triumph of Love.’ ‘Umbrian school of the Fifteenth century.’ In the right hand corner is a half-effaced inscription: Desider…de Civitate Lac…me…ecit. This valuable painting is unfortunately much damaged by damp and mineral corrosives, owing probably to its having contained at one time buried treasure. Bequeathed in 1878 by the widow of the Rev. Lawson Stone, Late Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.[49]

What Lee performs in her short story is an example of ekphrastic or interartistic descriptive writing. Since the wedding chest is not any real one but a product of Lee’s imagination, it is what John Hollander calls a “notional ekphrasis,” meaning the description of an imagined work of art REF?. What needs to be explained is how the description of the wedding chest relates to the material culture of the historical objects. If we overlook this central point in Lee’s text, then we have failed to understand that “A Wedding Chest” is really about ‘the’ wedding chest in the museum card that opens the story. “No ideas but in things.” The refrain from William Carlos Williams’ “A Sort of Song” (1944) was a direct rejection of the kind of complex poems of Eliot and Pound. Thing Theory is not a return to Williams’ rejection of literary allusions and “foreign” terms, but an engagement with the materiality in texts, recognition of “the social life of things” (Appadurai). By looking at the way in which the cassone moves about, is buried, resurrected, commodified, singularized, and decommodified, we can see that Lee has written what Igor Kopytoff has called “the cultural biography” of a thing.

As I have suggested elsewhere, the cassone in “A Wedding Chest” may be read as a parody of the connoisseurship practices and the masculinist rhetoric of Lee’s peers. Instead of bringing things into Lee’s text we may also meditate on the things that are already there and what they do. My argument is not to abandon discussion of adolescent boys, anatomical Venuses, fetishes, but to enrich these critical tools by focusing on what is already in the text.

Notes to the text

[1] Lee, Vernon, “A Hotel Sitting Room,” in Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life, (London, New York: John Lane: The Bodley Head, 1904), 86.

[2] Todorov, Tzvetan, “The Last Roland Barthes,” trans. Richard Howard, Critical Inquiry, vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), 453.

[3] Lee, Vernon, Hortus Vitae Essays on the Gardening of Life, (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1904), 106. The garden imagery will be important in this essay by way of contrasting Lee’s own use of it with that of Burdett gardner (see below.)

[4] Cather, Willa, “The Novel Demeuble,” Not Under Forty, (New York: Alfred A. Knopff, 1964), 51.

[5] Sandbank, Shimon, “Poetic Speech and the Silence of Art,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 46, No. 3, (Summer 1994), 232.

[6] Vicinus, Martha, “The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siècle Femme Fatale?,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 51 (Summer, 1994), 90-114, see also Dellamora, Richard (ed.), Victorian Sexual Dissidence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 83-109, and Vicinus, Martha, Intimate Friends: Women who Loved Women, 1778-1928, (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 152-170.

[7] Catherine Maxwell has previously noted this “completely inaccurate statement” in her review of Richard Dellamora (ed.), Victorian Sexual Dissidence (1999), see Catherine Maxwell, The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 31, North American Short Stories and Short Fictions (2001), pp. 271-272.

[8] Gardner, Burdett, The Lesbian Imagination (Victorian Style): A Psychological and Critical Study of “Vernon Lee,” [Harvard Dissertations in American and English Literature, ed. Orgel, Stephen], (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1987).

[9] Gunn, Peter, Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856-1935, (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 133.

[10] The uncritical acceptance of secondary opinion over the biographical contextualization available through Gunn’s biography (which Vicinus quotes) reflects poorly on Lee. Following Gardner’s lead and remaining critical of Gunn might misinform readers who would otherwise not know that both accounts contain their share of bias.

[11] Lee, Vernon, “Lady Tal,” in Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, ed. Elaine Showalter, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 231.

[12] Lee, Vernon, Renaissance Fancies and Studies: Being a Sequel to Euphorion, (London: Smith & Elder, 1895) 102.

[13] Zorn, Christa, Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003), 11.

[14] Kinross, Albert, “The Chronicler of the Baglioni,” Cornhill Magazine, ed. George Smith, (London: Smith & Elder) Vol. 14, (Jan-June, 1903). Kinross, an American, obtained copyright for his story before it appeared in The Cornhill Magazine.

[15] Kinross, 788.

[16] Symonds, John Addington, Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe, Vol. I, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880), 212-213

[17] Kinross, 790-791

[18] Burckhardt, Jacob, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S.G.C. Middlemore, (London: Penguin, 1990)

[19] Lee, Vernon, Euphorion: Being Studies of the Antique and the Medieval in the Renaissance, (rpt. Boston: Robert Brothers, 1884).

[20] Euphorion, 107-108.

[21] Symonds, John Addington, Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe 206.

[22] Briggs, Jo, “The Reception of Vernon Lee’s Writings on Aesthetics,” in Vernon Lee: Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics, ed. Pulham, Patricia and Catherine Maxwell, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).

[23] Bernard Berenson (1865-1959).

[24] The myth of the Bella Simonetta is credited to Algernon Swinburne, whose “Notes on Designs of the Old Masters at Florence,” mentions a “veiled head of Simonetta,” in Botticelli’s Spring. See Fortnightly Review, 4 (July, 1868).

[25] The term cassone, which is mentioned in the museum card, refers to an antique bridal chest, an ambiguously gendered object. The scholarship on Italian bridal chests is immense. See Baskins, Cristelle, Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[26] Gardner, 590.

[27] Pulham, Patricia, “Colouring the Past: Death, Desire and Homosexuality in Vernon Lee’s ‘A Wedding Chest’,” Critical Survey, 19, No. 1, 2007.

[28] Pulham, 7.

[29] Ibid, 8.

[30] 8.

[31] Gardner, 590.

[32] Gardner, 313.

[33] Ibid. 311, 315.

[34] 338-9.

[35] 592.

[36] Pulham, Patricia, “A Transatlantic Alliance: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Vernon Lee,” in Feminist Forerunners: New Womanism and Feminism in the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Ann Heilmann, (London: Pabdora Press, 2003), 34-43.

[37] Marsh, Jan, “’The old Tuscan rapture’: The Response to Italy and its art in the Work of Marie Spartali Stillman,” in Unfolding the South; Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy, (eds.) Alison Chapman and Stabler, Jane, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003), 159-182. Marie Spartali Stillman (1843-1927) “was a British born artist whose parents were part of the Greek diaspora from Ottoman oppression in the 1820’s and 1830’s, migrating to join the cultured Anglo-Greek community in London.” (160).

[38] Marsh, 176.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Lee, Vernon, “A Wedding Chest,” Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, (eds.) Catherine Maxwell and Pulham, Patricia, (Ontario, Canada: Broadview Editions, 2006), 237-8.

[41] “A Wedding Chest,” 239 The Latin quote is translated “and the child of infamy and wickedness.”

[42] Gunn, Peter, 163.

[43] Leighton, Angela, “Resurrections of the Body: Women Writers and the Idea of the Renaissance,” in Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy, 223.

[44] Symonds, J. A., Many Moods: A Volume of Verse, (John Murray: London, 1878), 30.

[45] Pulham, 14.

[46] Examples include Lee’s retelling of the Boccaccian tale of Nastagio degli Onesti in Ravenna and her Ghosts (1907), “The Doll,” in For Maurice: Five Unlikely Stories(London: John Lane, 1927).

[47] Jordanova, Ludmilla, Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 45.

[48] Lee, Vernon, The Spirit of Rome and Laurus Nobilis, (rpt. Adamant, 2005), (Leipzig: Bernard Tauchnitz, 1910), 79.

[49] “A Wedding Chest,” 229.


Sensibility, Sensitivity, and Heterotopia in Vernon Lee’s ‘it-narrative’: A Critical Introduction to ‘Biographie d’une Monnaie’(1870)

The recent ‘turn to things’ in critical theory has prompted a great deal of reflection of the eighteenth century subgenre the ‘it-narrative.’ Variously called ‘object narratives,’ ‘novels of circulation,’ or just ‘it-narratives,’ Mark Blackwell, in The Secret Life of Things (2007) defines this category roughly as “an odd subgenre of the novel, a type of prose fiction in which inanimate objects (coins, waistcoats, pins, corkscrews, coaches) or animals, (dogs, fleas, cats, ponies) serve as the central characters.”[i] In the narratives, material objects enjoy a “consciousness…and thus a perspective…of their own,” which points in the direction of subjectivity and the role ‘it-narratives’ played in its development. In “Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales,” Jonathan Lamb adds that “they were autobiographies of things and creatures—dogs,  coins, and articles of dress were popular—and they exploited two of the century’s dominant preoccupations, one with the ancient doctrine of metempsychosis and the other with the modern theory of sympathy.”[ii]

Though at first one might consider these as mere period pieces and curiosities of the eighteenth century, they did have an afterlife in nineteenth-century British literature. At least two of the articles in The Secret Life of Things attempt to trace the shifts that occur in the Victorian ‘it-narratives.’ Although there are many Victorian ‘it-narratives’, there are also many cases of intertextuality and citation of earlier works that appear in novels. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2), Lydgate is introduced as a talented young boy whose wide reading included an ‘it-narrative.’ Lydgate read everything that he could get his hands on, “something he must read, when he was not riding the pony, or running and hunting, or listening to the talk of men. All this was true of him at ten years of age; he had then read through Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea, which was neither milk for babes, nor any chalk mixture meant to pass for milk, and it had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid.” (Eliot 1980 (1871-2): 172)[iii] Published only a year after Lee’s “Biographie d’une monnaie” Eliot’s description sounds very much like what Mlle. Violet Paget might have been doing with her leisure time.[iv] Like Eliot’s Lydgate, Violet Paget’s childhood would contain a space of reading and writing that would be very significant in later life.

Though Christopher Flint identifies Charles Glidon’s The Golden Spy (1709) as having “initiated the popularity of…the speaking object” into British fiction, Chrysal (1762), by Charles Johnstone, is one of the better-known ‘it-narratives’ of the eighteenth century now gaining critical attention.[v] If the young Violet Paget was like Eliot’s Lydgate and had been reading Chrysal, she would have learned enough to set her coin talking and to send it circulating through the European publishing houses. Unlike Lydgate, Violet Paget was already writing her own ‘it-narrative’. Written for cash, Johnstone’s story in four volumes records the peregrinations and opinions of a coin. It is more or less the mint from which all other ‘it-narratives’ derive their characters, and as Liz Bellamy argues “the novel of circulation…presents an image of society bound by economic relationships, which in practice unite everybody in a complex commercial system.” (Bellamy 1998: 128)[vi]

In Lee’s “Biographie d’une monnaie” both of the features Lamb designates as the eighteenth century’s “dominant preoccupations” are still present. There is no question as to why this should be so. As late as the early twentieth century, in The Handling of Words(1923), a mature and aging Lee still recalls that her mother was responsible for her early education which consisted among other things, of great doses of Voltaire.[vii] As Vineta Colby observes on Lee’s inheritance from Mrs. Matilda Paget

she had acquired a residual eighteenth century Enlightenment humanitarianism, a distrust of established authority, a de haut en bas sympathy for the poor. Mrs. Paget’s only passionate social commitment—which her daughter shared wholly—was antivivisectionism. (Colby 2003: 118)

Lee’s preoccupations with antivivisectionism and empathy theory are related to Lamb’s “metempsychosis” and “modern sympathy.” Not only does a concern with the welfare of animals relate to the ethics of sympathy, but the complex philosophical network of ideas Lee espoused in her youth, laid the groundwork for her later development of the literary conceit the “culture ghost” as well as her theory of aesthetic empathy.[viii] I propose to read this first literary attempt as a developmental and transformative exercise whereby Lee established the direction of her future career as writer while formulating an ethical sensibility, as well as sensitivity. While bearing in mind that it was written at the age of fourteen in the French language and published in the Lausanne journal La Famille (1870), I emphasize its importance in her subsequent literary career.

In her biography of Vernon Lee, Vineta Colby refers to the piece with the title “Les aventures d’une piece de monnaie,” (Colby 2003: 11) however in the Colby College Vernon Lee Collection the actual document bears the title “Biographie d’une monnaie.” When she quotes from Violet’s personal correspondence, Colby gives the correct title as it appears in the library holding: “She [Mrs. Turner] made me promise to send her my Biographie d’une monnaie to Thun and to write to her (16 June 1870).” (Colby 2003: 16) This juvenilia is not an extract from a diary or a journal but a fifteen page edited, corrected, and much pasted copy. The title appears in script and on the last page gives the name of the author “Mlle. V.P.” (Violet Paget).  This was to be the first and the last publication in which Lee would appear under this name, for hereafter she apparently realized the vital importance of being “Vernon”.

The fact that Lee’s first work has found its way out of the Colby library and back into circulation may be regarded as an important moment in Victorian literary scholarship. It is part of the recuperation process that Carol Poster writes about in her article “Oxidization is a Feminist Issue,” for many of these works by Victorian female writers “were printed on acid paper, are currently oxidizing, and if they are not recovered within the next one or two decades will physically disintegrate and be permanently unrecoverable” (Poster 1996: 287).[ix] There is a sense of this urgency present every time I have visited the library stacks and watched tiny paper bits fall onto the desk or photocopier glass as I open one of the volumes of the Nineteenth CenturyContemporary Review, or Cornhill Magazine. Yet every photocopy is a small victory and a means of liberating a voice before it fades into nonexistence. Poster’s argument supports projects like the Doughty Library, Virago, the Victorian Woman Writer’s Project, and the Brown Woman Writers Project, Richard Dellamora’s Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies , and now we may add Pr. Sophie Geoffroy’s “Sibyl.” Publishing “Biographie d’une monnaie” here should also be understood as repayment to Lee herself when as a young woman she devoted countless hours to the task of recuperating eighteenth-century Italian music and literature.

In the “Retrospective Chapter” which Lee added to the 1907 republication of her Studies on the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), Lee observes:

My eighteenth century lore was acquired at an age (more precisely between fifteen and twenty) when some of us are still the creatures of an unconscious play instinct. And the Italy of the eighteenth century accidently opened to me, became, so to speak, the hay loft, the tool house, the remote lumber room full of discarded mysteries and of lurking ghosts, where a half grown young prig might satisfy, in unsuspicious gravity, mere child-like instincts of make-believe and romance…(Lee 1907: xvi)

Ironically, Lee has much to say, in this essay looking back from thirty five years later, about the thankless task of literary recuperation. We can learn from her enthusiasm and energy for long before the days of photocopiers, PDF files, and emails, she was performing the work of scholarship that only a genuine lover of history and literature could accomplish. She speaks of the enchantment she discovered in the dusty old volumes in a manner that might well reflect the current state of utter neglect in which we find so much Victorian female writing:

An old book of cantatas of Porpora, an old volume of plays by Carlo Gozzi, does not affect us in the same manner as a darkened canvas by Titian, or a yellowed folio of Shakespeare; these latter have passed through too many hands, been looked at by too many eyes; they retain the personality of none of their owners. But the volume of Gozzi’s plays was probably touched last by hands which had clapped applause to Truffaldini-Sacchi or Pantalone-Darbes; the notes in the book of cantatas may last have been glanced over by singers who learned to sing them from Porpora himself; with this dust, which we shake reluctantly off the old volumes, vanishes we know not what subtle remains of personality. (Lee 1880 : Studies 293)

Here we are celebrating of course, the publication of one of Vernon Lee’s juvenilia in the small but very articulate voice of a talented fourteen year old girl then as yet unknown to the world. Mlle V.P was an “enfant précoce” according to her friend Giovanni Ruffini. The little circle of adults she entertained in Paris with her vividly detailed correspondence and lively conversation was only an extension of her own family who now began to grow and become a world of art and letters she was so ready to inhabit. Violet’s literary interests were encouraged by her parents and by her half brother Eugene-Lee Hamilton who even undertook her tutoring in various subjects. He often reported to their mother on her quick mind, rapid progress, her ease of comprehension, and even her “genius.” At fourteen years of age, two of her best friends were adult women who were already accomplished novelists: Mrs. Henrietta Camilla Jackson Jenkins (1807-1885) and Camilla Boinville de Chastel Turner (1793-1874). These women treated the young Violet with respect and enjoyed her correspondence which they describe as vividly descriptive and indicative of a future literary career.

When Violet announced her grand scheme of writing a history of Italian music and literature at age seventeen, Mrs. Turner wisely counseled her to go slowly but to begin by writing articles of forty to fifty pages in length. Lee followed her advice and set about immediately in reading everything she could find on the famous eighteenth century composer Metastasio. The same year she began her historical research (1873), the Paget family finally settled down to live permanently in Florence. Violet began submitting articles on aesthetic topics for publication. First, for La rivista europea, she wrote appreciative essays on English novelists and a strong critical piece on the lack of aesthetic appreciation of Italian art by the Italians. In The British Quarterly Review and Fraser’s Magazine she realized her first paid work. Finally, through her articles and essays on Italian music written for Frazer’s Magazine, she would eventually have enough material to present her Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880). The field work Lee did over the nine years from her first publication to this excellent book has always been recognized as an outstanding accomplishment.

Subjectivity and a sense of self are inseparable from the naming process, and especially for the Victorian female writer for whom presentation was everything. Violet’s choice of a literary pseudonym involved more than a little reflection “but more than expediency was involved in becoming Vernon Lee.” As Colby observes “[a]lthough she used both names interchangeably in her personal life, her use of the pseudonym…in all her published work suggests that she preferred the strong masculine ring of Vernon to the flowery feminine of Violet.” And so it was that “by 1875 she had firmly decided to be Vernon Lee.” (Colby 2003: 2) Sally Newman has recently added further clarity to Lee’s insistence on the importance of being Vernon. She quotes Lee’s executor Irene Cooper Willis referring specifically to the Colby collection from whence “Biographie d’une monnaie” emerges: “I must ask you to call [the catalogue] the Vernon Lee issue. Except to mere acquaintances she was never known as Miss Paget: and she would have objected strongly to being referred to as Violet Paget in connection with her writings and papers. She was always known and thought of by her friends as Vernon Lee” (Newman 2005: 51).  Becoming Vernon Lee however was only the beginning of a process of psychological self-discovery and displays of genius or talent.

Over the years since her death in 1935, critics have slowly pieced together Lee’s biography in spite of her testamentary instruction “I absolutely prohibit any biography of me. My life is my own and I leave that to nobody” (Gunn 1964: ix). The fact that she published under a male pseudonym has not helped Lee in the sense that Poster refers to in observing that “Nineteenth century cross-dressing has resulted in twentieth century canonicity” (Poster 1996: 288). Only in the last decade has Lee begun to receive the kind of critical attention she deserves, and as critics investigate her life every fresh detail prompts a series of questions. These mostly concern the historical construction of her intellectual pursuits, literary affiliations, collaborations, and her sexuality.  Irene Cooper Willis was largely responsible for the dissemination of Lee’s work “when in 1952 she transferred the literary effects of Vernon Lee to the library of Colby College, Waterville, Maine…” (Gunn 1964: ix). It is due to Willis that we have “Biographie d’une monnaie.” This first work in particular deserves special attention because it provides a wide range of Lee’s earliest interests among which are found an interest in an eighteenth century subgenre, a fascination with numismatics and Roman history, slavery, the evil eye (Ital. jetatante, or jettatore), sympathy, sensibility, and materialism.

“Qu’y-a-t-il donc d’extraordinaire en toi? Me direz-vous” (“What then is extraordinary about you? You will ask.”) The opening question that young Violet’s coin asks of the reader might be considered prefatory to any engagement with the subgenre of ‘it-narratives.’ Why would one find the biography of an object worth reading? Several sophisticated answers have been given to this question, among them in Igor Kopytoff’s seminal article “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” Kopytoff, an anthropologist specialized in the history of slavery, argues through analogy that the Western tendency to dichotomize persons and things is neither historical nor accurate. His argument initially appears disconcerting since it is only through something like the rational dichotomy imposed on modern consciousness that we continually reassert and struggle for the liberty and dignity of persons. Kopytoff’s focus is on the “shift away from this all-or-none view toward a processual perspective, in which marginality and ambiguity of status are at the core of the slave’s social identity” (Appadurai 1983: 65). It is perhaps our inattention to the “commoditization process” (hereafter “commodification”) that has led us to want to bury the memory of slavery, to forget about it, to refuse talking about it. In this context, the ‘it-narrative’ emerges as a particularly poignant response in abolitionist and anti-slavery rhetoric, and as Lamb observes: “slave narratives closely follow the narrative pattern laid down by things. They preserve the convention of the title page where the autobiography of a pin, feather, or coin is always written or related by itself” (Lamb 2004: 158).

In Violet Paget’s narrative, the biography of the circulating coin travelling on its trajectory from the time of Hadrian to the nineteenth century is interesting for its imaginative encounter with slaves and its sensibility in response to their plight. This sympathetic sensibility she bestows upon her coin in lending it subjectivity and determining its origin is accomplished through a reflective and refractive process. The first hand the coin passes into is that of the young patrician Attilius who proposes a wager to the gladiator Nicias. His much larger opponent, Berbex is stands over him like the giant Goliath threatening a little David. Nicias’ grandfather Sparamixas is a Persian slave brought to Rome as a prisoner from the wars of the Romans against the Arsacides. When Nicias goes coin in hand to visit his grandfather Sparamixas, he tells him that any money he wins from successful combat will go towards buying his freedom. The little coin as narrator of the story becomes part of a universal brotherhood (currency) and an agent of freedom by being a token that can buy freedom. As Sparamixas spends the coin in a bakery shop, it learns while passing from one hand to another that Nicias has won against Berbex. The coin rejoices at the news: “Que j’étais aise d’apprendre que ce bon vieillard et son enfant étaient heureux!” (Paget 1870: 235) Happy to have learned this good news, the coin narrator shows that it is not insensitive to the plight of human slaves but is glad to celebrate in their liberation.

The Nicias episode is one of the longest portions of the narrative and attention to its placement at the beginning of “Biographie d’une monnaie” mirrors the final act of kindness that concludes the coin’s biography. In The Politics of Sensibility, Markman Ellis examines slavery in light of the ‘it-narrative’ suggesting that the subgenre occupies the intersection between eighteenth century sentimental literature and the growth of the anti-slavery movements.[x] While Lee’s little narrative is not exactly about slavery, it offers a striking reflection on the commodity status of Sparamixus under the Roman Empire.

In his contribution to Mark Blackwell’s The Secret Life of Things, Ellis’s essay “Suffering Things: Lapdogs, Slaves, and Counter-Sensibility,” further refines his original argument in The Politics of Sensibility by adding the notion of “counter-sensibility”: “a particular trope which depicts an animal being lavished with sympathy while humans suffer nearby.”[xi]Liz Bellamy, who refers to ‘it-narratives’ as ‘novels of ‘circulation’, considers a story about an animal to have initiated the vogue for ‘it-narratives’: “It was really only from the mid-century, with the publication in 1751 of Francis Coventry’s story of a Bologna lapdog, Pompey the Little, that the novel of circulation became established as an autonomous narrative form within Britain.” (Bellamy 1998: 119)[xii] While there is no reason to insist as Bellamy does, that only fictions that feature an animal can really be successful in convincing the reader of the greater realism of the novel (i.e., animals have feelings and coins do not), it is interesting that Lee chose a coin over an animal to convey her message about sympathy with slaves. Though she wrote an early article expressing her antivivisectionist sentiments, her interest in numismatics is what really resounds in “Biographie d’une monnaie.”[xiii] Whether the narrator object in the story is sentient or inanimate, the expression of sympathy with the plight of the slave, or condition of slavery holds all the same.

This observation is also made in Lamb’s article where the degrading and disgraceful treatment of fellow humans as related in slave narratives often shows them driven “towards powerful nonhuman sympathies.” In reacting to his condition of “near-extinction” akin to “a life in death,” Frederick Douglas wrote “I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own.” (Douglas 159) The ‘it-narratives’ Markman Ellis describes often display a very painful awareness of this “counter-sensibility,” but Lamb’s essay goes much further by bringing attention to “the desire for metamorphosis experienced by slaves whose links to their kind have been broken.” He observes that ”sometimes animality acts as the cause as well as the effect of this transformation, introducing a sinister intimacy into the process of unkindness when brutality makes brutes of victims, and brutalisers are themselves brutalized” (Lamb 2004: 165). I cannot discuss at length the rich analysis of Lamb’s article but I want to highlight his dystopian conclusion as an accurate description of so many ‘it-narratives’ and yet in marked contrast to Violet Paget’s ‘it-narrative.’ He writes:

Because kindness is only the projection of defeated self-love; because tenderness can originate in perversity and tend towards violence; and because the real sense of another’s loss calques upon a presentiment of the extinction of our own identity, we should worry not about extending sympathy, but that it is already too disgracefully extended. (Lamb 2004: 166)

While eighteenth-century ‘it-narratives’ may have offered confusing instructions in how to demonstrate sensibility and sympathy for the plight of others, Violet’s coin seems to be already equipped with a different kind of knowledge and forethought. I will be arguing that the narrative space of “Biographie d’une monnaie” is heterotopic. While sensitivity and sensibility are words that may be used to describe some aspects of the ethical and psychological terms sympathy and empathy, it is important to recognize that the narrative spaces of juvenilia are unique. Not only do they serve as places to negotiate complex terms of subjectivity and identity, but they always remain as important elements of biography.

What makes Violet’s story unique is the kind of biographical attention she gives to an inanimate object. It is after all “the cultural biography of a thing” in Kopytoff’s sense because it answers some of the questions about the coin that he would suggest to anthropologists writing biographies of things today:

In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask questions similar to those one asks about people: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its ‘status’ and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? What are the recognized “ages” or periods in a thing’s “life,” and what are the cultural markers for them? How does the things’ use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?” (Appadurai 1983:  66-7)

The narrator coin has a sympathetic attitude toward humans and does not appear shocked at the bad things they do, but simply records their actions. The coin itself is the protagonist in the narrative as it tells its biography from its birth out of a “casque de cuivre” (copper helmet): “A l’hôtel des monnaies, le casque fut métamorphosé par la fonte en une masse de belles monnaies portant l’effigie d’Adrien” (Paget 1870: 234). The coin’s physical appearance, including its tarnishing after having survived a thousand-year burial, is told along with the many peregrinations of its career. The complexities I refer to have to do with Violet’s subtle manipulation of the narrating voice of the inanimate object. A coin that is narrating its own life is technically considered an autobiography, however things become complicated when one considers slave narratives.

A slave narrative, as Bill Brown argues at length following Kopytoff, is really a biography of a thing when that category (the slave) is considered “negotium,” or a commodity.[xiv] This blurring of the person/thing dichotomy is what has always troubled the classification of slave narratives. We must forgive these literary transgressions as being strange and unusual problems from the point of view of a child. In contrast to the ‘it-narratives’ in Lamb’s article, Violet’s utopian conclusion seems to expand the spatiality of the narrative by juxtaposing various historical periods in one single narrative frame. The last episode describes how the coin passes into the hands of two kind men who happen to be in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. They find a hungry little beggar boy on the street and take him into a bakery to purchase him some bread. The coin is included in the change returned from their transaction, and when they discover it to be an antique, they place it in a nice little display box where its trajectory comes to a final happy ending. The sensitivity the coin expresses in the opening toward the plight of Sparamixas is mirrored by the concluding episode.

There is a sense that the coin itself remains intact through all the incidents and survives all of the hands it passes through, clean or unclean. The material existence of the object is what provides the connection and seems to have remained with Lee in later life when she returned to discuss her early fascination with coins. In Limbo, and Other Essays (1897), she describes the space of childhood in which she wrote her “Biographie d’une monnaie.”[xv] Neither utopian nor dystopian, the space of the “Children’s Rabbit’s House” or “Rabbits’ Villa” is more like Michel Foucault’s heterotopia as he defines this term in his essay “Des Espaces Autres”.[xvi] Yet here in this childhood space that registers so many themes, one might also detect a consciousness of the Freudian fort-da game in which the child negotiates the mother’s absence and presence. Certainly “Limbo” allows for a reading of that space as transformational, transitional, and heterotopic.

By referring to the mirror as the perfect example of a “mixed or joint experience,” Foucault emphasizes its spatiality as a kind of “placeless place:”

In the mirror I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. (Foucault 1986: 24)

Foucault goes on to classify heterotopias into the subcategories of “crisis” and “deviation.” The former corresponds here to the space of adolescence, of “boarding schools” and “the heterosexual honeymoon” which Foucault describes as slowly “disappearing” today as sexual “other spaces.” Deviation heteropias, by contrast, are on the rise as spaces “in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed.” Though Foucault does not apply his term to literature in this essay, it has been successfully applied to children’s literature by other critics negotiating his terms. Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux’s important article “L’Enfant dans les textes de Vernon Lee” traces the theme of childhood in various works providing numerous examples of what Foucault would call the “crisis heterotopias.” She discusses Lee’s tale “Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child” (1906) recalling how the cloister serves as a transitional space where education leads to “la découverte de la Loi”, or Lacan’s Symbolic:

Ce texte, fort riche sur le plan symbolique, décrit d’abord l’éducation des petites filles comme une véritable entreprise de censure et d’incarcération, matérialisée par l’image du couvent. En même temps, ce monde carcéral quasi piranésien, partout associé à une enfance dont on refuse l’évolution, évoque le carcan de l’éducation, de la socialisation, qui fait coïncider l’entrée dans le régime de la communication avec la découverte de la Loi. (Geoffroy-Menoux 1998: 256)[xvii]

I want to argue that the space the coin inhabits in “Biographie d’une monnaie” may be best described as a heterotopia, for in it the young Violet Paget negotiates the terms of her emerging subjectivity as an adolescent (crisis heterotopia). Furthermore, though she may not have had very much experience in life, I think one may argue that, as a teenager, Violet was already attempting to equip herself with some notion, however vague, of her own sexuality. Furthermore by describing the particular spatiality of the narrative we can remove our focus on the story from a sympathy tale, or ‘it-narrative’ to its other role in creating a space in which this “enfant précoce” could develop her literary talents. The flexibility of Thing Theory allows one to follow the trajectory of things without forcing narratives into rigid rules of periodization and genre.

By employing Foucault’s terminology to describe the space of a fourteen year old teenager’s narrative it may be possible to see how his appreciation of other spaces may be extended to what Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley have recently called “the queerness of children.”[xviii] Examining the fairy tale world of children as well as the fairy tales we tell about children, they suggest that “the story of the child shifts almost imperceptibly to the story of the adult at a key moment: the ending. If writing is an act of world-making, writing about the child is doubly so: not only do writers control the terms of the worlds they present, they also invent over and over again, the very idea of inventing humanity, of training it and watching it evolve” (Bruhm and Hurley 2004: xiii). I raise this distinction here in order to contrast Violet’s story with the ‘it-narratives’ written by adults for children.

In The Secret Life of Things, Bonnie Blackwell’s contribution “Corkscrews and Courtesans: Sex and Death in Circulation Novels” addresses the “reincarnation of object-novels as juvenilia” noting “that abruptly at the eighteenth century, the subgenre was miraculously repackaged as children’s literature, a guise it would maintain throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century.” (Blackwell, 280) Stressing the transformation as primarily a toning down of the illicit sexuality and the picaresque of the eighteenth century ‘it-narrative,’ Blackwell confirms that “the Victorian flourishing of it-novels, this time expressly packaged as adolescent literature” gives “an earnest education for children in the avoidance of cruelty and selfishness…” (Blackwell 2007: 284). “Biographie d’une monnaie” shares the utopian moral through its happy closure, but it may also be read in this different spatial sense as mapping a heterotopia.

The adult Vernon Lee wrote the essay “Limbo” as a nostalgic reflection on the Rabbit’s Villa, or play space she occupied as a child. She makes a very interesting comparison between this play space and Dante’s quite different literary “Limbo” reserved for un-christened dead babies. By juxtaposing these two spaces it may be stated that Lee is keenly aware of the potential of heterotopic space available to the child writer, and to the adult writer as well. “Limbo” traces the space of childhood quite vividly in the description of the little Rabbit’s Villa, yet the essay is also a sustained meditation on the child’s transformation into an adult. Borrowing a line from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “A Superscription” (sonnet 97), Lee calls Limbo “The Kingdom of Might-have-been.”[xix]Though wary of consigning the child-like souls of adults to these spaces, she also suspects that it may be possible to retain something of the child’s freedom through an “appreciation of others.” (Lee 1897: 17)

Describing her childhood love of coins as material objects of interest for their beauty, she makes a vivid contrast between that world and the adult space of economics, where the early “genius” “will surely be brought into the market” (Lee 1897: 6). In the essay that follows “Limbo” given the title “In Praise of Old Houses” Lee writes about this early interest in numismatics which led to the composition of “Biographie d’une monnaie”:

It all came back to me, a little while ago, when doing up for my young friend, L.V., sundry Roman coins long mislaid in a trunk, and which had formed my happiness at his age. Delightful things!—smooth and bright green like cabbage-leaves, or of a sorry brown, rough with rust and verdigris, but all leaving alike a perceptible portion of themselves in the paper bag, a delectable smell of copper on one’s hands. How often had I turned you round and round betwixt finger and thumb, trying to catch the slant of an inscription, or to get, in some special light, the film of effaced effigy—the chin of Nero, or the undulating, benevolent nose of Marcus Aurelius? (Lee 1897: 25-6)

By juxtaposing in a single narrative space multiple historical scenes that plot the trajectory of the talking coin, Violet can manipulate the conventional language of realism while experimenting with fantasy. Though the story itself quickly turns into a little girl’s object lesson that rehearses the reigns of many Roman emperors, the actions that the coin narrates are always full of vivid detail. Likewise the physical condition of the coin is always present as it is handled by various hands and passed from one episode to another. The physical act of touching the coin (“How often had I turned you round and round betwixt finger and thumb”), should be singled out in any psychoanalytic reading of the story.

The episode that best manipulates the fantastic, and what Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux calls the Victorian “prohibition of touch,” is that which follows the twelfth hand into which the coin passes. Since “Biographie d’une monnaie” otherwise seems to celebrate the fluidity of currency, this episode stands out. The painter “Fabio D” who is described as a good-looking thirty-eight year old man, kind and gentle, nevertheless possesses the “evil eye” and is capable of killing other men merely by looking at them. In a tale that includes only males, the extraordinary power Violet lends to gender suggests that she is quite aware of the phallic gaze here symbolized through the evil eye (jetatante). Geoffroy-Menoux, following Didier Anzieu’s Le Moi-Peau (1985), explains the double nature of this fascination as rooted in the contradictory Victorian cult of childhood where fascination is supplemented by the prohibition of touch. (Geoffroy-Menoux 1998: 251)

It may be argued that the primacy of the masculine element in the young Violet’s ‘it-narrative’ suggests that she is negotiating a transitional space in which the object may serve either as a kind of Winnicottian “transitional object,” or as a way to voice her concern with the overly-gendered Victorian world of publishing.[xx] In a letter she wrote to her papa about the trials of publishing her “Biographie d’une monnaie” Violet expresses frustration and impatience at the Swiss editors:

The 18 numbers of the Famille have come. I spend all day pasting them together, tant bien que mal. I send you one. Oh that Vulliet is a pig! Fancy leaving out the Ottoboni about which you were so very kind and which was truly the best I ever wrote. The idiot has made mistakes right and left which I have corrected. Fancy his writing Domicain instead of Dominiquin! Why does the fellow think that the great painter is called in Italian Dominicano! Does he think he was a Dominican monk! His real name was Domenico Zampieri, and Domenichino is the short for Domenico which means Dominique.[xxi]

The sharp analysis Violet displays here in distinguishing the correct etymology of the Italian name and negotiating the talents of her editor, demonstrates her advanced mental acumen and the frustrations she is experiencing already in a world of all-male publishers. This particular attitude toward editors and publishers would only increase with more experience, and it stands as a testament to the remarkable strength of character she displayed from early on. Nevertheless, there is the sense that the childhood Rabbit’s Villa will eventually disappear. The adult Lee writes of this passing of the child in “Limbo”:

It is the indefinable quality of nearly every child, and of all nice lads and girls; the quality which (though it can reach perfection in exceptional old people) usually vanishes, no one knows when exactly, into the Limbo marked by the Rabbit’s Villa, with its plates and teacups, mouldering on its wooden posts in the unweeded garden (Lee 1897: 15-16).

While this passage obviously addresses the inevitable changes that accompany the child’s growth into an adult, it may also serve as an extended metaphor for the disintegration of the physical world and objects one loved as a child, including the text as object.

The Rabbit’s Villa of Violet’s childhood would have to come to an end, or at least be consigned to a literary Limbo where heterotopia might still exist. The world of book publishing and essay writing would consume most of Lee’s adult life. In a review essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics  (“The Economic Dependence of Women”), Lee describes the “female homo” as living in a condition of slavery under patriarchy:

The home which she inhabits is his home, the food she eats is his food, the children she rears become, whether father or only patriarch, his children; and by a natural evolution, she herself…becomes, thus amalgamated with the man’s property, a piece of property herself, body and soul, a slave (often originally a captive, stolen, or bought), and what every slave naturally is, a chattel (Lee 1902: 75).[xxii]

Lee described Gilman’s book as a pivotal reading in her “conversion” to the Woman Question, yet one might argue that as early as age fourteen she was certainly already aware of the gender problems that must be addressed. Not only was she keenly aware of gender, but she had first hand knowledge of the reality of slavery. Her own grandfather, Edward Hamlin Adams “was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1777, coming from an old colonial family long established in Barbados.”[xxiii]

In conclusion, I want to again address the importance of the project of recuperation. The recovery of Lee’s juvenilia in some way does the very work the narrative describes. The little coin is taken aboard a pirate ship that wrecks, is buried for a thousand years, and a poor fisherman discovers it and puts it back into circulation. The adventures of Lee’s text may not be as exciting as those of her coin, yet they also contain their own twist of fate. It is a strange irony that Marguerite Yourcenar published a twentieth century novel reminiscent of the ‘it-narrative’ the year before Lee died. Denier du Rêve (1934), like “Biographie d’une monnaie” records the passing of a coin between nine hands on a single day. The novel translated into English as A Coin in Nine Hands, culminates in an assassination attempt in Fascist Italy of 1933, a feature the adult Lee would have treated with particular relish.[xxiv] A further indulgence in this irony leads one to recall that Yourcenar’s 1958 re-writing of her novel took place in Maine, not too far from where Lee’s “Biographie d’une monnaie” lies dormant as it were, in the Colby library waiting to be released back into the world of circulation.

Here I wish to extend my gratitude to Patricia A. Burdick (Colby Library Special Collections Librarian), Anna Graves (Colby Library Acting Special Collections Librarian), Dr. Adrienne Auslander-Munich (Professor of English, Director of Women’s Studies, SUNY Stony Brook), and Pr. Sophie Geoffroy (Université de La Réunion) whose open hands and kind attention have helped this project along. It is hoped that this publication will engender more critical interest in Lee’s writings and encourage other voices, still unheard, to emerge.  “Sibyl” aspires to provide the kind of cyberspace where future negotiations of Lee’s work may have a home in memory of one of English literature’s recovered female aesthetes.

[i] Mark Blackwell (Ed.) 2007. The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth Century England. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press. Though this text does not mention Lee’s work, it could well merit the critical attention of those exploring the afterlives of it-narratives in the nineteenth century. Blackwell stresses that the essays in the volume should be read as a contribution to Thing Theory as Bill Brown understands it in Things [2004], and in particular he notes that “Kopytoff’s category of thing-biography is doubly significant to this collection.” (12) For Kopytoff, see below.

[ii] Jonathan Lamb, 2004. “Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales.” Things Ed. Bill Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[iii] George Eliot (1871-2) 1980. Middlemarch. London and New York: Penguin.

[iv] Vernon Lee’s Biographie d’une monnaie (1870) is in the Colby College Library Special Collections (Tr.Rm. PR5115. P2A7. 1870) in Waterville, Maine. The copy in my possession is extracted from Lee’s journals, written in French, and unpublished. Vineta Colby notes that a revision of this text as Les aventures d’une piece de monnaie [was] published serially in the Lausanne journal La famille in May, June, and July 1870” in Colby, Vernon Lee, 11. See below.

[v] Christopher Flint (March 1998).  “Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteenth Century Prose Fiction”. PMLA. Vol. 113, No. 2. 212.

[vi] Liz Bellamy. 1998. Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth Century Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[vii] Vernon Lee, 1968. Handling of Words and Other Studies in Literary Psychology. Ed. Gettmann, Royal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[viii] A fine treatment of Lee’s theory of empathy as it relates to her fiction has recently been argued by Nicole Fluhr (Winter 2006). “Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings”. Victorian Studies. 287-94.

[ix] Carol Poster (Mar., 1996). College English. Vol. 58, No. 3. 287-306.

[x] Markman Ellis, 1996. The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender, and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[xi] Markman Ellis, “Suffering Things: Lapdogs, Slaves, and Counter-Sensibility.” The Secret Life of Things. [supra] 96.

[xii] Bellamy argues that “the use of an inhuman protagonist ensures that while the central character may be able to learn from its experiences, it cannot share these experiences with others. The banknote and guinea can accumulate knowledge of society, which can be contrasted with the ignorance and naivety of the human beings they encounter” (Bellamy 1998: 128).

[xiii] Vernon Lee, 1882. “Vivisection: An Evolutionist to Evolutionists,” Contemporary Review 41, pp. 788-811.

[xiv] Bill Brown (Winter 2006). “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny”. Critical Inquiry. 32: 175-207.

[xv] Vernon Lee, 1897. Limbo, and Other Essays. London: Grant Richards.

[xvi] Michel Foucault. (Spring, 1986) “Of Other Spaces.” Trans. Jay Miscowiec. Diacritics. Vol. 16, No. 1. 22-7. “Des Espaces Autres” was published by the French journal Architecture-Mouvement-Unité in October, 1984, the basis of a lecture given by Foucault in March 1967.

[xvii] Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux. 1998. “L’Enfant dans les textes de Vernon Lee”. Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens. No. 47. 251-63.

[xviii] Eds. Bruhm, Steven and Natasha Hurley. 2004. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

[xix] Limbo, 18. Recurring throughout her essay as kind of leitmotiv, Rossetti’s line “Look into my face: My name is Might-have-been” becomes transformed from word to musical refrain just as Rossetti himself also engaged in interartistic genre-crossing.

[xx] Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux explains that Anzieu’s theory of the “Moi-Peau” is influenced by Winnicott’s notion of the “holding” in which the mother establishes contact and thereby is interiorized by the infant. Anzieu takes Winnicott’s idea a step further by giving primacy to the mother’s touch: “L’interdit du toucher ne favorise la restructuration du Moi que si le Moi-Peau a été suffisamment acquis.” (1998, 262n.16)

[xxi] The Ottoboni Violet refers to here must be to member(s) of the Venetian family prominent in Rome in the seventeenth-century. The papacies of Alexander VIII Ottoboni and his nephew, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni are significant for their record of patronage of musical and visual artists. Since Violet devotes so much time to the arts in her story one can see why she would be frustrated by the editing of this episode. The letter here cited is from Irene Cooper Willis’ edition of Lee’s letters dated “Friday, 29th, [1870.]” Cooper Willis, Irene. 1937. Vernon Lee’s Letters. London: Privately Printed.

[xxii] “The Economic Dependence of Women” is also included in Lee’s Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies (1908) under the title “The Economic Parasitism of Women.” Cf. Gospels of Anarchy

[xxiii] Peter Gunn, 1964. Vernon Lee, Violet Paget, 1856-1935. London: Oxford University Press. 14. Gunn cites a letter to her lover Kit Anstruther-Thomson in which Lee makes light of her own ancestry: “Oh no, I am not descended from the “Kings of England till Edward III, the Counts of Flanders and Hainault, and many Kings of France”—I fear—only from a few inhuman and often rather drunken Jamaican planters, who have left me this bad constitution.” (15)

[xxiv] Marguerite Yourcenar (1934, 1959) 1971. Denier du Rêve. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. The translated text by Dori Katz has the title A Coin in Nine Hands. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982.


Primary sources

Eliot, George. (1871-2) 1980.  Middlemarch. London and New York: Penguin.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. 1898. Women and Economic; A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co.

Paget, Violet. 1870. “Biographie d’une monnaie”. Unpubl. Colby College Library Special Collections (Tr.Rm. PR5115. P2A7. 1870) in Waterville, Maine. Revised as “Les aventures d’une piece de monnaie.” 1870. La famille. Lausanne: May, June, July, pp. 233-334.

Lee, Vernon. 1880. Studies of the eighteenth Century in Italy. London: W. Satchell. Rpt. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907.

Lee, Vernon. 1882. “Vivisection: An Evolutionist to Evolutionists,” Contemporary Review41, pp. 788-811.

Lee, Vernon. 1897. Limbo and Other Essays. London: Grant Richards.

Lee, Vernon. 1968. Handling of Words and Other Studies in Literary Psychology. (Ed.) Gettmann, Royal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Lee, Vernon. 1908. “The Economic Parasitism of Women.” Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies.

Yourcenar, Marguerite. (1934, 1959) 1971. Denier du Rêve. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. Transl. Dori Katz. 1982. A Coin in Nine Hands. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Secondary sources

Anzieu, Didier. 1985. Le Moi-Peau. Paris : Dunod.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1983. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bellamy, Liz. 1998. Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth Century Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blackwell, Mark ed.. 2007. The Secret Life of ThingsAnimals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth Century England. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.

Bill Brown. 2004. Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Bill. 2006. “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny.” Critical Inquiry. 32: 175-207.

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

Cooper Willis, Irene. 1937. Vernon Lee’s Letters. London: Privately Printed.

Ellis, Markman. 1996. The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender, and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, Markman.  “Suffering Things: Lapdogs, Slaves, and Counter-Sensibility.” Blackwell, Mark ed.. 2007. The Secret Life of ThingsAnimals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth Century England. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.

Flint, Christopher. 1998.  “Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteenth Century Prose Fiction”. PMLA. Vol. 113, No. 2. 212.

Fluhr, Nicole. 2006. “Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings”. Victorian Studies. 287-94.

Foucault, Michel. 1984. “Des Espaces Autres.” Architecture-Mouvement-Unité. Transl. Jay Miscowiec. 1986. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics. Vol. 16, No. 1. 22-7

Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie. 1998. “L’Enfant dans les textes de Vernon Lee”. Cahiers victoriens et edouardiens. No. 47. 251-63.

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

Kopytoff, Igor. 1983. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Appadurai, Arjun. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lamb, Jonathan. 2004. “Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales.” Things. Ed. Bill Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Newman, Sally. 2005. “The Archival Traces of Desire: Vernon Lee’s Failed Sexuality and the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. Vol. 14, Nos. ½, January/April 2005, pp. 51-75.

Poster, Carol. 1996. “Oxidization is a Feminist Issue.” College English. Vol. 58, No. 3. 287-306.

Bruhm, Steven and Natasha Hurley (eds.) 2004. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children.  Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Heurs et malheurs de l’enfance dans les textes de Vernon Lee

L’enfance est l’un des thèmes majeurs de la littérature victorienne et édouardienne, où abondent les romans d’apprentissage (Bildungsroman) décrivant le passage graduel plus ou moins harmonieux d’un état d’innocence à l’expérience associée à la maturité de l’âge adulte. Révélateurs des préjugés de toute une époque sur l’enfance mais aussi de ses idées préconçues sur un ensemble de notions associées à l’enfance héritées du Romantisme, ces textes littéraires nous renseignent sur ce qui constitue selon nous certains des tabous propres à la mentalité victorienne : une difficulté à exprimer l’affectivité liée à un interdit du toucher.(1)

Nous nous intéresserons ici aux textes fantastiques mettant en scène des enfants, car, à la différence des textes dits « réalistes », du corpus pédagogique, ou même de littérature de jeunesse, ceux-ci ont ceci de particulier qu’ils sont implicitement fondés sur l’équivalence in-fans = fantasy = phantasm = Inconscient. L’enfant, synonyme d’indétermination et de spontanéité, y est en effet associé à l’irrationnel, à l’imaginaire. A ce titre, il permet, tel un médium ou un passeur, au lecteur adulte de retrouver l’univers perdu du surnaturel, du merveilleux ou de l’occulte: ainsi s’explique peut-être la récurrence des schémas catastrophiques associés au thème de l’enfance, tels que celui de l’innocence absolue aux prises avec les forces du mal: l’enfant ravi face au body-snatcher, soul-snatcher ou demon lover. (2)

Les textes de Vernon Lee mettent en scène non pas l’enfant comme objet du discours des adultes mais plutôt l’enfant comme sujet luttant pour conquérir ou pour défendre son statut de sujet. Plus précisément, les textes fantastiques leeiens envisagent les dysfonctionnements de ces passages. Anticipant en outre les analyses de Freud sur l’enfant « pervers polymorphe », Lee démontre, d’une part, que l’innocence enfantine est toute relative et, d’autre part, que l’expérience n’est pas nécessairement l’horizon souhaitable de tout parcours initiatique. Celle qui rêvait d’être la E.T.A. Hoffmann anglaise s’attache en fait, tout comme les Romantiques, 3 à décrire la parenté entre l’enfance et le rêve, le rêve éveillé et le fantasme. Grâce à la forme littéraire du journal intime, elle exprime le point de vue de l’enfant sur le monde qui l’entoure et aborde deux questions essentielles: comment l’enfant perçoit-il le réel? Comment, techniquement parlant, l’écrivain peut-il exprimer cette vision?

Dans tous les textes du corpus, de « Dionea »( 4) à « Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady » (5), « Limbo » (6), « Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child » (7), « Three German Palaces »(8), « Divinities of Tuscan Summer Fields » (9), « Dionysus in the Euganean Hills » (10), ou enfin « The Virgin of the Seven Daggers »(11), qu’il s’agisse de textes sur l’esprit du lieu (genius loci), de textes de fiction, ou d’essais, l’on est frappé par la prégnance du schème structurant de la constitution de la personnalité. Ses étapes, parallèles aux identifications successives de l’enfant à des modèles, sont systématiquement associées à une problématique de la représentation. Les êtres vivants, en particulier l’entourage proche de l’enfant (mère et père, toujours ambivalents) est déréalisé (identifié à des êtres inanimés) tandis que des êtres inanimés (objets) sont doués de vie par la force du désir de l’enfant. Parfois, l’enfant lui-même est entraîné dans ce cycle de métamorphoses. Dans tous les cas, le réel apparaît secondaire, marginal par rapport au désir  de l’enfant; il est même découvert de façon indirecte, par l’intermédiaire d’un objet ou d’un artefact. C’est à la représentation qu’est accordée la primauté. Ce faisant, le spectacle (visuel) se substitue au contact (toucher). La pulsion scopique est privilégiée. C’est là un premier axe d’analyse.

Pourquoi un tel déséquilibre, une telle distorsion? La notion de deuil, de formation de compromis, de carence articulée sur les insuffisances du Moi-Peau est une réponse possible. Elle nous permet de comprendre un apparent paradoxe. Il existe chez Vernon Lee deux sortes d’enfants : d’un côté, les enfants heureux, beaux, libres, païens (comme Dionea) et de l’autre, les enfants solitaires, désemparés, imaginatifs (comme Benvenuta ou Alberic)… Ces derniers demeurent enfermés dans divers types de cellules, écrins, alcôves et autres grottes ou niches foetales, ou bien encore prisonniers de leurs tableaux ou tapisseries-monde.

Le bonheur des enfances païennes : « Dionea », « Limbo »

L’enfance est définie comme le règne des potentialités; elle est « ce–qui-aurait-pu-être » (« what-might-have-been »). Lee est en effet marquée par la vision idéalisée par la fin-de-siècle d’une Antiquité païenne libre, au temps heureux de l’harmonie fusionnelle avec la terre-mère. C’est le règne de la magie et de la grâce de l’enfance.(12) Ainsi, dans « Divinities of Tuscan Summer Fields », les jeunes enfants de Toscane sont transfigurés, métamorphosés par l’été. Révélation de la beauté et de la sensualité païennes, ils ont surtout une dimension numineuse, puisqu’ils incarnent les esprits des champs de blé. Leur charme puissant, qui est de l’ordre du sacré, remonte à l’Antiquité:

A brand-new race appears miraculously from nowhere: tiny boys and girls in that succinct garment, waistcoat and breeches in one, fastened in the back with missing buttons, which reduces sex to a matter of ribboned top-knot more or less; Gesu Bambinos and San Giovanninos and Santi Innocenti for Donatello and the Della Robbias; cupids, putti, baby fauns for the more pagan Raphaelesques and followers of Coreggio, all suddenly there, like the flowers which appear after a day of showers and sunshine; little moving flowers themselves, flexible, tender, fluffy, rosy, pearly, golden-brown, with indescribable loveliness of brilliant, weather-stained rags, suddenly arising (by that magic rite of diminishing raiment) out of the cobbles of slums and the dust and litter of roadside hamlets.(13) (231-2)

On glisse, on le voit, de la grâce pittoresque de ces vêtements réduits à des culottes courtes dont les boutons manquent et de l’enchantement des jeunes corps flexibles, souples, tendres, rosés ou dorés vers le sacré. Bambinos Jésus, Saints Giovanni ou Saints Innocents dignes de Donatello ou Della Robbia, cupidons, putti, ou bébés faunes dignes des Raphaël et du Corrège (plus païens), ces enfants sont de véritables divinités agraires, dont les textes, sur le ton de la pastorale, chantent le retour d’Arcadie.

Leurs processions enfantines, dont la magnificence rustique égale celle de leurs aînés, sont elles aussi rituelles, sacrificielles, en phase avec les dieux de la terre: « Ils ont quelque chose de divin, ils ont l’étrange solennité des dieux païens de la terre. » (233. Ma traduction)
I have seen infant processions mimicking the Corpus Christi magnificence of their elders: tiny children, dressed out in garlands, carrying banners of leaves and trailing wreaths and streamers and discarded tins and pipkins, drumming and fifing on imaginary instruments and hymning in shrill, sweet tones to rustic divinities, immanent in blossoming grapes and wheat-in-the-ear and in budding baby souls.

Quelque chose dans ces enfants inspire une terreur sacrée. Mais ce je-ne-sais-quoi de divin est éphémère, déjà condamné. La notion de finitude et de deuil –deuil déjà accompli, ou plutôt deuil à venir, inévitable et redouté– est indissociable de cette enfance idéale, littéralement sub-lime (sub-liminem): en-deçà du bien et du mal…

Ainsi, dans « Limbo », Vernon Lee compare-t-elle les limbes dantesques, peuplées de « pieux païens » (« Pious Pagans ») et de « bébés non baptisés » (« Unchristened Babies ») à « la maison des lapins des enfants » (« the Children’s Rabbits’ House »). Ces univers se ressemblent, car ils sont, dit-elle citant Rossetti, également pathétiques, étant tous deux placés sous le règne des potentialités jamais actualisées: « My name is Might-have-been ». L’adulte, selon Lee, est obtenu au prix d’un durcissement des traits de l’enfant, d’une automatisation de ses comportements (la socialisation). Cet « automate » naît grâce à la mort de l’enfant, se dresse à même la tombe de celui-ci: « the graves of the children long dead, as dead … as the rabbits and guinea pigs with whom they once had tea. » (5) La magie de l’enfant chez Vernon Lee, on le voit, n’a rien de mièvre. Dans certains textes fantastiques, elle est même fatale.(14)

« Dionea » et « The Virgin of the Seven Daggers » en effet nous présentent une étape intermédiaire entre ces chérubins divins et les enfants soumis aux rigueurs de l’éducation, et démontrent à quel point la liberté enfantine peut s’avérer dangereuse, à quel point l’innocence peut être cruelle. Le premier texte, « Dionea », évoque le sauvetage et l’éducation au couvent des Stigmates d’une Vénus/Aphrodite païenne revenue en terre chrétienne sous la forme d’une frêle enfant (« a heathenish waif of a child ») aux pouvoirs démoniaques qui ne tarde pas à mettre en péril l’existence de la communauté villageoise. Dans « The Virgin of the Seven Daggers » l’Infante, enfantine mais décadente Salomé, digne de Flaubert, Huysmans et Gustave Moreau, parée et maquillée à la mode byzantine, fait décapiter Don Juan le Matamore par jalousie envers sa rivale, la sainte Madone aux Sept Poignards. Ces deux enfants sont topologiquement liées aux souterrains, aux grottes et autres antres marins, et au passé, au refoulé et à l’Inconscient. Leur résurgence hors des profondeurs marines est évoquée par le biais de la séduisante mais intolérable Vénus (« Dionea ») ; mais dans l’autre texte, ils sont maintenus sous contrôle: l’Infante est séquestrée dans les caves abyssales, régressives à l’infini, de l’Alhambra, au creux d’une alcôve-berceau, au creux d’une grotte-écrin lovée au coeur de la grotte-labyrinthe. On observe la même claustration dans « Prince Alberic and the Snake-Lady » et « Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child ».

L’éducation de Sœur Bienvenue

Hagiographie ironique, « Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child » (1906) est un récit fantastique non dénué d’un certain mysticisme, présenté sous la forme du journal intime de Sister Benvenuta, toute jeune nonne « dédédée en odeur de sainteté à Cividale en l’an 1740 ». L’enfant Benvenuta, supplantant les Rois Mages ou le père Noël, est devenue le principal objet d’adoration des jeunes enfants de la ville et fait l’objet d’une enquête préalable à sa béatification: « c’était pour Sainte Benvenuta qu’ils mettaient leurs chaussures et leurs bas devant la cheminée ». L’essentiel du récit a trait aux rapports très tendres de la jeune recluse avec le poupon figurant l’enfant Jésus dans la Sacristie. Or, aux yeux de la jeune narratrice, la poupée est vivante et l’on bascule dans un conte fantastique plein de fantaisie et d’humour. Les relations privilégiées que Benvenuta entretient avec le poupon du Bambino ne lui permettant pas d’avoir le contact peau à peau dont elle a toujours rêvé, elle n’hésite pas à signer–au péril de sa vie et de son âme– un pacte satanique avec Beelzebubb, ou plutôt sa marionnette, animée pour l’occasion par la force du désir de l’enfant. Un codicille en forme d’épilogue, présenté par la cousine de Benvenuta, témoin des derniers instants de la Sainte, nous raconte (45 ans après) le miracle ultime:

The cell was streaming with light, as of hundreds of tapers; and in the midst of it, the centre of this fountain of radiance, was seated Sister Benvenuta, and on her knees, erect, stood no other but the Child Christ. He had a little naked foot on each of her knees, and was craning His little bare body to reach her face, and seeking to throw His little arms round her neck, and to raise His little mouth to hers. And the Blessed Benvenuta clasped Him most gently, as if fearing to crush His small limbs; and they kissed and uttered sounds which were not human sounds, but like those of the doves, and full of divine significance. (75-6) (C’est moi qui souligne).

Cette vision d’une maternité heureuse, rêvée sur fond d’extrême refoulement imposé par l’Eglise et par l’abandon de la mère, est une vision compensatrice. Mais, dans une odeur de roses de Damas et de grands lys blancs, au son de « luths et de violes d’amour lointains », Benvenuta meurt, « holding clasped to her the waxen image of the Little Saviour from out of the Sacristy… And Sister Benvenuta’s mouth and eyes were open with rapture. And she was stone dead and already cold. » (77-8) Les témoins s’interrogeront longtemps sur la présence, dans un coin de la cellule, d’un pantin désarticulé: « its wires were wrenched and twisted, its articulated jaw crushed to bits, and its garments singed all round it. » (78) C’est la marionnette d’un personnage barbu, cornu, aux sabots fourchus, dont le nom, à en croire l’étiquette qu’il porte, est « Beelzebubb Satanasso ».

Ce texte, fort riche sur le plan symbolique, décrit d’abord l’éducation des petites filles comme une véritable entreprise de censure et d’incarcération, matérialisée par l’image du couvent. Ce monde carcéral presque piranésien, partout associé à une enfance dont on refuse l’évolution, symbolise le carcan de l’éducation, de la socialisation, qui fait coïncider l’entrée dans le régime de la communication avec la découverte de la Loi. Il met en évidence la façon dont ce passage s’accompagne de l’interdit primaire du toucher (noli me tangere), qui, comme Didier Anzieu l’a montré, s’oppose à la pulsion d’attachement ou d’agrippement.

Dès 1906, Vernon Lee découvrait donc l’analogie analysée par Freud entre religion et névrose obsessionnelle.

l’interdit du toucher, dans sa formulation chrétienne initiale, est tantôt mis en rapport avec la séparation de l’objet aimé (« ne me retiens pas ») tantôt avec l’abandon du langage gestuel pour une communication spirituelle fondée sur la seule parole (« Ne me touche pas » sous entendu: « écoute et parle seulement »). (15)

C’est précisément ce double interdit du toucher que refuse Soeur Benvenuta. Non pas par nostalgie d’un contact physique perdu, mais bien plutôt en raison des carences précoces du Moi-Peau, particulièrement de sa première fonction, celle de maintenance, développée par intériorisation du « holding » maternel.(16) Ce type de carence est bien souvent perceptible dans les textes victoriens toujours marqués par les tabous du corps. Chez Vernon Lee, en raison de l’interdit du toucher, le Moi-Peau ne fournit pas à l’enfant l’enveloppe psychique et physique protectrice nécessaire, ce qui se traduit par la récurrence extraordinaire du thème de la peau martyre: peau piquée (récit d’une farce vengeresse; signature du pacte avec le diable), peau gelée (doigts gourds, sensation de froid de l’enfant Jésus); peau déchirée, lacérée (« Dionysus in the Euganean Hills »).

Dans ces textes où prédominent des relations parents-enfants artificielles et mortifères, les parents biologiques ne sont jamais présents aux côtés des enfants, sauf dans le cas de mères cruelles qui passent tout naturellement du nourrissage au lynchage de leur progéniture: “delicate women turn about suckling and tearing to pieces the cubs of wild beasts; … (the abomination of a mother inspired by the God to lynch her own son in orgiastic madness.” (349) Ce même texte insiste plus loin sur la façon dont “Queen Agave mistook her own son for a wild beast and tore him to pieces in the polluted glens of Cithaeron.” (« Dionysus », 352)

Tout se passe comme si la maternité était frappée d’une malédiction héréditaire, qui rendrait le bébé insupportable pour sa mère, tout en le liant de façon narcissique au sort de celle-ci. Ainsi, la visiteuse de “The Tower of the Mirrors” (« Three German Palaces »), bouleversée à l’évocation de l’infanticide commis par la Dame Blanche (Die Weisse Dame), l’est davantage encore par la ressemblance entre la mère et le bébé, dont le regard cruel n’est pas innocent.

For her palest blue-and-lilac dress is woven of the cloud-veiled moonbeams of murderous nights, and her hunting-spear is poised in homicidal intent. The eyes look out of the white face, following and watching. And these wicked eyes are like those of her mother, whose ruffed and farthingaled likeness hangs in the same room, only their evil look remaining of that blurred and blackened painting. Nay, the eyes are those also of a little child–her child?–whose likeness is near the window, so that in the ghathering dimness of that low pale room you can distinguish quite plainly its stiff velvet coroneted cap, and the sceptre in its little hands. The baby looks at you with the same dark glance of its grandmother and its mother, its mother who killed it. It is those eyes which haunt the palace. (17)

Ce sont d’ailleurs les yeux du bébé assassiné qui hantent le palais allemand; son élimination physique n’a pas suffi, et même le processus de spectralisation ne saurait suffire à le refouler totalement. Le caractère unheimlich, étrange et inquiétant, du retour de ce refoulé, une fois de plus, démontre, d’une part l’équivalence enfance/inconscient, et, d’autre part, les difficultés inhérentes à cette relation mère/enfant refusée, déniée, caractérisée par le noli me tangere.

Ailleurs, les instincts infanticides des parents biologiques parviennent à se dissimuler: ainsi de Benvenuta, dont la mère et le père, séduisants et artificiels, sont assimilés aux emblèmes et aux symboles de la duplicité et de la vanité (masques, maquillage, parures, paon, singe) et caractérisés par un comportement infantile, irresponsable et fétichiste (culte de l’ornement, culte de l’apparence).(18) La négligence parentale, la maltraitance même, est justifiée par l’alibi de leurs obligations mondaines, alors même que pour l’enfant se constitue, comme en reflet, son image d’elle-même à partir du discours d’autrui:(19) le seul conditionnement social de l’enfant aura donc force de destin.

Benvenuta, troisième fille d’Almoro IV Loredan, Comte de Teolo et Soave, et de Fiordispina Badoer (20) est issue de l’illustre famille Vénitienne des Loredan.(21) Aussi ancienne que la République elle-même, l’ancêtre serait, dans cette fiction, ne serait autre que le roi de Rome, Lars Parsenna. Le luxe extravagant de fêtes perpétuelles, l’indécence tolérée des vêtements des belles Vénitiennes (22) sont décrites dans des scènes évocatrices d’une décadence joyeuse mais effrayante pour l’enfant. Le sourire mécanique de son père, magicien, alchimiste, astrologue, mais aussi grand séducteur mondain portant masque et perruque l’effraie bien plus que ne le fera Belzebubb. Sa mère, dont le souvenir est associé au maquillage, et à un bestiaire (paon et singe) emblématique de sa vanité et de son manque d’authenticité, l’effraie presque davantage: elle « montre toutes ses dents quand elle sourit », et c’est le souvenir de ce sourire d’ogresse castratrice qu’éveille spontanément la marionnette de l’ogre et celle de Judith décapitant Holopherne lors du spectacle de marionnettes…

En outre, cette glorieuse généalogie, ce luxe sont précisément la base sur laquelle se fonde le triste héritage de la fille cadette: « I was the youngest and a little lame » (59) « Of course I was going to be a nun from the first, because our family possesses a benefice in this noble convent. » (59) Conformément aux stéréotypes des contes de fées, aucun libre arbitre n’est accordé aux enfants, pas même aux fils de la famille (le premier est destiné à la perpétuation de la lignée, le second à la carrière ecclésiastique). Benvenuta fréquentera donc les illustres rejetons du patriciat vénitien au Couvent de Ste Marie des Rosiers, enfants initialement turbulentes, encadrées par toute une armée d’adultes, dont les relations sont strictement réglées par leur sens très sûr de la hiérarchie. Par leur raideur compassée, ces éducatrices –« stiff with responsibilities »–dont la volonté personnelle se limite au respect des règles religieuses sans qu’il soit jamais ici question de foi, et qui « agissent comme des machines, sans liberté » semblent « mues par un mécanisme intérieur et (ne semblent qu’)imiter les mouvements des êtres vivants » (23) : ce sont des automates! De façon magistrale, Vernon Lee introduit ici le thème typiquement hoffmanien de la confusion étrange et inquiétante de l’animé et de l’inanimé. Ce que refuse Benvenuta, c’est bien d’imiter ces automates, qui elles-mêmes imitent des représentations (statues et portraits) du divin…

Et pourtant, le conditionnement de l’enfant avait commencé au berceau. Elle est d’abord isolée de la fratrie, installée dans un environnement propice à la méditation:

a big room, all hung round with coloured prints of nuns of various orders, and with an alcove representing the grotto of a holy anchorite, full of owls, and death’s heads, and allegorical figures, mst beautifully made of cardboard among plaster rocks. (60)

Vernon Lee souligne la violence de cette formation fondée sur le renoncement au monde et le sacrifice: « there is cruelty in such mournfulness, and that cruelty is obscene. » (Préface à For Maurice) Abandonnée à l’âge de trois ans par sa mère biologique pour être consacrée à la Vierge Marie, Benvenuta, intouchée et désormais intouchable, portera des vêtements de deuil à sa taille, et vivra au rythme du calendrier liturgique. Son journal intime est donc daté par les noms des saints (« Day of the Holy Name of Jesus », « St Agnes’ Day », « 4th Sunday after Epiphany », « St Dorothy’s Day », « St Scholastica’s Day », « St Juliana’s Day », « St Cunegonda’s Day ») jusqu’au soir du miracle, la veille de Noël 1740.

Plus que l’excès de rites, ce sont l’oisiveté et l’abstinence de tout contact physique avec les choses et les êtres qui s’avèrent particulièrement néfastes, engendrant la mélancolie, le sentiment d’inutilité, et même des symptômes hystériques. Le travail sous toutes ses formes est tabou, et pourtant, nous dit Benvenuta: « I should like to shell peas and wash rice and slice tomatoes in the kitchen. I have often envied the lay sisters turning up the garden mould, which smells so good, and pruning and planting while we walk round the cloisters… » (32)

Comble d’une ironie toute leeienne, c’est Belzebubb qui indique à Benvenuta la référence à The Lady’s Encyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge et aux compétences utiles à la vie d’adulte… L’enfant, désespérée de ne pouvoir confectionner de ses mains des vêtements à la taille de son poupon Jésus (24) est autodidacte en matière de lecture, et semble mal maîtriser l’écriture au point d’éprouver des difficultés pour signer le pacte avec Satan. « I worried lest I should begin too large and cramp the last syllable. » (57)

L’éducation conventuelle, privilégiant les activités décoratives (broderie et danse), a développé une appréhension visuelle (et non utilitaire, pratique, pragmatique) du monde ; il s’est agi de faire en sorte que l’enfant se satisfasse d’une image d’elle-même comme objet du regard d’autrui, non comme sujet. Les modèles et les jeux proposés, destinés à la convaincre de la « supériorité spirituelle de la communication par la parole sur les communications de corps à corps » (Anzieu, 144), sont ici fondés sur la mort, le silence, la réification, le fétichisme macabres: inlassable nettoyage des reliques sacrées, minutieux astiquage et habillage du squelette de Saint Prodoscimus–étrange poupée rococo, « avec de vrais diamants pour faire les yeux »…

Outre ces conditions de déréliction et d’isolement, en enfant prédestinée à un destin extraordinaire, Benvenuta a le sentiment aigu de sa différence: « I have not a noble mind befitting my birth, as my nurses often complain » (32) « our Confessor already thinks me such a silly person. » Elle paraît simple d’esprit: on lui conseille seulement de « prier pour obtenir un peu plus de sagesse » (« pray for a little wisdom » (19). « She was but little esteemed in our convent, being accounted a simpleton and little better than a child » (70) ) Puérile et peu sûre d’elle, mais pleine de gentillesse envers ses camarades, aimant les animaux, les fleurs, la musique « even to the point of taming lizards and mice », elle a néanmoins pleinement intériorisé l’image renvoyée par l’institution religieuse, au point de s’estimer coupable du péché d’arrogance, de méchanceté (« wickedness » (35) et même du « deadly sin of hatred and uncharitableness. » (43)

Cependant, un tournant dramatique a lieu lors du spectacle de marionnettes donné au couvent. La dimension ludique du divertissement se double du rôle de révélateur de cette représentation dans laquelle l’enfant reconnaît sa propre situation: la brutalité de la prise de conscience est proportionnelle à l’intensité du refoulement qui l’a précédée. Les figures de substitution et formations de compromis dont elle s’était satisfaite ne tiennent plus face au désespoir (images de noyade, anamnèse subite de sa vie « comme quand on va mourir »). Aux rêveries fantasmatiques à propos de la figure de la Madone (dont Benvenuta contemple le portrait durant des heures), ou de Sainte Martha (« the patroness of all good housewives » (51)), du père Noël, des rois mages, et surtout, du poupon Jésus, succède l’animation fantastique d’une trinité de figurines (poupée, marionnette (25), automates) en lieu et place du triangle oedipien traditionnel (enfant, mère, père).

Cette métamorphose fantastique, qui n’est plus un jeu mais repose sur un très étrange et inquiétant déni de réalité, va néanmoins permettre à l’enfant d’exprimer ses jugements et de développer une image d’elle-même plus positive. Même si Benvenuta n’a jamais conscience de sa grâce, elle n’en assume pas moins courageusement ses responsabilités, et les conséquences de ses actes, en particulier du pacte avec Satan: « I never crossed myself nor ejaculated any form of exorcism, because, you see, I had told him to come, and it was a piece of business. » (58) En un mot, son identité se précise en partie à la faveur de ses relations maternelles avec l’enfant Jésus. En partie aussi grâce à l’humour, au rire profane–le risus pascalis dont parle M. Bakhtin à propos de Rabelais–qui n’épargne rien, depuis le prêtre de l’Oratoire, qui, piqué par un hérisson vivant placé dans son lit, pousse des cris de douleur en latin, jusqu’aux farces du Malin pour éprouver les Saints Pères dans le Désert, aux plaisanteries de la Légende Dorée, et aux colères hystériques de la Mère Abbesse (« it’s the continuation of the puppet-show in the Mother Abbess’s head. » (45)) Rire, humour et regard terriblement lucide de l’enfant sur cette civilisation de la douleur fondée sur le culte (baroque) des apparences.

Notre question initiale concernant, d’une part la façon dont l’enfant perçoit le réel, et, d’autre part, les techniques mises en œuvre pour exprimer cette vision ainsi que les effets produits par ce type de représentation, nous amènent, concernant Vernon Lee, d’abord à insister sur l’indéniable empathie (26) de l’auteur pour son sujet, et l’effet de pathos qui en découle. Par ailleurs, les options techniques (narration homodiégétique, focalisation interne) ayant pour but l’expression de la vision, et des jugements explicites ou implicites de l’enfant sur le monde qui l’entoure, permettent aussi à l’auteur d’exprimer, sous l’apparence de la naïveté, de la fraîcheur, de l’ignorance enfantines, des jugements particulièrement subversifs. Grossissant quelque peu le trait, elle accentue ainsi les aspects les plus choquants de l’institution conventuelle, la cruauté et la barbarie (« obscène ») des systèmes religieux hérités de la Contre-Réforme, par opposition à l’innocence absolue de l’enfance, associée, elle, au paganisme. Cruauté, interdits, rejets et carences affectives aboutissent à un état d’expérience sans expérience ni innocence, où l’abstraction, la déréalisation, l’aliénation de l’individu pervertissent son rapport au monde et à autrui. Pis encore. Un modèle esthétique récurrent s’avère fondamental dans l’œuvre: le schémas sacrificiel. D’un point de vue historique, sociologique, philosophique et surtout éthique, cette mise en scène obsessionnelle d’une mise à mort (rituelle?) de l’enfance sur l’autel de la « civilisation » est loin d’être anodin.


1 Référence fondamentale sur ce point: Le Moi-Peau de Didier Anzieu (Dunod, 1985).

2 La petite fille et le pacte avec le diable évoquent bien des résonances, de la légende allemande « Erl-König » (« Le Roi des Aulnes ») transcrite par Herder, à la ballade de Goethe, textes maintes fois traduits ou adaptés (Angela Carter, Michel Tournier, Schlöndorff) voire mis en musique par Schubert, ou Benjamin Britten (voir en particulier la variation VII, scene VIII de l’opéra The Turn of the Screw tiré de la novella de Henry James.

3  Voir par exemple le Prelude de Wordsworth.

4 « Dionea », Hauntings: Fantastic Stories. 1889. 1st pub. Heinemann, 1890.

5 « Prince Alebric and the Snake Lady », juil. 1896.

6 « Limbo », in Limbo and Other Essays. London: Grant Richards, 1897.

Sister Benvenuta and the Christ-Child, an Eighteenth Century Legend (1906).

8 « Three German Palaces », in The Tower of the Mirrors, London: John Lane, 1914.

9 « Divinities of Tuscan Summer Fields », in The Tower of the Mirrors, London: John Lane, 1914.

10 « Dionysus in the Euganean Hills », The Contemporay Review, Sept. 1921.

11 « The Virgin of the Seven Daggers », London: John Lane, 1927.

12 « It is the undefinable quality of nearly every child, and of all nice lads and girls; the quality which (though it can reach perfection in exceptional old people) usually vanishes,, no one knows when exactly, into the Limbo marked by the Rabbits’ Villa, with its plates and tea-cups, mouldering on its wooden posts in the unweeded garden. » (Limbo 16).

13 « Divinities of Tuscan Summer Fields, ch. 34 de The Tower of the Mirrors, London, John Lane, MCMXIV.

14 « Dionea semblait déplacée lorsqu’elle apparut, brune, souple, d’une beauté étonnante, avec une lueur bizarre et féroce dans le regard, et un sourire encore plus bizarre, sournois, serpentin, comme celui des femmes de Léonard de Vinci. » Hauntings: Fantastic Stories, London: Heinemann, 1890,p. 72. Trad. C. Rancy, Fantastique et décadence en Angleterre, Paris: CNRS, 1982, p. 161.

15 D. Anzieu explique encore: « Les premières indications émises par l’entourage familial à l’égard de l’enfant, quand il entre dans le monde du déplacement (locomoteur) et de la communication (infraverbale et pré-linguistique), concernent essentiellement les contacts tactiles; c’est en prenant appui sur ces interdictions exogènes … que se constitue un interdit de nature interne… double » (136)

16 Le « holding » (Winnicott, 1962 Processus de maturation chez l’enfant, trad. fr. 1970, Payot, pp. 12-13) se définit comme « la façon dont la mère soutient le corps du bébé. La fonction psychique se développe par intériorisation du holding maternel. Le Moi-Peau est une partie de la mère–particulièrement ses mains–qui a été intériorisée et qui maintient le psychisme en état de fonctionner, du moins pendant la veille, tout comme la mère maintient en ce même temps le corps du bébé dans un état d’unité et de solidité. » (Anzieu, 97) « L’interdit du toucher ne favorise la restructuration du Moi que si le Moi-Peau a été suffisamment acquis » (Anzieu, 150).

17 « Three Old German Palaces, in The Tower of the Mirrors, and Other Essays on the Spirit of Places, London, John Lane, MCMXIV, p. 131.

18 Nous renvoyons à notre étude de « Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady » pour cet aspect du fantastique de Vernon Lee, entre baroque et grotesque. Le Fantastique fin-de-siècle, Presses Universitaires de Provence, 1997.

19 A quoi il faut bien sûr ajouter le désormais célèbre stade du miroir (Lacan). En outre, Winnicott (1971) a décrit une phase antérieure au stade du miroir, « celle où le visage de la mère et les réactions de l’entourage fournissent le premier miroir à l’enfant, qui constitue son Soi à partir de ce qui est ainsi reflété. » (159-60)

20 Vernon Lee mélange ici réalité historique et fiction. La famille Badoer est probablement la plus ancienne des familles du patriciat Vénitien. Descendant des Parteciaci ou Partecipazio, qui eurent sept doges, dont Agnello, élu après l’invasion des Francs et le transfert de la capitale sur les îles qui constituent la Venise actuelle, en 810. Elle compte huit Procurateurs de Saint-Marc, un cardinal.

21 L’une des quatre maisons « nouvelles » du patriciat Vénitien. Elle compte trois doges, douze Procurateurs de Saint-Marc, et de nombreux Généraux « de mer ». Le Doge Leonardo (mort en 1521) fut l’âme de la résistance, à l’époque de la ligue de Cambrai. Il fit construire le magnifique palais qui devint le palais Vendramin Calergi, sur le Grand Canal.

22 « A Venetian lady is allowed by the laws of the Serene Republic to show exactly one-half of her bosom and no more, there being no immodesty in this proceeding. » (24)

23 C’est là la définition de l’automate dans le dictionnaire Robert, qui précise que ce mot date de 1532.

24 « I ventured to suggest the fittingness of preparing for Him a little coat of soft silk over fine linen against the moment of His exposure at Christmas in that draughty manger. » (46) « He is always in that press between the bits of saints’ bones in cotton-wool, the spare vestments and the packets of waxlight. » (17)

25 Le Avventure di Pinocchio: storia di un burattino, roman de Collodi avait été publié d’abord en feuilleton (1881) dans Le Journal des Enfants (sous le titre « Histoire d’un Pantin», puis en 1883 comme « Les Aventures de Pinocchio ». Ce récit des aventures d’une marionnette qui se transforme en petit garçon, malgré son côté didactique, valorise la fantaisie et « l’esprit d’enfance ».

26 On doit à Vernon Lee ce mot traduit de l’Allemand Einfühlung.


Lee, Vernon. 1889. « Dionea ». Hauntings: Fantastic Stories. London: Heinemann, 1890. Bodley Head, 1906.

Lee, Vernon. 1896. « Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady ». The Yellow Book, X, July 1896, 289-344. Rpt. The Snake Lady and Other Stories. Introd. by Horace Gregory (ed.). New York: Grove Press, 1954.

Lee, Vernon. 1897. « Limbo » in Limbo and Other Essays. London: Grant Richards.

Lee, Vernon.  1906. Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child: an Eighteenth Century Legend. London: Grant Richards. Rpt. New York: M. Kennerly, ca. 1906.

Lee, Vernon. 1914. « Three German Palaces » in The Tower of the Mirrors. London: John Lane.

Lee, Vernon. 1914. « Divinities of Tuscan Summer Fields » in The Tower of the Mirrors, London: John Lane.

Lee, Vernon. 1921. « Dionysus in the Euganean Hills ».

Lee, Vernon.  1927. « The Virgin of the Seven Daggers ». For Maurice: Five Unlikely Stories. London: John Lane.

Anzieu, Didier. 1985. Le Moi-Peau, Paris : Dunod.

Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie (ed. et tard.). 2001. La voix maudite, Trois nouvelles fantastiques de Vernon Lee. Rennes : Terre de Brume.