“Violet Paget’s Cousin: Alice Abadam, an Active Suffragist”, by Jill Davies

Violet Paget’s Cousin:
Alice Abadam, an Active Suffragist

Jill Davies

Violet Paget’s cousin, Alice Abadam, was an extremely active worker in the suffragist movement in Britain. The two women were exact contemporaries, both born in 1856. Alice’s father was Edward Abadam, of Middleton Hall, Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire.  Violet’s mother was Edward’s sister, Matilda. Alice grew up in the family home and maintained close and friendly contact with her extended family until the end of her life whereas Violet, because of her mother’s estrangement from Edward, saw much less of the family.
See Fig. 1

Alice Abadam: the woman behind the suffragist

Alice’s obituary in the Carmarthen Journal describes her as ‘a very interesting, talented and remarkable personality’.  She was born in London on 2 January 1856, probably in a town house rented by the family, one of seven children born to Edward and Louisa Abadam. She was the granddaughter of Edward Hamlin Adams.  The children were not baptised or registered; Abadam was a passionate anti-cleric and prided himself on being a freethinker; the reason why he used the old Welsh patronym ab to change the family name.  The same attitude led to his marriage with Louisa Taylor not taking place until 1841, when their second child, Adah, was on the way.
Abadam was a fluent Italian speaker, a cultured man with a large collection of books in several languages.  Middleton Hall, now the site of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, was a Palladian mansion in the forefront of fashion when it was built by its former owner, Sir William Paxton, in 1795. His children’s governesses were required to speak French or German.  Alice alluded to her happy childhood in a short article written towards the end of her life but her childhood may well have been marred by her mother’s long illness. Louisa suffered from severe post-natal depression for many years, needing two resident sick nurses for a considerable period.
Louisa’s illness was perhaps the result of giving birth to six children in seven years and was possibly triggered by the birth of Francis, the couple’s second son, in 1846. Nevertheless Edith was born in 1847 and then Alice in 1856.
Louisa outlived her husband by eleven years and seems to have retreated into obscurity. The blanket of silence which surrounded the marriage continued over her married life. They had married by licence at Marlybone parish church (frequently used for clandestine weddings at that time) on 18 November 1841. Her first child had been born in 1840, and the date of the marriage invariably appears in sparse local accounts as 1836, when she would have been only 16.
Edward Abadam died in 1875 but Louisa was living in Brighton by 1861, where the census described her as the head of the family and a landed proprietor’s wife. By 1871 she had returned to Weymouth, Dorset, her birthplace. She described herself as married and a landowner and certainly seems to have been supporting her extended family. In 1861 her sister Ellen Histed, a farmer’s wife, and her little son were staying or living with her and in 1871 her aged mother, unmarried sister and sister Harriet with her husband, a Weymouth seaman, and their three children were all in residence. Louisa and all her extended family were born in Weymouth although her father was described as ‘gentleman’, resident in York, on her marriage certificate. Louisa moved back to Llanarthne, probably after her husband’s death. Whatever the reasons for the estrangement between Edward and Louisa, he made financial provision for her, for she had four servants when she lived at Clearbrook, the dower house, in 1881. She died aged 66 in 1886 and is buried in the family vault in Llanarthne churchyard.  In Alice’s account of her memories of Middleton Hall there is no mention of her mother; her father is referred to twice as ‘Mr. Abadam’ but her grandfather and many members of her extended family merit considerable space. Louisa appears to have left when Alice was no more than five or six years old.
Abadam held some unusual views for one of the land-owning class of the time; during the 1835 election campaign he had produced a pamphlet that encouraged tenants to fight for a free vote, pointing out that farms were difficult to let at that time.  He continued to believe that the landowners should respect the rights of their tenants. Alice, although very much part of county society, inherited his left wing views as far as women’s rights and social issues were concerned and continued to develop them throughout her long life but in contrast to his fierce anti-clerical views she became a zealous Catholic.
Middleton Hall was a cultured background for the Abadam children. Books were plentiful and there was always music.  Alice maintained this interest for most of her life.
The singing and chanting were excellent, reflecting great credit on Miss Alice Abadam of Middleton Hall, for the clever manner in which she conducted the choir and presided at the harmonium. She is, we hear, indefatigable in her exertions in training the parish Church choir.

She took part in concerts arranged by the Gwynnes of Tregib and further afield. At Llansantffraid Court, near Abergavenny, she and Mr. James Morgan of Carmarthen “took the solos in exquisite style” and sang Mozart’s Ave Maria as a duet.  A long letter, written in French and dated 1900, from her neighbour at 7 Picton Terrace, Carmarthen, H. C. Tierney, discusses the musical traits of all the Celtic nations. “… I have started to do some research into Welsh music.” He implies that they are both interested in the old music and instruments:

“I well know that it is difficult to find any trace of these methods in popular songs but I flatter myself I can learn … in some hymn tunes which are still commonly used among the Welsh.”

Obviously aware of her knowledge on these matters, he writes: “You are a musician, dear Mademoiselle, I am not.”

Fig. 2:

 

Alice converted to Catholicism in 1880.  She moved to 26 Picton Terrace in about 1886, when her mother died.  In 1888 Fr. Dominic O’Neill, who was considering taking over the Carmarthen Mission, wrote to his Provincial “…and Miss Abadam live(s) in the parish”.  As an accomplished musician it was natural that for many years she would be the organist and director of the choir at St. Mary’s church in Union Street. In September 1887 “at the Albert Hall, Swansea, a grand medieval bazaar and fancy fair was got up in aid of a fund for the erection of a new convent.” The stallholders were dressed as historical characters; Miss Abadam and the pupils of St. Winifride’s Convent, Swansea, represented the twelfth century.  In 1896 she made a gift of a beautiful and very costly mitre to Dr. Mostyn, the bishop for Wales on his visit to Carmarthen.  The following year she was one of the eight lay mourners named as being at the funeral in Dublin of Father Peter Paul Smith, C.P. He had been attached to the missionary staff of the Congregation of the Passion, which had come to Carmarthen in 1889.
Alice was regarded in the parish as “a woman of remarkable intelligence and burning zeal for the conversion of Wales.”  She took her faith out into the community; according to her obituary she was “an inspiring visitor to Carmarthen prison”. In her funeral oration Father Ronan praised:

“her zeal was not only parochial, it extended to the whole country. She was very active in tracing and discovering evidences and vestiges of Catholicity throughout the land […] Her main work as a Catholic was to have been instrumental in bringing to Carmarthen and other parts of Wales the Sisters of the Holy Ghost. Knowing the relationship that exists between the two races, Welsh and Breton, she was convinced that their work would find a congenial soil in Wales. That her judgement and vision were right, the work that the Sisters have done and are still doing, affords abundant testimony.”

Helping to establish Les Filles du Saint Esprit, the Daughters of the Holy Spirit or the Sisters of the Holy Ghost, was a notable contribution to the Catholic cause. The White Sisters, as they were popularly known, is a Breton order of nuns, many of whom were displaced during the disturbances of 1902 in Brittany.  These resulted from the political struggle between the French state, endeavouring to establish a democratic republic, and the Catholic Church. In 1901 the Law of Associations ordered the closure of all schools staffed by unauthorized religious congregations. The order was met with non-violent opposition or complete indifference in most areas but the military had to be called in to confront armed men and women who resisted efforts to close the 37 schools for girls run by the Sisters.
In 1902 at Concarneau twelve brigades of gendarmerie and three hundred infantrymen were on hand to evict the five nuns from the local school. It is interesting that it was only the schools run by Les Filles that drew resistance. The community had begun in 1706 as a charitable and nursing congregation that gradually established a system of primary schools throughout the Breton peninsula, becoming one of the largest orders in France. It recruited mainly among the daughters of the Breton peasantry so that their fate was of immediate concern. The area was badly served by physicians, so the nuns provided free health care. They had also established a system of nursery schools, particularly in the fishing communities, which were vital to allow mothers to work in this desperately poor area. The government did not provide funds to replace these facilities; it failed to remove them completely, as some continued to teach in their communities.
Alice worked with two other women, Mrs Herbert of Llanover and Dr Alice Johnson, a highly qualified physician and surgeon who was working at the Joint Counties Asylum, in establishing the order in Carmarthen in 1903. Dr Johnson hoped that the sisters would work with the mentally ill. Alice wrote to the superior-general in February 1903 informing her that they could rent a house for five years while Dr Johnson found six pupils for the school by which the Sisters intended to earn their living.  Five sisters arrived on 25 March to set up St. Winefride’s Convent; Alice’s urge to set matters in motion quickly being evident here as with the later foundations. By August the visits of the sisters to the workhouse were established but their ability to communicate with the inmates and to teach in the little school was hampered by their inadequate English. There were difficulties as the sisters did not have a teaching qualification and the bishop had forbidden them to take Catholic children attending the local elementary school.  An English teacher was appointed but by 1909 there were still only nine pupils. The sisters planned to provide secondary education but few Catholic parents could afford to pay for private education and there were already excellent secondary schools in the town.  Alice was active in setting up other foundations. Sister Marie Théodose, who had been sent to Wales to supervise the new convents, wrote to the motherhouse in Brittany: “I am sending Miss Abadam’s letter […] As you’ll see, it is a strong, well-argued case for Aberystwyth. It is difficult to be diplomatic with her, she is so perspicacious, so tenacious.”
In February 1904 Alice let her house and moved to London with Dr. Johnson, who was taking up an appointment there. The two women together bought 97 Central Hill, Upper Norwood.  By 1922 they lived at 107 Central Hill. Dr. Johnson’s work necessitated periods away; in the summer of 1922 she was a passenger on the SS China from Yokohama to San Francisco, when her nearest relative/friend was given as Miss Abadam and her address as No.107.   In 1926 the two women moved to 28 Hamilton Terrace, St. John’s Wood, where they had separate telephone numbers, no doubt necessary because of the volume of work that both undertook. Alice remained there until 1936 but Dr. Johnson lived in Wimbledon from 1933, ‘by specialist advice for the benefit of the air from the Common’ until her death in 1938.  By 1936 Alice had moved to 70 Hamilton Terrace.  When war broke out she left for Bryn Myrddin in Abergwili, near Carmarthen, to live with her nephew Ryle Morris and died there on March 31st 1940.  Her obituary in the Carmarthen Journal stresses her artistic, musical and literary interests; her true legacy was only hinted at in Herbert Vaughan’s short tribute to her in The Times: “In England Miss Abadam’s name will be chiefly recalled for the prominent part she played in the so-called “Suffragette” campaign.”  Obviously unsympathetic to the cause, he fails to make clear that she was never a suffragette in the accepted use of the term.
When Alice’s cousin, Violet Paget, died in 1935 in Florence an appreciation , one of three in The Times, compared the event to the crumbling of the Campanile in Venice.  In only one was her birth name mentioned. Her upbringing had been completely different. Matilda Adams, her mother, was the youngest sister of Edward, Alice’s father. Matilda was born in 1815 at 19 Gower Street, London. She was a very strong-minded character in an unconventional family. She is said to have attended a school for young ladies in Bedford Square and appears to have had a ‘season’, despite her father, Edward Hamlin Adams’s, reputed objection.  Ten years later, in 1841, she was living at home in Middleton Hall.  Her portrait shows her to have been very pretty, long curls framing her face:
“She was a tiny figure, not more than five feet in height; what she lacked in     stature being more than made up by the unmistakableness of her presence.”

Fig. 3:

Matilda Adams
Copyright  Mrs Jacqui Lyne

According to all secondary sources Matilda married a Captain Lee-Hamilton; Violet’s executor, Irene Cooper Willis, calls him “a Mr. Lee-Hamilton”, but gives no further detail, except that she had a son, Eugene, by him.  It seems to have been a disastrous marriage for which no date is provided. No record of it has been found but if it occurred it must have taken place between 1841 and 1844.  Lee-Hamilton is said to have died in 1852 when their son James Eugene, born in London on the 6th of January 1845, was aged seven.  Significantly, when Matilda remarried, she was named on the marriage certificate as “Matilda Adams, daughter of Edward Hamlin Adams and Sophie, his wife, deceased”.
Matilda and Eugene lived in France with her much-loved brother William.  The two were very close in age and both were subject to the machinations of their elder brother Edward, who had started a lawsuit against William, claiming that his daughter Pauline was illegitimate .  Matilda suffered similar accusations; in a scrapbook into which Edward pasted a variety of newspaper cuttings is an advertisement for a book, Fallacies of the Faculty by ‘Dr. Dickson’. Underneath the cutting Edward wrote “This is the father of Matilda’s son Eugene”.   The advert is dated October 1839, but was pasted into the scrapbook in September 1864.
Dr Samuel Dickson, born in Scotland in 1806, held very controversial views on the medicine of the time and was detested by the medical profession. As an army doctor in India during a cholera epidemic he had, in accordance with current practice, bled his patients, most of whom died. By 1836, when his first book was published, he was living in Cheltenham, where his two elder daughters were born.  Fallacies followed in 1839, calling for the cessation of bloodletting and full of tirades against the medical profession. He was now living and practising in Hanover Square, where a daughter and a son were born. He died in 1869 and was buried at St. George’s, Hanover Square.
Adah, the second child of Edward and Louisa Abadam and sister of Alice, was the cousin who was closest to Violet, who had been godmother to Adah’s daughter Evodie in 1882. During that visit to the Hughes family she visited Middleton Hall, where Lucy, the eldest daughter, now lived, for Edward had died in 1875.  Violet was disappointed in the park but thought the house magnificent. She commented on the pictures, mentioning “a very good one” of her mother Matilda and the miniatures of her grandparents.  While she was in England in 1885 Violet wrote to Adah suggesting a visit, who replied that neither would have any pleasure in meeting again because as Vernon Lee she had breached family loyalty when she showed, unconsciously, her own thoughts. Incredibly Violet had named one of her characters Hamlin, making it impossible to miss as the first chapter opened with the words “It was melancholy to admit that Italy also had ceased to interest him, thought Hamlin” . This caused deep offence to the Abadam family. Adah’s brother, the first-born son, was named Edward Hamlin after his grandfather and had died at the age of 22, plunging the family into deep mourning. A room at Middleton Hall became a chapelle ardente, hung with black from floor to ceiling, lit by candles with men watching in turns until the funeral.  Violet had the grace to acknowledge the hurt she had caused when she wrote to Matilda: “I am sorry if I hurt Adah’s susceptibilities, and I regret the name of Hamlin, which I had forgotten at that time, was one of her brothers.”
Violet was only ten when Edward died, so it is possible that she had genuinely forgotten; she must have been aware that her grandfather was also named Edward Hamlin and that the whole family revered him. Alice wrote in her account of her life at Middleton Hall of the ceremonies which accompanied her grandfather’s birthday and the Christmas celebrations, when his bust would be surrounded with candles and the children lifted to kiss it.  The connections may have been tenuous but Alice is known to have visited William fairly frequently so Matilda and Violet must certainly have been aware of family tradition.

Miss Abadam: the dedicated feminist of independent means

Alice Abadam was very active in the women’s suffrage movement from 1904 onwards. She merits a long entry in Crawford’s work as well as numerous references to her work with the various societies to which she belonged at one time or another.  The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had been formed in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst.  Asquith became Prime Minister in 1908 and his delaying tactics contributed to the WSPU’s policy of direct action and eventually escalating violence. Alice became a member of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage, which had been founded in 1900, in 1905 and attended a banquet at the Savoy in December to celebrate the release of WSPU prisoners. However dissension within the WSPU reached crisis point in September 1907. The Pankhursts believed that continuing to run the society democratically would be detrimental to the militant operation they desired. At a meeting on the 10th September Mrs Pankhurst announced that in future governing power would be vested in a committee chosen and appointed by her. She also announced that the forthcoming annual conference was to be abandoned, and that there would be no further need for conferences attended by delegates from the provincial branches because they were to become autonomous unions.
As a result the Women’s Freedom League came into being, with the objective of securing “for women the Parliamentary Vote as it is, or may be, granted to men”. Alice Abadam, having left the WSPU, was on its first committee. It was through the League and affiliated societies that she made the greatest impact on the suffrage movement. She was leaving behind the militant wing (the suffragettes) but the League also considered itself to be militant, defining militancy as any protest without violence which involved the risk of imprisonment. It protested in police courts against the trial of women by man-made laws. In 1909 when the WSPU started the hunger strike the WFL undertook “The Great Watch”, a continuous picket of the House of Commons while it was sitting from July to November.

Fig. 4:  Miss Abadam: the suffragist

Alice belonged to many other societies, both local and national. The Federated Council of Suffrage Societies was formed in 1912 and by 1916, when she became its chairman, it had 22 affiliated societies.   She was president of the Beckenham branch of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage and later when it became the Norwood and District Women’s Suffrage Society.  She was a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society.
The Church League for Women’s Suffrage was formed in 1909 and Alice immediately became one of its speakers. Anglican feminists were struggling to define a place for themselves within a hierarchical church.  The society was the largest of the religious leagues with 91 branches and over 500 clergy as members. It never formally condemned suffragette militancy. The Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society was an all-woman society free from the control of the Catholic hierarchy. Founded 1911, it consisted mostly of young, single, well-educated women from the Catholic social and cultural elite; there were no working class members. The Anglican League demanded expanded roles and positions of authority for women while the Catholic society presented women’s suffrage as a matter of “elementary justice” and the “moral principle of true sex equality.”
Traditionally the Catholic Church regarded the “woman’s mission” as being “in the school, in the cottage, in the garret, in the hospital – but mainly at home”. Like many Protestants, they believed that women should not be involved in the “dirt and strife” of politics. Alice believed that charitable work divorced from politics was social ‘tinkering’ and that Catholic women should direct their energies to suffrage work so as to “influence the lives of millions of their unprotected sisters for the good.”
The Society therefore drew a lot of opposition from clerics. A Jesuit priest delivered a series of sermons condemning women’s social and political emancipation as “immoral,” “a blasphemy,” and “anti-racial,” by which he meant that the vote would lead to the decline of the British birth-rate and therefore the weakening of the Anglo-Saxon race.  In response to his attacks one CWSS member, Alice Abadam, retaliated with her own series of speeches in which she defended suffrage militancy as “righteous” and berated him as “a politician”.

In Norwich, in August 1912, Alice appealed to the Catholic clergy not to misuse their great influence by promoting “indifference and uninformed opposition” to the suffragist cause. An eloquent platform speaker, she knew better than most the disadvantage the CWSS was at whenever priests spoke ill of the women’s movement.  At one time she even argued that women should be allowed into the priesthood.   Other CWSS members felt that they should not set the priests against them but rather convince them of the justice of their cause.
Alice founded the Feminist League in 1920. The members-only group had weekly evening meetings, chaired by her, with visiting speakers from organisations such as the Actresses’ Franchise League, the Salvation Army, the Women Engineers Society, the Animal Defence League, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Women’s Election Committee. The League ran a lending library. Her pamphlet “The Feminist Vote, Enfranchised or Emancipated?”, published in 1919, drove home the point that women, as “Constructive Feminists”, should use their vote for women without relying on men’s guidance: “Do you see in its rightful perspective the bad, mad past of dominating men and servile women? […] will you use your vote merely as men have used theirs, […]  thereby leaving the world exactly as you find it”?
She was a committee member of the Women Writer’s Suffrage League and acted as a hostess for of one of the tables for a Costume Dinner organized by the League and the Actresses’ Franchise League held at the Hotel Cecil.  She willed her carefully organised archive to the League but by the time of her death it had ceased to exist “having died a natural death when she retired from the presidency.”
Alice has been described as

one of the suffragette movement’s most prolific public speakers in early 20th century […] she both reflected upon the culmination of a marathon struggle and euphorically anticipated the dawn of a glowing future.  […] She travelled all over the British Isles speaking on women’s suffrage and often addressed two meetings a day. Suffragists’ Campaign Through the North

Suffragists’ Cycle Tour Through the North

She was a great orator and vast audiences, some of 5000, would be charmed and roused by her eloquence. Her words brought laughter and tears, and she had a ready witty tongue for hecklers, and was fearless in defence of the oppressed and in fighting for justice and freedom for women. Suffragists’ Tour Through the North

Votes for Women described her in January 1911 as “that well-known speaker on social subjects”. On that occasion she had been addressing the Actresses’ Franchise League. The next week she was speaking at a meeting of the Women Writer’s Suffrage League.  She spoke to the Mansfield NUWSS in April 1909 and again in 1913 – on “How the Vote will affect the White Slave Traffic”.  In 1908 she addressed, over the course of a fortnight, a series of women only meetings arranged by the Birmingham Society for Women’s Suffrage on the moral aspects of women’s suffrage and made the closing speech, after Lady Balfour, at a meeting of the NUSS and the Men’s League in Portsmouth.  In the spring of 1911:

Shropshire reports two successful meetings in Shrewsbury. On March 7th Miss Abadam addressed a crowded audience of women only, when her eloquent, earnest words made a deep impression, and many of her hearers realized for the first time what was the inner meaning of the Suffrage Movement.

The following month she was supporting the Scottish Federation of the NUWSS. On the 25th of April she spoke at Thurso and on the 27th at Tain, near Inverness, at Wick on the 28th and Dingwall on the 29th. Back in London she spoke at ‘Mrs Bethell’s drawing room meeting’ on May 24.  In December she spoke at a dinner at the Hotel Cecil of the Tax Resistance League, which had been formed in 1909 to conduct a campaign of constitutional militancy and organized resistance by women to taxation without representation.
At an important meeting of the Cambridge Woman’s Suffrage Society in May 1909 about 50 leading members of the community appeared on the platform. University men in favour were asked to attend, the Mistresses of Girton and Newnham agreed to be present, the Corn Exchange was booked the previous day to allow it to be suitably decorated. The meeting was planned to take place during the period in which a congress of the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance was taking place in London, delegates were to be entertained in Cambridge. The meeting was a great success, it was attended by about 2000 people and hundreds had to be turned away. Miss Abadam was one of the speakers.
During her constant travels she spoke on many topics. By 1911 prostitution was one of her main concerns. Some feminists had been campaigning for years on prostitution and the age of consent but it was not until about 1910 that they began to be reported in the suffragette newspapers. Early in 1910 The Vote publicized her speeches on the subject. She argued that one of the main causes of prostitution was the starvation wages which so many women were paid. She related an incident where a manager had justified a reduction in the wages of his women workers with the words “if they complain, simply tell them they can supplement their earnings on the street”. She also claimed that when the House of Lords had debated the Bill to raise the age of consent, one member had warned: “Take care, my Lords, lest in passing this measure you interfere with the advantages of your sons”. She argued that the reason that no government had ever made a real effort to deal with the sexual exploitation and abuse of women was that “they were responsible to a one-sex electorate.”  Vaughan’s obituary in the Welshman states that she “frequently lectured on eugenics” but there is no reference to this in any feminist literature.  Even in 1916 and 1917, when the militants had ceased their attacks on property, Alice continued to lecture; on “The Evolution of the Women’s Movement” in Knightsbridge and on “The Feminist Outlook” in Caxton Hall.
In November 1911 the Carmarthen branch of the Women’s Suffrage Society was formed.   There is no reference in the minutes to Alice having any involvement. Miss Morris of Brynmyrddin, Alice’s niece, was not present at that meeting, although Crawford states that she was one of the founders.  At the fourth committee meeting, on December 16th, correspondence from her was read but the contents were not recorded. At the same meeting it was resolved that Alice Abadam be asked to address the next public meeting and to act as President if Lady Hills-Johnes declined. At the next meeting, on 13th January 1912, a letter was read stating her inability to address the meeting and suggesting that the Society should form a Debating Society. The reason for this refusal may well have been an impossibly crowded diary. It is, however, rather strange as she travelled so widely to speak to meetings and had a long-standing connection with Carmarthen. Presumably she was used to addressing meetings of thousands or hundreds of people rather than scores.
Although a successful inaugural meeting was held in late November 1911 when it was reported that the room was crowded long before the appointed hour with large numbers unable to gain admittance, the Society had difficulty in maintaining its early momentum.  The approach of the war was one of the reasons why interest fell away. The WSPU campaign continued until July 1914; Mrs Pankhurst ended it immediately in August when war was declared. All imprisoned suffragettes were released and the organisation offered its services to Lloyd George, who badly needed workers to fill the factories he had built to supply the army with munitions. Mrs Pankhurst was far-sighted enough to see that the war could offer women opportunities and Lloyd George was not one to let an advantageous proposal pass by. He offered women work in munitions factories on equal pay, and Mrs Pankhurst put the full weight of the WSPU behind the recruitment campaign. By July 1916 340,844 women were working in national factories.

It is interesting that the society distributed suffrage leaflets in Welsh. How far they were able to reach out is not clear. There were few supporters of the cause and far more letters on disestablishment in the two local papers. One individual wrote very long letters arguing against women moving out of the home as if they did so they would lose the trait of “kindness”. In dealing with education he stated that “the real education of man and woman […] can only to a very limited extent be aided by books”. For this reason he did not want women on committees.  A fortnight later he excelled himself by remarking on “the close resemblance of the Suffragette to the cuckoo”. The argument was joined by J. C. Forbes-Robertson, who headed his letter “The fun of physical torture”. Condemning the “filthy practices now going on in our prisons”, he deplored the fact that it was “the source of applause and much merriment of many of the Commons.”

Epilogue

Violet and Alice’s grandmother, Sophia Adams, had died at the Hotel Schneiderff, Florence, on 1 April 1831 and was buried in plot 48 of the Protestant Cemetery, known as the English Cemetery. The alphabetical register, which was compiled in 1877 when the cemetery was closed, lists the burial as

+EMILY SOPHIA (ABADAM) ADAMS/ ENGLAND/ Adams (Abadam)/ Emilia
Sofia/ /Inghilterra/ Firenze/ 1 Aprile/ 1831/ / 47
Edw. Abadam son fils,
Middleton Hall, Llanarthney Camarthenshire, South Wales. 1828-1844:
N° 48                    Le trois Avril mil huit trente un,
Adams                   Emilie Sophie Adams, Anglaise, décédée
à l’hôtel Schneiderff, à Florence, le premier
du même mois, a été ensevelie dans le
Cimetière de l’Eglise évangélique.-
Chs Recordon Pastr
No tombstone survives.
Sophia’s daughter Matilda, Violet’s mother, died in Florence in 1896 and was buried in the Allori cemetery, which was opened when the Swiss-owned English Cemetery was closed. Here also was buried Eugene’s little daughter Margaret Persis in 1904.

Fig. 5: Graves of Matilda Paget and Eugene Lee-Hamilton in the Allori Cemetery, Florence. The tablet in the foreground marks the burial of Violet’s ashes.

Eugene died three years later, in September 1907, and it was in his grave that Violet’s ashes were buried, hopefully with all resentment between them gone. The inscription on the Villa Il Palmerino is her true memorial.

Fig. 6: Memorial to Vernon Lee on her brother’s tomb

Alice died at her beloved nephew Ryle Morris’s home, Bryn Myrddin, Abergwili, on Low Sunday, 31 March 1940. According to the Platea of the Passionist Congregation, she had received the Last Sacrament some days before and “died peacefully […] on the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Blessed Lady, to whom she had a great devotion.”  Alice probably did not always endear herself to the Catholic hierarchy but in the words of H M Vaughan “ she was buried in the ground given to her by the former rector Father Germaine in recognition of her work for the Roman Catholic Church in Wales and in Carmarthen especially and there she will rest with her friend Dr Alice Johnson.”
The memorial bears no inscription referring to the important work both women did, for the poor, for women and the church.

Fig. 7:  Alice Abadam’s grave in St. Mary’s, Carmarthen

Alice Abadam and Violet Paget were in many ways very similar. As with most members of a class with money and leisure both were accomplished amateur painters. A set of competent watercolours of Italian landscapes by Violet can be seen in the winter 2007/08 of The Sibyl.  Alice apparently regretted never having trained as an artist and her sketchbooks show her skill. Although her landscapes are not as finished as Violet’s, they contain many excellent architectural studies.  She was an excellent musician; Violet’s last work was Music and its Lovers, published three years before her death. Alice might not have boasted the linguistic skills of her cousin, but having had French and German governesses and having visited her brother William’s family in France several times, another cousin thought that her knowledge of French was such that she could be considered to be a native speaker.
Both women were liberal in their politics.  Violet used the liberal press to bring her views before the English public. Her attitude towards the suffragette question was one of support for those who were in favour of allowing women the vote, but of reluctance to follow the ¬lead of the militants. “I do not like hooligan suffragettes […] I do like everything for which English Liberalism stands; and I should like to have a vote, or, failing that, to be able to say that I want one.”
Both were confirmed pacifists and watched with dismay the emergence of fascism. Much of Violet’s journalistic activity in the 1930s was concentrated on warning of the activities of the international ring of armament manufacturers and the support for war that was thus engendered and she lost stock in English intellectual circles after her pacifist stance in Satan the Waster. The approach of war in the late 1930s occupied Alice’s attention a great deal.

I see that a Czech Relief Fund is being opened by the News Chronicle, Beauvoir St, EC4 to come to the assistance of those wretched victims by whose misery we are being relieved. I have sent my mite at once for I would not have dared to have benefitted by their misery if I had not tried to help them too – and our benefit will be short lived too for Hitler like the bully he is has been encouraged by Chamberlain’s betrayal of Abyssinia, Spain, China and Czechoslovakia and will soon bully for further concessions.

Her hatred of war is clearly seen in other letters to her nephew Ryle Morris.  The Federated Council of Suffrage Societies, of which she was chairman in 1916, did not actively support the war effort.
They were both deeply interested in social matters. Alice had joined the WSPU and signed its joint manifesto with the Independent Labour Party for the 1906 election as an “Independent Socialist” and her interest in politics, education and music was maintained throughout her life. In a letter dated 3 October 1937 to her nephew Ryle Morris she writes “I have just finished Margaret Asquith’s autobiography” and in another she asks him to return two books as “I want to refer to them and also I do good by lending them to rich people who can’t afford to buy them”. On 11 November:
I rarely go to a film or anything of that sort, but the critics are making such a sensation over “Zola” that I think I must go to see it. It’s such a miracle of justice that poor Dreyfus after being condemned to the terrible Devil’s Island should be (by his wife’s appeal to Zola) re-tried and found innocent. It was always obvious that Dreyfus was a victim of political hatred.

She comments frequently on the education of her nephew’s daughter: “I hope she will not be taught to speak any German before she gets on with her French as learning German first destroys all hope of a good French accent.”
Alice was more outgoing, more interested in social life, at least in her younger days; Violet, although part of a wide circle of intellectual acquaintances, seemed to have few close friends. Remarkable for her boldly-expressed views, her distinctively European outlook and her unconventional lifestyle, Violet died convinced that her literary achievements were not fully appreciated, even though she was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters by Durham University in 1924. Regarded as one of the most brilliant and gifted women of her time, she was painfully aware of her isolation and lack of power as a writer.   It is well that she could not read her obituary:

If this gifted and learned writer never quite fulfilled her brilliant promise, and if much of her later work is ephemeral and some of it not a little obscure, still the best of her writings should survive among the most interesting of the literature of aesthetic criticism of the last 50 years.

It suited a rising generation of writers to view her as a relic of the literary past; it is only in the last ten years that there has been a resurgence of interest in Vernon Lee. But Alice knew that her work had borne fruit and that millions of women would be grateful to her and her fellow suffragists.

Alice Abadam’s papers were donated in 2006 by Mrs Margaret Vaughan, her great-niece, to The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University. [Ref 7ALA] As yet they have not been catalogued and are not available for study.

“La Voix d’esprit: Music, jouissance; Vernon Lee, Willa Cather”, by Raymond Garcia III

La Voix d’esprit: 
Music, Jouissance; Vernon Lee, Willa Cather

Raymond Garcia III

“The myth of the sirens […] reminds us of the jouissance of music, the pleasure of surrender and engulfment, and the fears of making bad choices under the influence of uncontrollable substances—and the dangers of dissolving a safe distance between self and other.” Linda Phyllis Austern (60)

Though separated by over a decade, differing interpretations of literary theory and technique, and the wide azure Atlantic Ocean, the English aesthetic author Vernon Lee and the American novelist Willa Cather both struggled with the understanding of not only the unconscious, but also the method by which the psyche might be unfettered and freed from societal ideologies of the sexed body. In Lee’s “A Wicked Voice” (1890) and Cather’s The Troll Garden (1905), characters experience symphonic and operatic music which not only haunts their psyches, but extends beyond the Pleasure Principle, thus resulting in a jouissance through which the protagonists are able to momentarily escape from the weight of physicality. Sigmund Freud would not introduce the principle of pleasure until the publishing of Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920. Likewise, Jacques Lacan would not reveal jouissance until after his seminar entitled “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis” (1959-1960). What this reveals is the proto-psychoanalysis which is already underway in women’s writings. The gap between Lee and Cather and Freud and Lacan however must be explained. What exactly was Lee and Cather’s purpose in demonstrating a proto-jouissant metaphysicality?
The English novelist Vernon Lee is mostly known for her supernatural tales, the best known being A Phantom Lover (1886), “A Wicked Voice” (1890), and “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” (1896). In “A Wicked Voice,” Magnus, an operatic composer seeking inspiration for his own work Ogier the Dane moves into the former home of Balthasar Cesari, the renowned castrato Zaffirino. After destroying Zaffirino’s portrait, Magnus is haunted by the voice of the deceased singer. For Magnus, the voice of Zaffirino not only represents the unattainable, it becomes a torture, a punishment for his own inability to discover his own imagined character. By the end of the story, Magnus becomes demented as a result of the effects of music, made mad by that which he seeks to dominate, the musical genius which awakens life and stifles the human construct.
Music and its later incorporation into early psychology was always an issue in Vernon Lee’s writing. In her first published work, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), Lee dedicated more than half of the text to the subject of music and theater, her most notable chapters being devoted to “The Musical Life” and “Metastasio and the Opera.” In Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions (1883), Vernon Lee writes,
To us music is no longer what it was to our grandfathers, a mere pleasing woof of meaningless pattern; we have left those times far behind, times whose great masters were prophets uttering mere empty sounds to their contemporaries; we have shaken off the dust of the schools of counterpoint, we have thrown aside the mechanical teachings of the art; for us music has become an audible, quivering fata morgana of life, the embodiment of the intangible, the expression of the inexplicable, the realisation [sic] of the impossible (106-107).

For a woman writer in the fin de siècle, sexual realization translated to primitive abandon, to being cast from the socially hegemonized Eden of England’s literary circles. However, her desire for sexual awareness still ruptures from beneath the surface of her novels and short stories.
Undoubtedly, some will question this hypothesis as to how Vernon Lee defines a female jouissance if the protagonist is male. It should be remembered that Vernon Lee often incorporated autobiographic information into her fictions. In the case of “A Wicked Voice,” Vernon Lee creates a protagonist based upon herself, utilizing her early life in Italy, in the company of John Sargent. Of Vernon Lee’s many early pleasures, the portrait of Carlo Broschi, or Farinelli (hung in the G. B. Martini Conservatory of Music) had a particular effect. Peter Gunn writes
It was [Farinelli] who sang the same three songs every night for ten years to ward off the incipient madness of Philip of Spain. The beauty of this picture fascinated, haunted them, and the desire to hear again one of these eighteenth century voices (a Farinelli or a Pacchierotti) became something of an obsession with Violet (61).
One might note that this sounds awfully familiar.  By incorporating this quotation into the reinterpretation of this text what results is a clear parallel between Violet Paget’s early life with Magnus and Zaffirino with Farinelli.  Yet, why would Vernon Lee choose to make her protagonist a man? For this answer, we must turn to Burdett Gardner’s The Lesbian Imagination. Throughout his work, Gardner mentions the semivir which generally means partially man.  It is Gardner’s opinion that Vernon Lee, Violet Paget’s superego, is a semivir—a partial man (316). Yet at the same time, “partially man” describes both Farinelli and the fictitious Zaffirino. Just as Zaffirino is castrated and thus recentered upon the mouth-as-womb, so Vernon Lee is partially masculinized, thus refocusing her procreative powers to her mouth as writer, as the symbolic womb.
Though much scholarship has been written concerning Lee’s supernatural tales and the author’s psychological hunger for the unnatural, almost nothing has been written discussing the issue of jouissance in Lee’s short story. Though Vernon Lee was ideologically opposed to the sexed body, “A Wicked Voice” still demonstrates the idea of a going beyond the physical, beyond the phallus as Jacques Lacan would say, extending to a more fundamental, primitive sexual identity—something Lee herself found to be the true terror of civilized society. Lee writes
Singer, thing of evil, stupid, and wicked slave of the voice, of that instrument which was not invented by the human intellect, but begotten of the body, and which, instead of moving the soul, merely stirs up the dregs of our nature! For what is the voice but the Beast calling, awakening that other Beast sleeping in the depths of mankind (125).
It is this external/internal transference which Lee unveils, the movement of the former (the singer’s voice) inward (into the listener’s body) and the movement of the latter (the listener’s jouissant response) outward. This in a sense mimics Nietzsche’s theory of Kunsttrieben—being artistic impulses. Yet, even with this reasoning exposed, fuller description of Lee’s two creations must be offered. In order to truly understand Vernon Lee’s depiction, one must first define the Beast and the other Beast.
Even before the writing of “A Wicked Voice,” Vernon Lee indulged in a unique interpretation of music which dwelt beyond the virtuosity and genius, and existed only in the textuality of voice, through ejaculatory tones emanating from the orifice which breathes and lives. For Vernon Lee, the result of such sensorial stimuli would be a grappling between what Friedrich Nietzsche deemed the Apollonian and the Dionysian (The Birth of Tragedy). In “On Vernon Lee, Wagner, and the Effects of Music” Carlo Caballero writes, quoting Roland Barthes, “As Barthes concludes, the singing voice acts on the body as a ‘lubricator,’ a coenesthetic fluid: music “possesses a special hallucinatory power […] it can effect orgasm”” (392).  If Barthes’ theory is correct, then beyond the cloth of societal ideology exists a primitive nakedness, the body which music lubricates, the fluid which brings about self-awareness. This nakedness and psychosexual rapture is not exclusive to “A Wicked Voice.”
In one of her previous works entitled Miss Brown (1884), Lee wrote,
Moreover, an incalculable amount of singing out of tune and pummeling one’s chest in moments of passion. No training, no dresses, no scenery, no orchestra. Still in this miserable performance there was an element of beauty and dignity, a something in harmony with the grand situation and glorious music (101-102).
Beyond the nakedness of the stage, which reflects the nakedness of the audience, there pulsates the singer’s voice which pervades its hearers with a shower of self-awareness, what René Árpád Spitz termed coenesthesia, what Vernon Lee possibly termed the metaphoric text or life-poem to borrow from Miss Brown. This calling beast is the first which Lee reveals, a behemoth or leviathan awakening from the depths of the flesh to heighten pleasure into pain, thus resulting in jouissance, the enjoyment of the flesh, what Lee deems that other Beast which rejoices in the mouth/womb and sexual renaissance of its victim. This embracing of the sexual self, though contrary to Vernon Lee’s own hypothesis of female sexuality and womanhood, can clearly be seen in “A Wicked Voice.”  When Magnus is confronted with the legend of Zaffirino, Lee writes “The most skilful physicians were kept unable to explain the mysterious malady which was visibly killing the poor young lady” (127-128).  It is this malady, a weakening of the thighs and beautiful agony (“les facettes de la Petite Mort”) of the spirit and mind that has stricken Lee’s characters. Through this moment of pleasure in pain, the character is delivered unto revelation, a gospel of the skin and nerves which reveals the true self, the apollonian/dionysian impulses of Magnus, devoid of social construct and fallacy.  It is the gospel according to Vernon Lee. “A Wicked Voice” is Lee’s own attempt at characterizing a new language for discussing what Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds deemed introvert sexuality (Sexual Inversion 1901) and the construct of womanhood.
For Magnus, a measurer of notes and tones and a scribe which subjugates abstractions and forces them into meter and octaves, the idea of sexual abandonment is a great fear. Orgasm, la petite mort, is not a danger because it is pleasure, because it is the little death; orgasm is dangerous because it represents the undoing of the construct, the shattering of the musical bars and metrics of Ogier the Dane and demonstrates the true opera at hand, the moaning revelation that Magnus is the music, is the instrument that must be played in order to salvage the living fragments of reality. Though this salvation means denying his abstinence of the flesh, becoming a hypocrite as it were, Magnus obliges willfully, showing only obligatory hesitation. Lee writes, “May I not hear one note, only one note of thine, O singer, O wicked and contemptible wretch?” (148). In order to maintain his individuation from society, Magnus must embrace the apollonian, must allow the music within him to well up and burst forth in celebration of the soul made flesh, and the flesh-made self. Just as Magnus loses his societal self, so does the author. Vineta Colby, a Vernon Lee biographer, writes regarding Music and Its Lovers (1932), “In her pursuit of the Apollonian, Vernon Lee came dangerously close to undermining her musical aesthetics” (223).  Just as Lee came close to rupturing her own musical theory forty years later, so it is clear that she experiences this same struggle in “A Wicked Voice.” Likewise, for Vernon Lee to reveal the sexed body, she would have to reveal the construct of herself as woman and as writer. This is the danger which the novelist must fear. For Vernon Lee to release herself through her character, she would have to expose her own psychosexual need for release.
After Magnus’ daunting adventure fleeing the music of Zaffirino, he relents, “[Zaffirino] was killing this woman, and killing me also, with his wicked voice” (146).  If Magnus’ death was indeed true death from which there is no relief, then how and why does Magnus survive? In Lee’s topsy-turvy, supernatural world, Magnus is not saved from death and given life, Magnus is saved from life and given death. For Lee, fin de siècle life was tantamount to artificiality, to the social hegemonic construct. It is only through death, through ejaculation and orgasm, that the character is offered true life, is offered a hidden path into his own psychosexual existence.
By experiencing la petite mort through the castrato’s music, Magnus is forever changed. Though well-wishers would come, offering support and good will, hoping for a swift recovery, Magnus would never recover. Lee writes:
Recovery? But have I recovered? I walk, and eat and drink and talk; I can even sleep.  I live the life of other living creatures.  But I am wasted by a strange and deadly disease.  I can never lay hold of my own inspiration.  My head is filled with music which is certainly by me, since I have never heard it before, but which still is not my own, which I despise and abhor    (147)
Though she grapples with the Dionysian and Apollonian, attempting to come to a singular conclusion, Vernon Lee understands the transcendental quality of musical experience—that the listener and hearer are forever marked by it. In Music and its Lovers; An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses To Music (1932) Lee writes, “Music acts as a liberation of the spirit, a refreshment, a purification, a renovation, a spiritual bath, a journey into tremendous and mysterious regions, or modestly, something akin to a day in the country” (97-98). If her words remain true earlier in her career, even during the writing of “A Wicked Voice,” then her musical aesthetic remains the same.  Magnus’ spiritual bath, his journey into tremendous and mysterious regions remains eternally with him.  Magnus’ trek into the musical, psychosexual realm leaves him marked. He has reached the apex of sexual awareness and as a result must eternally be changed within the social construct. Magnus knows that even though those around believe him recovered, he, however, knows the truth—that beneath the surface of normality, within the boundaries of normative living, there exists an alternate state of wholeness of the spirit and flesh made one. This unity of the sexed self is what Lee deems the strange and deadly disease. An interesting feature of the aforementioned passage from “A Wicked Voice” is the use of the word deadly. Is the disease which she imagines a disease of the psychosexual body or is it an allusion to something altogether different? Perhaps her use of deadly does not infer finality or ending, but returns to la petite mort, the little death, the little deadly. Perhaps Lee’s passage truly reads more like: ‘I am languorous (“wasted”) by a strange and orgasmic (“deadly”) event (“disease”)’ (147).
If this interpretation is sound, then the next structural step would be to determine its use. For the impotent Magnus as characterized by his loss of inspiration, sexual realization translates to a confrontation with the self, a standing before the speculum (to borrow from Luce Irigaray)—the mirror which reveals the sexed and the body. As a result, Magnus, who could not achieve inspiration, comes to the realization that he himself is the inspiration, that he must play himself like an instrument in order to become one with the music swelling within.
He must become the font of ecstasy which resides within all human beings, a beast feeding another beast, a sexual thirst which quenches itself in autoeroticism. Thus, it is clear that for Vernon Lee, this inner being, this wildness within, this strange and deadly disease is nothing more than a rupture of the primitive from the smooth calm of social construction.
Though Willa Cather may seem unconnected to Vernon Lee, she in fact had a history of studying the writings of certain women writers who could be characterized as dealing with sexual identity: among them Julia Ward Howe (The Hermaphrodite); and Susan Coolidge (The Barberry Bush). In her biography Willa Cather: the Emerging Voice, Sharon O’Brien remarks, “If we extend the circle [of literary figures whom Cather knew] we find among her correspondents most of the women writers of the day […] Violet Paget (Vernon Lee) ” (339). If O’Brien’s research is correct, then it is possible to argue that Willa Cather had indeed read Vernon Lee’s musical theories as found in Studies of the Eighteen Century in Italy, Music and its Lovers and potentially in private letters as well.  Likewise, it could be argued that Cather was influenced by Vernon Lee’s musical aestheticism as found throughout her short story “A Wicked Voice.” If this were true, then perhaps the unique characters of The Troll Garden are in fact kaleidoscopic echoes of characters which Willa Cather had been introduced to in the works of her predecessors.
Just as Vernon Lee attempted a decade prior, Willa Cather also attempted to incorporate a new language for something which was barely becoming visible in psychology. However, whereas Vernon Lee’s appreciation for music is rooted in her passion for aestheticism, Cather’s is rooted in her own early experiences with music, notably her years at the University of Nebraska where she joined up with a “lively cultural scene which featured, after drama, a number of local and traveling musical offerings” (Giannone 3). Though Lee’s language is somewhat unique, the concept and power of jouir is maintained even in Willa Cather’s anthology The Troll Garden. Among these short stories, all of which contain some aspect of the Apollonian or Dionysian, two pieces pronounce most boldly Cather’s vision of the sexed body: “A Death in the Desert” and “A Wagner Matinée.”
In “A Death in the Desert,” Everett Hilgarde visits the dying Katharine Gaylord as an ambassador as it were from his own brother Adriance whose musical career keeps him afar in Europe. Though once a singer herself, Katharine is dying from a disease which hinders her singing and wastes her away from the inside out. Cather writes, “The long, loose folds of her white gown had been especially designed to conceal the sharp outlines of her emaciated body, but the stamp of her disease was there; simple and ugly and obstrusive, a pitiless fact that could not be disguised or evaded” (68).  Finally, Everett plays and sings a portion of Adriance’s new opera Proserpine after which “a ghost of the old, brave, cynical” Katharine is revived (77). Katharine eventually passes away after the concert, still fantasizing Adriance’s presence and Everett’s non-existence. Just as Lee’s character Magnus was haunted by Zaffirino’s voice, Cather’s characters are constantly surrounded by the haunting music of Adriance. Whereas Lee’s characters are separated by time, Cather’s are separated by space—Adriance being in Europe, while Everett and Katharine are in the “monotonous country between Holdridge and Cheyenne” (61).
Even before reading the short story, there are signs of a double entendre within the title—“A Death in the Desert.”  If the connection between death and la petite mort is continued into Cather’s text, then a new interpretation is revealed, one which does not focus on the slow emaciation and death of a listless singer, but one which focuses on the sexually denied body, starving for psychosexual sustenance which music can provide. Though Richard Giannone is convinced that Katharine Gaylord is being consumed by tuberculosis, it seems as though Cather’s intention is much deeper, focusing on the metaphysical little death of a former singer, a former minister of the little death. Concerning her condition, Cather only offers symptoms such as emaciation and depression. These do not seem indicative of lung disease but of something much more psychopathological. Perhaps Cather is describing an episode of Charcotian hysteria. Only then would it seem more understandable for her to remark,
He made no attempt to analyse the situation or to state it in exact terms; but he felt Katharine Gaylord’s need for him, and he accepted it as a commission from his brother to help this woman to die. Day by day he felt her demands on him grow more imperious, her need for him grow more acute and positive; and day by day he felt that in his peculiar relation to her, his own individuality played a smaller and smaller part.(74)
Had Everett attempted to analyze Katharine’s condition, he would have found the same–that through his post-orgasmic exhaustion (as signified by the music he sings, a metaphor for ejaculation), she grew stronger and more alive, that through Adriance’s voice sung through Everett, Katharine would  “[close] her eyes with a long-drawn sigh of relief” (79). If Katharine’s disease were lung disease, then how exactly can one attain relief through music? Instead of centering this disease upon the lungs and therefore the inhibited voice, perhaps scholars should consider focusing her sustenance not only as the result of the pulmonary system but also as a result of psychosexuality. Katharine’s death is not excruciatingly tormenting but ends with an orgasmic sigh, a release of not only the kempt up sexed self but also of the soul being released not through the mouth, but through the mouth/womb, what some modern radical feminists (such as Cherrie Moraga and Inga Muscio) deem the cunt.
This mouth/womb metaphor can be seen in Adriance’s opera Proserpine which undoubtedly is a retelling of the Greek legend of the rape of Persephone the daughter of Ceres by Hades, god of the underworld and of the dead. Katherine has become a Persephone, one who was once sexually alive in the former half of her life and is now dead in the womb in the latter half; she cannot create life through her singing or her genitals. Instead, she has become “an earthen vessel in love with a star”—her womb has become a dried up, clay bowl (the pudendum) desirous of insemination (by the penetrating music of Adriance) (70). The dried up vessel therefore leads to yet a deeper aspect of Katherine’s psychosis. She has become dried up as the land about her, though she is in the land of the living, Katherine/Proserpine dwells in the land of the dead, a death in the desert.
In playing with the opera Proserpine, what is revealed is the same construct which Vernon Lee employed in “A Wicked Voice,” being the creation of a living world that is dead and a dead world that is living. In other words, the real, physical world is in fact dead and the metaphysical, psychosexual world is in fact alive. Thus, no matter Katherine’s location, she is always surrounded by the dead, the hollowed men (to borrow from T. S. Eliot).  Even if she were permitted to die in Harlem (as to her request), she would still be enveloped with the abstract life-in-death.  Everett is hollowed by the power of Adriance’s music. Through the short story, Everett is erased and supplanted by the echoes of Adriance’s image and voice. Likewise, Adriance himself becomes hollow. Though his music is alive, the character itself is not present, existing in a space outside of the text, living in a Europe which is not truly presented in the short story.
Yet, what exists which can fill the body with life? By incorporating a psychosexual coitus in her vision of music, Cather creates a character which abstractly is penetrated by the power of music and the power of the living voice.  Though the vessel of the voice may be within life-in-death, the voice itself emanates, pulsates, even throbs. As it pervades the body, it enlivens it, it restores to it that which has been lost. Katherine thus becomes a vessel not only for the abstract seed of music, but becomes a vessel for the land itself. Through her musical insemination, Katherine revitalizes the landscape of her body, the desert itself personified. She becomes alive in the moment of death; “the madness of art” which Cather describes as “over for Katherine” has restored her to the living, metaphysical realm (82).
Though this one story may seem by itself inconclusive, being that Willa Cather wrote nearly sixty short stories and six books, the utilization of yet a second text to corroborate these findings will add more conclusiveness. Only two stories later in The Troll Garden, Cather employs the same technique and ideology in characterizing Aunt Georgiana. In “A Wagner Matinée,” Cather creates yet another narrative in which music revives the dead, brings life to the lifeless and death to the living.
Just as landscape and the sexed body are important to “A Death in the Desert,” so Aunt Georgiana’s country home becomes vital in understanding the origins of her own sexual famine. Instead of locating Georgiana above ground, Cather buries her in the Nebraskan dirt. She writes, “They built a dugout in the red hillside, one of those cave dwellings whose inmates so often reverted to primitive conditions” (103). Whereas in O Pioneers! (1913) these primitive conditions represented a return to the womb, for Aunt Georgiana and her musical past, the dugout represents a burying of the psychosexual self, a place where the body and soul may rot, pinned down by domesticity and societal bonds. Thus, for “A Wagner Matinee,” the dugout represents the sterilized womb, the womb which has been cut, sewn up, and clitorectomized.
Prior to her marriage, Aunt Georgiana was “a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory,” a prestigious school famous for being one of the first to open its doors to women and African Americans (103). Because of her marriage and her  so-called marital duties to her husband, she abandoned her musical career and chose thirty years of isolation (not only locally but sexually as well). As the result of time and endurance, the vibrant, young, psychosexually fertile woman becomes disfigured:
her shoulders were now almost bent together over her sunken chest. […] She wore ill-fitting false teeth, and her skin was as yellow as a Mongolian’s from constant exposure to a pitiless wind and to the alkaline water which hardens the most transparent cuticle into a sort of flexible leather (103-104).
Like Katherine Gaylord’s consumed body, Georgiana’s vibrancy and love of music are sacrificed for the sake of social ideology. Cather writes, “Don’t love [music] so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you. Oh! dear boy, pray that whatever your sacrifice may be, it be not that” (104). Because she has seemingly sacrificed her life’s only passion, she is transformed from a living being into an hegemonized automaton skinned over with tanned human leather. Yet buried deep within this socially obliging character, dwells a hidden self, a sexually charged self which can only be unleashed with music, through the sexual restoration of her deformed body.
When Clark escorts Aunt Georgiana to the theater at two o’clock, a time when Georgiana would undoubtedly be tending to housework, she becomes “a trifle less passive and inert, and for the first time seemed to perceive her surroundings” (105). In seeing her surroundings, Georgiana is graced with an epiphany of much more than the simple theater around her. In the climactic “Begluckt darf nun dich” of Wagner’s Tannhauser, Georgiana’s true form is revealed to not only Clark and the countless women in the audience, but also to herself. The leather skin begins to fall away to reveal the true Georgiana, a woman emblazoned by the fire of the voice of body and soul. Cather writes, “Then it was I first realized that for [Aunt Georgiana] this broke a silence of thirty years; the inconceivable silence of the plains” (107). In this moment, Georgiana is sexually awakened from the societal torpor of domesticity. When she clutches her nephew’s coat sleeve, she arrives at self-awareness through arousal, filling every inch of her body, identifying its boundaries and defining her; she reaches out in need of an anchor, the lack of which would result in total abandon. In her sighs and quickly drawn breaths, Georgiana experiences jouissance (108). Like Katharine from “A Death in the Desert,” Georgiana becomes “a shallow vessel overflow[ing] in a rain storm” (109). The drought ends. The famine ceases. For a brief moment, Georgiana lives. At the “ripping of the strings” of violins and of the countless bodices in the audience, the universal woman as signified the Wagnerites becomes released, becomes alive, no longer being torn from her true identity, but from the leather skin, the asphyxiating bodice, the titles and names which in and of themselves describe nothing more than the epithets of domestic slavery.  In this moment of jouissance, in this moment of tingling life, Cather as a prophetess of women reveals the path by which one may ascend towards the higher self, the self not torn in two at the junction of self and society, that liminal space through which countless are subjugated and remanded to obeisance.
In Le Séminaire, Livre X: L’angoisse, Jacques Lacan writes, “Once it is known, once something of the Real comes to be known, there is something lost; and the surest way to approach this something lost, is to conceive of it as a fragment of the body” (115). When society chose to condemn characters like Katherine and Georgiana to the title of unsexed woman or wife or hysteric, their true identities were erased, cast off like fragments, like old skins. For Katherine, this meant enduring a disease which slowly stole her breath away. For Georgiana, this meant being forced to endure the stifling yellowed leather suit, forced to endure the loud silence of the Nebraskan countryside. In the stories of The Troll Garden what Willa Cather demonstrates is not only the continuation of slavery, but its expansion into the psychosexual realm. Katherine and Georgiana are slaves not only of society but of the delusions perpetuated by those women who are in accordance with hegemonic forces. It is music, that which does not speak but speaks, that which does not expound ideology but simply is, through which these women are freed, through which the stitches silencing their wombs are broken, through which the autoerotic clitoris is restored and the flesh revivified.
Thomas Carlyle wrote in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1897),
The meaning of Song goes deep.  Who is there that, in logical words, can express the effect music has on us? A kind of inarticulate unfathomable speech, which leads us to the edge of the Infinite, and lets us for moments gaze into that (114).
In allowing for jouissance in their characters, Vernon Lee and Willa Cather attempted to articulate this unfathomable speech, to create a new dimension for women’s sexuality and psychology. Lee’s Magnus and unnamed princess, Cather’s Katherine and Georgiana are only ever alive when music pervades their bodies, when the universal harmonies radiate through their flesh and spirits. As O’Brien remarks in Cather’s biography, “Music, then represents the spiritual bond between creator and the receiver,” between the incorporeal spirit and the mundane flesh, between the psyche and the sexed body (7). Thus, jouissance becomes the symbol of this psychophysical event, this meeting of immortal and mortal.  Jouissance becomes the liminal space upon which identity is formed. Through jouissance one can attain identity freed from societal, oppressive ideologies.  Through embracing the sexed self, one may attain one’s self, gaze into the speculum and see one’s self and nothing more.

Works Cited

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Carlyle, Thomas. Heroes and Hero-Worship. Vol. V. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
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– – -. “A Wagner Matinée.” Cather: Novels & Short Stories 1905-1918.  Des
Moines: The Library of America, 1999: 102-110. Print.
Colby, Vineta. Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography. Charlottesville: University of Virginia
Press, 2003. Print.
Gardner, Burdett.  The Lesbian Imagination (Victorian Style): A Psychological and
Critical Study of “Vernon Lee.” New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1987.
Giannone, Richard. Music in Willa Cather’s Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press, 1968. Print.
– – -. “Music, Silence, and the Spirituality of Willa Cather.” Renascence. 57.2 (2005):
123-150. Print.
Gunn, Peter. Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856-1935. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Lacan, Jacques.  Le Séminaire, Livre X: L’angoisse. Unpublished Gallagher translation,
n.d.
Lee, Vernon. Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions. London: T Fisher
Unwin, 1887. Print.
– – -. Miss Brown. Vol. 1. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1884. Print.
– – -. Music and Its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses
to Music. London: Unwin Brothers, 1933. Print.
– – -. “A Wicked Voice.” Hauntings: Fantastic Stories. New York: Cosimo, 2009: 123-
148. Print.
O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1987. Print.

Vernon Lee et la Beauté : pour une esthétique féministe et humaniste engagée

Vernon Lee et la Beauté :
pour une esthétique féministe et humaniste engagée

« Anyone who inspects the history of European philosophy since the Enlightenment, must be struck by the curiously high priority assigned by it to the aesthetic question. » Terry Eagleton.

Profondément marquée par la dualité d’une époque résolument matérialiste mais en quête de spiritualité, « Vernon Lee » (Violet Paget, 1856-1935) consacra sa vie à l’analyse de la création artistique, de la réception de l’œuvre d’art et de l’impact de la beauté sur l’être humain.
Ces interrogations sur la beauté et les mécanismes psychologiques et physiologiques à l’œuvre dans la contemplation esthétique sont alors dans l’air du temps ; ce sont questions sensibles, âpement débattues. On sait, par exemple, les polémiques autour de la conclusion de Walter Pater à ses Studies in the History of the Renaissance : « To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life ».
A Fiesole, chez elle à la Villa Il Palmerino, ou à la Villa I Tatti chez son voisin Bernard Berenson, ou à Friday’s Hill chez les Logan Smith, ou bien à Cambridge (Mass.), au 95 Irving Street chez William James –en vérité partout où elle séjourne–, Vernon Lee se nourrit des dernières publications scientifiques, prend position dans les débats du temps relatifs à l’esthétique et à l’éthique , et partage ses réflexions avec ses proches. Il ne sera question ici que des plus familiers : Walter Pater, William et Henry James, Bernard Berenson, Mary Berenson, Clementina (« Kit ») Anstruther-Thomson, Logan Pearsall Smith, Bertrand Russell.
Dès sa première publication, elle s’illustre dans ce domaine, avec les très remarquées Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), puis la cinquantaine d’essais (Juvenilia, The Beautiful, Renaissance Fancies and Studies, Music and its Lovers, Beauty and Ugliness, The Handling of Words, Le Rôle de l’élément moteur dans la perception esthétique visuelle), de dialogues philosophiques (Euphorion, Baldwin, Belcaro, Althea, Hortus Vitae), de fictions artistiques et autres histoires de « culture-ghosts » (« Winthrop’s Adventure », etc.).
Lee s’y approprie la dichotomie nietzschéenne de l’art en ses deux versants opposés, apollinien et dionysiaque, puis la dépasse en une esthétique transcendentale et mystique (Genius loci ; empathie) proche du système william-jamesien qui tourne le dos à Freud et ouvre le champ de la phénoménologie, à commencer par celle de Bergson. Pour autant, femme et victorienne, Lee se heurte à la question du plaisir esthétique –moral ? amoral ? plutôt immoral selon elle—lié à la place du corps féminin dans l’art. Cette auto-censure largement inconsciente la limite dans sa quête de reconnaissance au sein d’un milieu essentiellement masculin défendant paradoxalement des positions patriarcales.

Esthéticisme et profanation de la beauté féminine

C’est au nom d’une conception humaniste de la Beauté que Lee critique ouvertement les « Esthéticistes » et leur usage immoral et irresponsable de l’art. Si la laideur du monde moderne est le symptôme de sa corruption, et si la beauté est le signe de la bonté, éthique et esthétique sont liées : la quête de la beauté est indissociable de la quête du Bien et du Bon.
Lee vocifère donc contre les œuvres laides produites par « this scrofulous English art » à la sortie d’une exposition en 1883,  quand elle n’exprime pas son dégoût à la vue de la Veronica Veronese de Dante Gabriel Rossetti :

They are half-lengths of women: one a vile caricature, with goitry throat, red hair & German housemaid sentiment, of Mrs Stillman, called “Veronica Veronese”—the others mainly of Mrs. Morris, making her look as if her face were covered with illshaven stubble, & altogether repulsive. The best is one of Lilith, a vealy woman […] in white with sealing wax lips & red ornaments. The pictures seem to me not merely ill painted & worse modelled, but coarse & repulsive; & to make mere painted harlots of women like Mrs Stillman & Mrs Morris requires a good deal. […] What particularly afflicted me in the Rossettis is the frightful discrepancy between the morbid coarseness of his paintings & the Dantesque delicacy of his poems.

Ouvertement hostile à l’Esthéticisme, Lee voit en Whistler, rencontré le 12 juin 1894, « a mean, nagging spiteful sniggling little black thing, giving no indication of genius. »  Quant aux Esthètes parisiens :
these people have stiff manners & extraordinary elegancies of speech. They all talk of Baudelaire as if he were the last new thing; and expatiate upon an article of Brunetière against him, as if it were the most important thing in the world. Sum total, literary mediocrity is the same all over the world.

Même l’esprit du « merveilleux Oscar Wilde » fait les frais de ses moqueries : « the Wonderful Oscar Wilde was brought up –the Postlewaite of Punch. […] He talked a sort of lyrico-sarcastic maudlin cultschah for half an hour. »
Lee dénonce les excès, l’artifice et la mauvaise foi des Esthètes, notamment des Pré-Raphaélites. L’art ne devrait jamais être cultivé pour lui-même et indépendamment de la vie réelle: « Art for Art’s sake is like having […] food for food’s sake; it’s a cutting down of the problems, making it manageable for some manipulation. »

The world is getting uglier and uglier outside us ; we must, out of the materials bequeathed to us by former generations, and with the help of our own fancy, build for ourselves a little world within the world, a world of beauty, where we may live with our friends.

Ainsi s’exprime dans Miss Brown Walter Hamlin, incarnation de ce que Lee déteste chez les esthètes, ces « frères » –membres de la Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood  ou Apostles de Cambridge– enfermés dans leur tour d’ivoire, apôtres d’une religion de l’art et de la haute culture réservée à une élite auto-proclamée.
Consciente, comme ses amis socialistes William Morris et George Bernard Shaw, de la fonction sociale, économique et politique de l’art et du rôle de l’artiste dans la cité, Lee, qui anime des cours du soir pour les ouvrières lors de son voyage en Ecosse et se montre sensible aux épreuves endurées par la classe ouvrière et solidaire avec les femmes de toutes conditions, estime que les esthètes qu’elle côtoie abusent de leur pouvoir.

I know the sort of poets you mean. They are the folk who say that things are pure or impure, holy or foul, according as we view them. They are not the brutal, straightforward, naturalistic school; they are the mystico-sensual. Of the two, they are infinitely the worse. […] They call brute desire passion, and love lust, and prostitution marriage, and the body the soul. Oh ! I know them ; they are the worst pests we have in literature.

Selon Christa Zorn, « [i]n Miss Brown, Lee] explores the moral responsibilities of the artist towards the public in an era of growing mass audience » and « show[s] what aestheticism might look like from among the lower classes. »
Loin d’être un marginal sans impact réel sur la société, l’artiste détient le secret d’un pouvoir considérable dont il doit user avec précaution, en ayant conscience de l’aspect éthique et politique de sa fonction.
La fiction leeienne est peuplée de personnages emblématiques de ces interrogations. Ainsi, dans le conte « Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady »,  le grand-père du jeune prince est un vieux potentat efféminé d’une vanité caricaturale. Son maquillage outrancier, les arabesques de sa parure exotique, ses poses hiératiques de pseudo-dandy: tout révèle sa quête dénaturée d’une beauté exclusivement artificielle, donc mauvaise.  Mais sa métamorphose en une statue mortuaire, l’image hallucinée du barbier coiffant avec volupté la perruque aux longues boucles blanches du grand-père décapité, expriment la mort, la violence, la cruauté inhérentes à sa réification névrotique de l’humain. L’effacement des traits de son visage correspond à la perte d’identité à laquelle s’expose l’esthète cruel dans un univers caractérisé par l’instabilité de repères labiles (vie-mort, animal-minéral, masculin-féminin, nature-culture).
De même, dans « A Wedding chest »,  Lee construit un musée fictionnel sur lequel elle fonde sa critique radicale de la réification des femmes par le regard esthétisant d’hommes pour qui désir et cruauté sont liés : le coffre nuptial n’est autre que le cercueil de la mariée martyre, représentation métonymique et symbolique du destin tragique de la jeune fille qu’il contient. L’ « économie de l’ekphrasis » pratiquée par Lee souligne « l’analogie entre le rapt [suivi du viol et de l’assassinat] de Monna Maddalena et l’achat du cassone » par Messire Troilo Baglioni […] Le coffre nuptial devenu le cercueil de la jeune épousée symbolise la valeur ambiguë attachée à la beauté féminine et à la virginité. »
Lee prend ici pour cible les « connoisseurs » et le développement de la critique d’art en Europe, qui firent du culte du bel objet et des curios le point de départ d’un trafic qui profita aux collectionneurs fortunés, décrit par Samuels, biographe de B. Berenson, comme « the enlightened, if wholesale, plunder of Italian art and […] the migration of European masterpieces to the New World on an undreamed-for scale. »
Comme le rappelle Anthony Teets:

Lee voices this opinion in her essay « Botticelli at the Villa Lemmi, » where she protests the removal of original Botticelli frescoes from a Tuscan farmhouse. Describing this as « modern Vandalism, » she complains of the « habit of removing works of art from their natural surroundings in order to place them in a kind of artificial stony Arabia of vacuity and ugliness. I should call this the modern gallery-and-concert tendency […] a sort of triumph of civilization.

Dans Miss Brown (1884), esthéticisme et vice sont liés, au point que Lee semble faire écho aux diatribes réactionnaires d’un R. Buchanan.

It is time, they [Rossetti and the Pre Raphaelites] say, that the simple and natural delights of the Body should be sung as holy ; it is unbearable, they echo, that purists should object to the record of sane pleasures of sense ; it is just, they reiterate, that Passion should have its poetry and the Flesh its vindication.

Anne Brown est choquée par « the touchiness, the morbidness, the disgusting fleshliness, the intolerance of the esthetes around her, or made to laugh by their affectations, their vanity, their inconsistencey, their grotesque manias of wickedness and mysticism ».  Le choc s’accompagne de dégoût, d’horreur et de honte (« a sense of horror and self-debasement »)  lorsque son mentor lui fait comprendre la véritable nature de ses désirs envers elle: « this love […] was the most precious (because the most refined) aesthetic lust of a selfish aesthetic voluptuary ».
On sait que ce roman à clef brouilla Lee avec tous ses proches à commencer par Henry James, à qui elle l’avait dédié, et qui lui reproche :

You take the aesthetic business too seriously, too tragically, and above all with too great an implication of sexual motives […] you have impregnated all those people too much with the sexual, the basely erotic preoccupation : your hand hand has been violent, the touch of life is lighter […] perhaps you have been too much in a moral passion ! »

En vérité, fascinée par le génie de l’artiste capable de capter le genius loci et de déclencher des passions de toutes natures, Lee est hantée par la question de la source vive de la création artistique. L’artiste est-il démiurge, sorcier, thaumaturge ? La Beauté nous élève-t-elle, ou bien nous plonge-t-elle dans les Enfers où la Bête est enchaînée ? Torturée par le sentiment aigu de la dualité de son propre amour pour la Beauté, Lee s’interroge en une introspection douloureuse :

Here I am accused of having, in simplicity of heart, written, with a view to moralize the world, an immoral book […] I say to myself, « What if these people were right, or at least nearer to the truth than I ? » […] am I not perhaps mistaking that call of the beast for the call of God ; may there not, at the bottom of this seemingly scientific, philanthropic, idealising, decidedly noble-looking nature of mine, lie something base, dangerous, disgraceful that is cozening me ?

On voit ici à quel point la place du corps et la question du plaisir sont sources d’angoisse, voire d’horreur, pour elle. Consciente depuis sa découverte des travaux de Théodule Ribot (Affective Memory, 1880) de la réaction psycho-physiologique de l’être humain à la beauté et de l’impact émotionnel et organique de celle-ci, Lee cherchera tout au long de sa vie à dissocier la notion de plaisir esthétique de celle, entachée d’immoralité pour la Victorienne qu’elle est, de plaisir tout court.
C’est à propos de la musique que sa résistance au vitalisme esthétique de la fin-de-siècle est la plus marquée et donnera lieu à des recherches d’une théorie susceptible de réconcilier le corps, l’âme et l’esprit, le monde sensible et la transcendance. La musique apparaît comme un remède toxique, un pharmakon capable de guérir ou de tuer, administré par des musiciens (par exemple ses compositeurs wagnériens et ses musici) qui sont autant de pharmakos élevés par leur art à une dimension sacralisée, mais aliénés corps et âme par cette puissance d’origine démoniaque qu’ils ne peuvent pas toujours contrôler.
Intermédiaire entre les dieux et les hommes, médium entre les morts et les vivants, le musicien, sorcier, nécromancien, gardien de la tradition, prophète, ou trickster, ouvre des correspondances entre le réel et l’imaginaire, le visible et l’invisible, le profane et le sacré, le visible et l’audible. Son pouvoir évocateur et invocateur arrache les âmes à la mort et aux puissances infernales ; son art accompagne et ordonne (ordre se dit kosmos en grec) les rituels humains, sociaux, politiques, religieux.
Certains musiciens doivent leur talent au pacte avec le diable (voir Zaffirino) qui dote leur jeu d’un pouvoir satanique de séduction, d’effroi, contraint l’auditeur à des gestes compulsifs: « les oreilles n’ont pas de paupières » (Merleau-Ponty). Les compositeurs maudits de Lee l’apprennent a leurs dépends. Hantés par une partition (« Winthrop »), un air, un portrait (« La voix maudite »), ils sombrent dans une mélo-manie qui les épuise et les tue. D’autres sont possédés par leur instrument : autonome, il s’anime pour danser (« Winthrop »), se venger, se plaindre ou tuer (la voix est un « violon de chair et de sang » selon Lee). Simple émetteur d’une musique à l’origine douteuse, le musicien-médium sera finalement sacrifié lors de la transe dionysiaque qu’il a déclenchée.
La musique de Wagner, ce « sorcerer », ce « necromancer », la fascine et l’irrite.  Elle voit dans l’opposition entre la musique de Wagner et celle de Mozart, de Gluck ou de Haendel la manifestation du contraste entre l’apollinien et le dionysiaque tels que Nietzsche les définit dans Naissance de la tragédie grecque.  L’élément dionysiaque est caractérisé par « chaos, cruelty, sexual abandon, and excess » et trouve son origine dans « the need for thrills, for stimulation of our torpid attention and thick-skinned sympathy, and for narcotic production of blissful dreams ».  La « musique dionysiaque », pour satisfaire ces besoins, utilise « the overwhelming power of sound, the unified flow of melody and the utterly incomparable world of harmony. »

To [Nietzsche] the word […] was essentially the response, almost the reflex, the impatient, violent, contemptuous and often self-contemptuous venting and easing of his inner distress, of his instability, soreness and frenzy. To such, as he called himself, a Dionysiac man, and to all mankind in its Dionysiac moods, the word is a cry, sometimes a curse, at best an invocation of the unattainable. And being such, the Dionysiac word, like all Dionysiac art, may, for a moment, relieve by bringing to a head the misery of life or stir life’s lethal sluggishness to change and hope.

A l’opposé, l’élément apollinien est caractérisé par « vision, […] illusion, beauty, restraint, and clarity »  et la musique apollinienne considérée par Nietzsche comme « simply Doric architecture transmuted into sounds ».  L’appollinien fait appel à notre entendement et mobilise notre capacité à établir un lien avec la transcendance ; il constitue selon Lee « an instrument of lucid truthful vision, of healing joy, and perchance even of such prophesy as makes itself come true. »
La difficulté pour Lee, prophétesse de l’apollinien, consiste à accepter son propre sensualisme esthétique afin de pouvoir puiser sans crainte ni contrainte aux sources dionysiaques sans s’y perdre. « Women achieve greater creativity by braving an encounter with their own creative power, their own Medusa. »

Du plaisir dans l’art : des « valeurs tactiles » au plaisir (« life-enhancing values ») et à l’empathie (« Einfühlung »)

La question de l’émotion esthétique a déjà posée par Walter Pater dans The Renaissance :

To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible […] is the aim of the true student of aesthetics. […] What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure ? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure ? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence ?

Elle agite le cercle de V. Lee, ce dont témoigne la correspondance de Mary Berenson : « Bertie [Bertrand Russell] and I [Mary]  are at hammer and tongs over thy theory of pleasure which he begs to dispute in toto, basing himself upon the more recent psychologists ».  Ces débats passionnés entraîneront une brouille de 25 ans (1897-1932) entre B. Berenson et V. Lee.
C’est dans Florentine Painters of the Renaissance (1896), le deuxième ouvrage de la série consacrée aux peintres italiens,  que B. Berenson présente sa théorie des « valeurs tactiles » (« tactile values ») :
Confronted with a two-dimensional surface, [the painter] can give « an abiding sense of artistic reality » only « by giving tactile values to retinal impressions, » that is to say, by evoking the sense of depth, of the third dimension, by visually arousing the sense of touch, the original source of depth perception. The painter needed to produce in the observer « the illusion of being able to touch a figure […] the illusion of varying muscular sensations inside my palm and fingers corresponding to the various projections of this figure before I shall take it for granted as real, and let it affect me lastingly.

Autrement dit, cet effet de volume en trois dimensions « lends a higher coefficient to the object represented, with the consequent enjoyment of accelerated psychical processes, and the exhilarating sense of increased capacity in the observer. »
Cette théorie relative à la peinture concernait initialement d’autres arts : la musique et la sculpture. Berenson avait été impressionné par The Power of Sound (1880), de Gurney,  et la définition de la sculpture par Ruskin (« sculpture is essentially the production of a pleasant bossiness or roundness of surface »).  Ajoutons aux influences majeures l’analyse des problèmes psychologiques et physiologiques de la perception développée par William James dans ses cours et dans ses Principles of Psychology (1890).  Le concept d’« idéation », processus par lequel nos idées découlent de nos perceptions physiques et des sensations « tactiles » qui peuvent y être associées, attire particulièrement l’attention de Berenson, selon son biographe :

These passages Berenson carefully marked with his pencil as he mulled over their implications for the study of art, implications that he would finally express in a memorable section of The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance.

Les « valeurs tactiles » décrites par Berenson conditionnent le plaisir esthétique,   ou plus exactement ce qu’il nomme « life-enhancing values » : « All art pleasure is due to a feeling of life-enhancement, itself produced by an acceleration of ordinary processes or perception. »
De quels processus ou réactions s’agit-il ?  Pour V. Lee et Anstruther-Thomson, qui arpentent musées et galeries d’art en observant et en notant soigneusement leurs propres réactions musculaires et physiologiques au contact des œuvres d’art, appliquant ainsi une méthode expérimentale inédite, la réponse est la suivante: « the physiological reason of our caring about beautiful things, [is] their effect upon our respiration ».
Susan Lanzoni salue la méthode novatrice de Lee et Anstruther-Thomson :

Working outside the academy, Lee conducted informal experiments with Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, recording changes in respiration, balance, emotion, and body movements in response to aesthetic form. In fashioning her aesthetics of empathy, she mined a wealth of psychological theories of the period including motor theories of mind, physiological theories of emotion, evolutionary models of the usefulness of art, and, most prominently, the empathic projection of feeling and movement into form. Lee distributed questionnaires, contributed to scientific journals, carried out her own introspective studies, and debated aesthetics with leading psychologists.

Il est indéniable que l’esthétique empirique de Lee, en harmonie avec le pragmatisme william jamesien, constitue un apport considérable dans les « debates on psychological aesthetics at the outset of the twentieth century, offering a synthesis of Lipps’s mentalistic Einfühlung and sensation-based imitation theories of aesthetic response ».
Issu de ces recherches, l’essai de Lee « Le rôle de l’élément moteur dans la perception visuelle », préfigure Bergson et les schèmes sensori-moteurs exposés dans Matière et mémoire,  sur lesquels Gilles Deleuze fondera bien plus tard ses études sur le cinéma.
De la même manière qu’on aurait tort de croire que le pragmatisme philosophique exclut toute forme d’idéalisme chez un W. James connu par ailleurs pour ses activités spiritualistes (Society for Psychical Research, etc.) et spirituelles, il serait erroné d’adhérer aux propos de Regenia Gagnier, qui affirme dans The Insatiability of Human Wants que les expériences scientifiques de Lee dans le domaine de l’esthétique « compromised the ethical aesthetics Lee had inherited from Ruskin and the missionary aesthetics the aristocratic Anstruther-Thomson had inherited from a tradition of woman’s philanthropy. »
Tout comme W. James, qui n’est pas certain que « the secrets of art-magic » soient totalement dévoilés par les explications mécanistes de Berenson,  V. Lee inscrit son approche psycho-physiologique empirique de l’art dans le cadre plus large d’une recherche du sens (philosophique, historique, politique) et de la fonction de l’art orientée par un engagement social et moral, en un mot : féministe et humaniste.
C’est aussi le point de vue d’Anthony Teets, qui repère dans les travaux de Lee un tournant à partir de sa « ‘conversion’ to the Woman Question » :

In Beauty and Ugliness (1912) published with her « gallery experiments » Lee retracted much of the theory Gagnier refers to as « physiological. » What she retained in her theory after the 1890’s was the inseparability of empathy theory from the ethics of sympathy which connects art to life practice. Lee maintains a critical attitude toward Herbert Spencer and Grant Allen in her chapter « anthropomorphic aesthetics ».

Lee affirme inscrire sa réflexion dans le prolongement des travaux de W. Pater, dont l’objet est la beauté en tant que manifestation et aboutissement de l’harmonie universelle :

This inborn affinity for refined wholesomeness made Mr. Pater the natural exponent of the highest æsthetic doctrine—the search for harmony throughout all orders of existence. […] Supreme craftsman as he was, it protected him from the craftsman’s delusion—rife under the inappropriate name of “art for art’s sake” in these uninstinctive, over-dextrous days—that subtle treatment can dignify all subjects equally, and that expression, irrespective of the foregoing impression in the artist and the subsequent impression in the audience, is the aim of art. Standing as he did, as all the greatest artists and thinkers (and he was both) do, in a definite, inevitable relation to the universe—the equation between himself and it—he was utterly unable to turn his powers of perception and expression to idle and irresponsible exercises; and his conception of art, being the outcome of his whole personal mode of existence, was inevitably one of art, not for art’s sake, but of art for the sake of life—art as one of the harmonious functions of existence.
Harmonious, and in a sense harmonising.

Cette vision de la beauté et de l’art est pleinement cohérente avec la notion d’empathie, qui concilie physiologie, psychologie, morale et mystique, et qu’elle développe à la suite de Theodor Lipps et de Gustav Fechner.

From these exercises came her « psychological aesthetics, » which led to her theory of « aesthetic empathy »: « The idea that contemplation of a beautiful object elicits hidden motor adjustments in the viewer, an unconscious imitation of the form one sees and a projection of one’s bodily movements back onto it. »

Les mouvements musculaires et respiratoires involontaires observés lors de la contemplation esthétique traduisent une émotion intense, parfois un raptus esthétique : l’empathie renvoie à une extase fusionnelle avec l’objet de la contemplation. Cette fusion évoque « le sentiment océanique » évoqué par Romain Rolland dans une lettre (5 décembre 1927) à S. Freud,  et même l’intuition que Bergson définit comme cette « sympathie par laquelle on se transporte à l’intérieur d’un objet pour coïncider avec ce qu’il a d’unique et par conséquent d’inexprimable ».  En termes derridéens, il s’agit là d’une expérience ; celle du « rapport à une présence, que ce rapport ait ou non la forme de la conscience ».
Les affinités avec la théorie générale de l’expérience mystique développée par W. James dans The Varieties of Religious Experience sont ici remarquables. Quelque chose de l’ordre d’une révélation  sublime et indicible est à l’œuvre dans la transe esthétique (Lee) ou religieuse (James). Les quatre critères caractéristiques de l’expérience mystique selon James sont tous présents dans chacun des contes « culturels » de Lee : le caractère ineffable, noétique/cognitif et éphémère de l’expérience ainsi que la passivité du sujet. La dissolution des limites du moi par la levée des inhibitions favorise une élévation spirituelle extatique (« from a smallness into a vastness, and at the same time from an unrest into a rest. We feel them as reconciling, unifying states »).  Porté par « a sense of being bathed in a warm glow of light, as though the external condition had brought about the internal effect—a feeling of having passed through the body », le sujet  fait l’expérience réconfortante de la « réconciliation »,  de la « fusion » . C’est précisément celle vécue par Magnus dans « A Wicked Voice ».
L’esthétique humaniste leeienne s’appuie donc à la fois sur l’éthique nietzschéenne et la phénoménologie william jamesienne de l’imagination « ontologique de l’être humain »,  qui est aussi une phénoménologie de l’esprit et des esprits.
Considérant la littérature comme « the universal confidant, the spiritual director of mankind »,  Lee inscrit sa réflexion et son œuvre dans une quête mystique de la Beauté fondée sur une conception de l’art héritée, comme celle de Pater, du Romantisme allemand et de sa Naturphilosophie (Novalis, Goethe, etc.) : « I believe in Beauty—I believe that is the one true thing in life »  déclare W. Hamlin dans Miss Brown, écho manifeste de l’Ode on a Grecian Urn de John Keats: « Beauty is Truth, truth is beauty. That is all Ye know on earth and all ye need to know. »
Pour Lee, le temps de la création artistique, comme le temps sacré, est réversible, et unit le visible and l’invisible, le profane et le numineux, le passé et le présent ; l’art vainc la mort, l’histoire et le temps, et rappelle à la vie les dieux païens exilés (« Dionea »). Son sensualisme esthétique et mystique permet un retour au numineux, dont l’existence quotidienne, « normale », n’est séparée que par « le plus léger des voiles ».
L’art tel qu’elle le pratique est très proche de l’hermétisme, non seulement parce qu’il est un culte réservé à une fraternité d’initiés, mais aussi parce qu’il est révélation et occultation d’un savoir dont l’art est l’instrument et la Beauté la manifestation. Comparable aux nombreux auteurs membres de sociétés secrètes initiatiques (Rose+Croix, Francs-Maçons, Golden Dawn): O. Wilde, B. Stoker, A. Conan Doyle. W. Sharp (Fiona McLeod), E. Nesbit, W. Besant, Vernon Lee semblent inspirés par des idées chères à certains courants ésotériques, telles que les correspondances reliant le microcosme et le macrocosme, le visible et l’invisible, les mondes intellectuel, céleste et terrestre, ou encore l’idée d’une Nature vivante, parcourue par des réseaux de sympathies et d’antipathies (magnétisme), conçue comme un livre à déchiffrer.

Let us never waver in our faith in art, for in so doing we should be losing (what, alas! Puritan contemners of art, and decadent defilers thereof, are equally doing) much of our faith in nature and much of our faith in man. For art is the expression of the harmonies of nature, conceived and incubated by the harmonious instincts of man.

Ainsi, dans « Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady », le beau conte offert par Lee à Oscar Wilde au temps de ses épreuves, le jeune prince séquestré s’évade dans la contemplation de la tapisserie qui contient la clef de son destin, éprouvant « [t]he growing sense that he was in the tapestry, [and] that the tapestry had become the whole world. »  Cette tapisserie  témoigne de la croissance du prince et de l’évolution de son environnement ; speculum et imago mundi, elle est miroir pour l’enfant, et miroir de l’univers au-delà de sa sphère personnelle. Elle est cryptogramme à déchiffrer, où Alberic cherche le secret de ses origines et celui de sa destinée, guidé, absorbé puis happé par sa beauté. L’œuvre devient incantation, prière, appel vers un monde idéal car l’artiste a su capter en son miroir une harmonie universelle invisible et secrète à laquelle Alberic est sensible.
Art is a much greater and more cosmic thing than the mere expression of man’s thoughts or opinions on any one subject, of man’s attitude towards his neighbour or towards his country, much as all this concerns us. Art is the expression of man’s life, of his mode of being, of his relations with the universe, since it is, in fact, man’s inarticulate answer to the universe’s unspoken message. […] This clause contains the whole philosophy of art. For art is the outcome of a surplus of human energy, the expression of a state of vital harmony, striving for and partly realising a yet greater energy, a more complete harmony in one sphere or another of man’s relations with the universe.

Médiateur entre le plan terrestre et le plan idéal et divin, l’artiste selon Lee reproduit sous une forme sensible ravissante et purificatrice la trace que l’âme a gardée du monde idéal. Mais il doit pour cela se vouloir à la fois médium, créateur et œuvre d’art lui-même. Alors seulement peut se manifester dans son travail « the fundamental unity—the unity between man’s relations with external nature, with his own thoughts and with others’ feelings— […] revealed as the secret of the highest æsthetics ».

Ouvrages cités

Lee, Vernon. Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. 1880. 2nd ed. London: T. Fisher    Unwin, 1907.
—————. Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions. London: Satchell, 1881. Contient « Ruskinism ».
—————-. « A Culture Ghost: Or, Winthrop’s Adventure. » Appleton’s Journal n° 10 (1881): 330-45. First Published in Fraser’s Magazine (Jan. 1881): 1-29.
—————-. Euphorion: Being Studies of the Antique and the Medieval in the Renaissance. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1884.
—————-. Miss Brown. London/Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1884.
—————-. Baldwin. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1886.
—————-. Juvenilia. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887.
—————-. « Voix maudite. » Les Lettres et les arts  (Aug. 1887): 125-53.
—————-. « An Eighteenth-Century Singer, an Imaginary Portrait. » The Fortnightly Review 1 Dec. 1891: 842-80.
—————-. Althea: A Second Book of Dialogues on Aspirations and Duties. London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1894.
—————-. Renaissance Fancies and Studies. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1895 (Contient « A Seeker of Pagan Perfection ; Being the Life of Domenico Neroni, Pictor Sacrolegus »).
—————-. « Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady ». The Yellow Book, X, July 1896, pp. 289-344.
—————-. Genius Loci; Notes on Places. London: Grant Richards, 1899.
—————-. « Le rôle de l’élément moteur dans la perception esthétique visuelle ». Essai manuscrit. 1901.
—————-. « The Riddle of Music. » Quaterly Review 204 (Jan. 1906): 207-27.
—————-. Laurus Nobilis: Chapters on Art and Life. London: Bodley Head, 1909. (contient : « The Use of Beauty » ; « Beauty and Sanity »).
—————-. « The Religious and Moral Status of Wagner. » Fortnightly Review 1 May 1911: 868-85.
—————- and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson. Beauty and Ugliness. London: John Lane, 1912.
—————-. The Beautiful : an Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics. Cambridge at the University Press, 1913.
—————-. The Handling of Words. London: John Lane, 1923.
—————-. Music and its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses to Music. London: Allen and Unwin, 1932.
—————-. Vernon Lee’s Letters. Cooper Willis, Irene (ed.). London: Privately printed, 1937.
—————-. The Handling of Words. Ed. with an introd. by David Seed. 1992.
—————-. “A Wedding Chest.” in Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, ed. Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006.
—————-. « A Wicked Voice. » in Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, ed. Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006.

Sources secondaires

Beerbohm, Max. « A Defence of Cosmetics ». The Yellow Book. London : John Lane, April 1894.
Berenson, Bernard. The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.
Bergson, Henri. La Pensée et le mouvant. Paris : Presses universitaires de France, « Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine », [1934] 1969.
Bergson, Henri.  Matière et mémoire ; Essai sur la relation du corps à l’esprit, 1896.
Bowers, Susan R. « Medusa and the Female Gaze ». National Women’s Studies Association Journal 2 (1990) : 217-235.
Buchanan, Robert (as « Thomas Maitland »). « The Fleshly School of Poetry : Mr. D. G. Rossetti ». The Contemporary Review. Volume 18, August-November 1871. Rpt. In The Fleshly School of Poetry and Other Phenomena of the Day. London : Strahan, 1872.
Denisoff, Dennis. Aestheticism and Sexual Parody: 1840-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Derrida, Jacques. De la grammatologie, Paris : Editions de Minuit, 1967.
Durand, Gilbert. Beaux-Arts et Archétypes. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1989.
Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford (UK) and Malden (Mass.) : Blackwell, 1990.
Edel, Leon (ed.). The Letters of Henry James, Volume III : 1883-1895. Boston : Belknap Press, 1980.
Gagel, Mandy. Selected Letters of Vernon Lee. PhD Dissertation. Boston University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. 2008.
S. Geoffroy-Menoux, « Henry James & Family : Eleven Unpublished Letters », Sources, Presses Universitaires d’Orléans, N° 14 (printemps 2003) : 6-111. Accessible en ligne : http://www.paradigme.com/sources/pageaccueil.htm
Geoffroy, Sophie. « Détours et hybridations : mystères fin-de-siècle, intermedial fantasy et phénoménologie du subliminal. » In F. Dupeyron-Lafay (ed.), Détours et hybridations. Cahiers du CERLI, Presses de l’Université de Provence, 2006, pp. 97-118.
Gunn, Peter. Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856-1935. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Gurney, Edmund. The Power of Sound. London : Smith, Elder, 1880.
James, William. The Principles of Psychology (1890). With an Introduction by George A. Miller. Harvard University Press, 1983.
James, William. « Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results ». The University Chronicle. Berkeley University Press, Vol. I (September 1898), N° 4.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience; a Study of Human Nature. Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. London/New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1902.
Lanzoni, Susan. « Practicing Psychology in the Art Gallery: Vernon Lee’s Aesthetics of Empathy ». Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Wiley Periodicals Volume 45. Issue 4 (Fall 2009) : 330-54.
Maltz, Diana. « Engaging ‘Delicate Brains’. From Working-Class Enculturation to Upper-Class Lesbian Liberation in Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson’s Psychological Aesthetics ». In Schaeffer, Talia and Kathy Psomiades (eds.). Woman and British Aestheticism. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1872). Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik. Trad. Shaun Whiteside The Birth of Tragedy. Ed. Michael Tanner. London : Penguin, 2003.
Pater, Walter. (1873). The Renaissance : Studies in Art and Poetry. Phillips, Adam (ed.) Oxford & New York : Oxford University Press, « The World’s Classics », 1986.
Psomiades, Kathy. Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Pulham, Patricia. Art and the Transitional Object, Aldershot (UK) & Burlington (USA) : Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008.
Ribot, Théodule. Affective Memory, 1880.
Rolland, Romain. Un beau visage à tous sens. Choix de lettres de Romain Rolland (1866-1944), Paris : Albin Michel, 1967.
Ruskin, John. Aratra Pentelici, Seven Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture Given before the University of Oxford in Michaelmas Term, Lecture 1, « Of the Division of Arts », 24 November 1870. In The Works of John  Ruskin : Library Edition, edited by E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, Volume XX. 199-219. London : G. Allen, 1905, pp. 199-219.
Samuels, Ernest. Bernard Berenson, the Making of a Connoisseur, Cambridge, Mass. & London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.
Schaeffer, Talia and Kathy Psomiades (eds.). Woman and British Aestheticism. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Teets, Anthony. « The Price of a Lily ». The Sibyl #3. Winter 2007/8. http://www.oscholars.com
Teets, Anthony and Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux. « Sensibility, Sensitivity, and Heterotopia in V. Lee’s ‘It-Narrative’ : A Critical Introduction to ‘Biographie d’une monnaie’ (1870) » The Sibyl # 3. Winter 2007/8. http://www.oscholars.com. N. pag.
Shafquat Towhheed, « The Creative Evolution of Scientific Paradigms. Vernon Lee and the Debate over the Hereditary Transmission of Acquired Characters », Victorian Studies. (Autumn, 2006): 33-61.
Zorn, Christa. Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History and the Victorian Female Intellectual. Athens : Ohio University Press, 2003.

The Prince of the Hundred Soups: V. Lee’s Comedy of Masks,

Taste, entitlement and power in Vernon Lee’s Comedy of Masks cum Puppet-Show: The Prince of the Hundred Soups (1880)

By Sophie Geoffroy

Vernon Lee’s early, 1880 works (Tuscan Fairy Tales, The Prince of the Hundred Soups, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy) all testify to her interest in Italian folk-lore, popular culture and… carnivalesque laughter. The Prince of the Hundred Soups is a hybrid work based on several genres, popular and genteel : it is a cross between folk-tales, Commedia dell’ Arte (« Comedy of Masks »), puppet-shows, novella comedies, and fairy tales. Indeed, according to her preface, Vernon Lee merely adapted her « puppet show in narrative », i.e. she rewrote and fleshed out the MS outline[1] of a Comedy of Masks specially designed for puppets, dated 1838.[2] Its author, she says, was an excentric scholar she had known in Rome, one Theodor August Amadeus Wesendonk, universally called « Mangia Zucchero » (« Eat Sugar »), whose name and portrait irresistibly remind us of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The theoretic works as well as the plays of this great puppet master, she adds, helped her in the preparation of her scholarly Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy.

Yet, the Prince is a truly Leeian artefact : a Victorian, utopian, feminist, turn of the century fantastical piece. The aesthetic and philosophical decision of using puppets to perform a comedy of masks, i. e. of twice masked characters, and twice fixed forms, endows her text with a peculiarly efficient kind of humour (considering Bergson’s definition of laughter as provoked by “living creatures made to look like clockwork dolls”)[3] and also disquieting, fantastical overtones.

In order to try and unravel the various threads of this work, I shall be following two guide lines : the generic one (esp. the shifting relations between Commedia dell’Arte, puppet-show, fairy tale, comedy and turn of the century fantasy), supplemented by an analysis of the ideological significance of the structuring of the play –plot, subplot and characterization– upon the relations between the three polysemic key-concepts of taste, power and entitlement. Indeed, The Prince of the Hundred Soups can be seen as an ethnographer’s work, which, because of its ideological slant, forestalls at times Mikhail Bakhtine’s, René Girard’s, or even sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories.[4]

The Prince of the Hundred Soups as a Comedy of Masks

« Taste », in its literal sense, provides the backbone to the story of the haps and the mishaps of the « Prince », or more exactly the « Doge of the Serene Republic of Bobbio », whose entitlement and power are traditionally symbolized by his ritual eating of 100 plates of soup « during his 100 days’ tenure of office ». The literal association of taste (both as taste 1 and taste 2 : distinction), entitlement and power comes to a head on « the first day of the year one thousand six hundred and ninety five » when a « new », self-made, and therefore unentitled man, Pantalone, is surprisingly elected instead of the distinguished, supertitled, over-entitled Scappino Scappini, Count Brighella (Generalissimo of the Republic). Brighella immediately decides to overthrow his rival, and sets him two « tasks » (as folklorists say) : eating his 100 soups (challenging him: « we shall see whether thou wilt swallow thy hundredth soup ») and having the great prima donna Olimpia Fantastici sing for the citizens of Bobbio.

In the quest for titles and public recognition, the inherited birth-right of the oligarchy of privileged bluebloods is pitted against the acquired merits and worth of « lowborn upstarts ». Pantalone, the embodiment of the Plebeians and of their collective values (enthusiasm, dynamism, gratification of the senses) is thus opposed to Brighella, the lugubrious, heartless, cruel « embroidering conspirator » whose efforts at removing Pantalone from power betray his vision of democracy itself as a closed circuit (not to say a vicious circle) and of political representation as tautological. In the Serene Republic of Bobbio, the election is but another word for the selection of the already distinguished, the « elect », and the tautological mode of representation artfully contributes to the strengthening of the self-serving, autistic powers that be. But then, what or who does the Doge represent ? Who, then is the usurper ?

The narrative is structured like a comedy, complete with its exposition scene, peripetia, deus ex machina, denouement and its romantic subplot: just like Romeo and Juliet, the children of the two rival families, Giacinta and Leandro, are secretly in love with one other. They exchange messages, manage to meet, and thanks to Olimpia’s help, finally save Pantalone from the shame of being burnt (in effigy) at the stake, and marry.

But as a whole, the play is based on a Commedia outline (preface)  and Commedia actors and masks (see our annex) with a carnival plot, the key word of which is inversion. Everything is turned upside down or used in a roundabout way, e.g. cavaliers/horsemen marching past the citizens of Bobbio with their saddle on their shoulders…

Almost all of the rituals of the fool’s festival consist in the grotesque debasing of the various religious rites and symbols by transposing them onto the material and bodily level : piggishness and drunkenness, obscene gestures, etc…  (Bakhtine 83, my translation).

The ritual celebrations (which I have analysed elsewhere)[5] punctuating the Doge’s fate fall into two categories  (priggishness vs piggishness !): we have official pageants meant to exhibit the social and political hierarchies and inequalities, described by Lee like Baroque events ; and on the other hand popular feasts based on carnivalesque inversion, subversive disruption and universal merriment.

Carnivalesque inversion also prevails as far as the Doge is concerned : a Jester turned into a Prince by the people of Bobbio, Pantalone is then turned into a martyr by the very same people.[6] His sudden triumph, then gradual downfall , is effected through a series of reversals, resulting in his destitution, trial, burning at the stake, all hinting at his real function : not the head of the state, but indeed a scapegoat. A scapegoat which, according to René Girard’s definition, exactly as in the system of the Roman Saturnalia, being initially (and legally) made all powerful by the people, raised to an almost sacred elevated position, is quickly ridiculed by everyone (Giacinta, Olimpia, Senators, Brighella)  and subjected to a process of marginalization : his elevated position is indeed that of the victim on the altar of sacrifice. Pantalone becomes the « public enemy of the State », is accused of being a traitor, a thief… Driven to distraction (chapter 7), dressed like a fool,[7] Pantalone loses his self-esteem, has nightmares in which even Olimpia has the upper hand, in a word, grows mad.

To make things worse, Brighella having frightened the ducal cook into accepting to make the ducal soup unpalatable, Pantalone, the plump descendant of sausage makers, and powerful head of the state, starves in his own palace, just like a beggar.

The child-like « task » of eating his soup transforms the merry Italian tradition of the banquet with its libertinage de table into a rite of passage for Pantalone. A prisoner in his own palace, all his meals being closely watched by peeping valets, Pantalone is paralysed by etiquette and his eagerness to conform to it, since class distinction is based on this. Instead of the triumphant, libertine and libertarian symposion he had expected, what he gets is a sad though hilarious passion, a grotesque parody of the Last Supper and of its liturgy.

… the new Doge was thinking only of his soup and of the way he ought to take it. He would have gulped it down all at once, but restrained himself, and tried to eat it gravely, sedately, as if he had eaten nothing else all his life long. But he felt the forty pairs of senatorial eyes upon him, and his hand trembled; he took up too much soup in his spoon and spilled some of it over his lace ruffle; then, all crimson with shame, he took so little that he carried the spoon almost empty to his lips; his face more deeply suffused, the veins of his forehead distended, he looked into his plate, hoping to see its embossed bottom; but no bottom was visible as yet. He spooned away convulsively at it; at last the long-desired embossed work became visible; he sighed and regained courage. At last he had got to the last spoonful. Victory! He had eaten the first of his hundred soups! He rose from table radiant. He was now really the Doge! (The Prince ch. 4)

The soup-eating being both a strategic issue and status symbol, Pantalone’s inability to take–in the ducal soup is seen as a metonymy of his lack of power –power defined as in-take : which is the basis of a dire indictement of politicians’ ways: « One must be entitled, first, to eat the ducal soups ; and in its turn the soup eating ceremony reinforces this entitlement. » (Alice. Mussard) Class-conscious Pantalone influenced by the Victorian, indeed Calvinistic, equation of pleasure (defined as a vulgar, meretricious gratification of the senses) and taste, distinction (defined as decorous, refined, gloomy, indeed sacrificial), is acutely aware of the discrepancy between his own nouveau riche tastes and preferences –his bright, gilded, soft and comfortable home—and the gloomy sobriety of the corridors of power with their hard, oak furniture. Convinced that his inability to swallow this soup betrays his coarse origins and his plebeian palate, he decides that this flaw must remain a secret. In order not to starve, the Doge Pantalone decides to smuggle in his food from the outside world, in violation of the sacred laws of Bobbio.

Food, and its taste, is also the key element in the « characterization » of the cast of stock characters, types:  the couple Pantalone vs Brighella is here physically in keeping with a number of other similar couples handed down by folklore which traditionally opposes lean people to plump people (viz. Don Quixote – Sancho Pança). Tyrannical, deceitful Brighella is as skinny as the Knight of the Sad Countenance, while pot-bellied, round-faced, jovial Pantalone is a « direct descendant of the paunchy demons of fertility », and owes as much to popular culture as Rabelais’s «Gaster » (the god whose belly the Gastrolatres adore),[8]or Rabelais’s own sources : the famous medieval « Quarrel of the Fat against the Thin »[9]and « The Battle of Lent against Eat-Meat »,[10] whose soldiers are sausages, etc.

Let us note here the savoury onomastic code in the names of these folkloric figures : Pantalone Busdrago coming from Bos (beef) Draconis, Hans Wurst (whom W A Mozart loved), Pikkelhering, Mangia Zucchero, Maschecroûte-le-glouton (Lyon Carnival), Jack Pudding (GB), Jean Potage (France), Macaroni (Italy), some of them deriving from Rabelais’s Gargantua, Engolevent, Happe Mousch, Maschefoin (Bakhtine 341) ; Bouillonsec, Potageanart, Souppimars, Soufflemboyau, Riflandouille, Tailleboudin (some of the cooks in Rabelais’s Quart Livre).

The paramount importance of culinary terms and of food is a typical Carnival trait : Carnival, which « springs from fertility ritual » (Salingar 92) glorifies appetite, or, indeed, appetites : food, drink, sex. Hence, « the insistent jokes about food, sex, excrement and death » (Salingar 92), i.e. about matter, and about the body as matter. Vernon Lee, though, is here tellingly torn apart between her own passion for food, to which her letters home testify, a passion that may have oriented her towards the adaptation of this particular Rabelais-like outline by Wesendonk, and her own Victorian censorship, so that sex is utterly absent. Unless we consider sausage-making as a covert albeit gross allusion to it (just like Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy!). Indeed, didn’t Bakhtine insist on the equation of « tripe and guts” with “the belly, the entrails, the maternal breast, life »?[11]Entrails/guts/bowels/womb/depths are linked, and thus tie together, in a literally grotesque way, life (food, digestion, life) and death (the slaughtering of the cattle, murder).

All those are recurring elements in folklore and in Commedia dell’Arte plays, and indeed grew into codes and conventions. Vernon Lee was aware of these conventions :

in the old Italian comedy (and in the puppet-show also), there exist a certain number of fixed types, comic and serious, invariably dressing and feeling and speaking in the same way, and rendered interesting only by being placed in continually new positions. Thus… the silly, duped, good-natured papa, the noodle of the piece, is always Pantalone, dressed in red and black Venetian robes ; the plotting old villain is always Brighella, sometimes called Scappino (whence Molière’s “Fourberies de Scapin”), and invariably dressed in black ; the stupid and roguish servant, the sly clown, is the acrobat Harlequin in his stripes ; the bully is the red-nosed Scaramuccia ; the young lady is Giacinta, Rosaura, or Clelia ; the lover, in full splendour of feathers and ribbons, Lelio, Valerio, or, as in “The Prince of the Hundred Soups,” Leandro ; finally, the waiting-maid is Harlequin’s sweetheart , Colombina. These types are almost invariable, and the whole ingenuity of the play consists in bringing their various pecularities into new, unexpected, and comical combinations. (Vernon Lee, Preface to The Prince of the Hundred Soups).

She was also aware of the traditional reliance on typicality and the improvisation based on outlines and the insistance on gestures, voices, and the codes of pre-verbal or non-verbal communication.

The Mask actors were … scarcely actors at all : they were fantastic realities… ; they necessarily and from their essential nature felt, acted, and spoke in a consistent and characteristic way. The consequence was evident : no parts were written for them, they were placed opposite each other, and the meeting of Pantaloon and Brighella, of Harlequin and the Doctor, of Pulcinella and Scaramuccia, produced, by the automatic movement of the characters, an action and a dialogue ever new and ever natural. (Vernon Lee, Studies 237)

In the Prince, they all tend to expose the weakness and the passivity of the male characters : alternately deprived of their powers of initiative, they are staged like mere puppets in one another’s hands. The hero himself, Leandro, is « an inanimate puppet only brought to life by other people’s strength » (Alice Mussard). In Chapter 7 (the climax), Vernon Lee goes as far as having Pantalone order his servants « not to execute my orders » : at that point, even he has become a pitiful puppet in Brighella’s hands.

Yet, one often wonders who manipulates whom, who pulls the strings : a question which is all the more relevant since this play was meant to be a puppet show ! Do we have masks performing a puppet show or do we have puppets acting out a Commedia dell’Arte ? Masked actors imitating puppets ? Puppets imitating masked actors ? Vernon Lee artfully exploits the confusion; in her puppet show are exhibited the connections between real power and secrets, power and occult plots. Let us not forget that the French technical word for the person who controls a puppet’s strings is « l’ensecrètement »…

A « puppet-show in narrative »

Puppets, manikins, models, statues and dolls figure prominently in the Vernon Lee corpus. They have a seminal role in her fantastical tales,[12] and in her theoretic works.[13] In her Preface to The Prince of the Hundred Soups, she defines herself as a follower of German pre-Romantic and Romantic authors of Fantasiesstücke (texts in between the fantastical and the grotesque) like Schlegel, Jean-Paul (Richter), Tieck, and of course E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose interest in puppets –the epitome of passivity and alienation– reflected their existentialist concerns.[14] Vernon Lee’s preface also mentions famous predecessors or contemporaneous writers like George Sand and her son, Maurice, who staged puppet shows at Nohant. Other nineteenth century attempts at either analysing or creating puppet shows should be mentioned here : L. Duranty,[15]  Maeterlinck’s melodramas for puppets,[16] L’Eve future by Villiers de L’Isle Adam, Büchner’s Leonce and Lena (1836), or, later on, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896).

But among the foreign travellers to Italy who were enthusiastic about the puppet shows they had attended in Milan, Turin, Genoa or Rome, like Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal, William Wetmore Story, Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine, Paul Valéry, very few, unlike Vernon Lee, were aware that puppet-shows are an Italian tradition, dating from the late seventeenth century-early eighteenth century, and at its peak in the second half of the nineteenth century, when its high quality musical dramas entertained aristocratic and popular audiences. There were no less than some 40000 puppets then in Italy.

The repertoire of the nineteenth century puppet-shows which Vernon Lee saw derived from a long, twofold tradition :

1. the first one is both ancient and popular, consisting in the adaptation of Commedia dell’Arte, farces, robbers’ stories, or saints’ lives, preferably performed by glove puppets, the « burattini », the most popular character being Pulcinella. The outlines are carnivalesque Commedia dell’Arte plots extolling material values (“le bas corporel”) such as food (taste in its first meaning).

2. the other line is genteel, based on the « heroic model », consisting in the adaptation of heroic, pastoral and even classic plays, and usually performed by string puppets.

The « Pupi’s opera » (« L’opéra des Pupi”) of Southern Italy (comical improvisations based on epic outlines derived from episodes taken from the legendary prose cycle of Charlemagne, L’Histoire des Paladins de France by Giusto Lodico, published from 1858, 1860 onwards)[17] may have been one source of inspiration for Wesendonk/Vernon Lee : the Doge’s soup eating is said to be « a habit dating from the time of Charlemagne » (p. 1). The name of the inn where Olimpia takes refuge, the « Sword of Orlando »,[18] is another example. The Chanson de Roland was also part and parcel of the Sicilian folklore until the nineteenth century.

Another source of inspiration for Lee/Wesendonk may have been the wealthy Venitian Abbato Labbia, who, in the eighteenth century, staged melodramas specially written for puppets whose parts were said and sung by famous singers : e.g. Metastasio adapted hisDido abbandonata for Labbia’s puppet theatre.

The following extract from the Prince shows Vernon Lee’s indebtedness to those pastoral performances:

After that the curtain of a little theatre erected in the palace court was raised, and there came forward sundry nymphs in striped satin petticoats and pink silk stockings, with crooks in their hands, and wreaths on their heads, and sundry ancient heroes, in blonde wigs, plumed morions and scandal, who performed a pastoral in music, singing the praises of a mysterious shepherd, Glaucus, the richest and wisest shepherd of Arcadia, the beloved of the Gods, whom every one understood to be Pantalone Busdrago ; the whole to the accompaniment of excellent symphonies of harpsichords, viols, lutes, and flutes (The Prince of the Hundred Soups, ch. 2).

By the 1850’s, these puppet-shows rivalled with flesh and bone actors, their repertoire being by then identical :[19] Goldoni, Shakespeare’s novella comedies (e.g. Romeo and Juliet), Molière’s comedies (the two lovers Leandro and Giacinta ; play within a play (ch. 9 and 12) ; Leandro’s tragic dilemma in chapter 12 (not unlike Corneille’s Rodrigue in Le Cid). The final coup de théâtre and revelation follow the example set by Molière:

Some critics go so far as to assert … that wherever in Molière there is complicated action and comic movement we may trace the influence of the Italian comedy. Thus the Commedia dell’Arte, which has perhaps afforded suggestions to Shakespeare and to Lope de Vega … produced the comedy of Molière by offering a definite artistic mould in which to cast all the heterogenous comic elements which had existed chaotically in the old French fabliaux, nouvelles, and farces. (Vernon Lee, Studies 240)

Mozart’s, Rossini’s, Verdi’s or Wagner’s operas are lileky models, too, just like vaudevilles, gothic novels (The Bleeding Nun adapted from Lewis’s The Monk), and sensation novels (The Wandering Jew).

The influence of Carlo Gozzi’s, Tieck’s, ETA Hoffmann’s fantasy and of Perrault’s fairy tale archetypes is also extremely important in this play entitled, aptly enough, the « prince » (why not the « Doge » ?). I contend that in the Prince of the Hundred Soups, Leandro’s evolution is a classic quest for identity or initiation, and Pantalone’s struggle against Brighella as the envious witch casting a spell (we shall see…) in order to compensate for the titles he lacks and to legitimate the initial displacement of power, enacted as it is through unmistakeable rites of passage, all these are fairy tale items.

The way in which the victimized Jester-made-King finally turns into a trickster-hero is also reminiscent of fairy tales. The trickster’s deceit and cunning bring about the revenge of the weaker ones (tellingly, male characters like Leandro) over the stronger ones (the inheritors) and the ultimate and unexpected triumph of truth, freedom, art and love.

In the Prince of the Hundred Soups, although no precision is given, we have a mixed cast of lowly, truculent, plebeian, Commedia characters (glove puppets) and string puppets for the more genteel ones  (goldonian, or fairy tale characters). This distinction corresponds to the distinction between the four masks and the two unmasked lovers, which is traditional in the Commedia dell’Arte. Such coexistence, or co-presence fits quite literally Meyerhold’s definition of the grotesque as a genre which refuses to abide by any « either… or » distinction ; the grotesque unrelentingly exaggerates and thrives on contradictions, showing that life is both vulgar AND elevated, both popular and genteel.

Yet, any account of the play leaving aside Vernon Lee’s own idiosyncratic work on the traditional aspects would be incomplete and inaccurate.

Vernon Lee’s fantastical, feminist, utopian text : laughter in misery, food for thought, and lyrical women

Writing as she does in the nineteenth century, Vernon Lee transforms and alters the double tradition that I have traced, which results in the dual aspect of her work: a fantasy, fairy tale aspect on the one hand, and a weird, uncanny, fantastical, disquieting aspect, on the other hand. The witches’ robes and pseudo sorcerer’s formulae used by Brighella and Scaramuccia to frighten the page Truffaldino in chapter 3 may be traditional devices in fairy tales. Yet, the occult satanic rituals involving black magic, the Devil and even the famous wizard Master Curtio (Curtius, Mme Tussaud’s mentor, is also present in « The Doll »), are reminiscent of decadent Black Mass and secret brotherhoods’ rites.

He [Truffaldino] was in the presence of that mysterious council whose name might never be whispered, which all knew to exist, but whose existence was too awful to be avowed. Truffaldino‘s teeth chattered at the recollection of the vague stories of men founded drowned in the river, or hanged to trees, or stabbed in their beds, with the terrible initials of the council upon their corpses. (Vernon Lee, The Prince of the Hundred Soups, ch. 3)

Truffaldino accordingly swoons away during the ritual, which is a topos in fantastical literature. The repetitions, the mechanical gestures, the artificial voices of those puppets-cum-masks offer a literally inhuman, dehumanized, distorted vision of the world : aren’t these wooden dolls or manikins, and those leather masks, caricatures ? Caricatures which uncannily blur the limits between the real/the artificial, truth/lies, life/its mimesis, overdetermine the grotesque, and endow it, at times, with unbearable lucidity.

Such lucidity mostly serves a feminist, nineteenth century vision. Indeed, there is one unmistakeably Leeian, and distinctly utopian, character who evidences this : Olimpia Fantastici. Taking the place of the traditional boring but sensible and influencial Dottore (absent from the cast), Olimpia is a heroine in the best tradition –that of Boccacio, taken up by Shakespeare in his novella comedies— I mean the tradition that considers woman neither as solely a despicable though admirable womb, nor as a despicable though much admired sinner, but as puppet-master and artist.

Olimpia is indeed a capricious femme fatale (complete with the whip in her hand), redolent of Circe (she confesses to changing men into asses), of shrewd Fairy Morgana. This « eccentric siren » nevertheless plays the role of the fairy god-mother, or benevolent dea-ex-machina, and brings about the happy reunion of the star crossed lovers, Leandro and Giacinta. She also obtains Pantalone’s final lawful recognition by the people of Bobbio as charismatic leader for life (!).

Indeed, unlike Lee’s likely model, Hoffmann’s Olympia (= an automaton), the opera singer Olimpia Fantastici embodies the ultimate form of transcending, therefore unquestionable, legitimate power : more than the power of « taste » or « distinction », the power of beauty, the power of art… The final national reconciliation is reached through an epiphany of Art, after the people (and not solely the elect and the elite) of Bobbio have expressed their vital, universal appetite for art, for spiritual, emotional food (even though Olimpia’s song might be considered as yet another form of oral pleasure !). The people accordingly succeed in getting Olimpia to sing where the officials have failed.

This definitely betrays Vernon Lee’s utopian bend. Which will be confirmed in later life by her actions in favour of British female workers. More aptly still, the following vibrant passage from her Studies testifies to her awareness of the political dimension of the Italian Comedy of Masks :

Laughter in misery, such was the origin of the revived Comedy of Masks ; buffooneries to drown the recollection of ignominy, merriment to hide seditious sorrow, local satire to hide national satire, dialect to save Italian. … crushed and mangled as a whole, the country maintained its vitality in its fragments : fragments too insignificant, too heterogeneous to create suspicion, living on separate and unnoticed until at length permitted to reunite ; and the Comedy of Masks, the jumble of Bergamascs and Sicilians, of Neapolitans and Bolognese, the Babel of dialects the most dissimilar, is the product and the expression of this provincial life ever tending towards forbidden national unity. (Vernon Lee, Studies 235)

Last but not least, let us not forget that Olimpia’s power is, typically, the power of the human voice. This strong, domineering woman with her magic, hypnotic voice is one of the earliest prototypes in Vernon Lee’s series of androgynous singers, Zaffirino’s ancestor. Even if she, like all puppets, acts in playback (like, for that matter, Olympia, and, more strikingly still, Farinelli or Zaffirino or Rinaldi in Lee’s fantastical texts : their voice is merely imagined issuing from the musici’s painted mouths !). We know that puppet masters used a small instrument (called a « pratique » in French), which they put in their mouths to alter their voices, so that the puppet did have a voice –a specifically human feature—which yet did not sound like any particular human voice:[20] the voice, so traditional societies thought, of the dead.[21]

Conclusion

The paradoxical generic instability of this mixture of different heavily codified genres endows Vernon Lee’s utopian play with a flamboyantly grotesque and subversive dimension : her nineteenth century feminist « parodic travestying » of the conventions of fairy tale, Commedia dell’Arte and puppet-shows brings to light the –generally occult—basis of political life and social order: the trinity formed by the concepts of taste, entitlement and power.

But, unlike those puppet masters who were disliked and persecuted by Cromwell, Calvin and others, and who protected themselves against charges of witchcraft and sacrilege by improvising, Lee could use the two Victorian convenient labels « meant for children » and « fantasy » to write and publish her Prince of the Hundred Soups. This explains why, although the Studies leave us in no doubt as to her degree of awareness concerning the political dimension of her play, she wryly dedicated it to a “grown up simpleton as desultory and capricious as myself.”

Annex

1. Dramatis Personae

I. The four masks

« Pantalone, Brighella, Harlequin, and the Doctor, were called the four masks ; they were the most popular, the most typical, the most universally known and the longest of life. » (Vernon Lee, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, p. 236).

1 Pantalone Busdrago I, Doge of Bobbio

« Old men were typified in Pantalone dei Bisognosi the Venetian merchant, wearing the obsolete costume, –the scarlet stockings, black robe, and long-tailed hood, of the burgher of a mediaeval commonwealth » (Studies 235)

He expresses himself in his Venetian dialect. In The Prince of the Hundred Soups, Pantalone, the descendent of a sausage maker, is close to the German « Hanswurst » (« John Sausage »), derived from Pulcinella/Punch.

2 Scappino Scappini, Count of Brighella, « Generalissimo Scappino Brighella ».

usually characterized as a cunning, deceitful servant. Vernon Lee turns him into the most powerful man or wizard of Bobbio ; confined within his ivory tower where he indulges in his hobby (embroidery) from which he casts his spells (« we shall see whether thou wilt swallow thy hundredth soup »).

3. Arlecchino, Brighella’s bravo

« By the middle of the sixteenth century […] the two ideal classes of servants, the hypocritical rogue and the gluttonous sly simpleton, were represented respectively by Brighella, dressed in the loose-striped shirt and linen cap of the artisans of the sixteenth century ; and by Arlecchino, wearing tight-fitting hose and jerkin of motley stripes and patches, suggestive of the grotesque dress of the youths in Signorelli and Carpaccio’s paintings. Both Brighella and Arlecchino came to be associated with the town of Bergamo, the Lombard dialect of which, wholly distinct from the Venetian of Pantalone, they continued to the last to employ. These two servants, the arch buffoons of the play, were called the two Zanni, perhaps in reminiscence of the Sanniones of Antiquity . … Harlequin in especial never lost his antique character of mime, –dancing, playing tricks, and performing gymnastic feats in the midst of his parts. » (Studies 235-6)

4. The Doctor

« To these three were added the Doctor, sometimes called Doctor Graziano or Doctor Balanzon, the typical man of learning : dressed as a jurist, with an immense wine-stain on one cheek : always a Bolognese, always blustering and pedantic, oscillating between a knave and a fool, holding forth in maccaronian Latin. » (Studies 236)

Olimpia Fantastici plays The Doctor’s role.

II. « A quartet of Neapolitan buffoons »

« Opposite this quartet of North Italians arose another quartet of Neapolitan buffoons : Pulcinella,… ; Scaramuccia,; Tartaglia,;Coviello;–these Southern masks being more violent, more savage, more indecently antique, than the Northern, and perhaps more restricted  to their own provinces »( Studies 236).

1. Pulcinella

« Pulcinella, the ancient Maccus, the modern Punch or Polichinelle, with immense nose and double hump, dressed in white, a terrible sort of comic Bluebeard or Nero » (Studies236): here, the role of hunchback is held by Truffaldino, the « Gobbo » (Ottavio Zanni’s cook).

2. Scaramuccia

« the bully and intriguer Scaramuccia, dressed in black, the archetype of the military adventurer ». (Studies 236).

3. Tartaglia

« the simpleton and stammerer Tartaglia » (Studies 236). Here : absent

4. Coviello

« the long, dancing, fiddling, singing vagabond Coviello » (Studies 236). Here absent, but Olimpia is undeniably endowed with some of his features.

III. « Regular actors and actresses »

« To these masks—half actors, half acrobats, half jesters—were added regular actors and actresses, speaking Tuscan and probably improvising but little, the pair of lovers borrowed with but slight alteration from the written comedy and retaining its pseudo-antique names : Lelio, Leandro, Orazio, and Florindo ; Lavinia, Flamminia, Ortensia, Giacinta or Rosaura, dapper figures with no comic work to do, but necessary for the action of the play » (Studies 236).

1. Colombina (Olimpia’s maid)

2. Lady Giacinta (Busdrago) : a disdainful, charismatic, superior woman who belittles her lover Leandro (another Leeian « New Woman »).

3. Leandro (Scappini Brighella) : Giacinta’s lover ; fragile, submissive, caught in the horns of a dilemma (ch 10); romantic and sensitive. Giacinta and Leandro = Romeo and Juliet.

Bibliography

Bergson, Henri. Le Rire, essai sur la signification du comique, Paris : Alcan, 1900.

Lee, Vernon. The Prince of the Hundred Soups ; a Puppet Show in Narrative, 1880. London : T. Fisher Unwin, 1883.

Lee, Vernon. Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. 1880. New York : da Capo Press, 1978.

Bakhtine, Mikhaïl. L’œuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen-Age et sous la Renaissance. Paris : Gallimard, « Tel », 1970.

Corvin, Michel. Lire la comédie, Paris : Dunod, 1994.

Bourdieu, Pierre. La distinction, critique sociale du jugement. Paris : Minuit, « Le sens commun », 1979.

Salingar, Leo. Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy. Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Babuder, Bruna and Eliana Treccani, Maschere : la storia « segreta ». Verona : Demetra, 2000.

Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie. « Celebrations in the Texts of Vernon Lee : the Disruption of the Carnivalesque », Alizés/Trade Winds n° 13, « Celebrations and Other Essays », Jan. 1997, 157-176.

Girard, René. La violence et le sacré. Paris : Grasset, 1972.

Fournel Paul, ed.. Les Marionnettes. Préface d’Antoine Vitez. Paris : Bordas, 1982.


[1] « their [Beolco (1540s) and his imitator Calmo’s] successors were obliged to leave half of the dialogue to be extemporized, and in a very few years the written part of the plays was reduced to a mere skeleton plan of the action divided into scenes, which was hung-up in the green-rooms for the instruction of the actors, who filled up the outlines according to the whim of the moment. Thence it is that nothing has come down to us of the Comedy of Masks of the late 16th and 17th centuries save a volume published about 1610 by the actor Flamminio Scala, containing fifty outlines of comedies in narrative form … threadbare tales of scurrilous intrigue, which are to the Comedy of Masks like the shapeless scaffoldings which remain after some wonderful exhibition of fireworks…. » Studies 238

[2] « I have translated (abridging here and there where the love of typicality produced a certain monotony) and am now editing “The Prince of the Hundred Soups.” V. Lee’s preface.

[3] My translation from Bergson’s famous definition of laughter as triggered off by « une mécanique plaquée sur du vivant ».

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction, critique sociale du jugement. Paris : Minuit, « Le sens commun », 1979. See the chapter on « Titres et quartiers de noblesse ».

[5] Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux, « Celebrations in the texts of Vernon Lee : the Disruption of the Carnivalesque », in Alizés/Trade Winds, « Celebrations, CAPES & Other Essays », N° 13, January 1997, pp. 157-175.

[6] « Dans ce système le roi est le bouffon, élu par l’ensemble du peuple, tourné en dérision par ce même peuple, injurié, battu lorsque son règne s’achève… Si l’on avait commencé par donner au bouffon les parures du roi, à présent que son règne est terminé, on le déguise, on le « travestit » en lui faisant enfiler l’habit du bouffon… les injures le dépouillent de ses parures et de son masque : les injures et les coups détrônent le souverain » (Bakhtine 199).

[7] With colours in keeping with the nineteenth century system of correspondences prevailing in puppet shows, a system based on Goethe’s Treatise on Colours.

[8] Gaster’s belly is more than the actual, physical stomach of any living creature. It symbolizes the material wants of the human community as a whole. See Bakhtine 299.

[9] See the Dispute des Gras et des Maigres and Brueghel’s pictures, cited by Bakhtine 296.

[10] See the thirteenth century poem quoted by Bakhtine : « La Bataille de Carême et de Mange-Viande ».

[11] « les tripes, les boyaux sont le ventre, les entrailles, le sein maternel, la vie. » (my translation, from Bakhtine 165).

[12] See « The Doll », and « Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child »…

[13] See « The Economic Parasitism of Women » in Gospels of Anarchy, for instance.

[14] « C’est un objet qui joue, animé par un ‘support’ humain. Et son jeu figure, symbolise, raille, exorcise l’activité des hommes. Le fait que la marionnette soit passive et manipulée, alors que l’acteur, étymologiquement, agit, est la clé des deux aventures opposées qui l’ont affectée. Tantôt elle est dévalorisée, au point de fournir une métaphore de l’impuissance, de « l’aliénation » humaine : l’Europe baroque et romantique voit volontiers l’homme comme une marionnette dont Dieu, le Destin ou d’autres forces « tirent les ficelles ». … A l’opposé, pourtant, le fait que la marionnette se trouve passive entre les mains de son créateur donne toute la liberté créatrice à celui-ci. » In « De la poupée aux formes animées », Les marionnettes 83.

[15] « J’ai donc osé composer un théâtre écrit de marionnettes, tentative sans précédent en Europe, et je livre cette tentative à la méditation et à la critique des esprits naïfs et savants. // En effet, jusqu’ici, toute la tradition des marionnettes est orale. Quand une pièce est écrite c’est une exception. Elle est jouée avec la plus grande liberté à l’égard du texte. » (L. Duranty, Théâtre des Marionnettes, Introduction, Paris 1880, quoted in Les Marionnettes108).

[16]  Tintagiles’s Death,  Aleddin and Palomides.

[17] According to Bakhtine, those episodes were performed successively for months on end, and scrupulously followed their source.

[18] « Dans Orlandino de Folengo, … on trouve une description parfaitement carnavalesque du tournoi de Charlemagne : les chevaliers enfourchent des ânes, des mules et des vaches, en guise de boucliers ils portent des corbeilles, en guise de casques des ustensiles de cuisine : seaux, marmites, casseroles. » (Bakhtine 211).

[19] The more able actors sometimes performed both in their own right then as puppet masters in the second half of the show.

[20] « Dans le théâtre des marionnettes traditionnelles, les montreurs recouraient à la ‘pratique’, petit instrument qu’on se met dans la bouche et qui déforme les sons de la voix, comme si la marionnette, animée et inanimée à la fois, pouvait avoir une voix –signe de l’humain—mais une voix altérée. La voix de Polichinelle, déformée par la‘pratique’, constitue un caractère essentiel du personnage et signifie aussi son appartenance au règne des morts. » R. de Simone, A. Rossi, Carnevale si chiamava Vincenzo, Rome, 1977 quoted in Les Marionnettes, p. 108.

[21]« La voix prêtée aux marionnettes acquiert une signification presque rituelle, liée à la conjuration et à l’évocation des morts. » R. de Simone, A. Rossi, Carnevale si chiamava Vincenzo, Rome, 1977 quoted in Les Marionnettes, p. 108.

The Development of Vernon Lee’s Politics

The Development of Vernon Lee’s Politics

By Phyllis F. Mannocchi

In the scholarship on Vernon Lee, not much attention has been paid to the fact that as she approached late middle age, Vernon Lee seemed to discover her voice as a political “radical,” a supporter of women’s suffrage, a participant in the anti-war movement, and an expert in international relations. Vernon Lee’s “radical” politics were “natural” to her. After all, she was a “born internationalist,” who had lived in France, Germany, Switzerland, England, and Italy, and was multi-lingual.  After expressing her opposition to the Boer War (1899 – 1902), Vernon Lee began to write more often on social, political, and international issues. Why is it that we know so little of her writing on these issues during this later period of her life?

A.J. P. Taylor, author of a famous study of Britain’s radical tradition, points out that during a popular, patriotic war like World War I, “radicals” were completely ostracized, sometimes even physically threatened. Since many supporters of the war considered those who were anti-war, sympathizers with the enemy, their “political” arguments and activism were viewed as heresy. After the war, the efforts of the anti-war movement were erased from popular memory. Vernon Lee’s writing seems to have shared this fate. Who could be more easily silenced than a “radical woman” like Vernon Lee, one who had been so outspoken?

What had led Vernon Lee, once praised by Bernard Shaw as representing “the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism, “ to become a dissenter against a patriotic war? One explanation for her anti-war stance can be found by tracing Vernon Lee’s political development from its origins in her youth, through her friendships with other outspoken anti-war, suffragist women, and finally, to her wartime role in the Union of Democratic Control and the full-flowering of her politics. I cannot, in this paper, re-create for you the entire story of Vernon Lee’s evolving politics. But I can give you a detailed look at one important stage of her political development –her friendship with Isabella Ford.

Vernon Lee was in England when war broke out. She stayed in England throughout the war, dividing her time between rooms in London and stays at Adel Grange, the country estate of the Ford family outside of Leeds in Northern England. Isabella Ford, one of Vernon Lee’s closest friends, came from a well to do Quaker family who had, for years, been active in social reform and philanthropic causes among the mill and factory workers of Leeds. Since the Ford family was known for its hospitality, Adel Grange was always crowded with weavers and tailoresses, prominent social reformers, labor leaders, suffragists, and Radical Liberal, Socialist, and Anarchist politicians and political thinkers. Following Quaker principles, at Adel Grange, everyone was treated equally.

It was at Adel Grange that Vernon Lee wrote The Ballet of Nations (1915).Shewould read The Ballet of Nations before a meeting of the Union of Democratic Control, the prominent anti-war group Vernon Lee had just joined. Kit Anstruther-Thomson, another member of the U.D.C., chaired the meeting at which Vernon Lee read, and Vernon Lee remembered the meeting as “Kit’s and my last act of collaboration.”

Isabella Ford spent a great deal of time with women workers at their workplaces and in their homes and became nationally recognized as an expert on women’s working conditions. All year round, Isabella Ford took on an exhausting schedule of public meetings during which she often spoke from the back of a farmer’s cart about the benefits of unionizing.  She became so well respected that she was the only woman voted on to the Executive Committee of the Independent Labour Party, the forerunner of Britain’s Labour Party. As she grew older, Isabella Ford continued to work tirelessly as an organizer for the labor, women’s suffrage, and peace movements, right up until her final illness.

During Vernon Lee’s visits to Adel Grange, Isabella and her sister Emily would educate her about the life of the working class whom both sisters served. Emily took her to the evening school for working class women that the Ford family had established and to the slums and factories of Leeds where Vernon Lee witnessed the devastating consequences of nineteenth-century industrialization on workers’ lives. In the correspondence Isabella Ford exchanged with Vernon Lee, Isabella Ford would sometimes describe in great detail what she observed as an organizer, utilizing the descriptive skills she revealed in her novels of working class life. Vernon Lee often responded with money for the people and causes Isabella Ford reported. In one case, Vernon Lee paid for the musical training of a young working class woman with a beautiful voice; in another, she sent Isabella Ford money for a young tailoress who was dying of consumption.

In 1907, after years of union organizing, public speaking, and writing on trade unionism and working-class women, Isabella Ford decided that the Independent Labour Party and the unions were failing to fulfill their promise to support women’s suffrage. Angered by their desertion, she “shifted the emphasis both of her analysis and her practical work away from trade union organization towards political action and socialist propaganda.” As a Socialist propagandist, she wrote the widely read pamphlet, Women and Socialismin which she tried to weave together socialist and feminist theory. This synthesis became a goal to which she devoted her writing and public speaking for the rest of her life.

Beginning with feminist theory, Isabella Ford tried to reconcile the two opposing perspectives on the ”woman’s question.” One perspective emphasized the need for women to first overcome economic oppression because economic equality would mean political equality. This argument had been advanced by the popular work, Women andEconomics (1898), by Charlotte Perkins Stetson/Gilman, the American Socialist and writer, who was Isabella Ford’s friend. Vernon Lee, who admired Gilman’s focus on economic analysis, also became her friend. The second perspective on “the woman’s question” was rooted in early Victorian feminism and emphasized women’s special “natural being” as a mother figure who was limited to a domestic role. Once given the vote, women could step out of the kitchen and bring their special virtues like nurturing and selflessness to the advancement of society. In her attempt to blend these two perspectives, Isabella Ford asserted the positive value of women’s special qualities, but also equated women’s oppression with economic inequality. Like others before and after her, Isabella, however, never quite succeeded in weaving the two strands of feminism together.

Also by the end of 1907, Isabella Ford had come to believe that women’s political equality must be secured before a socialist state could be established. She, therefore, decided to put all of her efforts into the movement for women’s suffrage, joining the NUSS (National Union of Suffrage Societies), a relatively conservative organization, dedicated to traditional activism, as opposed to the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), which adopted militant actions like chaining themselves to railings before government buildings or refusing to eat when imprisoned. It is interesting to note that Alice Abadam, Vernon Lee’s first cousin, became a suffrage militant, practicing what Vernon Lee called “hooligan suffragettism.”

Vernon Lee joined neither suffrage group, because, as she first made clear in her preface to the Italian translation of Women and Economics, she believed that women’s fight for the vote should not be solely a woman’s issue. Instead, it ought to be more inclusive — a “human cause,” whose goal would be a collective and collaborative society. For Vernon Lee, society had focused for too long on the individual, rather than the collective, will. Now Vernon Lee felt it was time for all citizens to understand the responsibilities of citizenship and to act on them. In August 2012, Barack Obama in his nominating speech at the Democratic Convention echoed Vernon Lee’s call for societal change based on the responsibilities of citizenship, not on decisions of government.

In 1907, Vernon Lee clarified her views on the “woman question” in a Westminster Gazette letter to the editor, entitled, “Why I Want Women To Have A Vote.” Her main argument was based on the fact that “democracy requires that the number of people habitually recognizing duties larger and more complex than those of family life, that is, the number of ‘efficient’ citizens, should increase steadily . . . ”

Although undeserving now, women could work on becoming so by being given the vote. Only then would they feel motivated to step beyond motherhood and their domestic duties and learn how to fulfill their civic duty as “efficient citizens,” that is, as responsible and contributing citizens.

 In another 1907 letter to the editor of the Westminster Gazette, Vernon Lee identifies herself as a suffragist as well as a member of the Liberal Party. Specifically, her letter is intended to declare her opposition to a policy decision of the militant suffrage group, the WSPU. WSPU members had voted to work against the Liberal Party in the next election because the party had not worked hard enough for suffrage. In contrast to the WSPU, Vernon Lee identifies as a suffragist who wants to stay with the Liberal Party and believes she is not alone. There are other women, she writes, who “have political opinions sufficiently strong to make them stick to their party, even if it should never give them the vote.” Vernon Lee’s declaration proved uniquely her own. What she was really declaring in this letter is that she did not need the vote; she was still able to voice her own strong opinions criticizing the government.

In August 1914, when World War I began, Isabella Ford was 59, while Vernon Lee was 58. Despite their ages and their health issues, both of them as pacifists, Isabella as a Quaker, Vernon Lee as an “internationalist,” recognized that they had to find others like themselves who were willing to protest the war. In the fervor of patriotism that had accompanied the declaration of war, both major suffrage organizations, the WUSS and the WSPU, voted to suspend their suffrage work and dedicate all of their efforts to supporting the war.

In November 1914, a handful of peace crusaders began to organize under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald, the chair of the Independent Labour Party. The initial membership was made up of Liberal, Radical Liberal, and Socialist male intellectuals. Known as the Union of Democratic Control, the group was “convinced that democracy must be based on the equal citizenship of men and women,” and so they also issued a call for women to join them in their peace efforts. Along with Isabella Ford and Vernon Lee, major suffragists wanting to work for peace, but finding no support from suffrage groups, joined the U.D.C.

By February 1915, on behalf of the U.D.C., Isabella Ford and Vernon Lee “distributed leaflets and addressed open-air meetings, often facing abuse from the audience.” Their efforts are reported in Isabella Ford’s biography. It is the first mention I have found of Vernon Lee’s public activism. Isabella Ford was used to hostile crowds and “being ‘stoned and pelted’ . . . for her labour and suffrage views,” but Vernon Lee had never before experienced such hostility.

A month later, in March 1915, Vernon Lee wrote an open letter to the leadership of the U.D.C. in which she attacked the “journalistic character” of all of the current main stream writing for its anti-German bias. Only German music was still celebrated through performances in England and not boycotted like most else that was German. Vernon Lee often lamented the fact that the current belligerents in the war had readily forgotten the international cultural heritage they shared. For Vernon Lee, such cultural amnesia was one of the most painful facts of the war.

The U.D.C. had been founded on 5 Cardinal Points that were meant to serve as the foundation of British foreign policy and of the peace treaty to come: 1) no country could be transferred from one country to another without a plebiscite of the people of that country; 2) no treaty could be put in place without the sanction of Parliament; 3) the foreign policy of Britain should give up “Balance of Power” politics and instead, aim to establish a Concert of Europe where all discussions were public; 4) Great Britain should agree to a settlement of the war that demands drastic reduction of armaments and the nationalization of the manufacture of armaments; 5) once hostilities ended, war should NOT be continued through economic means like unrealistic reparations.

This fifth cardinal point regarding the reparations that might be required of Germany in a peace settlement is one of the most recurring themes of Vernon Lee’s anti-war writing; this conviction reveals just how far-sighted she was. She would explore the issue of reparations in her first publication for the U.D.C.  – Peace with Honour: Controversial Notes on the Settlement, a 64-page pamphlet, published in 1915. All of the pamphlets that the U.D.C. published were aimed to educate the general public about their Cardinal Points so that Peace with Honour is presented as a syllabus “intended to facilitate its use for Study-Circles.”  The syllabus is divided into chapters on the major issues that must be considered in drawing up a settlement, such as: “Compensation To The Victor From The Vanquished”; “The Rights And Duties Of Neutrals”; “The Militarist Spirit”; “International Tribunes.”

Bold headings in each chapter indicate the major points of each issue to be discussed, followed by Vernon Lee’s analysis, often based on lessons from history. Throughout the pamphlet, Vernon Lee demonstrates an impressive mastery of world history and an exceptional clarity of style. Unlike Charlotte Stetson/Gilman’s Women and Economics, Vernon Lee includes footnotes that help support her analyses. In an eloquent preface to the syllabus, Vernon Lee describes her view of a lasting settlement:

“And give also to ‘Peace’ the additional significance, not of a mere temporary adjustment, extorted by force of arms or diplomatic haggling . . . but of a Settlement based in the recognition of human nature’s universal claims and strivings, and in the respect for the improving standards of human justice.”

Among its most significant contributions, according to UDC historian, Sally Harris, Vernon Lee’s Peace with Honour emphasizes the need to recognize “the distinctive lines” between a government’s foreign policy and the rights of its people. Governments want more power through territorial expansion, but as Vernon Lee insists: “Only the inhabitants of a territory should be its real possessors,” and “only the citizens constituting a nation should have the responsibility for war and peace and everything determining the one or the other.” With her internationalist expertise, Vernon Lee also addresses “the folly of attempting to establish new boundaries containing minorities of differing languages, traditions, religions and cultures.” In her conclusion, Vernon Lee recalls John Bright’s metaphor of war as the “grave of good.” One of the most terrible deaths “is that of the mutual understanding, the necessary collaboration of those who, in every country, can alone work towards a lasting, because a rational and humane, peace.” She emphasizes that without an international discussion of the “terms of the settlement and the principles underlying them,” Europe might “be delivered up once more to the mercies of the militarists and diplomatists [diplomats] who have made this war against the will, and behind the backs, of all the peoples without distinction.”

Towards A Lasting Settlement, published by the U.D.C. in 1915, contains essays on the future peace treaty by several of the U.D.C.’ s most illustrious members. Vernon Lee’s contribution, entitled, “The Democratic Principle and International Relations,” calls on the reader “to think out some of the principles which should control the international relations of democratic countries.” Looking forward to a future of an increasing number of democracies, Vernon Lee describes how “democratic ideals make for peace.” She first defines the “democratic principle”  “as that of consent against compulsion; agreement (with its correlate disagreement) as against obligatory authority; and self-direction as against direction by others; equality of judicial and civic rights being among the necessary guarantees of this threefold first principle.” The main focus of the essay becomes “the application of this principle to politics,” especially how the democratic principle will guide the relationship of nations to each other:

 “For the very essence of democracy being the admission of greater and greater numbers to self-government and consequently the better and better equipment . . . for self-government, it is evident that methods of conciliation and co-operation must be perpetually on the increase, and methods of compulsion and one-sided exploitation on the decline.”

Thus, a lasting settlement, founded on the democratic principle, would bring about greater opportunities for conciliation, co-operation, and collaboration among nations.

Following the examples of Frances Power Cobbe, Charlotte Stetson/Gilman, and Isabella Ford before her, Vernon Lee would try to publicize her views as widely as possible, placing articles in the popular press and in more specialized or scholarly newspapers and journals like publications of the women’s suffrage movement, of the Independent Labour Party, the Liberal Party, and the Socialist Party. She published throughout Europe and the United States, writing in English, French, German, and Italian. I have recently discovered 18 of her previously unknown short articles in the main stream press and suspect there are still more to be located.

Vernon Lee earned a vital place within Britain’s distinguished radical tradition during World War I, by taking on a bold new role. With the power of a religious dissenter and in an impassioned public voice, she denounced her government’s conduct of international relations and joined with like-minded intellectuals in a “radical” organization for peace. In her writing, she proposed a new vision for conducting international relations and for negotiating for peace. She reviled the long history of secret diplomacy, based on the traditional British paradigm of elitist power and authority. In its place, she foresaw a “Concert of Europe,” based on the democratic principle and operating through international collaboration and cooperation. Vernon Lee strongly believed her vision of a new foreign policy, more firmly grounded in the democratic principle than the old, would guarantee future peace among nations.

Vernon Lee took all that she had learned from her brother, her friends, and her colleagues, then added the insights she had gathered from her own experience. Re-shaping her analysis and pointing it toward the future, Vernon Lee became both a peace theorist as well as a visionary, although tragically, one whose views were all too quickly forgotten.

 Phyllis F. Mannocchi

Professor of English

Colby College

Waterville, Maine

Les aspects de “La poupée” (1927)

 La matière et la manière  fantastiques :

les aspects de  « La poupée » (1927) par Vernon Lee,

comme indices de lecture du texte

 Alice Mussard (PhD)

Université de la Réunion

La nouvelle « La Poupée » de Vernon Lee reproduit sous forme de monologue le récit incroyable d’une collectionneuse d’antiquités. A l’occasion de l’exploration d’un vieux palais, le regard de la narratrice croise celui d’une maîtresse de maison assise, de façon incongrue, dans une chambre de bonne, et vêtue, de façon tout aussi excentrique, selon la mode des années 1820. La visiteuse réalise presque simultanément que celle qu’elle vient de prendre pour une véritable comtesse est en réalité une poupée aux dimensions humaines, semblable à celles des musées Grévin et Mme Tussaud’s. Subjuguée, la narratrice ne cesse de penser à cette rencontre. Une relation très intime, basée sur la connaissance intuitive et la communication télépathique, s’instaure dès lors entre les deux femmes. Compatissant avec les déboires de la femme-objet, la collectionneuse rachète la figure de cire et la livre aux flammes.

Au fil de la nouvelle, et jusque dans le résumé que nous venons d’esquisser, nous ne pouvons manquer de relever l’ambiguïté du terme qui désigne la protagoniste : la « poupée ». D’après le Petit Larousse illustré ([i]), ce terme désigne « une figurine costumée ». Toutefois, une acception péjorative nous renvoie à une « femme jolie, coquette, mais futile et un peu sotte ». Qu’incarne donc cette héroïne éponyme et quel(s) visage(s) donne-t-elle à la nouvelle ? Vers quel type de lecture du texte la poupée oriente-t-elle le lecteur ? Peut-on établir un parallèle entre le corps de la poupée et le corps de l’œuvre ?

En premier lieu, nous verrons que la substance cireuse, fantastique, dont est pétri le récit est une matière propice aux résurgences des angoisses existentielles. Nous mettrons ensuite l’accent sur la réflexion artistique dont s’accompagne la nouvelle. Pour finir, nous postulerons qu’à travers cette nouvelle transparaît le discours critique de Vernon Lee sur la société des XIXème et début du XXème siècles, une organisation sociale patriarcale qui étouffe la créativité de la femme.

I- Le visage cireux, symbole métapsychique des problèmes existentiels

A- Les adultes-enfants : le mythe d’une maturité jamais atteinte

Lorsque la Comtesse entame sa vie conjugale, elle n’est encore qu’une femme fraîchement sortie du couvent. Tout juste nubile, elle semble rapidement débordée par une vie maritale pour laquelle son éducation religieuse ne l’a pas préparée. Ces circonstances nouvelles ne concourent pas à son épanouissement. Une sexualité prématurée, à caractère pédophile donc, ne peut être que débilitante et finit logiquement, sur le plan narratif, par l’extinction du personnage de femme-enfant, précipité dans un tourbillon d’événements et de découvertes qu’il n’est pas en mesure d’engranger. Malgré les expériences maritales qu’elle traverse, la Comtesse conserve cette identité infantile in articulo mortis, immortalisant en mourant le paradoxe insurmontable de sa condition de mère-enfant.

L’attitude du mari semble avoir contribué pour beaucoup, sinon entièrement, à l’interruption du processus de maturation physiologique et psychologique de sa femme, fût-ce symboliquement. En admirant l’esthétisme de cette enfant somptueuse comme on apprécie la toile d’un grand maître, l’ingéniosité dans l’agencement des couleurs et l’harmonie des courbes, il a figé sa femme à jamais dans une forme représentative d’elle-même. Même vivante, elle n’est déjà plus qu’un portrait, c’est-à-dire une version paralysée d’elle-même. Elle ne sera désormais autre que cette figure juvénile éternelle aux yeux de son mari. Notons que le pouvoir infantilisant du regard masculin est un motif récurrent dans la nouvelle. La narratrice redevient elle-même une enfant sous le regard d’Oreste tandis qu’elle lui fait part de son intention de se procurer la Poupée. Elle se sent soudain toute petite puisqu’elle attend son aval, comme on attend avec appréhension l’approbation paternelle, avant de pouvoir acquérir la poupée de ses rêves. Ce processus régressif, d’involution pourrions-nous dire, met d’autant la narratrice au supplice que l’autorisation tarde à venir. Les yeux songeurs et pleins de sagacité d’Oreste découpent autour de son amie un cadre qui l’englobe toute entière dans sa réflexion. Ce processus, qui a lieu un bref instant, donne à la représentation mentale que compose sciemment Oreste les allures d’une prise photographique. Pour la seconde fois, la femme est transformée en portrait, pétrifiée par l’homme de façon relativement durable, toute une vie pour la Comtesse ou l’espace d’un moment interminable pour la narratrice : le regard de l’homme défie le temps. Ainsi, les personnages de Vernon Lee prennent à contre-pied le mythe de la Méduse. Ce n’est plus la femme-phallique aux cheveux serpentant qui réifie le héros d’un regard foudroyant. C’est l’homme qui, par son regard de connaisseur, confère à la femme le caractère immuable d’un objet d’art. Cette égalisation de la femme et du chef-d’œuvre, ce nivellement, rappelle le cas d’Isabel Archer dans le travelogue de Portrait de femme[Campion, 1996]. La jeune voyageuse devient, pour l’un de ses soupirants, un certain Gilbert Osmond, la copie miniature de la Vénus de Botticelli, une perle posée au creux d’un coquillage et confiée à ses bons soins. Le Comte de « La Poupée », pour sa part, a voulu voir en sa femme La Madone du peintre Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. C’est ainsi qu’il a ordonné qu’elle soit représentée après sa mort, et la narratrice ne manque pas d’établir la ressemblance patente. Classée de la sorte au rang des beautés classiques, la Comtesse défie le temps et esquive les atteintes de la vieillesse. N’est-il pas logique qu’elle meure en son état de parturiente, pour ne pas faillir à son image parfaite et laisser entrevoir, post-partum, un corps déformé des suites de l’accouchement ? Les premières imperfections de cette figure divine ne la feraient-elles pas chuter du piédestal sur lequel son mari l’a placée avec tant de soin ?

A travers son histoire malheureuse, la Comtesse apparaît comme une enfant sacrifiée au profit du Comte. Ainsi que l’explique Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux, l’enfant malheureux, chez Vernon Lee, est symboliquement englouti dans des refuges aux dehors régressifs : « [I]l existe chez Vernon Lee deux sortes d’enfants, les enfants heureux, beaux, libres, nus, païens (comme Dionea) et les autres, solitaires, désemparés, imaginatifs (comme Benvenuta ou Alberic)… Ceux-là demeurent dans leurs cellules, écrins, alcôves et autres grottes ou niches fœtales, ou bien encore prisonniers de leurs tableaux ou tapisseries-mondes » ([ii]). La nouvelle qui nous intéresse ne fait pas figure d’exception. L’armoire fait office d’une fausse grotte utérine d’où la Poupée est constamment expulsée, puis remisée. Ces manipulations contradictoires font d’elle, au sens propre comme au sens figuré, le jouet des humeurs de chacun. La Poupée est une sorte d’enfant-placard, esclave des bons plaisirs de ses propriétaires successifs, soumise aux aléas de leurs humeurs fantasques.

Le mari peut également être comparé à un enfant qui voit en son épouse-poupée une figure maternelle encline à recueillir ses larmes. Bien peu désireux d’élever son enfant après le décès subit de cette dernière, il envoie son fils dans un lointain pensionnat. On peut s’étonner de l’abandon du nouveau-né, fils de la Comtesse, chair de sa chair, symbole vivant de l’amour entre les époux séparés, fruit d’une union qu’il sera désormais impossible de renouveler. Plusieurs hypothèses peuvent être soulevées pour expliquer ce rejet radical, soit que le père ait reporté sur son fils la responsabilité du décès de son épouse, soit qu’il se soit senti trop submergé par son chagrin pour s’occuper de tout autre que lui-même, soit, enfin, qu’il n’ait jamais désiré qu’un enfant mette en péril sa relation fusionnelle avec la Poupée. Mais on peut postuler que la raison profonde de cette répudiation est qu’il n’est encore lui-même qu’un père-enfant, qui a besoin du giron maternel, ou de son substitut symbolique, pour soulager sa peine. Ainsi se transmet le poids d’une névrose familiale de génération en génération. Le fils de la Comtesse, ayant vécu comme un orphelin et ruminé sa rancœur pendant de longues années d’internat, revient, vindicatif, détrôner son père indigne. Une lignée de mauvais pères et de mauvais fils s’établit, jusqu’au petit-fils de la Comtesse qui ne fait que peu de cas des valeurs familiales. Celui qui vendra sans scrupules la Poupée à la narratrice est décrit avec mépris par Oreste comme un homme vénal, sans principes, prêt à vendre père et mère – ici, de façon symbolique, sa grand-mère – pour un peu d’argent. Cette famille éclatée manque de cohérence, à commencer par ce Comte qui fait passer sa Poupée avant son fils.

En définitive, le fait d’avoir choisi de fabriquer d’après le modèle de sa femme véritable cette poupée géante donne une résonance infantile aux rapports conjugaux. Il ne s’agit pas d’une relation entre adultes, mais entre un enfant et un adulte. Les rôles sont d’ailleurs interchangeables. Si la Comtesse est décrite elle aussi comme une enfant, sa « première mort » lève la malédiction en faisant d’elle une figure maternelle. Ayant été jusqu’au bout de sa vie de femme, elle peut alors mourir pleinement.

B- Le drame de l’amour impossible : la fracture des couples 

« La Poupée » est l’histoire d’un amour tragique. La Comtesse, qui aime pourtant son mari avec passion, se trouve dans l’incapacité de faire état de ses sentiments. Cette inaptitude devient rapidement source d’un complexe d’infériorité et se transforme en blocage. L’épouse frustrée nourrit du ressentiment envers elle-même. Son amour-propre endolori, son manque de confiance en elle, font des déclarations d’amour de son mari une cause de douleur constante. Ce dernier, néanmoins, s’accommode fort bien du mutisme de sa femme. En monopolisant la parole, il transgresse les règles élémentaires qui sous-tendent à la conversation. Théoriquement, « [l]a prise de parole s’organise de façon à ce que plus d’une personne ait l’occasion de parler […]. De façon caractéristique, les participants se mettent d’accord pour savoir qui parle quand et à quel moment un locuteur cède sa place à la personne suivante » ([iii]). Le Comte, en ce qui le concerne, refuse de laisser parasiter son discours par une quelconque interruption. Nous pouvons supputer que toute réplique de son épouse aurait, à ses yeux, rompu le charme de sa palabre. En agissant de la sorte, il utilise sa compagne comme un miroir de lui-même. Il peut s’enorgueillir de sa propre faconde, puisqu’elle lui renvoie pour toute réponse l’écho élogieux de sa propre voix. Le Comte éprouve une grande satisfaction narcissique à s’écouter parler. Il se repaît des sons de sa voix, séduit par ses propres talents d’orateur, sourd à la crise muette que traverse sa femme. Ainsi, l’amour prétendu du Comte pour son épouse relève d’un sentiment égocentrique qui fait boucle sur lui-même.

Alors que les deux partenaires n’ont vécu ensemble que très peu de temps, un drame survient. La Comtesse perd la vie et son mari, fou de douleur, fait construire une poupée à son image, avec laquelle il entretient le même type de relation exclusive. Sa situation fait penser au poème « Mon Rêve familier » ([iv]) de Paul Verlaine, où le poète voit régulièrement pendant son sommeil une femme insaisissable dont il est follement épris. Comme si cette femme n’était pas suffisamment inaccessible, elle est décrite comme une statue du fait de son regard que l’on devine vitreux, et comme une morte puisque son nom est « doux et sonore / Comme ceux des aimés que la Vie exila », et que sa voix « a / L’inflexion des voix chères qui se sont tues ». De surcroît, puisqu’elle appartient à l’univers onirique, aucun contact charnel avec elle n’est réellement envisageable. Un second exemple emprunté au domaine cinématographique pourra étayer ce type de déchirement dans la relation amoureuse. Dans le long-métrage Laura [Preminger, 1944], le détective McPherson mène l’enquête sur le meurtre de l’héroïne. Fasciné par le portrait qu’il découvre dans son appartement, le jeune homme tombe amoureux de la disparue. En choyant la Poupée, le Comte persiste à entretenir le même type de relation impossible avec un être qui, nonobstant ses efforts désespérés, n’est plus de son monde.

C- L’angoisse de la mort et le fantasme de vie éternelle

1­- Oreste, l’homme immortel

Oreste, personnage caractérisé par sa longue barbe et sa cape, est un personnage sans âge aux allures de prophète. On l’imagine sans peine sous les traits de Gollum dans Le Seigneur des anneaux [Jackson, 2003] : la chevelure retombant dans le dos, la barbe sur la poitrine, attributs archétypiques du sage. Oreste a accumulé des connaissances encyclopédiques qui rivalisent d’ampleur avec le savoir druidique. Sa sagacité ne semble avoir d’égal que son érudition. Ses facultés de mémorisation phénoménales contrastent avec les approximations de la narratrice qui, incapable de se remémorer ses enseignements, est incapable de distinguer Properce de Tibulle. Les représentations mentales d’Oreste, en revanche, sont tellement précises, qu’elles donnent à croire qu’il a été le témoin oculaire des événements qu’il relate. Son omniscience et son ubiquité font de lui un personnage qui, ayant acquis une forme d’immortalité, traverse les époques. Oreste est une forme sublimée des appétits humains gargantuesques de connaissance et de longévité.

2- La poupée, forme de résurrection humaine   

L’ambivalence de la Poupée fait d’elle un personnage inquiétant, d’autant que cette dualité se glisse jusque dans les moindres détails qui concernent sa description. C’est ce que révèle une analyse linguistique du texte. L’expression « la Poupée » ne désigne l’entité ni comme un objet – ce que souligne l’emploi de la majuscule –, ni comme un être animé – ce qu’indique l’emploi de l’article défini. La Poupée est un être inclassable, coincé entre deux états (vie ou mort), entre deux formes (corps de femme ou corps de poupée), entre deux lieux (la chambre de bonne ou le placard), entre deux formes linguistiques (nom propre ou nom commun). La réalité de son être est si extraordinaire, tellement contre-nature, qu’elle est indicible, si ce n’est par l’association aberrante, grammaticalement invalide – et pourtant justifiable – de la majuscule et de l’article.

L’aspect physique de la poupée se construit sur la même ambiguïté. Au premier regard, elle se présente comme une femme distinguée au port altier. Au second, elle n’est déjà plus qu’une imposture, une caricature de femme réalisée à la va-vite, les détails de la finition ayant été bâclés. Les cheveux sont mal peints, le front ceint d’un fichu forme un triangle sévère sur le visage et un trou figure à l’arrière de la tête. En allant plus loin, nous pouvons cependant défendre l’idée que les formes géométriques du visage et du crâne, tout en réifiant la poupée, accentuent son faux-air humain. Ce trou à l’arrière de la tête, mentionné par deux fois, fait songer à la plaie béante qu’aurait pu laisser une balle ou la marque hideuse d’une trépanation. Ce détail dont la morbidité est irrécusable transforme la poupée en un monceau de souffrance, un être condamné à une agonie perpétuelle. Le corps de la poupée se fait le théâtre d’un affrontement entre la vie et la mort, à mi-chemin entre souplesse et hiératisme, entre motricité humaine et répétition mécanique. De fait, œuvre de génie, la Poupée mime les gestes humains grâce à l’aide d’une assistante. Le changement de position des bras et le croisement des jambes sont opérés par une servante qui tient lieu de marionnettiste. Toutefois, la Poupée agit également de façon autonome. L’agitation du pied perdure, curieusement, bien après que sa jambe ait été touchée. La Poupée prend alors les allures d’un automate dont le branlement machinal a la régularité d’un métronome. Mais son aspect robotique est parfois questionnable, portant à croire que le balancement incessant du pied répond à une agitation  nerveuse. Il faut dire que la Poupée adopte parfois des attitudes étrangement humaines. Femme de lettres, elle parcourt son journal, à l’instar de la narratrice qui lit le soir les chroniques empruntées à Oreste. Pour Hubert Desmarets, « ce qu’il y a de ‘fantastique’ dans l’histoire de créatures artificielles tient peut-être à sa faculté simultanée de s’effacer entièrement devant ce qu’elle représente et de ne figurer qu’elle-même. Tout comme les poupées de Bellmer génèrent le fantastique en affichant simultanément l’aspect de la vie humaine et la radicale impossibilité de leur corps fabriqué » ([v]). C’est ainsi que les couleurs qui se dégradent sur le corps sans vie de la poupée font ressortir un « quelque chose de vivant » qui met en mouvement la matière inerte. La robe de satin et le corsage, à l’origine blancs, sont devenus gris. D’autres variations sont beaucoup plus inquiétantes, étant plus prononcées (la soie blanche devenue noire), ou difficiles à expliquer (le fanchon noir a viré au rouge). De façon générale, les couleurs des vêtements se sont assombries comme si la poupée en vieillissant prenait non pas des rides – ces rides si caractéristiques de l’être mortel et périssable –, mais des teintes ombrageuses, lugubres et parfois sanglantes. A la fin de la nouvelle, la robe a repris une couleur blanche, étincelante, en accord avec l’humeur de la Poupée. Elle semble se réjouir intérieurement de ce que son vœu soit sur le point d’être exaucé. Etant donné que l’expression de son visage n’est pas modulable, ce sont les variations de couleurs qui reflètent ses états d’âme. Cloîtrée dans son palais, la Poupée a dépéri comme la plante privée de soleil. Au grand air, elle éprouve un immense bonheur et retrouve les couleurs chatoyantes de la vie. Très symboliquement, le paysage autour d’elle renaît d’une nuit noire pour fourmiller de couleurs. Le soleil se lève dans un ciel parfaitement bleu, les montagnes qui s’y découpent son d’un bleu embué. Les vignes sont jaunes, les pêchers chargés de fruits rougissants. La rosée fait étinceler l’herbe, touche finale de ce tableau de maître, conférant au paysage les connotations printanières de fraîcheur et de renouveau. Ce décor reporte sur l’épilogue ses caractéristiques positives. Il faut reconnaître que l’épisode du bûcher comporte en soi toutes les apparences d’une mise à mort moyenâgeuse. Cette section du texte, au demeurant, semble soulager le récit de ses lignes de tension, en même temps que la Comtesse transcende sa condition de Poupée. Comme le note Gaston Bachelard, « le feu suggère le désir de changer, de brusquer le temps, de porter toute la vie à son terme, à son au-delà » ([vi]). De fait, le brasier va permettre à la Poupée d’accéder à l’étape finale de sa mort trop longtemps différée. Bachelard conclut que « primitivement, seuls les changements par le feu sont des changements profonds, frappants, rapides, merveilleux, définitifs » ([vii]). Le feu est en somme libérateur. Il sublime la mort en délestant la Poupée de ce corps reconstruit qui l’étouffe. Oreste et la narratrice procèdent à un acte euthanasique en délivrant la femme de cette cire qui pèse sur elle comme une chape de plomb. Cette fois, la Comtesse est bien morte et c’est un soulagement.

Nous devons ajouter qu’il y a quelque chose d’horrifiant, de subversif, à avoir ressuscité la Comtesse. En cherchant à refouler le spectre de la mort, le Comte a créé un être hybride dont la nature est indécidable. Il rappelle à notre souvenir les nombreux apprentis sorciers de la littérature. Tel Frankenstein ([viii]), il a reconstitué une sorte de monstre à partir de restes humains (les vêtements originaux de la défunte, sa bague, ses cheveux). Il évoque, en outre, la logeuse de Roald Dahl ([ix]), cette directrice de pension qui tue ses jeunes victimes les unes après les autres avant de les empailler et de les disposer dans son établissement. Perroquet, basset allemand, jeunes hommes séduisants sont tous transformés en êtres de paille, sortes d’épouvantails qui ressemblent, à s’y méprendre, à des êtres vivants. Etre hybride, créature de l’entre-deux-mondes, la Poupée est pareille à ces fétus de paille dont le corps est embaumé afin de donner l’illusion de la vie. Son esprit est, dans cette optique, emprisonné dans un corps inadéquat, tel l’esprit Ariel dans l’œuvre de Shakespeare, retenu par la sorcière Sycorax dans un arbre ([x]). La poupée se retrouve dès lors dans un état transitoire entre la vie et la mort, et ne peut manquer d’évoquer la nouvelle d’Edgar Poe où le narrateur hypnotise un mourant, éternisant le moment bref de son agonie ([xi]). La Poupée apparaît alors comme un être supplicié, pareil à ce Monsieur Valdemar que l’on empêche d’accéder à la mort, seule délivrance imaginable d’une vie arrivée à son terme. Le trou à l’arrière de sa tête fait d’elle une moribonde dont on proroge la douleur. L’armoire dans laquelle elle est reléguée est une tombe régulièrement profanée sous prétexte de rituels de dépoussiérage. Ainsi, la Poupée ne trouve pas plus de quiétude à être femme qu’à figurer en tant que réincarnation d’elle-même. Elle est à chaque fois destinée à une vie végétative, à cette « [a]ttente figée que l’on retrouve à la même époque jusque dans les arts graphiques, chez les poupées de Bellmer ou les mannequins de Chirico, dans les collages d’Ernst, Hausmann et Paolozzi : rarement l’idée d’ ‘art fantastique’ a été plus justifiée que par ces effigies, tendant à qui les contemple un miroir réifiant » ([xii]). Au regard de ces éléments, cette nouvelle se construit sur le fantasme de vie éternelle et symbolise l’incapacité humaine à faire face à la mort. L’instinct de survie, poussé à l’extrême, ne sauvegarde qu’une forme de vie dégradée, et soulève des problèmes éthiques tels que la mutilation du cadavre dont on prélève les attributs (ici, la chevelure). Didier Anzieu note que « l’homme – on a en effet noté combien jusqu’à présent il y a parmi les créateurs plus d’hommes que de femmes – trouverait une compensation à son incapacité naturelle d’enfanter en mettant au monde des productions culturelles, aptes à plus ou moins survivre par elles-mêmes, comme une illusion, ou un symbole, de descendance » ([xiii]). En effet, la filiation entre le Comte et sa Poupée est plus distincte que celle qui l’unit à sa progéniture véritable. Le Comte est davantage celui qui a conçu un être de cire mobilisant toute son attention plutôt qu’un être de chair et de sang, son propre fils, dont le sort l’indiffère. En définitive, la pérennité de la création artistique devient une façon pour l’homme de triompher de la mort. Pour reprendre les termes d’Anzieu, « [c]réer serait une façon de lutter contre la mort, d’affirmer une conviction d’immortalité » ([xiv]). L’homme transcende jusqu’à son humanité dans l’acte de création. Il s’égalise alors avec les dieux, pour le meilleur ou pour le pire.

II – Le magnétisme de la poupée, allégorie du pouvoir de séduction de l’œuvre artistique

 A – Un déséquilibre manifeste dans l’utilisation des sens

 1 – L’interdit du toucher et la sacralisation de l’œuvre d’art

Comme si l’un et l’autre appartenaient toujours à des mondes différents (l’un au monde réel, l’autre à celui des fantômes), le Comte et sa femme sont l’un pour l’autre intouchables. Cette séparation des corps est si radicale que leur enfant semble le fruit d’une immaculée conception. L’aspect virginal de la Comtesse est poussé à l’extrême avec sa transformation en Poupée. D’une part, elle est créée à l’image de la Madone d’Ingres. D’autre part, son mari la place dans un boudoir, telle une statue dans une chapelle privée. Il n’autorise d’ailleurs l’entrée de ce lieu sacré à personne. Son sanctuaire devient un véritable lieu de pèlerinage. Le lecteur imaginera sans peine le Comte agenouillé, le visage inondé de larmes, confiant sa peine à la Poupée comme un croyant adresse ses prières à une divinité dans l’espoir qu’elle les exauce. Cette déification laisse sous-entendre l’interdit du toucher qui frappe l’homme et la femme dans la société victorienne, dans la veine du principe christique du noli me tangere. Anzieu explique que la répression des sensations haptiques a pour objectif de parer à une sollicitation des zones érogènes qui aurait pour corollaire la perte du contrôle de soi : « l’interdit du toucher met en garde contre la démesure de l’excitation et sa conséquence, le déferlement de la pulsion » ([xv]). Par mesure préventive, le contact avec la peau est par conséquent, sinon évité, du moins étouffé. Un chiffon tient lieu de surface de séparation entre les corps lors du dépoussiérage, et jamais, semble-t-il, un personnage n’osera épousseter la Poupée du bout des doigts. Le danger du toucher est latent, guettant les plus audacieux. Il est signalé sous la forme d’une anecdote à valeur de parabole lorsque la servante de la narratrice laisse tomber un objet précieux et l’ébrèche. Les formes de manipulation constituent des actes profanes qui aboutissent systématiquement à des événements désastreux. Outre l’histoire de l’objet endommagé que nous venons de mentionner, un second épisode étaye le fait que la pulsion du toucher, non réprimée est préjudiciable. La servante qui sert de guide à la narratrice se rend coupable d’incorrection lorsqu’elle intime un mouvement de vie à la Poupée. Face à cette impudence, la narratrice, outrée, la traite intérieurement de sorcière. La manipulation fait de la Poupée une marionnette, un pantin désarticulé qui n’a aucune maîtrise sur son propre corps. La Comtesse est, de façon répétitive, dépossédée de son corps : par cette servante audacieuse, par son fils qui lui arrache la vie en naissant, et par ce mari qui la recompose pour son propre compte. C’est sans doute le Comte qui pousse l’interdit du toucher aux frontières du tolérable, en manœuvrant dans le domaine de la thanatopraxie. On ose à peine imaginer dans quelles conditions les cheveux formant la perruque de l’être de cire ont été prélevés de la dépouille. Cette poupée avec de vrais cheveux rappelle les effigies vaudou, utilisées en magie noire pour infliger la souffrance. La Comtesse a ainsi subi la manipulation jusque dans ses chairs, ayant été refaçonnée, de sorte qu’elle n’est ni tout à fait elle-même, ni tout à fait une autre, mais plutôt une étrangère à son propre corps, conçue pour le plaisir des yeux.

2 – Le surinvestissement visuel

Tous les personnages de l’histoire ont succombé à un moment ou à un autre au charme de la Poupée, seule arme effective dont celle-ci dispose. Ses yeux grands ouverts, notamment, ont sur la narratrice un pouvoir hypnotique qui modifie le comportement habituel de cette-dernière. Aimantée par le regard singulier d’un être-objet, la collectionneuse utilise la ruse pour fausser compagnie à ses accompagnateurs et se retrouver seule avec la Poupée. Cette pulsion scopique attirant irrésistiblement l’humain vers l’être sans vie peut nous amener à établir un parallèle entre « La Poupée » et « L’Homme au Sable » de Hoffmann. Dans cette nouvelle, un jeune étudiant, Nathanaël, s’éprend d’Olympia, qu’il prend pour la fille d’un professeur d’université. Il s’agit en réalité d’un automate créé pour paraître humain. Comme dans la nouvelle qui nous intéresse, la ressemblance est confondante et le protagoniste se laisse piéger, quand bien même il entrevoit la supercherie. En effet, la fixité du regard dément la supposée humanité de la créature mécanique : « c’était comme si elle eût dormi les yeux ouverts » ([xvi]) commente Nathanaël, perplexe, mais toujours crédule. Quand bien même le regard persistant horrifie le jeune homme, il refuse d’admettre la duplicité de sa bien-aîmée : « [l]es yeux seuls lui semblaient singulièrement fixes et comme morts ; mais plus il regardait à travers la fenêtre, plus il semblait que les yeux d’Olympia s’animassent de rayons humides » ([xvii]). Le regard cristallise le pouvoir de séduction des êtres ambivalents – ici, de la femme-automate et de la poupée humaine. En effet, dans « La Poupée », l’attirance de la narratrice ressemble à un coup de foudre, où l’essentiel du pouvoir de séduction s’articule autour du regard.

Le besoin de voir la Poupée est tellement impérieux, qu’une servante se permet d’improviser un show pour le bon plaisir de la narratrice. Esclave d’un spectacle grotesque lorsqu’elle est manipulée, la Poupée n’est pas loin de la bête de cirque, assimilée à l’animal savant ou à l’homme-éléphant ([xviii]), un être curieux que l’on exhibe dans l’attente d’une gracieuse récompense. Nous remarquerons que la Poupée n’a de cesse d’être monnayée. Son mariage, en premier lieu, laisse supposer qu’elle était pourvue d’une dot. Par la suite, la narratrice la rachète au petit-fils du Comte, personnage vénal entre tous. La femme, le portrait ou la Poupée sont des propriétés que l’on peut acquérir. De la même façon que Gilbert Osmond fait de son épouse un bibelot parmi tant d’autres, le Comte fait de la Poupée un objet de collection qui finit par passer au second plan, sa passion de numismate ayant repris le dessus. A ce titre, il rejoint Frédéricks, du roman de John Fowles ([xix]), collectionneur, lui aussi, en sa qualité de lépidoptérophile. Comme le Comte, il arrache à la société la femme qu’il aime, de manière à l’avoir pour son attention exclusive. Il organise son kidnapping et séquestre sa captive dans la cave d’une maison de campagne. La femme, ainsi coupée du monde, fait l’objet d’un culte de l’apparence. Nous pouvons présumer que ce type de relations qui ne passent que par le regard génère un complexe de Tantale. Tandis que les pulsions du toucher sont contrariées, le fossé entre les êtres se creuse. Le surinvestissement du visuel devient paradoxalement, pour le Comte, source d’aveuglement. Quand bien même il regarde sa femme, il ne la voit jamais réellement. Comme le souligne Clément Rosset, il n’y a de pire aveugle que le voyant qui élude ce qu’il a sous les yeux dans l’acte de voir : « [l]’aveuglé est incurable non d’être aveugle, mais bien d’être voyant : car il est impossible de lui ‘refaire voir’ une chose qu’il a déjà vue et qu’il voit encore. Toute ‘remontrance’ est vaine – on ne saurait en ‘remontrer’ à quelqu’un qui a déjà sous les yeux ce qu’on se propose de lui faire voir » ([xx]). Le surenchérissement visuel, couplé à l’appauvrissement des autres sens – le déni obstiné des sens tactiles et auditifs notamment – empêchent le Comte de connaître sa femme. Celle dont il est le plus proche restera à jamais une parfaite inconnue.

B – La poupée vivante, métaphore du génie artistique

Dans l’imaginaire collectif, la reproduction artistique capture tout ou partie de ce qui est vivant. En d’autres termes, l’artiste dérobe un peu de vie au modèle pour l’injecter dans son œuvre.  Rapportant ce constat à des domaines périphériques, on peut dire que la photographie, comme la confection de la Poupée, est un processus d’immortalisation. L’individu pris en photo (au sens de capturé) devient, comme la Poupée, un objet-fétiche prélevé sur le réel. La nouvelle est une réflexion sur la création artistique qui compose avec le réel (la vraie chevelure, le vrai anneau d’or, les vrais vêtements) pour produire un réel aussi vrai que nature et quasiment vivant, tel le tableau mystérieux de Gogol. Dans sa nouvelle intitulée « Le Portrait », un jeune artiste dénommé Tchartkov fait l’acquisition d’une toile représentant un vieil homme peint avec un tel talent qu’il en paraît vivant ([xxi]). Peu à peu, il semble en mesure de faire des allées et venues constantes entre le monde bidimensionnel de sa toile et le monde extérieur. Malgré tout, toute représentation est représentation de la mort. Ainsi, Barthes appelle l’être photographié : « le Spectrum de la Photographie, parce que ce mot garde à travers sa racine un rapport au ‘spectacle’ et y ajoute cette chose un peu terrible qu’il y a dans toute photographie : le retour du mort » ([xxii]). La Poupée est une semblable revenante. Elle symbolise le paradoxe de l’être : être réellement vivant, et morte en sursis.

De plus, la Poupée peut être envisagée comme un symbole métafictionnel de la création artistique et littéraire qui soulève de fortes émotions. Comme la femme-poupée communique avec la femme-narratrice, l’œuvre d’art, celle qui nous séduit, nous parlesans avoir besoin d’être verbalement explicite. Elle trouve en nous un écho, ou, plus exactement, nous voyons en elle un miroir de nos expériences personnelles. Nous projetons en elle notre compréhension du monde, nous l’épaississons de notre ressenti. Ainsi, la narratrice semble entendre chez la Poupée le cri muet d’Edvard Munch ([xxiii]), qui l’englobe dans les cercles concentriques de ses vibrations, comme le spectateur du tableau, d’une façon très intime. Si la narratrice est sensible à cette détresse non-articulée, c’est sans conteste qu’elle s’y reconnaît.

C- Les maux de l’aphasie transcendés par la création littéraire

La femme, qu’elle soit poupée, portrait, Comtesse ou narratrice, ne fait jamais part de ce qu’elle ressent à son mari. Comme Ada dans La Leçon de piano [Campion, 1993], la Comtesse renonce à l’usage de la parole faute d’être écoutée par son époux. De façon étrangement similaire, la narratrice n’a pas l’impression qu’il soit possible de communiquer avec son partenaire. Délaissée, elle voyage seule. Incomprise, elle réserve ses confidences à des oreilles plus sensibles. Pourtant, l’homme n’est pas foncièrement mauvais. Le mari de la Poupée, dépeint comme un idéaliste sentimental et faible, suscite la compassion. De même, le mari de la narratrice est un être charitable, débonnaire. Malgré tout, la conversation entre maris et femmes est empêchée, le dialogue irrévocablement rompu. La narratrice ne peut se soulager de son récit sur la Poupée auprès de son mari – pire que de manquer de compréhension ou d’intérêt pour son histoire, ne risquerait-il pas de prendre son épouse pour une folle ? Quant au Comte, hypervolubile, il écrase sa femme sous le poids de son éloquence. Cette logorrhée ou verbomanie creuse chez son épouse une incapacité à s’exprimer. Bâillonnée par des monologues sans fin, la Comtesse se sent diminuée. Elle se retire dans une forme d’existence préverbale, aphasique, qui se rapproche d’un comportement autistique. Par voie de faits, sa « première » mort ne fait pas de différence audible. De femme sans voix, elle devient Poupée aux lèvres immobiles. La parole exprime notre capacité à concevoir et à encoder des pensées ; elle est signe de l’intelligence humaine. Mais surtout, sur le modèle de la logique cartésienne du cogito ergo sum, elle atteste de notre existence au monde. Quelque soit ce que nous disons, nous disons toujours – et avant tout – que nous sommes.  Parler, c’est apporter la preuve matérielle que le « je » est, a conscience d’être et exploite ce potentiel. La parole nous rend capable d’agir sur le monde. En tant que telle, l’expression orale fait de nous des êtres parlant, pensant, agissant et progressant. Ne pas parler, c’est non seulement refuser le privilège de se faire entendre, renier un droit fondamental, mais aussi renoncer à l’existence. La mise à l’écart de la parole a une incidence mortifère évidente. La Comtesse n’est-elle pas, de son vivant, une sorte de fantôme, tel l’auditeur mystérieux de la narratrice qui jamais ne se manifeste verbalement ? La Comtesse n’a-t-elle pas été mise à mort, littéralement noyée sous un flot de paroles ? Son propre fils ne lui a-t-il pas porté le coup de grâce en poussant le cri fatal du nouveau-né, premier signe d’une loquacité masculine qui allait la saisir à la gorge, tout comme l’expressivité débordante du mari l’avait étouffée?

La Poupée est marquée à jamais par cette expérience traumatique, qui lui laisse une cicatrice visible. Le trou que son créateur e eu l’indécence de laisser à nu à l’arrière de sa tête semble témoigner d’une désinvolture sadique du confectionneur. Elle symbolise une forme de castration ou, pour être plus exact, un forage, une lobotomie qui met en danger le cerveau, site du langage, de l’intellect et des fonctions motrices. Ce trou est donc une perforation du Moi-Peau, une effraction de l’intégrité de la Poupée. Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux observe que « [c]hez 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 » ([xxiv]). Cette écorchure est à mettre en relation avec le fantasme de peau commune mère-enfant qui est resté inassouvi. La Comtesse a été très tôt privée de l’étreinte maternelle pour être confiée aux soins d’une institution religieuse. Cette séparation de l’enfant et de la mère est vécue comme un arrachement dont la peau porte les stigmates. Cet orifice emblématique suppose, de surcroît, que la féminité de la poupée fait obstacle à son intellectualité et la discrédite en tant qu’être spirituel.

Mise sous pression, la Poupée, de son vivant, est dans l’incapacité de formuler des pensées claires, qui demeurent à l’état embryonnaire. Qu’à cela ne tienne, elle communique avec la narratrice au-delà de la parole, par processus télépathique. La narratrice prend le relais pour faire connaître de telles pensées mot pour mot à son interlocuteur, des pensées qui seront finalement transmises oralement à un interlocuteur discret et couchées sur papier. A travers ce récit par procuration, cette autobiographie mue en mini-biographie, la Poupée surmonte son mutisme. L’écriture est à la fois thérapeutique et libératrice. La création littéraire, tel le feu vivifiant qui embrase le bûcher, est un processus de sublimation. La verve créatrice est ce jaillissement de flammes dévorantes, cette énergie brûlante, la création ce travail d’orfèvre qui fait ressortir le bijou des cendres crasseuses.

III – La poupée brûlée : le récit féministe d’une nouvelliste engagée

 A – La narratrice ou la Poupée dissimulée du récit

Tout porte à croire que les vies de la Poupée et de la narratrice sont étroitement mêlées. En poussant la réflexion un peu plus loin, on peut voir en la Poupée une projection fantasmatique de la narratrice et de sa propre histoire, ce qui expliquerait sa connaissance intuitive et télépathique de la vie de la Poupée non par l’empathie, mais par l’identité.

La bague, en tant que symbole du statut marital, peut être vue dans la nouvelle comme une restriction d’une identité féminine plurielle à la seule définition de la femme en tant qu’épouse. C’est l’éclat de l’aliénation qui scintille dans le métal, dans la mesure où « Vernon Lee dénonce le scandale de ‘l’amour’ conjugal, ce système de dépendance réciproque qui prive l’épouse d’un champ d’action légitime et condamne l’époux à consacrer exclusivement ses efforts à l’entretien de sa femme et de progéniture » ([xxv]). C’est à ce lourd héritage matériel et idéologique, confié par Oreste – véritable frise chronologique vivante comme nous l’avons démontré –, que doit faire face la narratrice. La tradition se perpétue à travers le don inopiné du bijou qui scelle définitivement, semble-t-il, le destin de la narratrice et celui de la Poupée : la bague révèle en la narratrice la Poupée cachée.

B – La poupée, lady sublimée

L’éducation que reçoit la Comtesse lui enseigne à devenir une dame nourrie de références bibliques. De fait, la Comtesse a passé ses jeunes années au couvent, d’où elle n’est sortie que pour être mariée. Elle fait penser au personnage de Pansy dans Portrait de femme. L’esquisse que Henry James brosse de cette jeune femme est édifiant : « [m]anifestement imprégnée de la notion que la soumission était due à quiconque parlait d’un ton autoritaire, elle assistait en spectatrice passive à la marche de son destin » ([xxvi]). La vie de Pansy est donc préprogrammée, de même que celle de la Comtesse, sans que l’on juge utile de consulter l’une ou l’autre sur le sujet.

Creusant davantage la question du mode de vie du personnage féminin, nous remarquons que l’espace concédé à la Poupée s’amenuise comme une peau de chagrin, résultant en une claustration extrême. D’abord envoyée au couvent, la Comtesse est transférée – le terme nous semble approprié, puisqu’il s’agit vraisemblablement d’un mariage arrangé – dans la maison de son mari, qui constitue une autre forme d’univers carcéral. Elle y vit recluse puisque son mari se départit de toute société pour pouvoir se consacrer à son adulation. Transformée en poupée, elle est enfermée dans un boudoir, puis finalement séquestrée dans une armoire. La mise en abîme des espaces restreints – l’univers religieux destiné aux jeunes filles issues de la haute société, le palais du Comte, l’armoire tel un caveau, le sarcophage du corps cireux – fait de la comtesse la pièce fondamentale d’un jeu de poupées russes.

C – Vernon Lee : une Poupée qui dit non ?

Vernon Lee « se dit mal à l’aise dans le confinement et les conventions victoriennes, cette ‘tenue si britannique’ qui consiste à taire, parfois à étouffer les sentiments humains » ([xxvii]). Elle est, d’après la biographie de Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux, une « écorchée vive très sensible à l’incommunicabilité » ([xxviii]), ce que traduit cette nouvelle par le biais de la Poupée et de la narratrice, ces personnages emblématiques, ces héroïnes muselées.

Vernon Lee jette également l’opprobre sur ce fléchissement de la structure sociale qui fait de la femme une création de l’homme. Elle reprend l’allégorie qui sous-tend à « La Poupée » dans un article, en comparant l’homme à « un humain qui s’amuse avec une poupée » ([xxix]). Mais Vernon Lee est la poupée qui dit non. L’auteur cherche à effacer  radicalement des esprits, dans un autodafé gigantesque, cette image dépréciative de la femme, pour n’y laisser qu’un souvenir doré du passé, un symbole commémoratif auréolé du progrès des mentalités.

Conclusion

Nous espérons avoir démontré, dans un premier temps, que la plume de Vernon Lee nous fait emprunter les chemins de la parapsychologie. La taille surdimensionnée de la Poupée met en exergue l’aspect ambigu d’une femme restée enfant toute sa vie et qui à sa mort est amalgamée à ce puissant symbole de l’enfance : elle échappe ainsi à toute volonté  de catégorisation. La Poupée trahit également l’enfant qui se dissimule sous les traits de l’homme viril. Avec son  triangle frontal et la perforation de sa boîte crânienne, elle est pleine de ces motifs premiers dont foisonnent les dessins infantiles ou les jeux d’encastrement propices à l’éveil et au développement cognitif de l’enfant. Père irresponsable et raté, adorateur déraisonnable d’une poupée, le Comte ne sait pas faire preuve de la maturité et de  la rationalité qui incombent à l’âge adulte. Il a opté pour une solution singulière pour refouler  la douleur du deuil et enterrer le réel, comme si son appareil psychologique ne disposait pas des outils nécessaires pour affronter la Mort. Face à une réalité macabre difficilement acceptable, les formes de vie pérennisée abondent dans le récit. Oreste est un homme sans âge, sur lequel le temps coule insensiblement. Quant au Comte, qui a cherché à rendre une vie éternelle à son épouse défunte par le biais de la poupée, il ressemble à l’enfant qui donne vie à ses jouets par la force de son imagination et s’entoure de compagnons fantasmés. Mais la poupée est aussi pour lui un objet transitionnel, pour reprendre la terminologie winnicottienne, qui l’aide à défaire progressivement la forme d’attachement visiblement œdipienne qui le lie à sa première épouse, puisque, comme nous l’avons mis en évidence, la Poupée joue le rôle de figure maternelle. La rupture de cette relation fusionnelle est envisageable grâce à la mutilation du jouet. Winnicott rappelle qu’au cours de cette phase primordiale de détachement, « l’objet dans le fantasme est toujours en train d’être détruit […]. La destructivité, à laquelle s’ajoute la survivance de l’objet à la destruction, place celui-ci en dehors de l’aire des objets établis par les mécanismes projectifs mentaux du sujet » ([xxx]). L’objet qui résiste à l’anéantissement devient donc le non-moi au-delà duquel se définit le moi. Winnicott explique que, selon le même principe, le patient détruit symboliquement son analyste. La trépanation de la poupée semble, de la même façon, libérer le Comte de sa dépendance affective. Elle lui permet, à travers une mise à mort de la défunte – de sa propre initiative cette fois – d’exorciser définitivement l’expérience traumatisante du décès. Des phénomènes transitionnels intermédiaires (sa collection de médailles, ses courses à cheval) lui permettront de s’ouvrir définitivement au monde extérieur. Définitivement guéri, le Comte finira même par trouver une femme avec laquelle il entretiendra, a priori, une relation conjugale ordinaire.

Nous avons ensuite mis en relief, du point de vue de la stratégie énonciative, le dispositif spéculaire du récit. Nous avons montré que les œuvres d’art que sont le portrait et la poupée font écho à la création artistique littéraire. Le processus d’écriture donne la revanche aux femmes de la nouvelle – à la Poupée, qui surmonte par personne interposée le handicap de sa vie averbale, à la narratrice qui allège sa tourmente en se confiant à un interlocuteur qui jamais ne l’interrompt, à la femme victorienne dont le lourd tribut est fustigé. On comprendra,  dans ce contexte, l’importance que revêtent pour Vernon Lee les « personnalités féminines fortes telles que la femme de lettres ou la diva, qui, contrairement aux ‘poupées’ de la société victorienne et édouardienne, font entendre leur voix » ([xxxi]). Violet Paget, au double titre de femme et d’écrivain, milite pour que les femmes parlent et que la société les écoute.

Pour finir, nous avons mis l’accent sur l’identité des poupées auxquelles se réfère le récit. Elles ont pour signe distinctif une bague, ce legs féminin pesant qui se transmet d’une génération à l’autre en même temps que l’histoire de la Poupée, établissant entre les héroïnes du récit un lien aussi sûr que celui de la parenté. Le récit fantastique est en effet comme une bague que la narratrice glisse dans la paume de son interlocuteur silencieux, et dans celle du lecteur à travers ce dernier. La nouvelliste, quant à elle, refuse d’accepter sans mot dire – ni maudire – cet héritage lourd comme un fardeau. En conclusion, on peut voir en Vernon Lee une Poupée qui dit non : non à un système patriarcal débilitant, non à la femme domestiquée et assimilable à l’objet décoratif, un non prononcé de façon audible avec l’art et la matière fantastiques.


[i].  Le Petit Larousse illustré, dir. Philippe Merlet, Larousse, 2005, p.854.

[ii]. « L’Enfant dans les textes de Vernon Lee », Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux, Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens, n°47, 1998, p.253.

[iii]. « Turn-taking is organized so that more than one person has the chance to speak […]. Participants typically agree on who should speak when and when a turn is over ». Nous avons recueilli cette citation lors de séminaires de linguistique (« Linguistics 101 ») dispensés par Alan Dench à The University of Western Autralia, à Perth  (Février-Juin 2002).

[iv]. « Mon Rêve familier », Poèmes Saturniens, Paul Verlaine, LGF-Livre de Poche, 1996.

[v]. « Créatures artificielles », Dictionnaire des mythes du fantastique, dir. Pierre Brunel, Juliette Vienpury, Pulim, 2003, p.39.

[vi]La Psychanalyse du feu, Gaston Bachelard , Collection « Folio Essais », Gallimard, 1949, p.39.

[vii]Op. cit., p.102.

[viii]Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, titre original Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, trad. Hannah Betjeman, Gallimard, 1997.

[ix]. « La Logeuse », Kiss, Kiss, trad. Elisabeth Gaspar, Gallimar, 1978.

[x]The Tempest, William Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare, 1999.

[xi]. « La Vérité sur le cas de M. Valdemar », Histoires extraordinaires, Edgar Allan Poe, trad. Charles Baudelaire, LGF – Livre de Poche, 1972.

[xii]. « Créatures artificielles », ibid.

[xiii]Le Corps de l’œuvre, Essais psychanalytiques sur le travail du créateur, Didier Anzieu, Coll. « Connaissance de l’Inconscient », Gallimard, 1981, p.18.

[xiv]Ibid.

[xv]Le Moi-Peau, Didier Anzieu, Dunod, Paris, 1995, p.171.

[xvi]. « L’Homme au Sable », Contes fantastiques, vol. II, Hoffmann, trad. Loève-Veimars, GF Flammarion, Paris, 1980, p. 232.

[xvii]Op. cit., p. 241. Nous soulignons.

[xviii]. Nous songeons bien évidemment ici au film de David Lynch, The Elephant Man [Lynch, 1980].

[xix]L’Obsédé, John Fowles, titre original The Collector, trad. John Fowles, Coll. “Points Roman”, Seuil, 1983.

[xx]Le Réel et son double, Clément Rosset, Gallimard, Coll. « Folio/Essais », 1984, p. 12-13.

[xxi]. « [I]l l’accrocha au mur, et la qualité de l’oeuvre le frappa encore davantage : le visage avait presque repris vie et les yeux le regardaient si intensément qu’il tressaillit et recula, stupéfait : ‘il regarde, s’exclama-t-il, il regarde avec des yeux d’humains », Nouvelles de Pétersbourg, trad. Boris de Schloezerr, GF Flammarion, Paris, 1998, p.158.

[xxii]La Chambre claire, Note sur la photographie, Roland Barthes, Cahiers du cinéma/Gallimard, 1980, p. 23.

[xxiii]Le Cri, (Skrik), Edvard Munch, tempera sur carton, 91 x 73,5 cm, Musée Munch, 1893.

[xxiv]. « L’Enfant dans les textes de Vernon Lee », op. cit., p. 256.

[xxv]. « Triste cire…cendres ardentes », Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux, in Le Visage vert, Anthologie fantastique, n°10, Editions Joëlle Losfeld, 2001, p. 87.

[xxvi]Portrait de femme, titre original Portrait of a Lady, trad. Claude Bonnafont, Liana Levi, 1995, p.275.

[xxvii]. Préface de Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux pour La Voix maudite, Nouvelles, Vernon Lee, trad. Sophie Geofrroy-Menoux, Terre de Brume, Rennes, 2001, p. 8.

[xxviii]Op. cit., p. 9.

[xxix]. Vernon Lee l’exprime en ces termes : « a human being playing with a doll », « The Economic Parasitism of Women », in Gospels of Anarchy, London, Fisher Unwin, 1908, p. 271. Nous fournissons la traduction.

[xxx]Jeu et réalité, L’Espace potentiel, Donald Woods Winnicott, trad. Claude Monod et J.-B. Pontalis, Coll. « Folio/Essais », Gallimard, 1975, p. 174-176.

[xxxi]. « Triste cire…cendres ardentes », ibid.

Bibliographie

I.               Filmographie

Laura. réal. Otto Preminger. act. Vincent Price, Judith Andersen. 93 min., 1944. DVD, Twentieth Century Fix Home Entertainment, 2004.

Leçon de piano (La), [The Piano]. real. Jane Campion. act. Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill. 119 min., 1993. DVD, TF1 Vidéo, 2003.

Portrait de femme, [The Portrait of a Lady]. real. Jane Campion. act. Nicole Kidman, John Malkovitch. 139 mins., 1996. Cassette video, Universal Pictures, 2000.

Seigneur des anneaux (Le), [Lord of the Rings], Le retour du roi. real. Peter Jackson. act. Lyv Tyler, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen. New Line Home Entertainment, 2004.

II.             Ouvrages

 Allan Poe, Edgar. Histoires extraordinaires. Trad. C. Baudelaire. Paris : Garnier Flammarion, 1965.

Anzieu, Didier. Le Moi-Peau. Paris : Dunod, coll. « Psychismes », 1995.

Anzieu, Didier. Le Corps de l’œuvre, Essais psychanalytiques sur le travail créateur. Paris : Gallimard, coll. « Connaissance de l’inconscient », 1981.

Bachelard, Gaston. La psychanalyse du feu. Paris : Gallimard, coll. « Folios/Essais », 1949.

Barthes, Roland. La chambre claire, note sur la photographie. Paris : Gallimard/Cahiers du cinéma, 1980.

Dahl, Roald. Kiss, Kiss. Trad. Elisabeth Gaspar. Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Fowles, John. L’obsédé [The Collector]. Paris: Seuil, coll. « Points », 1983.

Gogol, Nouvelles de Petersbourg. Trad. Boris Schloezer. Paris : GF Flammarion, 1998.

Hoffmann, E.T.A. Contes fantastiques, vol II. Trad. Loeve-Veimars. Paris : GF Flammarion, 1980.

James, Henry. Portrait de femme [The Portrait of a Lady]. Trad. Claude Bonnafont. Liana Levi, 1995.

Lee, Vernon. « La poupée ». Trad. Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux. Le visage vert, anthologie fantastique, n° 10, Paris : Joelle Losfeld, 2001.

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

Shakespeare. The Tempest. The Arden Shakespeare, 1999.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. [Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus]. Trad. Hannah Betjeman. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

Verlaine, Paul. Poèmes saturniens. Paris: LGF-Livre de poche, 1996.

Winnicott, D. W. Jeu et réalité, l’espace potentiel. Trad. Claude Monod et J. B. Pontalis. Paris : Gallimard, coll. « Folio/Essais », 1975.

III.           Articles

Desmarets, Hubert. « Créatures artificielles ». Dictionnaire des mythes du fantastique. Pierre Brunel dir. Pulim, 2003.

Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie. « L’enfant dans les textes de Vernon Lee ». Cahiers Victoriens et édouardiens, n° 47, Presses Universitaires de Montpellier, 1998.

Lee, Vernon. « The Economic Parasitism of Women ». Gospels of Anarchy. London: Fisher Unwin, 1908.

The Price of a Lily

The Price of a Lily: Women, the “Economics of Ekphrasis,” and Art Connoisseurship in Vernon Lee’s  “A Wedding Chest” (1904)

ANTHONY TEETS, SUNY at Stony Brook

In Money, Language, and Thought (1982), Marc Shell writes that “money, which refers to a system of tropes, is […] an internal participant in the logical or semiological organization of language, which itself refers to a system of tropes.”[i] This insight invites further reflection on how the internal circulation of such systems might involve other related tropes or turns of phrase that participate in the same logic. If, as Georg Simmel observed, “money is similar to the forms of logic which lend themselves equally to any particular content,”[ii] then it should be possible to trace systems of operation in historical texts that investigate the circulation, exchange, and ‘traffic in women’ as commodifiable fungible objects of art. Such an investigation is the aim of this essay in exploring the internal circulation of tropes in Vernon Lee’s (Violet Paget) short story “A Wedding Chest.”[iii]

The “successful” approach recommended by Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen in their “Taking Account of the New Economic Criticism: An Historical Introduction,” “must combine several angles of attack, eschewing both narrow formalism and the indiscriminate connections and generalities of New Historicism […] and at the same time show how microcosm mirrors macrocosm by concretely demonstrating the dense imbrications of cultural artifacts within a society.”[iv] The following essay will combine an analysis of the internal circulation of tropes (intratextual) with historical (extratextual) research relevant to what I will call Lee’s political economy of the “traffic in women.”

In 1904, the year Vernon Lee published her short story in a collection titled Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Stories; Charlotte Perkins Gilman recorded in her diary that she had called on Lee at her villa “Il Palmerino” just outside of Florence.[v]  The exchange between these two enthusiastic and intellectual women will remain a mystery forever, but it is tempting to imagine that the conversation might have involved some discussion on the recent Italian translation of Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898) for which Lee had written an introductory essay “The Economic Parasitism of Women.”[vi] Perhaps Lee might have shared the news of her latest literary collection, or they might have discussed the condition of women in Italy from the Renaissance to the present time. However fruitless such speculations might be for that particular exchange of intellectual capital, it is worth noting that the language Lee used in describing her encounter with Gilman’s book resonates with critical valence, for she described it as her “conversion” to the Woman Question.

It has been noted that John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies (1864-65) created, or at least participated in the creation of an abstract theory of the relations between men and women as inhabiting “separate spheres.” Following Kate Millett’s thesis in Sexual Politics (1970), Sharon Weltman describes Ruskin’s lecture as “a perfidious system of separate spheres for men and women dependent upon the concept of complementary opposites,”[vii] a discourse of men talking to men about women. As monarchs or virginal lilies, Victorian women were regarded as inhabiting circumscribed spaces subject to various discourses including the ethical, political, economic, or aesthetic. In Gilman’s text, she puts back into the equation activities that have been deeded over to the sex sphere (things not really part of that sphere). Moving away from the discourse of middle class women, Gilman attempts an analysis of “woman” as a class. Women are considered to be a thousand years in the rearguard and it will take thousands more to bring them up to date. Gilman sees her society as one where “zero sum” competition promotes an unsubtle “winner/loser” dichotomy which mirrors the relations between men and women. The “floral” language Victorian men such as Ruskin used in describing women has been perceived as a means of keeping them within the circumscribed sphere and in the hothouse of their confinement. That “hothouse” is the household, or “nest” where Gilman locates the economic oppression of women.

In her review of Gilman’s Women and Economics, which subsequently became a chapter in her Gospels of Anarchy, Lee highlights two crucial insights in the text that brought about her “conversion to the Woman Question,” the first being that “in it, the rights and wrongs of Feminadas Weib, were not merely opposed to the rights and wrongs of Virder Mann, but subordinated to those of what is, after all, a bigger item of creation, Homoder Mensch.” Leaving these various words for “male” and “female” in the original languages of Latin and German, Lee targets the mother of the “romance” languages (Latin) as well as that of the intellectual vanguard of her time (German). Gilman’s international and universal terms must have encouraged Lee who had always struggled to be recognized as a humanist, which included one who recognized the “queer comradeship of outlawed thought.”[viii] Here was a way of maintaining the language of a universal humanity while undermining the essentialist metaphysics generally used to bolster such a position. Vernon Lee’s response to Gilman’s book provided a new platform and a new language with which to voice her own disagreements with decadent aestheticism as well. By embracing the Women Question from the standpoint of economics and labor, Lee rejects hedonism and the separation of art from life practice, and as Christa Zorn observes, “reclaims from aestheticism its value as a socially and politically responsible discourse.”[ix]

Gilman herself declared in a speech: “I am called a feminist: I am not a feminist; I am a humanist. The reason why I have had to stop and study the position of women […] is because woman in her present position is the stumbling-block of the world. The world cannot go further nor faster nor higher until it has brought up the rearguard.”[x] Patricia Pulham cites this speech as containing “sentiments which are clearly visible in Women and Economics, and […] would have stuck a chord with Lee” for “the fundamental link between the two women lies in their humanist convictions.” In economic terms, the Woman Question cannot be resolved by new markets or new and improved commodities alone. It must be understood in the context of human values.

Lee’s second major insight is more directly related to her own literary concerns in presenting female characters in her novels and short stories. She noted the one line in Women and Economics that brought about her “conversion” was “women are over-sexed.” This insight has, as I will argue, a direct bearing on Monna Maddalena in “A Wedding Chest,” for in that story which partially parodies the “masculinist” humanist rhetoric of late nineteenth-century art connoisseurship the plot in the narrative portion centers on an economic exchange that is replicated and re-circulated on the formal level (intratextual). The emphasis Lee places on the importance of literature as a vehicle for the expression of her newly embraced political values provides the link between art and life practice that Zorn identifies as a salient feature of Lee’s review. In “A Wedding Chest,” Monna Maddalena, the young motherless victim of rape becomes the embodiment of the historical “oversexed” femina that Lee sets out to destroy in her review article.[xi] Lee’s assertion that women are “over-sexed” means simply that they are

“first and foremost females, and then again females, and then—still more females […] that, instead of depending upon their intelligence, their strength, endurance, and honesty, they depend mainly upon their sex; that they appeal to men, dominate men through the fact of their sex; that (if the foregoing seems an exaggeration) they are economically supported by men because they are wanted as wives and mothers of children—that is to say, wanted for their sex.”[xii]

Monna Maddalena, whose fiancé Desiderio works for her father Piero as cassone artisan, is completely boxed into this sphere. As if to stress the point of her desirability, Monna’s fiancé is given the name Desiderio, meaning literally “I desire.”[xiii] Her momentary escape from this world will also be the occasion for her rape and eventual destruction. She is thus literally and figuratively trapped in the cassone/trousseau that will also become her coffin. That Lee was indeed preoccupied with misogynistic Italian Renaissance images of women is evident from her previous treatments of cassoni panels in “Ravenna and her Ghosts,” and in Renaissance Fancies and Studies.[xiv] In both of these texts she pays close attention to the interartistic relations between Boccaccio’s novellas in the Decameron and specific cassoni panels attributed to Botticelli Nastagio degli Onesti and Pinturicchio (“tale of Griseldis”) retelling these narratives through painting. Lee also demonstrates her familiarity with the circulation of these panels and cites the former as once in the possession of F.R. Leyland, while the latter panel is in the National Gallery.[xv]

The narrating voice in “A Wedding Chest” is that of a connoisseur of Tuscan cassone panels who is both sexless and impartial to the individual characters and their plights. The real hero is an objet d’art, a cassone panel from a wedding chest. The panel has survived the terrible events described in the narrative and now sits on display in a museum [Fig. 1].

Cassonehttp://www.metmuseum.org

Fig. 1 Cassone, 1461–65
Marco del Buono Giamberti (Italian, Florentine, 1402–1489); Apollonio di Giovanni di Tomaso (Italian, Florentine, 1414/17–1465), Italian (Florence)
Painted and gilded gesso on poplar, set with a wooden panel painted in tempera and gold; 39 1/2 x 77 x 32 7/8 in. (100.3 x 195.6 x 83.5 cm)
John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913 (14.39)

The cassone panel is what Lee would refer to as a “culture ghost.” Vineta Colby, Lee’s most recent biographer, roughly defines a “culture ghost” as “set in Italy and centering on objects of art associated with a remote past.”[xvi] It is a survival from the past, a piece of an old chest that has been ripped off of an old wedding chest that once stood as a symbol for the traffic in women through Renaissance marriage rituals.[xvii] As art, it displays and mirrors the violence of that particular history and its “social aesthetics of rape.”[xviii] The survival of the panel as a fragment both records and reenacts that history while its presence in the museum also paradoxically provides the occasion for the story that is “A Wedding Chest.” For Lee, the late nineteenth-century connoisseurs and expatriates in Italy were also raping that country’s cultural heritage by exporting its art from its original home.[xix]

The story is dedicated “To Marie Spartali Stillman 1870-1904.” These dates evidently record the years of their friendship up to the time of the publication of Lee’s story. Spartali, a well-known painter of models and scenes in the style of the Pre-Raphaelites appealed to Lee’s visual taste. That taste is reflected in “A Wedding Chest,” which also calls to mind Francesco Matarazzo’s Chronicles of the City of Perugia (1492-1503), Boccaccio’s Decameron, and the historiographers of her own time (J. A. Symonds, Burckhardt, de Sanctis, and Pasquale Villari). More than likely, Spartali’s painting The Enchanted Garden of Messr Ansaldo (1889) [Figs. 2 and 3] directly inspired Lee’s story.

A Florentine Lily, by Marie Spartali Stillman“A Florentine Lily” (1890), Marie Spartali Stillman (1843-1927)www.erasofelegance.com/…/stillman9th.jpg

The Enchanted Garden of Messr Ansalso

“The Enchanted Garden of Messr Ansaldo” (1889), by Marie Spartali Stillmanhttp://www.goldsilverwholesale.com/photo/big/Stillman-Marie-Spartali/Stillman-Marie-Spartali-The-Enchanted-Garden-of-Messer-Ansaldo.jpg

In Limbo and Other Essays (1897) Lee had mentioned this particular work admiring its rich depiction of “an incident from the Decameron in which Ansaldo attempts to seduce the (married) Dianora by magically turning winter into summer.”[xx] Spartali painted portraits and scenes from the Italian Renaissance in the Pre-Raphaelite style. In particular Lee’s garden in “A Wedding Chest” where Desiderio buries the cassone containing the murdered Monna Maddalena bears a resemblance to the description of Spartali’s painting in Limbo.

The first section of “A Wedding Chest” is a fictional museum card describing the panel pertaining to the museum inventory list:

“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.”

This striking opening places the reader in the field of vision, not quite looking at the object (the “culture ghost”), but preparing for what Lee calls “the empathic experience.”[xxi]Clearly Lee’s attitude toward the museum is ambivalent for while on one the hand she spent countless hours in art galleries observing painting, sculpture, and other works of art, she also frequently mentions her dislike of the methods used to procure such inventories. For her, the museum gallery became a place to experiment with the psychological effects that art would have on the beholder.[xxii] The placement of the viewer’s body before the art object is crucial to an understanding of how Lee supports her transition from physiological to psychological adjustments that occur in aesthetic consumption.[xxiii] By placing the reader in this way before the museum card she creates a distancing or alienation effect that alerts the reader to the doubly-encoded work while preparing them for the narrative that follows.

This crucial distinction between passive surrender and collaboration grounds the aesthetic experience in the realm of human values allowing the beholder to feel into the art object, the very project of empathy theory. This definition of “empathy” also retains the original and untranslatable sense of the German word Einfühlung. By retaining these various levels of art consumption, Lee introduces a complex theory of art appreciation that extends to consciousness of production and consumption.[xxiv] On the second level which involves an understanding of how the cassone panel came to reside in the fictional museum, Lee reminds the reader that art objects don’t just appear there but must come from somewhere else. It is this process that entails an understanding of both production and consumption, and by drawing attention to it Lee is able to create a parody of the process of art connoisseurship in the late nineteenth century.

In order to sense Lee’s subtle use of parody in the opening of “A Wedding Chest” it is important to understand how the experience of beholding art objects in a museum differs when one approaches it with empathy. Lee’s presentation of the cassone catalogue number, its subject matter, and the footnote with the location, evokes the commonplace approach to gallery visitation where the spectator merely sees the art object as a display of national, class, or private wealth. In The Political Economy of the Sign, Jean Baudrillard emphasizes this distinction by noting that “the museum acts as the guarantee for the aristocratic […] exchange […] just as a gold bank […] is necessary in order that the circulation of capital and private speculation be organized, so the fixed reserve of the museum is necessary for the functioning of the sign exchange of paintings.”[xxv] A mere fragment from an original piece of Tuscan domestic furniture hardly qualifies as an awe-inspiring display of national wealth. Lee’s choice of a small panel from humble origins in the context of the museum as symbol of national wealth is a parody of the value system that underwrites the social aesthetic.

Lee’s “No. 428” then is part of the reserve of a fictional museum, the museum mentioned in the footnote “Catalogue of the Smith Museum, Leeds.” By separating the location of the art object from its catalogue description through a footnote, Lee is parodying the citational practices of art connoisseurs as well. Lee in fact was no stranger to parody. Dennis Denisoff notes in Aestheticism and Sexual Parody: 1840-1940 that her first novel Miss Brown (1884), “critiques the more popular form of aestheticism as socially debilitating. She then offers a virtuous model of lesbian desire which personifies an empathic, feminist aestheticism that condemns exclusionary attitudes in general, whether they are held by supporters or critics of aestheticism, whether they are based on aesthetic or gendered essentialism.”[xxvi]

The connoisseurs who facilitated the mass transport of art are hereby reckoned with in Lee’s subtle allusion to the de-contextualized object on display. Connoisseurship is above all interested in the “lure” of the art, its distinguishing characteristics and its identification within a complex network of signs.[xxvii] Its role in economics is ensured by its production of consumable works that join a hierarchical classification (the museum inventory) in a homologous relation to the bank reserve Baudrillard describes. By identifying what will be constituted as art (the “real thing”), the connoisseur is granted social distinction and lucrative financial rewards.

In March, 1903, The Burlington Magazine published its inaugural issue with a lead article “Alunno di Domenico,” by Bernard Berenson. Lee met the twenty-four year old Berenson when he first arrived in Florence with a letter of introduction. She promptly introduced him to her circle of intellectual acquaintances and helped to secure him a niche in her Florentine social circuit. By 1897 however, she fell out with him over his paranoid accusations that she plagiarized him in publishing her theory of empathy in the Contemporary Review (October-November, 1897). By 1903 Berenson was well on his way to financial success as a renowned connoisseur, and his article prominently placed in the first run of the Burlington, assured him status. It is very possible that Lee had read Berenson’s article since she frequented the same social circles and maintained a close correspondence with Berenson’s wife Mary Costelloe.

Berenson’s 1903 article discusses the identification and attribution of cassone panels ascribed to an unknown student of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494). The art connoisseurship discourse he uses is in marked contrast to that of the narrator in Lee’s “A Wedding Chest.” The citation practice and attention to detail in Lee’s short story also differs from Berenson’s article. Where Berenson’s discourse is methodical, scientific, and authoritative, Lee’s is fanciful, imaginative, and descriptive. What they have in common is their subject matter for both are concerned with cassoni panels. Lee’s parody of Berenson is carried out through a simultaneous use of understatement and embellishment. Where Berenson cites a string of catalogue numbers for different cassone panels, Lee’s story has only No. 428. Finally, Berenson lends his critical attention to the precision of characteristics attributable to particular schools and artists while nothing is said about the social or cultural contexts of the panels under discussion. In Lee’s short story, the socio-historical is paramount and the ekphrastic section rich in detail contrasts remarkably with Berenson’s single interest in establishing the authorial origin of the panels.

What is unique about Lee’s writing, and this will be attested in my analysis of the second section of her story, is the particular use she makes of what I will call the “economics of ekphrasis.” This term from Wendy Steiner’s article “The Causes of Effect: Edith Wharton and the Economics of Ekphrasis” suggests that Wharton’s use of ekphrasis in The House of Mirth (1905) has more than a “purely aesthetic function.” Steiner charts “the role of ekphrasis in the novelistic clash between capitalist and aristocratic ideals,” and as I will argue by extension, ekphrasis also doubles as economic and artistic discourse in Lee’s short story. Circulating as art objects, the women in Wharton and Lee’s novels and short stories function as ornaments. Steiner notes “the problem of the ornamental is that it stands outside the realm of practical contingency. At the same time, as Judith Fetterly points out, “the ornamental cannot exist without a solid economic base…”[xxviii] By raising the aesthetic topos of ekphrasis to the level of economic discourse, Steiner allows Wharton’s novel to critique the “cause” (capitalism) that turns women in these novels into “effects.” Exploiting the ekphrastic genre of art description as a purely ornamental and useless detail to the narrative of her short story allows Lee to insert a sharp and incisive critique of the historical misogynistic practice known as “the traffic in women.” By extension, insofar as it ignores the socio-historical aspects of the art objects, connoisseurship practice also participates in the production of art for consumers who continue to ignore the stories things tell.

Since “A Wedding Chest” is an ekphrastic work, it is necessary to identify the particular art object Lee describes. The panel is fictive; it is what John Hollander refers to as a “notional ekphrasis,” the description of an imaginary work of art.[xxix] Again, Lee has chosen to highlight the discursive practices of connoisseurship by detaching them from any context at all. By imagining “a” wedding chest with no specific referent, Lee is perhaps critiquing the emptiness of scientific connoisseurship, its a-historicity. During the late-nineteenth, Victorians cultivated a mania for cassoni. The demand for these objects is rather difficult to explain since the chests themselves were not the focus of attention but rather the richly decorated panels that ornamented their sides. As an effect of the Risorgimento the British interest in things Italian had since mid-century become something of a national pastime. As Ellen Callmann explains, “One is forced to conclude that during the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, when the mania for collecting cassoni was at its height, the main bodies of Florentine Renaissance chests were discarded with ruthless abandon.”[xxx] Lee’s story mirrors this process exactly since her panel, which originally belonged to a complete chest (Monna Maddalena’s coffin) reflects in a horrific way the biography of her “culture-ghost.” Monna Maddalena as a character doubles with the art object and continues to circulate in the very economic system that has always trafficked women as art and gold.  In this way Monna Maddalena can be likened to what Mary O’Connor describes as a Bakhtinian chronotope, a woman among the domestic objects.

By borrowing Bakhtin’s method of constructing a chronotope in which ‘time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible [and] space becomes charged and responsive to the moments of time, plot and history […] A materialist analysis of the world of objects […] must have a reading of what is usually repressed: the world of women.[xxxi]

The gendering of Monna Maddalena and the cassone, fusing them together into a chronotope, undermines patriarchy by exposing its mechanisms. The descriptive and ornamental ekphrastic section also contributes to the gendering of the formal aspects of the story.

The ekphrasis combines the styles of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) with that of the familiar language of the connoisseur. The idea of the cassone as a coffin may have been suggested to Lee by Vasari’s description of such items in his brief biography of the painter Dello Delli:

[T]he citizens of those times used to have in their apartments great wooden chests in the form of a sarcophagus, with the covers shaped in various fashions, and there were none that did not have the said chests painted […] And the stories that were wrought on the front were for the most part fables taken from Ovid and from other poets, or rather stories related by the Greek and Latin historians, and likewise chases, jousts, tales of love, and other similar subjects, according to each man’s particular pleasure.[xxxii]

Lee’s familiarity with Vasari is attested in her many articles and books on the Italian Renaissance in which she draws careful distinctions and interpretations from his Le vite de più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori. Vasari’s comparison of the cassone with a sarcophagus not only describes the narrative trajectory of No. 428, but it also stands as a chilling reminder of the brief and often unhappy lives of its owners. Notably in the first paragraph of “A Wedding Chest” the narrator is so fluent in the language of the classics that Vasari himself is almost outdone:

The said Desiderio had represented upon this panel the Triumph of Love, as described in his poem by Messer Francesco Petrarca of Arezzo, certainly, with the exception of that of Dante, who saw the vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, the only poet of recent times who can be compared to those doctissimi viri P. Virgilius, Ovidius of Sulmona, and Statius. And the said Desiderio had betaken himself in this manner.[xxxiii]

All the beauty of the object is in its outward adorning and ornament. The cassone itself is not for Monna Maddalena at all but for a family member of the story’s villain, Troilo Baglioni. Desiderio paints an image of himself among the happy lovers in one of the four painted sections of the cassone. Troilo, upon his own request, is placed among the unhappy lovers as “Troilus, the son of Priam.”

Certain phrases in Lee’s story also deliberately evoke the boy-worship of the Oxford enclaves of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas which Berenson frequented:

in the middle of the panel Desiderio had represented Love, even as the poet has described: a naked youth, with wings of wondrously changing colours, enthroned upon a chariot, the axles and wheels of which were red gold, and breathing fire from the nostrils.

Lee’s description of the naked youth, the androgynous villain Troilo Baglioni, and the golden wheels that carry him, parodies the aesthetes through the suspension of narrative.[xxxiv] The golden axles and wheels that carry the chariot along are here arrested with the suspended narrative. Jonathan Freedman notes in his study of Henry James and British aestheticism that

[its] tendency toward ekphrasis, its habit of creating verbal descriptions of visual works of art […] would seem to resolve aestheticism’s double attitude toward time. These verbal fictions attempt to claim as their own the ability that the nineteenth century defined, after Lessing, as visual art’s defining characteristic: its ability to freeze action, its existence in a state of perpetual—and silent—stasis. Ekphrastic verbal fictions, it would seem, thus successfully achieve the kind of synthesis aestheticism yearns for. They seem to bring the perfect moment into a world of temporality, to create timeless icons in the very medium that seem bound most irrevocably to time.[xxxv]

Ekphrasis economizes time by freezing into “still moments” the temporal continuity generally expected of narrative. Here however, Lee has taken over this use of ekphrasis and mined its potential for an altogether different purpose.

Though often forgotten, Vernon Lee was one of the first to note the highly gendered versions of ekraphistic works among the aesthetes. Her character Walter Hamlin in Miss Brown is modeled after Dante Gabriel Rossetti and can be read as a forerunner in the critical exploration of this theme.[xxxvi] Rossetti, poet-painter of the gold-framed and gold-embossed pictures of the Virgin Mary, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9) and Ecce Ancilla Domine (1849-50) is parodied as a Pygmalion figure “discovering” and “rescuing” the eponymous heroine Miss Brown [Fig. 4]. Catherine Golden, in “Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s two-sided art,” argues that “the presence of the written text on the frame/canvas ‘ensures that the reader/viewer readily apprehends both the literal and symbolic sides of a subject’: that the physical and erotic beauty which dominates when the text is read atextually, is tempered by its mythic associations.”[xxxvii]

Ecce Ancilla Domini

Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

http://www.artchive.com/viewer/z.html

Freedman’s “temporal argument” then is not the only strategy used for ekphrasis in aestheticism. As Wendy Steiner has shown in her study, “Lily Bart, presents herself, and is taken by others, as a work of art […] a strange amalgam of creator and creation, agent and object. Lily’s name enhances this ambiguity.”[xxxviii] Lily’s predicament, as Steiner recognizes, is that her association with the ornamental (“the lily was a central design element in art nouveau”) creates a double-bind wherein the highly gendered essentialism of aestheticism freezes representations of women, precisely the activity Vernon Lee deplores, critiques, and parodies in her own work. Steiner notes the episode of Lily Bart’s tableau vivant of Reynold’s portrait of Mrs. Lloyd and demonstrates how the “stopped-action” effect of ekphrasis freezes Lily’s image into the novel: “Lily’s tableau makes her a pure, beautiful visual object, cut off from the world of causality and contingency.”[xxxix]In her development of Monna Maddalena, Lee creates a character that becomes completely fused into the art object itself. As a virgin, Monna Maddalena’s name foretells her destiny in the story; what happens to lilies when they are spoiled.

Adrienne Munich has drawn attention to this phenomenon in her seminal essay “What Lily Knew: Virginity in the 1890’s.” Drawing on a wide variety of artistic and literary works from this period, Munich shows for example, how Wilde’s Salomé “recognizes the economics of virginity as morally and monetarily valuable. Like money it supports the sexual economy; it is a nothing that fuels sexual exchange.”[xl] Henry James’s Maisie from What Maisie Knew “like Salome, becomes a counter in the sexual economy […] James has gilded the lily. Maisie the virgin with gold is Virgin of the Gilded Age.”[xli] Interestingly, Munich shows how the dual aspect of this floral symbolism operates: “it would be useful to keep in mind the sexual ambiguity of the symbol, a symbol that frequently has as its subtext a distaste for loss of virginity by heterosexual means.”

Munich’s observations on Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini stress the symbolism of the embroidered lily panel at the foot of the bed on which Mary cowers as the angel Gabriel approaches: “a disconcertingly corporeal Gabriel proffers a lily to Rossetti’s Virgin in a symbolic acting out of the moment of conception. Gabriel’s lily, a sign of the virgin, as the instrument of conception, becomes also phallic. Symbol of both virginity and divine phallic power, the lily can make things happen.”[xlii]

Vernon Lee uncannily presaged Munich’s observations in her 1895 essay “The Imaginative Art of the Renaissance.” Tracing the evolution of representations of the Virgin Mary from the Italian Renaissance to the nineteenth century, she writes:

A satisfactory study of the lack of all dramatic invention of the painters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is afforded by the various representations of the Annunciation of the Virgin, one of the favorite themes of the Renaissance. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that the Virgin and the Archangel might be displayed otherwise than each in one corner of the picture. Such a composition as that of Rossetti’s Ancilla Domini [sic], where the virgin cowers on her bed as the angel floats in with flames round his feet; such a suggestion as that of the unfinished lily on the embroidery frame, was reserved for our skeptical and irreverent, but imaginative times.[xliii]

Here Lee points out her familiarity with the sexual codes of her own time while in “A Wedding Chest” she will extend this knowledge to a full-blown parody of the practice of art connoisseurship.

Lee takes advantage of this opportunity to launch into another characteristic parody of Rossetti as she fancies that the Virgin “has been waiting for some time […] and that the angel has come by appointment.” Munich’s observations of the seminal symbolism in the proffered lily are also remarked by Marc Shell in his study of the economics of Art and Money[xliv].

The Annunciation

  1. The “Annunciation” (1333), Simone Martini. Described in Lee’s essay “The Imaginative Art of the Renaissance.”

Writing of Simone Martini’s (1284-1344) Annunciation (1333) [Fig. 5] in which “divine chrysographic letters inseminate the Virgin Mary through the ear” prompts his thesis about “the interaction between economic and aesthetic symbolization and production.” Simone Martini’s Virgin is painted upon a bed of gold foil suggesting to both Lee and Shell a “gross expenditure” (Shell) and “ornamental decoration” (Lee). This reading of the Virgin and the lilies on richly gilded backgrounds suggests further, the alloyed symbolism of gold and virginity evoked by Munich. The combination of lilies as virgins and Florentine mercenary cash perpetuates the ideology which enabled the commidifying of virginity for a price: the price of a lily.

The price paid for the virgin lily in Lee’s short story is the gold Florentine currency. This prompts further reflection on how currency operates in the Victorian code language. In his study, Shell emphasizes the homology between the gold used in Byzantine icons and its mutation in Renaissance paintings into increasing associations with material wealth. When he discusses John Ruskin’s Munera Pulveris (1872) he notes that the time-honored association of literary or plastic artist and gold suddenly slips into a series of contradictions.[xlv] Ruskin at one time identifies the artist as gold, and at another the goldsmith who works upon gold. These different approaches to the symbolism of gold diverge suggesting at one point that the artists as the gold wealth of a nation are its reserve, and at another that attachment to gold leads one inevitably to death.

Catherine Gallagher has also profited from Ruskin’s association of gold and death in her “bioeconomic” reading of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.[xlvi] In the opening scene of that novel, when Gaffer dregs a dead body out of the murky Thames, the question is asked “Can the dead possess property?”  Gaffer makes his living by rummaging for coins through the pockets of the drowned. In a scene strangely reminiscent of Gaffer’s profession, Henry James’s Spencer Brydon in “The Jolly Corner” (1908), upon returning to his long neglected childhood home which he describes as a “gold-mine” of real estate, ultimately rejects milking the ghost-infested place saying “There are no reasons here but of dollars. Let us therefore have none whatever—not the ghost of one.”[xlvii] Here the Ruskinian problematic association of gold wealth and death survives into the Gilded Age through the ghosts of James’s Fifth Avenue. What I am suggesting here is that Lee like James and Wharton is exploiting this coded language of gold and lilies to much profit in their own narratives. Lee however uses it to parody the very process of exchange that guarantees the traffic in women.

Lee, well aware of Ruskin’s pitfalls, his contradictions aside, embraced certain of his critical insights after his death in 1900.[xlviii] Above all, it will become apparent that in “A Wedding Chest” she has come to realize the strange ambivalent nature of the artist that Ruskin saw as inevitable. Ironically, Lee’s “return” to Ruskin coincides both with her break with Berenson and her “conversion” to the Woman Question. In her short story she shows a clear grasp of at least one “Ruskinian” element, that the ethics underlying women’s oppression is inextricably linked to the exchangeability of women’s bodies as commodities. Though she will have none of his elaborate argument for the supposed separate spheres, she uses his ambivalence to sustain a remarkably clear critique of the process that grounds the profits of art connoisseurship.

It is particularly the treatment of the exchange of gold for art, and by implication, gold for the female body that responds to the internal circulation of tropes in “A Wedding Chest.” The ekphrasis, which in the opening section responds to the initial invitation to look and to gaze, now turns to a similar circulation in the events of the narrative. Historian Elizabeth S. Cohen, in her article “No Longer Virgins: Self-Presentation by Young Women in Late Renaissance Rome,” has pointed out that in the Italian Renaissance

“sexuality, and specifically virginity, figured importantly in the social process through which identity was worked out […] fittingly, a common colloquialism for sexual intercourse was negotiare, [to negotiate] from the family of words for doing business or selling things. Although such vocabulary should not lead us to interpret all sexual activity in the period as consciously mercenary or loveless, we should realize that sexuality served as a medium of exchange […] Virginity under such a regime resembled a commodity, pricey because difficult to keep.”[xlix]

The narrative portion of Lee’s highly structured short story is the third section in my analysis. At the center of “A Wedding Chest” all the crucial elements of the parody come together in the plotting of the economics of women’s oppression negotiated through the symbol of its most pricey and “contested commodity.”[l] The villain of this story is the young bastard scion of the infamous condotierri family of Perugia, Messer Troilo Baglioni: “And Messer Troilo was twenty-six years old, but seemed much younger, having no beard, and a face like Hyacinthus or Ganymede, whom Jove stole to be his cup-bearer, on account of his beauty.”[li] Lee’s floral language extends thus to her charming rogue whose characteristics are remarkably similar to those attributed to Bernard Berenson. Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper), who entertained a close relationship with Berenson for many years, referred to him affectionately as “Faun.” Martha Vicinus, in her study of their relationship notes that before he came to meet them

Berenson was already stereotyped as half-feminine and half-demonic, and he only intermittently struggled against the role. He frequently characterized himself as a highly sensitive, feminized receptor of impressions. The opening lines of his autobiography declare his feminine, maternal nature […] his curly dark, hair, close-trimmed beard, and beautiful hands and feet gave him a youthful, androgynous appearance.[lii]

The androgynous Messer Troilo in Lee’s story, with his elegant attire and excellent taste, his privileged stance in the Baglioni family as their favored bastard is accompanied by his access to extreme amounts of gold wealth. This characteristic is also central to a correct understanding of Berenson’s involvement in the art world from the beginning. Berenson’s biographer Ernest Samuels writes of the young Berenson who came to Florence in search of culture and found wealth:

Berenson could hardly say that he had not been warned of the perils that lay in wait for the connoisseur, of the endless vendettas and the rivalries that seethed beneath the surface of the art world, in which no quarter was asked or given. Nowhere else did the cash nexus and the pride of possession so infect its participants as in the traffic of art. With so much money at stake for others as well as for himself, the conscientious art critic had to make his way along the razor’s edge of probity.[liii] [Italics mine].

As Lee observed Berenson’s drift into that world of dealing and money grabbing in the first decade of the twentieth century, she must have wondered what had happened to the twenty-four year old young man she had met in 1889 who was only interested in writing about art. Bearing in mind these close associations between the antagonist of Lee’s story and her real life nemesis, we can begin to see how she drew closely on her observations of this character for her parody.

Swept into the world of high finance, conspicuous consumption, and profiteering, Berenson makes an excellent candidate. The story begins in Ser Piero Bontempi’s cassone workshop where his employee, Desiderio of Castiglione del Lago, fiancé of Ser Piero’s only daughter Monna Maddalena, has just completed the front panel of a wedding chest. Troilo comes often to the shop to see the progress of Desiderio’s work. On these visits he begins to watch Monna Maddalenna and asks Desiderio to include her portrait on the cassone panel. Desiderio refuses the request[liv] saying that it is not proper that chaste damsels (virgins) should be seen by the eyes of strange men. The narrator tells us that this is not quite true for Desiderio had often painted Monna Maddalenna “in the figure of Our Lady, the Mother of God,” as if to emphasize and beatify Monna Maddalenna’s virginity. When the wedding chest is finished, Messr Troilo has very carefully chosen the occasion when he will pay for it and carry it away. We learn that he has also planned Monna Maddalenna’s abduction on St. John’s Eve (June 23), the night of her nuptials. Lee combines in a single sentence this discovery of the true identity of Troilo as a rapist, and the price he is willing to pay for the cassone: “So, a week after, having fetched away the wedding chest from Ser Piero’s workshop (paying for it duly in Florentine lilies), he seized the opportunity of the festivities of St. John’s Nativity […] in order to satisfy his cruel wishes.”[lv]

In this sentence, the fetching away of the cassone from the property of Ser Piero Bontempi, is analogous to the abduction of Monna Maddalenna. The unspecified price Messer Troilo Baglioni pays for the cassone (“paying for it duly in Florentine lilies”) is deliberately left parenthetical by Lee as I shall argue. It is important to note also the deliberateness of the analogy between the abduction of Monna Maddalenna and the purchase of the cassone for in the remainder of the story, the two are fused together reminding us that the circulation of the art object as a form of wealth (its later appearance in the Smith Museum, Leeds) is homologous to the suppression, oppression, and traffic of women.

In “The Traffic in Women,” Gayle Rubin asserts that the traffic in women is the oppression of women. “The traffic of women is the use of women as exchangeable, perhaps symbolic, property for the primary purpose of cementing the bonds of men with men.”[lvi] The fusing of Monna Maddalenna’s body with the cassone, a traditional symbol of both “gift-giving” between families and marriage, allows Lee to enact in the register of the literary, the exchange of a virgin as symbolic property between men.[lvii] The gold Florentine lilies exchanged for the body of Monna Maddalenna becomes the material embodiment of the transaction at the workshop; a chronotope at the intersection of cash and virginity, cassone “No. 428.” It sits on display in Lee’s “notional” museum forming part of the “fixed reserve […] necessary for the functioning of the sign exchange of paintings” (Baudrillard).[lviii]

The significance of the Florentine lily as the price Troilo is willing to pay for the cassone and the body of Monna Maddalenna may be referred to in Derrida’s terms as an aporia, in the sense of an impassible contradiction inherent in the logic of the metaphysics used to describe an economic exchange over a contested commodity. The historical Florentine lily, the gold coin that underwrote the entire economic system of Renaissance history has two sides. Lee’s careful observation of dates refers to the exergues on either side of the Florentine lily. The date chosen for Monna Maddalenna’s abduction is the eve of the nativity of St. John the Baptist, and that which is to be abducted is the virgin/lily herself. On one side of the coin in question may be found the symbol of Florence; a lily, and on the obverse the patron saint of Florence, St. John the Baptist, nimbate[lix] and holding a staff [Fig 5]. Fiorin doro 2

This coin type continued to be struck unaltered until the rise of the Medici in 1505 (shortly after the date corresponding to Lee’s painted cassone panel).[lx]

Lee’s interest in numismatics started at a very early age. Vineta Colby records her early days in Rome with her brother and the young John Singer Sargent:

In the dusty streets the children collected shards and scraps of what they liked to believe were antique Roman coins and artifacts. Already fired with the instinct of a scholar, Violet polished her coins in the hope of finding an effigy of Nero or Marcus Aurelius and fulfilled her family’s expectations of a prodigy by producing her first publication at the age of fourteen. Written in French […] this was the story told as the biography of an ancient coin, Les Aventures d’une pièce de monnaie, published serially in the Lausanne journal La Famille in May, June, and July, 1870. The narrator is a coin bearing the effigy of the emperor Hadrian that passes through history from the golden age of the Roman Empire […] it survives into the Renaissance […] into the eighteenth century it passes through the hands of the boy wonder Mozart when he performs in Rome; and it ends finally in the collection of a modern numismatist…[lxi]

Though Lee’s childhood interest in coins is evident in her lifetime interest in the materiality of literature, it is also remarkable that during the period under investigation here, she has transformed those interests into a work of art which reflects her own “political economy” of the “traffic in women.”

The reverse of the fiorino d’oro shows the symbol of Florence, the lily, which refers to the remarkable fusion of ancient mythology and “the survival of the ancient gods in Christian times.”

fiorin doro

All of Lee’s “hauntings” demonstrate the powerful effect of Walter Pater’s adaptation of Heinrich Heine’s concept of the “exile of the Gods” and her deep interest in the mutations of symbols and types into new forms. Whether she is treating coins, paintings, sculptures, or music there is always the “culture ghost” inspiring each imaginative piece with novelty and suggestiveness.[lxii] In “A Wedding Chest” the fiorino d’oro that purchases Monna Maddalena, achieves the full “effect” (in Steiner’s sense) of the spell of ideology. What Steiner writes of Lily Bart is also true of Monna Maddalena, for “in that system of values she cannot be a transcendent love object if her beauty is merely the coin that buys her…” As “a mono-functional creature, a pure ornament, unsullied by vulgar or immoral associations” Monna Maddalena is the exact correlate of Lee’s description of “femina” as “over-sexed.”[lxiii]

A strange twist occurs in Lee’s short story which I argue causes and fuels the logical aporia at its heart. Lee is always at pains to explain how at the epicenter of great art and civilization such terrible cruelty and evil can coexist with beauty. Like Wofford’s “social aesthetics of rape” discussed above, Lee’s preoccupation with the mixture of beauty and evil will define the thesis of her historiography of the Italian Renaissance.[lxiv] The story seems to have no ultimate answer to these problems. As the narrative finally progresses, Messr Troilo abducts, rapes and kills Monna Maddalenna, returning her dead body and that of her bastardina a year later enclosed in the same cassone, now serving as her coffin. The only justice served in the story is Desiderio’s retribution, or lex talionis. Desiderio follows Troilo relentlessly in a chase that brings to mind Dickens’s Our Mutual Friendwith Bradley Headstone out after Eugene Wrayburn.[lxv] Tracking Troilo down in the city of Perugia as the young man is on his way to a visit to a courtesan, Desiderio slays him in the street. Even here Lee’s historical detail serves her interest in the economics of women’s oppression by insisting that the only just literary retribution is a life for a life. Desiderio’s murder of Troilo Baglioni is an example of lex talionis with priestly absolution prevailing over wergild, or monetary compensation for a previous crime.[lxvi] When he slays Troilo, Desiderio says: “This is from Maddalena, in return for her wedding chest!”[lxvii]

Ultimately a cost/benefit analysis of rape will not serve justice because the value of a body is not inalienable from the body itself. As Georg Simmel observed in The Philosophy of Money, the gradual historical shift of the concept of wergild (“blood money”) whereby the new formulation “became an expression of the objective value of the person… their value is, as it were, embodied in themselves as an objective quality expressible in money”[lxviii]More recently Margaret Radin, analyzing the “market rhetoric” of Richard Posner notes that he “does not cite as an objection the idea that the purported pleasures of the rapist should not count at all, because this argument is not cognizable within the framework of market rhetoric. Rape is no different from any other preference satisfaction.”[lxix]Posner’s cost/benefit analysis promotes an analysis of rape that sadly shows how relatively little has changed since the Renaissance “social aesthetic of rape.” Though Lee’s story is an incredibly accurate description of the practices of connoisseurship that reflects the continuity of this aesthetic on the symbolic level, it comes close to articulating the ideas she treated formally in her review of Gilman’s Women and Economics.

I have suggested that Lee’s story may be read using the new economic criticism to demonstrate how the internal circulation of tropes may be read both formally and historically. Lee’s use of parody shows that she was not at all detached from the realities of her environment and was fully capable of responding to real events in her imaginative creations. Such a reading reflects the incommensurability of tropes of exchange with ethical values Lee came to hold after her engagement with the Woman Question. As Shell has observed, it becomes increasingly evident that questions of literary value are inextricable from economic analysis, and that, following Simmel, the logic of money with its polymorphous fluidity can be read both intratextually and extratextually.

In “The Economic Parasitism of Women,” Lee, perhaps with Rossetti’s virgins or her own Monna Maddalenna in mind, expressed the internal contradiction inherent in the economic oppression of women:

For one of the paradoxes of this most paradoxical question is precisely that, with all our literature about La Femme, and all our violent discussions, economical, physiological, psychological, sociological […] we do not really know what women are. Women, so to speak as a natural product, as distinguished from women as a creation of men…[lxx]

By insisting that women must be put back into the equation of the separate spheres, both Gilman and Lee participate in that calculation. Lee’s Monna Maddalenna is a literary construct that embodies her deep ambivalence about “La Femme.”


[i] Shell, Marc. 1982. Money, Language and Thought. Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era. Berkley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. 3.

[ii] Simmel, Georg. 1978. The Philosophy of Money. trans. Bottmore, Tom and David Frisby. London, Henley, and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Quoted in Marc Shell, 4.

[iii] Lee, Vernon. 2006. Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales. Ed. Maxwell, Catherine and Patricia Pulham. Ontario: Broadview Editions. 229-242.

[iv] Woodmansee, Martha. 1999. “Taking Account of the New Economic Criticism.”  The New Economic Criticism. Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics. Ed. Woodmansee, Martha and Mark Osteen. London: Routledge. 36.

[v] Pulham, Patricia. 2003. “A Transatlantic Alliance. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Vernon Lee.”  Feminist Forerunners. New Womanism and Feminism in the Early Twentieth Century. Ed. Ann Heilmann. London, Sydney, Chicago: Pandora. 34-43.

[vi] Lee’s review originally bore the title “The Economic Dependence of Women,” and was subsequently published in the North American Review, (April, 1901). It was republished in her Gospels of Anarchy as “The Economic Parasitism of Women,” and reprinted in Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. Joanne B. Karpinski. New York: G.K. Hall. 1992.

[vii] Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky. “Mythic Language and Gender Subversion. The Case of Ruskin’s Athena.” Nineteenth-Century Literature. 52: 3. (December  1997). The Regents of the University of California, 1997. 351. The literature on “separate spheres” is immense. Kate Millett made the original charge against Ruskin’s “spheres” that is used here. Millett, Kate 1970. Sexual Politics. New York: Doubleday. 93-4.

[viii] This phrase was noted by Richard Dellamora in “Productive Decadence: “The Queer Comradeship of Outlawed Thought”. Vernon Lee, Max Nordau, and Oscar Wilde.” New Literary History. 35: 4 (Autumn 2004).

[ix] Zorn, Christa. 2003. Vernon Lee. Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual. Athens: Ohio University Press. 79. The complications with Lee’s “moral” interpretation are well presented and contextualized in Zorn’s study of Lee’s response to aestheticism.

[x] This speech delivered at the London Pavilion in 1913, was published in The Suffragette(6 June, 1913), see Patricia Pulham, “A Transatlantic Alliance,” 38

[xi] It is interesting in this light to compare the “portrait slashings” of Suffragettes like Mary Richardson who hacked at the Rokeby Venus in 1914 as a protest to the incarceration of Mrs. Pankhurst. While the outraged public viewed the act as an iconoclastic rage against art and the economics of the British public, those who could read Richardson’s choice of symbols recognized it as an attack on a social hierarchy of values. Thomas Otten cites this event as “viewership with a vengeance.” See Otten, Thomas J. 2000. “Slashing Henry James (On Painting and Political Economy, Circa 1900). The Yale Journal of Criticism. Vol. 13, No. 2. 293, 296-98. See also Otten, Thomas J. 2006. A Superficial Reading of Henry James. Preoccupations with the Material World. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

[xii] Lee. “The Economic Dependence of Women.” 81

[xiii] Vicinus, Martha. 1994. “The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siècle Femme Fatale?”  Journal of the History of Sexuality.  Vol. 5, No. 1 (Jul., 1994). 90-114. Vicinus suggests a “triangulation of desire” such that “the character’s names indicate their positions in the tragic triangle: the artisan lover who—like Vernon Lee—desires too strongly; the thieving Troilo who—like Vernon Lee—revenges himself upon husbands and fiancés; and the fair Maddalena, the unfortunate victim who—like Vernon Lee—never speaks.” (107) I disagree with the notion of Lee being “like” any of these characters, and especially with the notion that she “never speaks.” A reading of the story may bring to mind Eve Sedgwick’s particular use of Gayle Rubin’s critique of patriarchy in “the traffic in women” combined with Rene Girard’s “erotic triangles,” and Levi-Strauss’s analysis of kinship. Sedgwick, Eve Kossofsky.1985. Between Men. English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press. 25-27

[xiv] Lee, Vernon (Sept. 1894) “The Ghosts of Ravenna.” Macmillan’s Magazine. LXX: 380. Lee, Vernon. 1895. Renaissance Fancies and Studies. Being a Sequel to Euphorion. London: Smith, Elder, & Co. 102-115. As always, Lee’s attitude is complex and ambivalent. It is more her identification of these works that counts rather than any overt critique or labeling of them as misogynistic. Lee is always guarded in her judgments of Italian Renaissance art and it would be anachronistic and insensitive to impute contemporary feminist strategies to her or expect her to have demonstrated the sophisticated critical maneuvers operating today.

[xv] Lee is of course correct about this for the three panels are “by Botticelli depicting the story of Nastagio degli Onesti told by Boccaccio in the Eight novel of the Fifth day in the Decameron […] they were acquired by Mr. Alexander Barker in 1868, passing in 1879 into the possession of Mr. F.R. Leyland, where they remained until his death in 1892 […] which have now entered the Prado […] bought by Don Francesco Cambó in May 1929.” “Alba.” “The Cambó Gift to the Prado Museum.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 80. No. 469, (April, 1942). 102-3

[xvi] Colby, Vineta. 2003.  Vernon Lee. A Literary Biography. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press. 242-3.

[xvii] The literature in Italian Renaissance cassoni is immense. The recent criticism of Cristelle Baskins has focused attention on the importance of interpretation in engaging with the historical literature. Her essays and book read “against the grain” drawing heavily on recent feminist scholarship, gender criticism, and reception theory. See especially her instructive and helpful introductory remarks. Baskins, Cristelle L. 1998. Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1-25.

[xviii] The “social aesthetics of rape” is Susanne L. Wofford’s term for the “closural violence” in Italian Renaissance “fictions and visual representations of marriage—not to mention the legal discourse and contractual statements—[which] often refer, albeit indirectly, to an underlying mythos which tells of the emergence of marriage, and, by extension, civilization, from violence, conquest and rape.” Wofford, Susanne L. 1992. “The Social Aesthetics of Rape: Closural Violence in Boccaccio and Botticelli.” in Creative Imitation. New Essays on Renaissance Literature in Honor of Thomas M. Greene.Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. 189.

[xix] Lee voices this opinion in her essay “Botticelli at the Villa Lemmi,” where she protests the removal of original Botticelli frescoes from a Tuscan farmhouse. Describing this as “modern Vandalism,” she complains of the “habit of removing works of art from their natural surroundings in order to place them in a kind of artificial stony Arabia of vacuity and ugliness. I should call this the modern gallery-and-concert tendency…a sort of triumph of civilization”   Lee, Vernon. 1887. Juvenilia. London: Unwin, vol. I: 125-127.

[xx] Marsh, Jan. 2003. “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. Chapman, Alison and Jane Stabler. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 175.

[xxi] Lee’s “Gallery Diaries” are found in chapter five of her 1912, Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics. London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head. Lee had used this method in frequenting museums where she recorded her “gallery experiments” while monitoring the bodily responses of  Kit Anstruther-Thomson.

[xxii] From these exercises came her “psychological aesthetics,” which led to her theory of “aesthetic empathy”: “The idea that contemplation of a beautiful object elicits hidden motor adjustments in the viewer, an unconscious imitation of the form one sees and a projection of one’s bodily movements back onto it.” Maltz, Diana. 1999. “Engaging “Delicate Brains”. From Working-Class Enculturation to Upper Class Lesbian Liberation in Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson’s Psychological Aesthetics,” in Woman and British Aestheticism, ed. Schaeffer, Talia and Kathy Psomiades. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999. 214. While I share Maltz’s definition of Lee’s earliest formulations of empathy, I do not agree that the theory is interchangeable with Grant Allen’s “physiological aesthetics” as Regenia Gagnier implies. A simplistic reduction does little to isolate Lee’s theory from the charge that it was a mere echo of Allen’s evolutionary psychology. Gagnier, Regenia. 2000.  The Insatiability of Human Wants. Economics and Aesthetics in Market Society. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 139.

[xxiii] Nicole Fluhr has correctly observed that in all of Lee’s fictional writings her “aesthetic psychology” is applied to her short stories, as for example in her study of Lee’s Hauntings (1890). Quoting Royal Gettmann, Fluhr argues that “for Vernon Lee the crucial point of empathy is not projection,” as in the dictionary definition, “or feeling into,” as in the German term from which she coined the English word, “but a merging of the beholder and the object beheld. Empathy is neither egotistical absorption and projection nor a passive, empty surrender; it is collaboration.” Fluhr, Nicole. “Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings.” Victorian Studies. (Winter 2006) Fluhr quotes from Royal A. Gettmann’s critical introduction to Vernon Lee’s 1968,  Handling of Words and Other Studies in Literary Psychology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xii. Gettmann tactfully rescues Lee’s theory from vulgar physiological aesthetics and also allows one to differentiate it from Bernard Berenson’s “tactile” or “ideated sensations.”

[xxiv] Regenia Gagnier’s asserts in the Insatiability of Human Wants that Lee’s “aesthetic experiments compromised the ethical aesthetics Lee had inherited from Ruskin and the missionary aesthetics the aristocratic Anstruther-Thomson had inherited from a tradition of woman’s philanthropy.” Yet a close reading of Lee’s own works from the period of her “conversion” to the Woman Question, and the evidence from her biographer’s suggests a rather different interpretation. In Beauty and Ugliness (1912) published with her “gallery experiments” Lee retracted much of the theory Gagnier refers to as “physiological.” What she retained in her theory after the 1890’s was the inseparability of empathy theory from the ethics of sympathy which connects art to life practice. Lee maintains a critical attitude toward Herbert Spencer and Grant Allen in her chapter “anthropomorphic aesthetics.” Lee, Vernon. 1912.  Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies on Psychological Aesthetics. London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head. See also Shafquat Towhheed. “The Creative Evolution of Scientific Paradigms. Vernon Lee and the Debate over the Hereditary Transmission of Acquired Characters. Victorian Studies. (Autumn, 2006): 33-61.

[xxv] Baudrillard, Jean. 1981. The Political Economy of the Sign. trans. Charles Levin. New York: Telos Press Ltd., 121.

[xxvi] Denisoff, Dennis. 2006. Aestheticism and Sexual Parody: 1840-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 31. In 1892, her novella “Lady Tal” parodied Henry James with its lead character the effeminate and pedantic Gervase Marion who refuses to collaborate on a literary project with the novel’s heroine. The publication of “Lady Tal” in her Vanitas: Polite Stories resulted in James’s cessation of communication with her just as Miss Brown had made Lee’s name anathema in certain aesthete circles in London.

[xxvii] For a discussion of the relationship between the art connoisseurship of Bernard Berenson and the “lure” of the fine arts, see Brewer John. 2005. “The Lure of Leonardo.” The Lure of the Object. (Clark Studies in the Visual Arts). Ed. Melville, Stephen. Clark Art Institute.

[xxviii] Steiner, Wendy. “The Cause of Effect: Edith Wharton and the Economics of Ekphrasis.” Poetics Today, 10:2 (Summer, 1989) 288.

[xxix] Hollander, John. 1995. The Gazer’s Spirit. Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. For Hollander, “notional ekphrasis” may describe as well, an entirely fictive and imaginary work of art that is treated as if it really existed. Both Lee’s cassone panels and her museum are fanciful inventions, “notional”. See also Hollander, John. “The Poetics of Ekphrasis.” Word & Image 4. (1988) 209-219.

[xxx] Callmann, Ellen. “William Blundell Spence and the Transformation of Renaissance Cassoni.” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 141, No. 1155. (June 1999), 338-48.

[xxxi] O’Connor, Mary. 1990. “Chronotopes for Women under Capital. An Investigation into the Relation of Women to Objects.” Critical Studies. Vol. 2, No. 1/2. 138-9

[xxxii] Baskins, Cristelle L. 1998. Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[xxxiii] Lee, Vernon. “A Wedding Chest,” 230.

[xxxiv] Steiner, op. cit., 288.

[xxxv] Freedman, Jonathan.  1990. Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture, Stanford: Stanford University Press. 19.

[xxxvi] Psomiades, Kathy. 1997. Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism, Stanford: Stanford University Press. 165-77.

[xxxvii] Pearce, Lynne. 1991. Woman, Image, Text: readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature .Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. 31. Golden, Catherine. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s two-sided art,” Victorian Poetry 26 (1988), 395-402.

[xxxviii] Steiner, op. cit., 280.

[xxxix] Steiner, op. cit., 290.

[xl] Auslander-Munich, Adrienne. 1993. “What Lily Knew: Virginity in the 1890’s,” in Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature. Ed. Lloyd Davis. Albany, NY: State University of New York. 143-157.

[xli] Auslander-Munich, Adrienne. Op. cit., 154.

[xlii] Auslander-Munich, Adrienne. Op. cit., 144.

[xliii] Lee, Vernon. 1909. “Imaginative Art of the Renaissance.”  Renaissance Fancies and Studies. London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head. 85-6.

[xliv] Shell, Marc. 1995.  Art and Money. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 4.

[xlv] “Ruskin and the Political Economy of Art,” in Shell, Marc. 1978.  The Economy of Literature. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press. 133.

[xlvi] Gallagher, Catherine. 2006. The Body Economic. Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 86-94.

[xlvii] James, Henry. (1908), 2003. “The Jolly Corner.” Tales of Henry James, Eds. Wegelin, Christof and Henry B. Wonham. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 347.

[xlviii] Lee’s early critical attitude is apparent in her essay “Ruskinism,” published in Belcaro; being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887), 197-230. Vineta Colby documents her gradual acceptance of certain aspects of his philosophy after 1900.

[xlix] Cohen, Elizabeth S. 1991. “No Longer Virgins: Self-Presentation by Young Women in Late Renaissance Rome.” Refiguring the Renaissance: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance. Eds. Migiel, Marilyn and Juliana Schiesari. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 172.

[l] The phrase “contested commodity” is taken from Radin, Margaret. 1996.  Contested Commodities, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[li] Lee, Vernon. “A Wedding Chest”, op. cit., 241.

[lii] Vicinus, Martha. “’Sister Souls’: Bernard Berenson and Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper),” Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 60, No. 3, (Regents of the University of California: 2006). 329.

[liii] Samuels, Ernest. 1979. Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 225.

[liv]  Lee is denying here Berenson’s pet assertion that Renaissance guild men never painted or created any work from their own “character, private opinions, or predilections.”  Berenson, Bernard. 1948. Aesthetics and History. London: Constable Publishers. 220.

[lv] “A Wedding Chest,” 235. In what follows I disagree with the editors of “A Wedding Chest” who note: “Florentine lilies, better known as a type of iris. The dried tubers are ground down to produce a scented powder known as orris root which is widely used in perfumery. This would have made them a valuable commodity.” (235 n.3) It is hard to imagine why the editors thought that Lee, who was an avid numismatist, would not be referring to the Florentine coin.

[lvi] Rubin, Gayle. 1975. “The Traffic in Women: Notes toward a ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Ed. Reiter, Rayna. Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press. 157-210.

[lvii] The scholarship on the “traffic in women” in the Italian Renaissance period is too large to discuss here, but see Newman, Karen. “Directing Traffic: Subjects, Objects, and the Politics of Exchange,” Differences 2:2 (1990): 41-54; and Goux, Jean-Joseph. “The Phallus, Masculine Identity, and the ‘Exchange of Women,’ differences 4 (1992): 40-75.

[lviii] For a general survey of the poetics of ekphrasis as it relates to the paragon between word and image see Heffernan, James A. 1993.  Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis form Homer to Ashberry. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

[lix] “Nimbate” refers to a numismatic figure wearing a nimbus or halo surrounding the head.

[lx] Divo, Jean-Paul. “Short history of the fiorino d’oro,”: http://web.ticino.com

[lxi] Colby, Vineta. Vernon Leeop. cit., 11.

[lxii] The lily which the Christian Florentines adapted from the Romans refers to the goddess Juno. While breast-feeding her son Hercules, a drop of milk fell and nourished the earth. The ancient Romans saw this as suggestive of purity and chastity, and when the painters of the Italian Renaissance saw their ancient beliefs living on in the image of the eternal Virgin Mary they were again moved to depict scenes of the Annunciation with the lily.

[lxiii] Steiner, op. cit., 281

[lxiv] Her dilemma, inherited as it is from Ruskin, is the same problem that all nineteenth-century sages and reformers dwelt on. It is the problem Derrida finds at the heart of Rousseau’s theories of education and justice; it is again found in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, and as we have seen in Shell’s analysis of Ruskin’s political economy. How do you create a just society from people who are unjust in themselves without in some way forcing justice upon them?

[lxv] Eve Sedgwick understands this as “male rape” (169). By extension it may be argued that in Lee’s short story it also functions as a strategic undermining of patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality while still circulating an a triangulated desire.

[lxvi] For an interesting comparison see Black, C.F. “The Baglioni as Tyrants of Perugia, 1488-1540.” The English Historical Review, Vol. 85, No. 335. (Apr., 1970). 275

[lxvii] Lee, Vernon, “A Wedding Chest,” op. cit., 241.

[lxviii] Simmel, Georg. 358-9.

[lxix] Radin, Margaret. 1996. Contested Commodities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 86. Radin’s opposition to Posner is also discussed in Regenia Gagnier’s Insatiability of Human Wants, 6-7.

[lxx] Lee, Vernon, “The Economic Parasitism of Women.” 294.

References

Aronofsky Weltman, Sharon, “Mythic Language and Gender Subversion: The Case of Ruskin’s Athena,” Nineteenth-Century Literature, 52 3, (December 1997), (The Regents of the University of California, 1997)

Baskins, Cristelle L., Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

–“Gender Trouble in Italian Renaissance Art History: Two Case Studies,” Studies in Iconography 16, 1994

Baudrillard, Jean, The Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (New York: Telos Press Ltd., 1981)

Berenson, Bernhard, Florentine Painters, (New York: Putnam, 1896)

 Aesthetics and History, (London: Constable Publishers, 1948)

Callmann, Ellen, “The Growing Threat to Marital Bliss as Seen in Fifteenth-Century Florentine Paintings,” Studies in Iconography

–“An Apollonio di Giovanni for an Historic Marriage,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 119, No. 888, Special Issue Devoted to Italian Painting of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (Mar., 1977), 174-81

–William Blundell Spence and the Transformation of Renaissance CassoniThe Burlington Magazine, Vol. 141, No. 1155. (Jun., 1999), 338-348.

Cohen, Elizabeth S., “No Longer Virgins: Self-Presentation by Young Women in Late Renaissance Rome,” Refiguring the Renaissance: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance, ed. Migiel, Marilyn and Juliana Schiesari, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991)

Colby, Vineta, Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography, (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2003)

Dellamora, Richard, “Productive Decadence: “The Queer Comradeship of Outlawed Thought”: Vernon Lee, Max Nordau, and Oscar Wilde,” New Literary History, 35 4 (Autumn 2004)

Denisoff, Dennis, Aestheticism and Sexual Parody: 1840-1940, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Fluhr, Nicole “Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings,” Victorian Studies, (Winter, 2006)

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–“The Economic Parasitism of Women,” ed. Karpinski, Joanne B., Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, (New York: G.K. Hall, 1992)

–Review essay of Bernard Berenson’s Florentine Painters, Mind, New Series, Vol. 5, No. 18. (Apr., 1896), 270-286.

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Maxwell, Catherine “Vernon Lee and the Ghosts of Italy,” ed. Chapman, Alison and Jane Stabler Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-Century British Women Artists and Artists in Italy, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)

–“From Dionysus to Dionea: Vernon Lee Portraits,” Word & Image, Volume 13, No. 3, July-September, (New York: Taylor and Francis Ltd., 1997)

McKim-Smith, Gridley, “The Rhetoric of Rape, The Language of Vandalism,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1. (Spring – Summer, 2002), 29-36.

Millet, Kate, Sexual Politics, (New York: Doubleday, 1970)

Munich, Adrienne Auslander, “What Lily Knew: Virginity in the 1890’s,” in Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature, ed. Lloyd Davis, (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1993), 143-157.

Newman, Karen, “Directing Traffic: Subjects, Objects, and the Politics of Exchange,” Differences 2:2 (1990): 41-54

Newman, Sally, “The Archival Traces of Desire: Vernon Lee’s Failed Sexuality and the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History,” Journals of the History of Sexuality, Volume 14, Nos. ½, January/April (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)

Pearce, Lynne, Woman, Image, Text: readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature, (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1991)

Psomiades, Kathy Alexis, Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)

–“Still Burning from This Strangling Embrace: Vernon Lee on Desire and Aesthetics,” in Sexual Dissidence, Dellamora

Pulham, Patricia, “A Transatlantic Alliance: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Vernon Lee,” Feminist Forerunners: New Womanism and Feminism in the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Ann Heilmann, (London, Sydney, Chicago: Pandora, 2003)

–“The Castrato and the Cry in Vernon Lee’s Wicked Voices,” Victorian Literature and Culture, ed. Munich, Adrienne and John Maynard, Volume 30, Number 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Radin, Margaret, Contested Commodities, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996)

Robins, Ruth, “Vernon Lee: Decadent Woman?,” ed. Stokes, John, Fin de Siecle/Fin du Globe, (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 1992)

Rubin, Gayle “The Traffic in Women: Notes Toward a ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” In Rayna Reiter, ed. Toward an Anthropology of Women, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975)

Samuels, Ernest, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979)

Seaton, Beverly, “Considering the Lilies: Ruskin’s “Proserpina” and Other Victorian Flower Books,” Victorian Studies, (Winter, 1985)

Shell, Marc, Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1982)

 Art and Money, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4.

 The Economy of Literature, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978)

Simmel, Georg The Philosophy of Money, trans. Bottmore, Tom and David Frisby, (London, Henley, and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978)

Small, Ian, Conditions for Criticism: Authority, Knowledge, and Literature in the Late Nineteenth-Century, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)

Small, Ian. “Vernon Lee, Associationism and ‘Impressionist’ Criticism, The British Journal of Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) 17: 178-184

Steiner, Wendy “The Cause of Effect: Edith Wharton and the Economics of Ekphrasis,” Poetics Today, 10:2, (Summer, 1989)

Towheed, Shafquat, “Determining “Fluctuating Opinions”: Vernon Lee, Popular Fiction, and Theories of Reading,” Nineteenth Century Literature, Volume 60, No. 2, (The Regents of the University of California: 2005)

Vicinus, Martha, A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977)

Vicinus, Martha, “A Legion of Ghosts”” Vernon Lee (1856-1935) and the Art of Nostalgia” GLQ 10:4 (Duke University Press: 2004)

–“The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siecle Femme Fatale?” ed. Dellamora, Richard, Victorian Sexual Dissidence, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

–“Sister Souls”: Bernard Berenson and Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper), Nineteenth Century Literature, Volume 60, No. 3

Wellek, René, “Vernon Lee, Bernard Berenson, and Aesthetics,” Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 164-186.

Witthoft, Brucia, “Marriage Rituals and Marriage Chests in Quattrocento Florence,” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 3, No. 5. (1982), 43-59.

Wofford, Susanne L., “The Social Aesthetics of Rape: Closural Violence in Boccaccio and Botticelli,” New Essays on Renaissance Literature in Honor of Thomas M. Greene Ed. David Quint, (Binghamton: State University of New York, 1992), 189-238

Woodmansee, Martha and Mark Osteen, The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics, (London and New York: Routledge, 1999)

Zirpolo, Lilian, “Botticelli’s “Primavera”: A Lesson for the Bride,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2. (Autumn, 1991 – Winter, 1992), pp. 24-28.

Zorn, Christa, Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual [Ohio State University Press: Athens, Ohio] 2003

[1] Shell, Marc. 1982. Money, Language and Thought. Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era. Berkley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. 3.

[1] Simmel, Georg. 1978. The Philosophy of Money. trans. Bottmore, Tom and David Frisby. London, Henley, and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Quoted in Marc Shell, 4.

[1] Lee, Vernon. 2006. Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales. Ed. Maxwell, Catherine and Patricia Pulham. Ontario: Broadview Editions. 229-242.

[1] Woodmansee, Martha. 1999. “Taking Account of the New Economic Criticism.”  The New Economic Criticism. Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics. Ed. Woodmansee, Martha and Mark Osteen. London: Routledge. 36.

[1] Pulham, Patricia. 2003. “A Transatlantic Alliance. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Vernon Lee.”  Feminist Forerunners. New Womanism and Feminism in the Early Twentieth Century. Ed. Ann Heilmann. London, Sydney, Chicago: Pandora. 34-43.

[1] Lee’s review originally bore the title “The Economic Dependence of Women,” and was subsequently published in the North American Review, (April, 1901). It was republished in her Gospels of Anarchy as “The Economic Parasitism of Women,” and reprinted in Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. Joanne B. Karpinski. New York: G.K. Hall. 1992.

[1] Weltman, Sharon Aronofsky. “Mythic Language and Gender Subversion. The Case of Ruskin’s Athena.” Nineteenth-Century Literature. 52: 3. (December  1997). The Regents of the University of California, 1997. 351. The literature on “separate spheres” is immense. Kate Millett made the original charge against Ruskin’s “spheres” that is used here. Millett, Kate 1970. Sexual Politics. New York: Doubleday. 93-4.

[1] This phrase was noted by Richard Dellamora in “Productive Decadence: “The Queer Comradeship of Outlawed Thought”. Vernon Lee, Max Nordau, and Oscar Wilde.” New Literary History. 35: 4 (Autumn 2004).

[1] Zorn, Christa. 2003. Vernon Lee. Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual. Athens: Ohio University Press. 79. The complications with Lee’s “moral” interpretation are well presented and contextualized in Zorn’s study of Lee’s response to aestheticism.

[1] This speech delivered at the London Pavilion in 1913, was published in The Suffragette(6 June, 1913), see Patricia Pulham, “A Transatlantic Alliance,” 38

[1] It is interesting in this light to compare the “portrait slashings” of Suffragettes like Mary Richardson who hacked at the Rokeby Venus in 1914 as a protest to the incarceration of Mrs. Pankhurst. While the outraged public viewed the act as an iconoclastic rage against art and the economics of the British public, those who could read Richardson’s choice of symbols recognized it as an attack on a social hierarchy of values. Thomas Otten cites this event as “viewership with a vengeance.” See Otten, Thomas J. 2000. “Slashing Henry James (On Painting and Political Economy, Circa 1900). The Yale Journal of Criticism. Vol. 13, No. 2. 293, 296-98. See also Otten, Thomas J. 2006. A Superficial Reading of Henry James. Preoccupations with the Material World. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

[1] Lee. “The Economic Dependence of Women.” 81

[1] Vicinus, Martha. 1994. “The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siècle Femme Fatale?”  Journal of the History of Sexuality.  Vol. 5, No. 1 (Jul., 1994). 90-114. Vicinus suggests a “triangulation of desire” such that “the character’s names indicate their positions in the tragic triangle: the artisan lover who—like Vernon Lee—desires too strongly; the thieving Troilo who—like Vernon Lee—revenges himself upon husbands and fiancés; and the fair Maddalena, the unfortunate victim who—like Vernon Lee—never speaks.” (107) I disagree with the notion of Lee being “like” any of these characters, and especially with the notion that she “never speaks.” A reading of the story may bring to mind Eve Sedgwick’s particular use of Gayle Rubin’s critique of patriarchy in “the traffic in women” combined with Rene Girard’s “erotic triangles,” and Levi-Strauss’s analysis of kinship. Sedgwick, Eve Kossofsky.1985. Between Men. English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press. 25-27

[1] Lee, Vernon (Sept. 1894) “The Ghosts of Ravenna.” Macmillan’s Magazine. LXX: 380. Lee, Vernon. 1895. Renaissance Fancies and Studies. Being a Sequel to Euphorion. London: Smith, Elder, & Co. 102-115. As always, Lee’s attitude is complex and ambivalent. It is more her identification of these works that counts rather than any overt critique or labeling of them as misogynistic. Lee is always guarded in her judgments of Italian Renaissance art and it would be anachronistic and insensitive to impute contemporary feminist strategies to her or expect her to have demonstrated the sophisticated critical maneuvers operating today.

[1] Lee is of course correct about this for the three panels are “by Botticelli depicting the story of Nastagio degli Onesti told by Boccaccio in the Eight novel of the Fifth day in the Decameron […] they were acquired by Mr. Alexander Barker in 1868, passing in 1879 into the possession of Mr. F.R. Leyland, where they remained until his death in 1892 […] which have now entered the Prado […] bought by Don Francesco Cambó in May 1929.” “Alba.” “The Cambó Gift to the Prado Museum.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 80. No. 469, (April, 1942). 102-3

[1] Colby, Vineta. 2003.  Vernon Lee. A Literary Biography. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press. 242-3.

[1] The literature in Italian Renaissance cassoni is immense. The recent criticism of Cristelle Baskins has focused attention on the importance of interpretation in engaging with the historical literature. Her essays and book read “against the grain” drawing heavily on recent feminist scholarship, gender criticism, and reception theory. See especially her instructive and helpful introductory remarks. Baskins, Cristelle L. 1998. Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1-25.

[1] The “social aesthetics of rape” is Susanne L. Wofford’s term for the “closural violence” in Italian Renaissance “fictions and visual representations of marriage—not to mention the legal discourse and contractual statements—[which] often refer, albeit indirectly, to an underlying mythos which tells of the emergence of marriage, and, by extension, civilization, from violence, conquest and rape.” Wofford, Susanne L. 1992. “The Social Aesthetics of Rape: Closural Violence in Boccaccio and Botticelli.” in Creative Imitation. New Essays on Renaissance Literature in Honor of Thomas M. Greene. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. 189.

[1] Lee voices this opinion in her essay “Botticelli at the Villa Lemmi,” where she protests the removal of original Botticelli frescoes from a Tuscan farmhouse. Describing this as “modern Vandalism,” she complains of the “habit of removing works of art from their natural surroundings in order to place them in a kind of artificial stony Arabia of vacuity and ugliness. I should call this the modern gallery-and-concert tendency…a sort of triumph of civilization”   Lee, Vernon. 1887. Juvenilia. London: Unwin, vol. I: 125-127.

[1] Marsh, Jan. 2003. “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. Chapman, Alison and Jane Stabler. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 175.

[1] Lee’s “Gallery Diaries” are found in chapter five of her 1912, Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics. London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head. Lee had used this method in frequenting museums where she recorded her “gallery experiments” while monitoring the bodily responses of  Kit Anstruther-Thomson.

[1] From these exercises came her “psychological aesthetics,” which led to her theory of “aesthetic empathy”: “The idea that contemplation of a beautiful object elicits hidden motor adjustments in the viewer, an unconscious imitation of the form one sees and a projection of one’s bodily movements back onto it.” Maltz, Diana. 1999. “Engaging “Delicate Brains”. From Working-Class Enculturation to Upper Class Lesbian Liberation in Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson’s Psychological Aesthetics,” in Woman and British Aestheticism, ed. Schaeffer, Talia and Kathy Psomiades. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999. 214. While I share Maltz’s definition of Lee’s earliest formulations of empathy, I do not agree that the theory is interchangeable with Grant Allen’s “physiological aesthetics” as Regenia Gagnier implies. A simplistic reduction does little to isolate Lee’s theory from the charge that it was a mere echo of Allen’s evolutionary psychology. Gagnier, Regenia. 2000.  The Insatiability of Human Wants. Economics and Aesthetics in Market Society. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 139.

[1] Nicole Fluhr has correctly observed that in all of Lee’s fictional writings her “aesthetic psychology” is applied to her short stories, as for example in her study of Lee’s Hauntings(1890). Quoting Royal Gettmann, Fluhr argues that “for Vernon Lee the crucial point of empathy is not projection,” as in the dictionary definition, “or feeling into,” as in the German term from which she coined the English word, “but a merging of the beholder and the object beheld. Empathy is neither egotistical absorption and projection nor a passive, empty surrender; it is collaboration.” Fluhr, Nicole. “Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings.” Victorian Studies. (Winter 2006) Fluhr quotes from Royal A. Gettmann’s critical introduction to Vernon Lee’s 1968,  Handling of Words and Other Studies in Literary Psychology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xii. Gettmann tactfully rescues Lee’s theory from vulgar physiological aesthetics and also allows one to differentiate it from Bernard Berenson’s “tactile” or “ideated sensations.”

[1] Regenia Gagnier’s asserts in the Insatiability of Human Wants that Lee’s “aesthetic experiments compromised the ethical aesthetics Lee had inherited from Ruskin and the missionary aesthetics the aristocratic Anstruther-Thomson had inherited from a tradition of woman’s philanthropy.” Yet a close reading of Lee’s own works from the period of her “conversion” to the Woman Question, and the evidence from her biographer’s suggests a rather different interpretation. In Beauty and Ugliness (1912) published with her “gallery experiments” Lee retracted much of the theory Gagnier refers to as “physiological.” What she retained in her theory after the 1890’s was the inseparability of empathy theory from the ethics of sympathy which connects art to life practice. Lee maintains a critical attitude toward Herbert Spencer and Grant Allen in her chapter “anthropomorphic aesthetics.” Lee, Vernon. 1912.  Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies on Psychological Aesthetics. London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head. See also Shafquat Towhheed. “The Creative Evolution of Scientific Paradigms. Vernon Lee and the Debate over the Hereditary Transmission of Acquired Characters. Victorian Studies. (Autumn, 2006): 33-61.

[1] Baudrillard, Jean. 1981. The Political Economy of the Sign. trans. Charles Levin. New York: Telos Press Ltd., 121.

[1] Denisoff, Dennis. 2006. Aestheticism and Sexual Parody: 1840-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 31. In 1892, her novella “Lady Tal” parodied Henry James with its lead character the effeminate and pedantic Gervase Marion who refuses to collaborate on a literary project with the novel’s heroine. The publication of “Lady Tal” in her Vanitas: Polite Stories resulted in James’s cessation of communication with her just as Miss Brown had made Lee’s name anathema in certain aesthete circles in London.

[1] For a discussion of the relationship between the art connoisseurship of Bernard Berenson and the “lure” of the fine arts, see Brewer John. 2005. “The Lure of Leonardo.” The Lure of the Object. (Clark Studies in the Visual Arts). Ed. Melville, Stephen. Clark Art Institute.

[1] Steiner, Wendy. “The Cause of Effect: Edith Wharton and the Economics of Ekphrasis.” Poetics Today, 10:2 (Summer, 1989) 288.

[1] Hollander, John. 1995. The Gazer’s Spirit. Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. For Hollander, “notional ekphrasis” may describe as well, an entirely fictive and imaginary work of art that is treated as if it really existed. Both Lee’s cassone panels and her museum are fanciful inventions, “notional”. See also Hollander, John. “The Poetics of Ekphrasis.” Word & Image 4. (1988) 209-219.

[1] Callmann, Ellen. “William Blundell Spence and the Transformation of Renaissance Cassoni.” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 141, No. 1155. (June 1999), 338-48.

[1] O’Connor, Mary. 1990. “Chronotopes for Women under Capital. An Investigation into the Relation of Women to Objects.” Critical Studies. Vol. 2, No. 1/2. 138-9

[1] Baskins, Cristelle L. 1998. Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Lee, Vernon. “A Wedding Chest,” 230.

[1] Steiner, op. cit., 288.

[1] Freedman, Jonathan.  1990. Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture, Stanford: Stanford University Press. 19.

[1] Psomiades, Kathy. 1997. Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism, Stanford: Stanford University Press. 165-77.

[1] Pearce, Lynne. 1991. Woman, Image, Text: readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature .Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. 31. Golden, Catherine. “Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s two-sided art,” Victorian Poetry 26 (1988), 395-402.

[1] Steiner, op. cit., 280.

[1] Steiner, op. cit., 290.

[1] Auslander-Munich, Adrienne. 1993. “What Lily Knew: Virginity in the 1890’s,” in Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature. Ed. Lloyd Davis. Albany, NY: State University of New York. 143-157.

[1] Auslander-Munich, Adrienne. Op. cit., 154.

[1] Auslander-Munich, Adrienne. Op. cit., 144.

[1] Lee, Vernon. 1909. “Imaginative Art of the Renaissance.”  Renaissance Fancies and Studies. London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head. 85-6.

[1] Shell, Marc. 1995.  Art and Money. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 4.

[1] “Ruskin and the Political Economy of Art,” in Shell, Marc. 1978.  The Economy of Literature. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press. 133.

[1] Gallagher, Catherine. 2006. The Body Economic. Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 86-94.

[1] James, Henry. (1908), 2003. “The Jolly Corner.” Tales of Henry James, Eds. Wegelin, Christof and Henry B. Wonham. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 347.

[1] Lee’s early critical attitude is apparent in her essay “Ruskinism,” published in Belcaro; being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887), 197-230. Vineta Colby documents her gradual acceptance of certain aspects of his philosophy after 1900.

[1] Cohen, Elizabeth S. 1991. “No Longer Virgins: Self-Presentation by Young Women in Late Renaissance Rome.” Refiguring the Renaissance: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance. Eds. Migiel, Marilyn and Juliana Schiesari. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 172.

[1] The phrase “contested commodity” is taken from Radin, Margaret. 1996.  Contested Commodities, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[1] Lee, Vernon. “A Wedding Chest”, op. cit., 241.

[1] Vicinus, Martha. “’Sister Souls’: Bernard Berenson and Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper),” Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 60, No. 3, (Regents of the University of California: 2006). 329.

[1] Samuels, Ernest. 1979. Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 225.

[1]  Lee is denying here Berenson’s pet assertion that Renaissance guild men never painted or created any work from their own “character, private opinions, or predilections.”  Berenson, Bernard. 1948. Aesthetics and History. London: Constable Publishers. 220.

[1] “A Wedding Chest,” 235. In what follows I disagree with the editors of “A Wedding Chest” who note: “Florentine lilies, better known as a type of iris. The dried tubers are ground down to produce a scented powder known as orris root which is widely used in perfumery. This would have made them a valuable commodity.” (235 n.3) It is hard to imagine why the editors thought that Lee, who was an avid numismatist, would not be referring to the Florentine coin.

[1] Rubin, Gayle. 1975. “The Traffic in Women: Notes toward a ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Ed. Reiter, Rayna. Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press. 157-210.

[1] The scholarship on the “traffic in women” in the Italian Renaissance period is too large to discuss here, but see Newman, Karen. “Directing Traffic: Subjects, Objects, and the Politics of Exchange,” Differences 2:2 (1990): 41-54; and Goux, Jean-Joseph. “The Phallus, Masculine Identity, and the ‘Exchange of Women,’ differences 4 (1992): 40-75.

[1] For a general survey of the poetics of ekphrasis as it relates to the paragon between word and image see Heffernan, James A. 1993.  Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis form Homer to Ashberry. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

[1] “Nimbate” refers to a numismatic figure wearing a nimbus or halo surrounding the head.

[1] Divo, Jean-Paul. “Short history of the fiorino d’oro,”: http://web.ticino.com

[1] Colby, Vineta. Vernon Leeop. cit., 11.

[1] The lily which the Christian Florentines adapted from the Romans refers to the goddess Juno. While breast-feeding her son Hercules, a drop of milk fell and nourished the earth. The ancient Romans saw this as suggestive of purity and chastity, and when the painters of the Italian Renaissance saw their ancient beliefs living on in the image of the eternal Virgin Mary they were again moved to depict scenes of the Annunciation with the lily.

[1] Steiner, op. cit., 281

[1] Her dilemma, inherited as it is from Ruskin, is the same problem that all nineteenth-century sages and reformers dwelt on. It is the problem Derrida finds at the heart of Rousseau’s theories of education and justice; it is again found in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, and as we have seen in Shell’s analysis of Ruskin’s political economy. How do you create a just society from people who are unjust in themselves without in some way forcing justice upon them?

[1] Eve Sedgwick understands this as “male rape” (169). By extension it may be argued that in Lee’s short story it also functions as a strategic undermining of patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality while still circulating an a triangulated desire.

[1] For an interesting comparison see Black, C.F. “The Baglioni as Tyrants of Perugia, 1488-1540.” The English Historical Review, Vol. 85, No. 335. (Apr., 1970). 275

[1] Lee, Vernon, “A Wedding Chest,” op. cit., 241.

[1] Simmel, Georg. 358-9.

[1] Radin, Margaret. 1996. Contested Commodities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 86. Radin’s opposition to Posner is also discussed in Regenia Gagnier’s Insatiability of Human Wants, 6-7.

[1] Lee, Vernon, “The Economic Parasitism of Women.” 294.

References

Aronofsky Weltman, Sharon, “Mythic Language and Gender Subversion: The Case of Ruskin’s Athena,” Nineteenth-Century Literature, 52 3, (December 1997), (The Regents of the University of California, 1997)

Baskins, Cristelle L., Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

–“Gender Trouble in Italian Renaissance Art History: Two Case Studies,” Studies in Iconography 16, 1994

Baudrillard, Jean, The Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (New York: Telos Press Ltd., 1981)

Berenson, Bernhard, Florentine Painters, (New York: Putnam, 1896)

 Aesthetics and History, (London: Constable Publishers, 1948)

Callmann, Ellen, “The Growing Threat to Marital Bliss as Seen in Fifteenth-Century Florentine Paintings,” Studies in Iconography

–“An Apollonio di Giovanni for an Historic Marriage,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 119, No. 888, Special Issue Devoted to Italian Painting of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (Mar., 1977), 174-81

–William Blundell Spence and the Transformation of Renaissance CassoniThe Burlington Magazine, Vol. 141, No. 1155. (Jun., 1999), 338-348.

Cohen, Elizabeth S., “No Longer Virgins: Self-Presentation by Young Women in Late Renaissance Rome,” Refiguring the Renaissance: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance, ed. Migiel, Marilyn and Juliana Schiesari, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991)

Colby, Vineta, Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography, (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2003)

Dellamora, Richard, “Productive Decadence: “The Queer Comradeship of Outlawed Thought”: Vernon Lee, Max Nordau, and Oscar Wilde,” New Literary History, 35 4 (Autumn 2004)

Denisoff, Dennis, Aestheticism and Sexual Parody: 1840-1940, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Fluhr, Nicole “Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings,” Victorian Studies, (Winter, 2006)

Freedman, Jonathan Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990)

Gagnier, Regenia The Insatiability of Human Wants: Economics and Aesthetics in Market Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

Gallagher, Catherine, The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006)

Gardner, Burdett, The Lesbian Imagination (Victorian Style): A Psychological and Critical Study of “Vernon Lee,” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1954) (New York: Garland, 1987)

Golden, Catherine, “Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s two-sided art,” Victorian Poetry 26 (1988), 395-402.

Goux, Jean-Joseph, “The Phallus, Masculine Identity, and the ‘Exchange of Women,’ differences 4 (1992): 40-75

Heffernan, James A., Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis form Homer to Ashberry, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Hollander, John, “The Poetics of Ekphrasis,” Word & Image 4, (1988), 209-219.

James, Henry, “The Jolly Corner,” in Tales of Henry James, ed. Wegelin, Christof and Henry B. Wonham, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003)

Lee, Vernon, “A Wedding Chest,” in Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, ed. Maxwell, Catherine and Patricia Pulham, (Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006)

–“The Economic Parasitism of Women,” ed. Karpinski, Joanne B., Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, (New York: G.K. Hall, 1992)

–Review essay of Bernard Berenson’s Florentine Painters, Mind, New Series, Vol. 5, No. 18. (Apr., 1896), 270-286.

–“Ruskinism,” in Belcaro; being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887), 197-230

–‘Review,’ Ruskin: The Critical Heritage, ed. J.L. Bradley, The Critical Heritage Series[Routledge and Kegan Paul: London]

–Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics, (London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1912)

–“Imaginative Art of the Renaissance,” in Renaissance Fancies and Studies, (London and New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1909), 85-6.

Leighton, Angela, “Ghosts, Aestheticism, and ‘Vernon Lee’,” Victorian Literature and Culture, ed. Munich, Adrienne and John Maynard, Volume 30, Number 2 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Maltz, Diana, “Engaging “Delicate Brains”: From Working-Class Enculturation to Upper Class Lesbian Liberation in Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson’s Psychological Aesthetics,” Woman and British Aestheticism, ed. Schaeffer, Talia and Kathy Psomiades, (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999)

Manocchi, Phyllis, “Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther Thomson: A Study of Love and Collaboration between Romantic Friends,” Women’s Studies 12, no. 2 1986

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, ed. Chapman, Alison and Jane Stabler, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)

Maxwell, Catherine “Vernon Lee and the Ghosts of Italy,” ed. Chapman, Alison and Jane Stabler Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-Century British Women Artists and Artists in Italy, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)

–“From Dionysus to Dionea: Vernon Lee Portraits,” Word & Image, Volume 13, No. 3, July-September, (New York: Taylor and Francis Ltd., 1997)

McKim-Smith, Gridley, “The Rhetoric of Rape, The Language of Vandalism,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1. (Spring – Summer, 2002), 29-36.

Millet, Kate, Sexual Politics, (New York: Doubleday, 1970)

Munich, Adrienne Auslander, “What Lily Knew: Virginity in the 1890’s,” in Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature, ed. Lloyd Davis, (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1993), 143-157.

Newman, Karen, “Directing Traffic: Subjects, Objects, and the Politics of Exchange,” Differences 2:2 (1990): 41-54

Newman, Sally, “The Archival Traces of Desire: Vernon Lee’s Failed Sexuality and the Interpretation of Letters in Lesbian History,” Journals of the History of Sexuality, Volume 14, Nos. ½, January/April (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)

Pearce, Lynne, Woman, Image, Text: readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature, (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1991)

Psomiades, Kathy Alexis, Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)

–“Still Burning from This Strangling Embrace: Vernon Lee on Desire and Aesthetics,” in Sexual Dissidence, Dellamora

Pulham, Patricia, “A Transatlantic Alliance: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Vernon Lee,” Feminist Forerunners: New Womanism and Feminism in the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Ann Heilmann, (London, Sydney, Chicago: Pandora, 2003)

–“The Castrato and the Cry in Vernon Lee’s Wicked Voices,” Victorian Literature and Culture, ed. Munich, Adrienne and John Maynard, Volume 30, Number 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Radin, Margaret, Contested Commodities, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996)

Robins, Ruth, “Vernon Lee: Decadent Woman?,” ed. Stokes, John, Fin de Siecle/Fin du Globe, (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 1992)

Rubin, Gayle “The Traffic in Women: Notes Toward a ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” In Rayna Reiter, ed. Toward an Anthropology of Women, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975)

Samuels, Ernest, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979)

Seaton, Beverly, “Considering the Lilies: Ruskin’s “Proserpina” and Other Victorian Flower Books,” Victorian Studies, (Winter, 1985)

Shell, Marc, Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1982)

 Art and Money, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4.

 The Economy of Literature, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978)

Simmel, Georg The Philosophy of Money, trans. Bottmore, Tom and David Frisby, (London, Henley, and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978)

Small, Ian, Conditions for Criticism: Authority, Knowledge, and Literature in the Late Nineteenth-Century, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)

Small, Ian. “Vernon Lee, Associationism and ‘Impressionist’ Criticism, The British Journal of Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) 17: 178-184

Steiner, Wendy “The Cause of Effect: Edith Wharton and the Economics of Ekphrasis,” Poetics Today, 10:2, (Summer, 1989)

Towheed, Shafquat, “Determining “Fluctuating Opinions”: Vernon Lee, Popular Fiction, and Theories of Reading,” Nineteenth Century Literature, Volume 60, No. 2, (The Regents of the University of California: 2005)

Vicinus, Martha, A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977)

Vicinus, Martha, “A Legion of Ghosts”” Vernon Lee (1856-1935) and the Art of Nostalgia” GLQ 10:4 (Duke University Press: 2004)

–“The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siecle Femme Fatale?” ed. Dellamora, Richard, Victorian Sexual Dissidence, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

–“Sister Souls”: Bernard Berenson and Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper), Nineteenth Century Literature, Volume 60, No. 3

Wellek, René, “Vernon Lee, Bernard Berenson, and Aesthetics,” Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 164-186.

Witthoft, Brucia, “Marriage Rituals and Marriage Chests in Quattrocento Florence,” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 3, No. 5. (1982), 43-59.

Wofford, Susanne L., “The Social Aesthetics of Rape: Closural Violence in Boccaccio and Botticelli,” New Essays on Renaissance Literature in Honor of Thomas M. Greene Ed. David Quint, (Binghamton: State University of New York, 1992), 189-238

Woodmansee, Martha and Mark Osteen, The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and Economics, (London and New York: Routledge, 1999)

Zirpolo, Lilian, “Botticelli’s “Primavera”: A Lesson for the Bride,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2. (Autumn, 1991 – Winter, 1992), pp. 24-28.

Zorn, Christa, Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual [Ohio State University Press: Athens, Ohio] 2003

Illustrations

“Miss Grief” (1880) by Constance Fenimore Woolson and “Lady Tal” (1892) by Vernon Lee: a Comparative Study

“Miss Grief” (1880) by Constance Fenimore Woolson and “Lady Tal” (1892) by Vernon Lee: a Comparative Study

Marie-Aude Torpos

Université de la Réunion

  The nineteenth century is established as a pivotal period in the history of English literature, with its fair amount of women successfully breaking through the male-dominated world of the written word. Indeed, with such famous names as the unavoidable sisters Brontë, but also George Eliot or Emily Dickinson, this particular era stands as what could be associated with a ‘Golden Age’ for women in literature, with a degree of visibility and respect never reached before, reflecting thus a change in the critical reception of feminine literary productions. As Elaine Showalter puts forward in the introduction to her work, Daughters of Decadence:

“Not only as heroines of drama, but also as competitors in the marketplace, women were a major presence in the new literary world of the 1880s and 1890s. They were writing with unprecedented candour about female sexuality, marital discontent, and their own aesthetic theories and aspirations; and speaking to – and about – the New Women of the fin de siècle.” (Showalter 1993: vii )

Introducing these controversial subjects and thus breaking the taboos established by a rigid society, the woman writer of the fin de siècle places herself in total opposition to the image of the male-subjected female writer, carried along by her predecessors.

Hence, as early as the eighteenth century, with the advent of writers such as Jane Austen, the woman writer gradually expanded her restricted horizon, and the topics explored, as a consequence, acquired more depth. As Vineta Colby analyses in her work entitled The Singular Anomaly:

“Their “proper sphere” widened proportionately from the heart to the head, from the domestic hearth to the world outside, from the sentimental and emotional problems of individual characters to the intellectually challenging social, moral, ethical, and religious problems of society-at-large.” (Colby 1970: 3)

Yet, if the abstract, thematic feminine ‘proper sphere’ was no longer valid to a few daring women writers, for the majority of a new generation of aspiring authoresses, stepping out of the sentimental world and knocking on the door of the male-reserved universe of ‘elevated’ literature meant submitting to the masculine standards of quality: yet another form of subjection. Indeed, as Elaine Showalter points out in A Literature of Their Own: ‘Women writers, who were almost all self-taught, were expected to meet male standards of scholarship if they ventured to use their knowledge’ (Showalter 1977: 42). Wearing the indelible mark of gender, a few authoresses decided to go beyond the stage of imitation of style and, in an attempt to produce pieces of work respected in the higher ranks of the literary circles, went to the extreme of altering their identity, and chose a masculine alias.

From imitation through impersonation, the woman writer had reached the stage of collaboration with her male counterpart by the nineteenth century, notwithstanding the fact that such authors as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde or Henry James were still considered by the feminine circles in literature as eminent figures of authority in their discipline. The two authoresses on which we chose to lay our focus for this study – the American Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) and the cosmopolitan Vernon Lee (1856-1935) – belong to this wave of women writers and, as an interesting point, shared an admiration for the work of the iconic Henry James; both had the privilege to receive in return the respect and friendship of the estimated man. Both authoresses were listed in Elaine Showalter’s work of compilation, Daughters of Decadence, and the novellas chosen by the editor, entitled respectively ‘Miss Grief’’ (1880) and Lady Tal’ (1892), are of particular interest in the frame of the study of the woman writer’s progressive acquiring of a voice of her own.

Our purpose will be to study the intermediary stage between the woman writer’s submissive situation of subordination to the dominant male masters and her newly acquired position as self-reliant, independent master of a self-defined sphere of her own. Thus, we will endeavour in our study to determine the position occupied by the works of Constance Fenimore Woolson and Vernon Lee, respectively “‘Miss Grief’” and ‘Lady Tal’ in this transitory phase and analyse their tackling the issue of the reversal of power between the woman apprentice and the male master. Our analysis will be threefold: we will first focus on the biographical and intertextual elements binding these two women through their lives and their works, then we will compare the elements contributing to each of these two female authors’ definition of her new version of the woman writer as ‘the other, the unknowable’ [i] and lastly we will analyse the two heroines’ intermediary situation as women writers in their confrontation to their masculine mentors.

I) Constance Fenimore Woolson and Vernon Lee: interwoven lives and works

Constance Fenimore Woolson and Vernon Lee have more in common than the central spring in the plot of their respective stories brought here under study: as in a game of mise en abyme between the internal world of the fiction they wrote and the external reality of their lives, they inked down, as women writers of the nineteenth century, the traits and the fate of what could have been the fictional carbon copy of themselves as authoresses aspiring for success. Indeed, they enjoyed the enviable position of successful professional women writers when they wrote the controversial novellas “‘Miss Grief’” (Constance Fenimore Woolson) and ‘Lady Tal’ (Vernon Lee).

If Constance Fenimore Woolson explored the theme of male artistic domination in the world of literature in two other stories, entitled A Florentine Experiment (October 1880) and In Sloane Street (June 1892), “‘Miss Grief’,” published in May 1880 in Lippincott’s Magazine, was her first attempt at presenting the complexities and realities of the condition of the woman writer. In this work, she endeavoured to draw the portrayal of a woman chasing success, to no avail, in a world of literature and publication still dictated by the publishers’ and male writers’ gendered expectations. The story written by Constance Fenimore Woolson introduces the heroine to the reader as a middle-aged lady coming to the house of the unnamed narrator for help and advice, in her desire to have her novel, Armor, published. The narrator, a young and successful author, reluctantly accepts to help Miss Grief but, leafing through the novel entrusted to his care for proof-reading, discovers the unexpected, singular talent of the authoress. The pride, integrity and stubbornness of the lady will be revealed to the young mentor during the ensuing professional meetings, which bear the original – though never met – aim of rectifying and improving the novel. The narrator, left without any news from the writer during several months, eager at the same time to please the helpless woman and to make the novel his, makes several desperate and ineffectual attempts at cutting down the spinster’s eerie plot to a shape likely to make it look acceptable in the eyes of the editor. Coming across one of her relatives some time later, and hearing of Miss Grief’s worrying health, the author decides, in his last visit to the dying lady, to conceal her failure behind the deceptive news of the success of Armor at the house of the publisher. As an epilogue, the narrator informs the reader of his intention, with the invoked motivation of egotism, to burn into oblivion the whole of the literary legacy confided to him by Miss Grief.

Published twelve years later, in a collection gathering three ‘sketches of frivolous women,’[ii] entitled Vanitas, Polite Stories, the novella Lady Tal’ concentrates on the same theme and revolves around an outline similar to that used as the basis of Woolson’s story: the analysis of the relationship established as a ‘she-novelist’ comes to a male author’s in a request for literary help. In Vernon Lee’s work, Jervase Marion, the main male character, meets the young Lady Tal at a dinner party; she is an intriguing widow with ambitious prospects of publishing a story of her own. Brought against his will into the process of helping her carry out her project, the narrator, presented with the major flaw of a devouring appetite for the study of human behaviour, will learn to know better the witty lady through the months covered by the encumbering experience. If for this experimented man of letters the work submitted to his appreciation contains no trace of literary originality or quality, the regular encounters with his unpredictable apprentice will lead him to reconsider his prejudiced attitude towards her. The novella ends with the final painful delivery of the novel and the curtain is drawn down on a scene picturing the two literary collaborators going back on the weary process and Lady Tal’s ambiguous proposal of a future project implying the extension of their partnership.

Similar in their peculiar context of creation – women writers writing about women writers –, similar in theme beyond the nuances brought by their respective plots, these two works also present similarities in their respective fates. Indeed, these stories are mostly famous for their misreadings as romans à clef, under which angles the presence of a Jamesian main character in both works has been the triggering element of a series of critical theories. Within the precise frame of our study, figuring among the numerous rumours surrounding the intriguing pair is the belief that Henry James presumably made extensive use of the literary ideas suggested to him by Constance Fenimore Woolson, whose “‘Miss Grief’” was supposedly to be read as her literary response, in the form of a fictionalised but personal attack against the preying Henry James. Indeed, the male author set as the narrator of Woolson’s story has been the object of several minute analyses aimed at pointing out the several similarities between the character and the famous author, as does Anne E. Boyd, providing in Writing for Immortality a minute analysis of the elements related to Henry James in the plot (Boyd 2004: 190-1).

Nevertheless, as Adeline R. Tintner points out,[iii] the hypothesis establishing Woolson’s work as a direct revenge against him cannot be valid, as the story, though sporting a Jamesian narrator, was written before her actual meeting with the author.

In Vernon Lee’s case, the reading of her work as a roman à clef was indeed motivated by a fair number of fictional details calling for association with echoing elements in the woman writer’s life. Indeed, three main clues can be detected, which, in a literal reading of the work, could encourage the assertion of the position of Lady Tal as Vernon Lee’s fictional double. The first obvious lead lays in the use of the first name ‘Violet’ in Lady Tal’s novella, Christina. Then, appearing in the background of the plot, the evocation of the relationship between Lady Tal and her deceased brother reads as a grim omen concerning the author’s relationship with her own brother, Eugene Lee-Hamilton. As in a partial reproduction of Vernon Lee’s own family tree, Gerald Burne is tellingly presented as Lady Tal’s half brother, born of their mother’s first marriage with a Colonel Burne: Eugene Lee-Hamilton and Violet Paget were born of the same mother, but while Violet’s father was Eugene’s tutor – Henry Paget – Eugene’s was the fruit of their mother’s first union with Captain James Lee Hamilton (Colby 2003 : 4-5).

Thus unconsciously laying the basis for a relation of total correspondence between the contents of the fictional work and the reality of her own life, Vernon Lee’s use of Henry James’s mannerism in her characterisation of Jervase Marion was misinterpreted by the critical reader as an invitation to attribute the acts and thoughts of the fictional look-alike to his real-life model: Vineta Colby points out the fact that Lady Tal’ ‘was unfortunately read as a roman à clef by everyone who knew Henry James and also knew Vernon Lee’s propensity for tactlessness.’ (Colby 2003 : 194).

Having thus worked towards the setting of these two works on parallel tracks, we can see that, as in the repetition of the same story, these two women walked a long section of a similar path writing “‘Miss Grief’” and ‘Lady Tal’ respectively. Nevertheless, beyond the biographical coincidences surrounding their creation and reception, what appears interesting to us is that, in the fashion of an unconscious palimpsest,[iv]Vernon Lee has produced, with a temporal gap of twelve years, a work appearing as the literary mirror image of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s work: reversed yet similar. Indeed, in a closer, comparative study of the contents of these two texts, the reader can notice the repetition of a series of motifs which we will endeavour to uncover progressively throughout our intertextual study. We will thus proceed with a diachronic study of these two works, setting Constance Fenimore Woolson’s novella as the hypothetical point of departure for Vernon Lee’s text. In her work entitled Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art[v]Julia Kristeva, extending the results of Bakhtin’s research in the field of language, declares:

“each word (text) is an intersection of words (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read. In Bakhtin’s work, these two axes [the horizontal axis (subject-addressee) and the vertical axis (text-context)] coincide, bringing to light an important fact:, which he calls dialogue, and ambivalence, are not clearly distinguished. Yet, what appears as a lack of rigour is in fact an insight first introduced into literary theory by Bakhtin: any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double.” (Allen 2000 : 66)

In Kristeva’s view, the mechanism of literary production thus seems to work as a constant process of appropriation, since the creating subject does not exist in complete isolation but interacts with and reacts to elements present in their environment in a dialogical way. As already put forward, our two authors present a rather impressive number of coinciding, echoing elements in their respective lives, among which the particular context of the fin de siècle in which they evolved, and which has lead them both to pour in their contributions to the debate surrounding women writers’ condition in the veiled form of fiction. While frequently referred to in the same works, often only separated by the space of a comma in the same sentence, Constance Fenimore Woolson and Vernon Lee seem to be linked by their ‘common denominator,’ their friend Henry James, and there seems to be no mention of the possibility of the existence of a direct relationship between the two women. Nevertheless, Vernon Lee, an extremely learned woman of letters who evolved in a close if not similar circle to that of Constance Fenimore Woolson may have come across and read “‘Miss Grief,’” the production of Lady Tal’ inscribing itself in their common context as a plausible answer’ to Woolson’s work. This hypothetical avenue appears to be reinforced by the two authors’ choice of the form of the novella: this literary form, placing the work of fiction as longer than the short story though shorter than the novel, implies the writer’s limitation in terms of space for expression. Far from the extensive length of the three-decker novel, this literary form of prose fiction would thus lead the writers to enrich their texts by working on a symbolical dimension.

Nevertheless, and as we will see in the course of our analysis, numerous symbols used by Constance Fenimore Woolson are to be found in ‘Lady Tal,’ thus confirming our hypothesis setting Vernon Lee’s work as the likely result of a process of rewriting: in this case, Vernon Lee would thus have recast the symbols used by Constance Fenimore Woolson, fitting them into her own plot, aiming at producing a new, personal message. In this situation, and to take up Genette’s image of the palimpsest (1982), “‘Miss Grief’” could be seen as the original parchment, which we consider to be visible through underneath the textual framework of ‘Lady Tal.’ Yet, as no tangible proof supporting this hypothesis has come to our knowledge, our analysis of these two works will lay the emphasis on their literary quality in relation with their co-existence in a similar socio-cultural context.

Although we cannot talk here of a process of rewriting owing to lack of evidence, we can see through these two works two different treatments of the topic of the condition of the ‘new woman writer’ and her emancipation from male tutors.

The heroine’s characterization and the attributes conferred on the female main character by the two authors appear to be rather reliable clues to their different approaches. The careful choice of a title for their respective works will constitute the starting point for our study of the two women’s construction of their heroines. Indeed, the displaying of the heroine’s name on the front cover turns out to be an element highly revealing of the character’s outstanding features and to hint at the power relations between the male and the female character, the apprentice and the master.

In both titles, Vernon Lee and Constance Fenimore Woolson chose to join to the names of the heroines what could be considered as social indicators: respectively, ‘Lady’ and ‘Miss.’

In the case of Woolson’s character, the title of ‘Miss,’ if not directly linked to an assumed young age, infers her celibacy: Miss Grief is indeed described as a spinster whose only offspring will be her written works, as she will declare on her death bed. Although Miss Grief’s sentimental life remains an unexplored facet in the story, her extraordinary determination to publish her work reveals a degree of dedication to the literary world so high that it may account for the absence of any exterior interest. Living alone with a person who is referred to alternatively as her maid and her aunt, clearly not fitting in the stereotype of the conventional woman – who can be roughly summarised as the quiet housewife with children – the character of Miss Grief tends to be construed as the epitome of the emancipated woman writer. However far she may have decided to recede from men, this process of submission of her work to the approval of the male authority, which we will explore in more depth later on in our analysis, still constituted an unavoidable step at that time.

Turning now to Vernon Lee’s work, the title of ‘Lady’ endows her heroine with a higher, diametrically opposed social status. Carrying no assumption concerning either her marital status or her age, as was the case with our other heroine, the reader will need to go through the first pages of the story to learn that the female main character is a single widow still in the prime of life. Having already been married once, Lady Tal seems to be more of a conformist as far as women’s marital obligations are concerned than her counterpart in Woolson’s work, even if she refers to this experience of matrimony as a mistake; nevertheless, her apparent decision not to renew this experience seems to set her at the moment of the narration as firmly independent as Miss Grief is. Moreover, her ladyship seems to have inherited from her late husband the wealth associated to her high rank in society, which allows her, economically if not on a gender basis, to stand on an equal footing regarding her mentor, Jervase Marion. Hence, if Lady Tal is not as opposed to the influential company of men as Miss Grief is, the financial gap established in Woolson’s version of the relation is here erased, allowing her to enjoy a less submissive attitude to her mentor.

Studying the social indicators contained in both titles allows us to pinpoint the first traits of the heroines’ characterisation, revealing a socially emancipated but professionally dependent Miss Grief, as opposed to a self-assertive, worldly Lady Tal. Further clues to the power relations between the male and female main characters in those works are to be found in the second part of the title: the heroines’ names.

The names under which these two women appear in the titles and by which they will be addressed most of the time throughout the stories are patent nicknames, simplified forms of either their actual names or surnames.

Providing her real name in full and introducing herself as Miss Aarona Moncrief later on in the story, the heroine is at first identified by the narrator as Miss Grief, following what appears to be the narrator’s servant’s misunderstanding (Woolson 1880 : 166). Despite Miss Grief’s providing her real identity and rectifying the mistake made, the narrator declares that he ‘preferred to call her so,’ in reference to her truncated name (Woolson 1880 : 169). Keeping the altered form of her name is a deliberate choice from the narrator, and his truncating and reducing of the woman’s identity seems to participate in his domineering attitude to her. Indeed, even before tackling her work and trying to remodel it, the narrator here reshapes Aarona’s identity according to his sole judgement, thus imposing his partial appreciation on the reader’s mind. For the narrator and for the reader, Miss Aarona Moncrief becomes a synonym of Grief through an easy game on sounds and this aspect of her truncated personality will be an active factor in the dramatization of her unavailing pursuit of publication. In her reading of “‘Miss Grief,’” Anne E. Boyd analyses:

“The title itself “‘Miss Grief,’” is the name the male writer chooses for her. But the quotation marks Woolson places around the name call his perspective into question. This story told through his eyes again distances the reader from the woman’s experience and neutralizes her anger.” (Boyd 2004 : 192)

Indeed, the weight of the narrator’s subjectivity in his telling of the story, though natural for the reader within the boundaries of the text, is made even more conspicuous by the author’s choice of typography for its title. This subtle warning as regards the masculine bias reminds the reader of the nature of this work, originally written by a woman: taking on the male character’s point of view, and calling the reader’s attention to it, Woolson’s underlying will seems to be to point at the male author’s incomplete vision and evaluation of her heroine’s work, in particular, and of the women writers of the time in a broader frame.

If in Woolson’s heroine’s name, ‘Grief’ comes from the faulty shortening of the patronymic Moncrief, in a rather disturbing coincidence, the name appearing in Vernon Lee’s title also comes from the simplification of the heroine’s real name. Yet, Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw’s nickname does not wear the same demeaning aspect as in the negative and dark ‘Grief.’ Coming from the simplification of the heroine’s Christian name ‘Atalanta,’ the abbreviation ‘Tal’ seems to have been chosen by our heroine’s friends and is obviously connected to her ‘six foot high’ body. Besides her high position in the social ladder, Lady Tal’s formidable stature goes hand in hand with an obvious high degree of self-confidence. Casting an analytical, sarcastic glance on the world ‘below’ her, Miss Walkenshaw appears, in the reader’s eyes as well as in Jervase’s, as the dominating force of the aristocratic universe of superficial concerns in which she evolves. We can notice that, as in a deliberate game of oppositions, the portrayal of Vernon Lee’s heroine seems to gradually develop into Miss Grief’s image in negative: Lady Tal’s imposing physical appearance radically contrasts with Miss Grief’s self-effacing manner, the latter’s body being depicted by the narrator as ‘shrinking,’ retreating further and further away in her  clothes. While Woolson’s heroine appears physically overwhelmed with her eponymous grief, Lady Tal  stands ‘very tall, straight, and strongly built’ (Lee 1892 : 16), bearing the external signs that the reader is likely to interpret as revealing a proud and self-confident woman. The multiple interpretations drawn from the heroine’s nickname ‘Tal’ – confirmed in the analysis of her portrayal provided in the inner pages – thus confirms our hypothesis that the author sets on stage a strong female character. In Lady Tal,’ the simplified name appears weighed on the author’s side, revealing Vernon Lee’s more positive, even optimistic approach to the subject.

II) The powerful woman writer: ‘the other, the unknowable’

The conclusion of our preliminary analysis of the titles of these two works has thus shown the authors’ choice of contrasting angles, with the resulting dichotomy between the sickly-looking Miss Grief and the strongly-built Lady Tal. Yet, while the heroines’ names introduce them as one-faced characters, both authors, unfolding the story, will let us see through the developing of their heroines’ ventures different approaches to the issue of the female novelist’s evolution in the setting up of a ‘literature of her own,’ paralleling their desire for men’s recognition. In order to set these parallel tracks, the heroine’s first step in both works aims at making herself known, imposing the feminine literary production long denied by the representative of the masculine authority in each work: the unnamed narrator in “‘Miss Grief’” and Jervase Marion in ‘Lady Tal.’ Hence initiating their attempt at overthrowing the masculine authority, thus reversing the traditional balance of powers between genders, the two women writers first impose themselves by disarming the male authors. Forcing them to evaluate their novels, the two heroines employ a similar technique of persuasion, reported by the male instance in both novellas as a process of hypnosis.

Having started by obtruding their presence as women writers, both heroines endeavour to assert themselves, a process in which Miss Grief turns out as the fiercest actor, contrary to the narrator’s and the reader’s first expectations. Indeed, while depicted as adopting an attitude of extreme submission during their first encounter – which we will explore later in our analysis – Miss Grief’s tenacity, unveiled in her first uncontrolled fit of anger, is clearly revealed throughout her professional relationship with the young novelist. As she brings her novel with the hope of eventually accessing to its publication, the female author appears determined not to let herself be impressed by the male novelist’s social and professional superior position. Indeed, though showing intermittent signs of awe in front of the narrator, after demanding the narrator’s professional judgement of her work, Miss Grief shows no sign of interest for the male author’s advice as he proceeds with his negative stylistic criticism. Thus remaining stubbornly deaf, Woolson’s heroine actually reverses the situation and presses on making the male author lose his position of supreme authority – consciously or not – as she insists on having him hear and recognise her talent. ‘“I will not read it, but recite it.”’ Woolson 1880 : 178), ‘“I will recite it,” she repeated”’; ‘“And now you will let me recite it?”’ Woolson 1880 : 179, original emphasis). Choosing to read aloud and thus depriving the male author of his Cartesian support for his measuring tool, Miss Grief literally imposes her own voice, and succeeds in making the narrator’s opinion sway in her favour.

Thus proving her capacity to exist with her own voice, Miss Grief radically sets herself on parallel tracks as the other’: assuming an active role in the building of the woman writer’s new, increasingly independent identity, she endeavours to take a separate stance on the literary ground, standing beyond the boundaries of pre-definition of quality as she tries to escape masculine reason. Challenging man’s authority and preconceptions on the literary ground, Miss Grief can be considered to find her female equivalent, in the larger circle of society, in the person of Miss Abercrombie. Indeed, Constance Fenimore Woolson, making this second female character appear in the background, seems to point to the fact that the male author’s patronizing attitude towards the woman writer ensues from his similarly imprisoning behaviour towards the ‘social’ woman. While he attempts throughout the novella to make Miss Grief and her work fit in the circle of his preconceived standards of quality, the unnamed narrator had already endeavoured to incarcerate the young Miss Abercrombie in the frame he had already built for her, as he reveals to have set ‘a careful theory of that young lady’s characteristics in [his] own mind’ (Woolson 1880: 167). Nevertheless, prefiguring the heroine’s success in escaping the narrator’s grasp, standing up for her authentic identity, Miss Abercrombie similarly successfully opposed herself to the young man’s reading grid, challenging the reason of ‘constructor of theories’ he claims he is and, breaking out of his hold, has ‘taken flight’ (Woolson 1880: 167).

Facing the male narrator to a wall of incomprehension, the woman, and by extension the woman writer in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s novella, turns into an increasingly resistant subject and thus widens the dimensions of her identity beyond the stereotypical image of the dull object easy to master. This same symbol of female opposition through her resistance to masculine endeavour to nail her down can also be noticed in Vernon Lee’s work, as she extends the idea to the main spring governing the relationship between Lady Tal and Jervase Marion. Indeed, though the latter is declared not to be “a man of theories (their cut-and-driedness offending his subtlety)” (Lee 1892: 42), the “demon of psychological study” constantly lurking in his mind seems to have unconsciously lead him to create neatly delineated human patterns and pre-determined psychological labels, a process paralleling Woolson’s narrator’s efforts at rationalising his lover’s attitude.

Nevertheless, escaping Jervase Marion’s boxes and labels, Lady Tal, furthering the example provided by Miss Abercrombie, challenges the psychological novelist on his own favourite field. Indeed, going against the male author’s former judgement that ‘[t]his woman did not seem an individual at all’ (Lee 1892: 18), the young lady’s remarkable character progressively undermines the psychological observer’s authoritarian speculations. Destroying his first prejudices, Jervase Marion acknowledges his mistakes, and turns out to have ‘recognised, in the course of various conversations, that this young lady formed an exception to the rule that splendid big creatures with regular features and superb complexions are invariably idiots’ (Lee 1892: 33). Fostering surprise and incomprehension, Vernon Lee’s heroine shatters most of the male author’s guesses, whether concerning her behaviour or her complex personality. Hence puzzling the male character at the core of his beliefs, the balance of powers here again seems to be reversed: if she cannot be read by Jervase Marion, it appears that she can clearly see through him and seems to be reading his mind. Indeed, unveiling the male author’s train of thoughts, she declares early in their acquaintance : ‘“You say that because of the modelling of my face […] I dare say I have taken too much for granted. One ought never to take anything for granted, in the way of human insight, ought one?”’ (Lee 1892: 37-8). Implicitly warning the psychological novelist by this last sentence, she nevertheless proves to be talented in observation and guesses. This gift shows through the earlier disconcerting declaration about her want of soul or as underlined by such thoughts from Jervase Marion as ‘Quite true’ (Lee 1892: 76) or ‘Lady Atalanta had most certainly hit the right nail on the head’ ( Lee 1892: 53).

This theme of perceptiveness verging on strange clairvoyance is also present in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s work: Miss Grief, endeavouring to demonstrate her respect for the narrator’s work and showing her appreciation of the sentiments conveyed, impresses the young man who declares: ‘she had understood me – understood me almost better than I had understood myself’ Woolson 1880: 170). While in this case this perceptiveness is not an element to be exploited by Woolson’s heroine, Lady Tal on her part uses it as a means to take advantage and assume a dominant position in her relationship with Jervase Marion.

This first analysis of the two heroines’ behaviour in their relationship with their masculine mentors thus puts forward their common strategy of disconcerting the figure of authority as they stand firmly beyond their grasp. Yet, their respective ways of imposing themselves reveal two different choices regarding the situation they yearn for as women writers.

As previously put forward, Miss Grief appears as the more resolute in her endeavour at being fully recognised as a woman writer and seems to build her path to assertion exclusively through opposition. Standing up against the male author, she clearly shows through her behaviour her strong will to preserve her integrity, setting up a situation where it seems that the two participants speak two different languages. Indeed, the two characters obviously do not share the same values in their appreciation of literature, a situation that is exemplified through the narrator’s reaction during their first professional meeting. As he proceeds to underline the flaws he has detected in her work, the narrator realises ‘to [his] surprise […] that she did not see the blemishes – that she appreciated nothing [he] had said, comprehended nothing’ (Woolson 1880: 178). Constance Fenimore Woolson thus sets a situation with the existence of two totally opposed worlds where the stereotypical masculine reason clashes with the cliché of feminine passion: where the male narrator lays the emphasis on stylistic concerns and is focused on the ‘blemishes’ in form – ‘the “how,” rather than the “what,”’ Woolson 1880: 175)  Miss Grief is above all concerned with the emotion of the literary contents and privileges its intrinsic beauty, which she intends to prove by reading out loud an extract of her work to the narrator.

First endeavouring to impose her own values and her own style by opposing herself to dialogue, her resolute desire for integrity without compromise seems to be an element suffusing the structure of her novel in itself. As we can notice in the second part of the plot, the narrator’s efforts at applying the rejected suggestions to Miss Grief’s novel in her absence remain to no avail. Indeed, in the same way as the heroine vocally resisted the young author’s voice, her literary offspring appears to be stubbornly fighting back the strokes from the male author’s correcting pen: following the female novelist’s determined statement that ‘“There shall not be so much as a comma altered”’ in her work (Woolson 1880: 179), the narrator realises in his later endeavour at reshaping her work that indeed, ‘the obstinate drama refused to be corrected; as it was it must stand or fall’ (Woolson 1880: 185). Thus appropriately entitled Armor, not only does the novel remain impervious to the narrator’s stylistic reshaping but also to the male author’s more serious attempt at making the drama his. Here, the alteration clearly shows to be aimed at going beyond the superficial level of the ‘comma,’ as he endeavours to cut down the plot to a marketable script: ‘I was determined that Miss Grief’s work should be received. I would alter and improve it myself, without letting her know’ (Woolson 1880: 185).

The woman writer’s original stamp on the book seems to be deeply imprinted in its framework, an element impossible to remove and indispensable to its functioning. The authentic product of the female novelist, the plot bears in itself a mechanism so alien to the male author’s standards that he cannot manipulate it. This essential element turns out to be similar to the Jamesian baffling ‘complex figure in a Persian carpet’ James, Chapter IV) – as the narrator explains: ‘I found that that apparently gentle “doctor” would not out: he was so closely interwoven with every part of the tale that to take him out was like taking out one especial figure in a carpet: that is, impossible, unless you unravel the whole’ (Woolson 1880: 185).

While Miss Grief succeeds in imposing herself by opposing to the male author an intricate plot marked by a firmly resistant ‘figure in the carpet,’ the presence of a similar image of inscrutability can be noticed in Vernon Lee’s novella. Indeed, setting up elements leading to the progressive allusion to the ‘complex figure in a Persian carpet’ already in use in Woolson’s work, Vernon Lee first evokes the presence, and even the omnipresence of the moon, more precisely under the telling form of ‘[a] white carpet of moonlight’ (Lee 1892: 11), an image underlined by its repetition a few pages later in the description of ‘the moonlight spread[ing] in a soft, shining carpet’ (Lee 1892: 13, my emphasis). Underlined by Catherine Delyfer in her article entitled ‘Rewriting the Myth of Atalanta,’ this image of ‘[t]he moon, traditionally associated with the Greek goddess of maidenhood, is present from the beginning of the short story in an aestheticized form’ (par. 7). This symbol is obviously here to be linked with Lady Tal, as it appears fourteen times throughout the novella, each time in connection with the mysterious female character. This link between the moon and the young lady turns out to be all the more relevant as Vernon Lee proceeds in describing Jervase’s unconscious focusing on this beam of light: the psychological novelist is depicted twice as absorbed in analysing ‘the patterns which the moonlight […] was making on the shining marble floor’ (Lee 1892: 21). This fascination foreshadows his irresistible attraction to Lady Tal’s personality. Having thus linked the moon to the character of Lady Tal, we can notice that if in Woolson’s work the ‘intricate pattern’ is imprinted in Miss Grief’s literary work, in Vernon Lee’s story it is the heroine more than her novel who more directly challenges the male author’s understanding.

In accordance with the description of the complexity lying in the patterns drawn by the moon, Lady Tal is depicted from the outset as an enigma. As an indirect warning against Jervase’s future psychological enterprise, one of the guests, evoking the heroine, declares ‘Lady Tal’s a riddle, and I pity the man who tries to guess it’ (Lee 1892: 26).

Presented in appearance as a compliant pupil eager to follow his example and ‘to conform’ (Lee 1892: 94) to his remarks, Lady Tal proceeds as an actress dissimulating her actual motives. No longer the passive object of observation, but also a source of inspiration, Lady Tal seems to enact the muse’s rebellion as she is empowered by manipulating the psychological observer. While Jervase Marion believes that ‘Lady Tal gratuitously offered herself for study by her quiet, aggressive assumption of inscrutability’ (Lee 1892: 43), the heroine’s behaviour actually seems to conceal a trap. Aware of the temptation she represents for the novelist, if she accepts to follow her mentor’s advice and go through the heavy process of reshaping her novel, her eventual denunciation of the male author’s dishonest attitude is all the more smiting. Indeed, as she fumbles for the symbolical pair of scissors (Lee 1892: 74-5), the heroine denounces the fake dialogue established by Jervase Marion, a so called constructive professional exchange in which the male author has exploited his disciple: pointing at his extensive interference in the rewriting of her own novel, she exclaims ‘“You put all your ideas into poor Christina […] you know you do”’ (Lee 1892: 75). Even though she has accepted this ersatz literary collaboration, Vernon Lee’s heroine eventually proves to be lucid and uncovers the literary project he had begun to contemplate. Indeed, while feeding Lady Tal’s desire of  being ‘an incipient George Eliot’ (Lee 1892: 75), Jervase Marion has taken advantage of this professional pretext to use the aspiring novelist as a raw material, a fact which is bluntly unveiled by the perceptive female novelist: ‘“Now, suppose I were the heroine of your novel – you know you are writing a novel about me, that’s what makes you so patient with me and Christina, you’re just walking round, and looking at me”’ (Lee 1892: 69).

Thus facing the psychological novelist to his blameworthy behaviour, the young lady seems to strike the final blow in what we can consider as a constructive revenge. Assuming the active position of an aspiring woman writer, Lady Tal, contrary to Miss Grief, cunningly accepts the dialogue with the male novelist to achieve the collaboration she yearns for: Vernon Lee’s heroine seems to succeed in a slight readjusting of the balance of powers between the two sexes. Indeed, assuming a position of equality as a woman writer, Lady Tal proposes the project of a real literary collaboration: opposing the ‘paternal tone’ (Lee 1892: 83) with which he attempts to reject the prospect, she insists that they ‘ought to write this novel together’ (Lee 1892: 84). Far from Woolson’s heroine’s unavailing attempt at imposition through resolute opposition, Lady Tal hence seems to consider the woman writer’s full recognition through the hope of a situation of actual parity between men and women writers.

III) Women writers’ intermediary situation in their confrontation to their masculine mentors

As explored in the previous part, the two heroines in Woolson and Lee’s works are presented as trying to carve their ways into the literary circles and reach the status of respected women writers, escaping the ‘double critical standard’ as evoked by Elaine Showalter.[vi] Nevertheless, standing at the intersection of a crossroads, with a foot more or less firmly laid on the way to artistic independence, the two aspiring novelists are presented in these novellas, in a more or less accentuated way following the implied message, as still undergoing the smothering weight of man’s domination in their chosen field.

As we can infer from Miss Grief’s peculiarly dark characterisation, Woolson’s heroine appears as the epitome of women’s victimization in this universe. This impression is reinforced by the author’s choice of presenting a set of two diametrically opposed characters: Miss Grief, and the masculine unnamed narrator. Indeed, Miss Grief is presented in negative terms, starting with her physical appearance: being obviously past the prime of her youth, she is catalogued as unattractive and shabby by the handsome young man on their first encounter. Added to the gender superiority the male narrator benefits from, the social gap setting Miss Grief in an inferior position will be a determining element in the adoption of an attitude of blatant submission in the course of her enterprise.

More than contributing to the building up of the reader’s eagerness to meet the mysterious heroine, Miss Grief’s first unavailing visits to the narrator’s house can be interpreted as part of the woman writer’s difficulties in making herself heard and hence succeed in her venture.

Furthermore, after having stepped into the narrator’s home and exposed  her project, Miss Grief will unknowingly be confronted to the obstacle of the novelist’s heavy preconception of women writers : the narrator, silently exclaiming to himself ‘“An authoress! This is worse than old lace!”’ (Woolson 1880: 71), is turned into the spokesman of a majority of male writers of the time. This demeaning remark is obviously discriminating against the addition of the feminine suffix ‘-ess’ to the jealously guarded profession, the narrator stubbornly inscribing the woman writer in her stereotypical domestic sphere, grading her literary attempt, or more precisely her appropriation of her right to stand in this field, as more despicable than low-quality embroidery.

In the same view, and as analysed before, Constance Fenimore Woolson points at the partial and prejudiced judgement of women writers’ talent and makes her heroine’s fate clear from the very beginning. Reflecting the narrator’s negative judgement of Miss Grief in advance, despite the absence of any valid basis, the title “‘Miss Grief’” reveals the heroine’s doomed story, bearing a predetermined end, even while the book stays unopened in front of the reader. While in the introductory part of our study, the analysis of the nickname “Grief” laid the emphasis on the ‘conditioning’ effect of the title in the reader’s mind, here our analysis of the same name will focus on the effect produced by this choice at the characters’ level. The narrator, chopping off part of the woman’s identity, in what could be considered as a symbolical act of castration, will doom the authoress to barren production: her literary work being unable to pass through the obstacle of the publisher’s approbation, she will only have given birth to stillborn babies, which she will tellingly refer to as her ‘poor dead children’ on her death bed.

If the young author finally recognises Miss Grief’s talent, the woman writer’s failure will come from her not fitting in the rigid mould of feminine writing. Indeed, going against the publisher’s expectations for a woman writer, the peculiar elements included in the frame of a marketable plot are indeed beyond the limits of the ‘polite story’. The novelist’s unusual creativity brought her to deal with taboos such as death – or more precisely euthanasia – for which she suffered the sentence of censorship in her lifetime and which will doom her works to be buried underground, unknown, with her (Woolson 1880: 188-91). Focusing again on our analysis of the evolution of the women writers’ status, we could say that Woolson in this work introduced to the reader a female novelist ahead of her time, undertaking a literary task doomed to failure – an aborted attempt at breaking ground – her work being placed much too far beyond the boundaries of acceptability for her real talent to be recognised.

In her novella, Vernon Lee presents her heroine as a compliant apprentice and thus seemingly sets her once again as the diametrical opposite of Woolson’s upright female novelist, broaching the issue of conformity with a rather ironical twist. Indeed, as already said before, the female character chosen by Vernon Lee is an aspiring authoress with no artistic gift, but whose main ambition in her venture seems to be the materialistic profits that a successful career as a woman writer would provide her. While Miss Grief’s desire is for her talent to be recognised without any compromise thanks to her novel Armor, Vernon Lee sarcastically points at the apparently well-oiled mechanism enabling the woman writer to reach professional success, and turns Lady Tal into a caricature. In agreement with the presence of a specific sphere for female novelists, our discovery of Lady Tal’s choice concerning the theme of her novel, Christina, places at once the heroine’s novel in a stereotypical frame; as Jervase Marion remarks after his first reading of a book:

The story was no story at all, merely the unnoticed martyrdom of a delicate and scrupulous woman tied to a vain, mean, and frivolous man; the long starvation of a little soul which required affections and duties among the unrealities of the world. Not at all an uncommon subject nowadays; in fact, Marion could have counted you off a score of well-known novels on similar or nearly similar themes. (Lee 1892: 36)

As the mention of an important number of ‘well-known novels’ indicates, the choice of this particular plot and topic, though adding nothing more to the stream of dull writing on the surface, is obviously not part of an innocent process from Lady Tal. While Woolson’s message concerning the woman writer’s situation of subordination regarding man’s status in the literary enterprise is revealed from the fatalistic view, with Miss Grief’s cruel end, Vernon Lee’s ironic tone, piercing through Lady Tal’s fictional voice, presents a less dark though more corrosive view of what appears to be a static situation. If Woolson dooms her heroine to failure and death because of her lack of compliance with these constraints, Lady Tal seems to have learned from the previous novella’s moral: Miss Grief’s talent eventually not being an essential element to success, Lady Tal is determined to assimilate the necessary rules in order to avoid a similar fate. Indeed, accepting to have her work reshaped by the remarks coming from Jervase Marion’s professional eye, Lady Tal applies to her literary undertaking her favourite maxim, articulated in the declaration repeated twice to her mentor: ‘It’s my policy always to conform, you know’ (Lee 1892: 59).

We can notice that, whether in a deliberate effort or out of an unconscious choice, Vernon Lee’s association of her heroine with the male mentor in her apprenticeship underlines the persistent importance of the masculine model. Indeed, while the heroine rather naively declares her desire to soar up to the level of the best writers and become ‘the “new George Eliot of fashionable life”’ (Lee 1892: 72), the whole of her novel is ironically entrusted to a male writer for correction and reshaping. Yet, if we could imagine that Vernon Lee’s heroine comes into contact with Jervase Marion for want of a feminine alternative, her professional proximity with the male writer fathers the production of what appears to be close to George Eliot’s depiction of the lady novelists’ tendency to “an absurd exaggeration of the masculine style, like the swaggering gait of a bad actress in male attire.” (Eliot 1854, in Blind 1883: 2). Hence, we could construe the modern reader’s impression concerning Lady Tal’s uncomfortable displacement in her venture as the result of her inaccurate choice of a literary tutor, as compared to her feminine literary references.

The woman writer’s awkward position torn apart between her desire to cling to a masculine literary model and her proclaimed aspiration towards an ideal represented by a feminine literary figure seems to translate into Lady Tal’s depiction of her idea of the perfect woman writer: “a George Eliot and Ouida rolled into one, with the best qualities of Goethe and Dean Swift into the bargain” (Lee 1892: 77). Interestingly enough, both Vernon Lee’s and Woolson’s heroines appear as the representation of an intermediary position, standing physically close to the monster of literary talent imagined by Lady Tal, whose outstanding feature lies in its absence of a definite gender. By their choice of investing themselves in a literary career, and thus stepping into male-dominated circles, these two women, Miss Grief and Lady Tal, can be considered as standing ‘in-between’ the feminine sphere to which they belong by birth and the masculine world of the discipline to which they aspire. Following the widespread criticism of the time which labelled the New Women’s writing as ‘unwomanly’ (Showalter 1993: x), the two authors – Vernon Lee and Constance Fenimore Woolson – seem to have opted for the same choice of a heroine of questionable femininity.

As in a deliberate attempt to materialise this complex situation, the blending of feminine and masculine characteristics seems to be rendered even more vividly through Vernon Lee’s depiction of her Lady Tal. Furthermore, this physical depiction seems to correspond to the identity of her novel, Christina, as written under Jervase Marion’s influence: a feminine body – represented by the typical choice of theme, the body of the story – endowed with a masculine voice, the articulation of the subject ringing with a male ring.

The image of the borrowing of a masculine voice finds an echo in the authors’ respective choice of a male narrator, in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s case, and of a masculine focalisation in Vernon Lee’s work. This specific – and peculiar – choice remains ambiguous in interpretation, as it appears as a blade with a double edge: while the hypothesis of the plausible aim of criticising the male writer through feigned imitation has been developed in the second part of our study, we can nevertheless analyse at this precise point this adoption of masculinity as an element part of the women writers’ difficulty to grow away from the male point of view. Taking a step back from the fiction for the moment and focusing on the authors’ identity, we could also notice that Vernon Lee and Constance Fenimore Woolson both have an ambiguous stance in the literary field. Indeed, being turn of the century women writers, their virtual closeness to the masculine authority can be noticed both in Violet Paget’s impersonation through her masculine pen name and through James’s attribution of a masculine identity to his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson. The similar proximity with the professional writer must have participated in the two authors’ reverence towards male writers’ authority that can be felt between the lines in both works.

In ‘“Miss Grief,”’ the narrator, though unnamed, is clearly defined as a male character. If the telling of the story made exclusively from his point of view certainly contributes to the female writer’s image of imprisonment, Woolson’s degree of proximity with the narrator’s voice is difficult to assess. Indeed, in her story, the narrator, though obviously condemned for his prejudiced attitude, seems to have the author’s sympathy by the denouement: seemingly sharing with Woolson’s pointing at Miss Grief’s unjust fate, the male character turns out to be the only one who recognised the heroine’s rare talent, as the final endearing formulation reveals: ‘my poor dead, “unavailable”, unaccepted, ‘Miss Grief’ (Woolson 1880: 191). Yet, beyond this simple sharing of feelings with the female novelist, it seems that Woolson’s voice merges with the narrator’s in the appreciation of Armor, as he issues his criticism mingling notes on form and on content: ‘the faults of the drama, which were many and prominent, would have chilled any liking I might have felt, I being a writer myself, and therefore critical’ Woolson 1880: 175). While he admits that ‘the scattered rays of splendour in Miss Grief’s drama had made [him] forget the dark spots’ Woolson 1880: 175), it is nonetheless obvious to him that ‘[t]he want of one grain made all her work void’ Woolson 1880: 190), this ‘one grain’ appearing to be ‘reason’ in its literary aspect. Indeed, we could apply here Anne E. Boyd’s statement, as she reflects on Woolson’s ambiguous position regarding her use of male narrators:

She distances herself from the popular woman writer who possesses a feminine version of genius, “inspiration” without “reason”, as Stoddard would have put it. Rather than valorize this form of genius, like Hale or Henshaw would have done, Woolson looks through the male writer’s eyes and senses both superiority and envy, which she herself probably would feel toward such a woman writer who wrote effortlessly, won admiration, and appeared to be unconscious of her ignorance. (Boyd 2004: 154)

If the narrator is extra-diegetic in Vernon Lee’s novella, Jervase Marion clearly is the main focalizer throughout the telling of the story. Indeed, while the narration shifts between the use of the third person and the occasional insertion of an authorial ‘I,’ the reader benefits from an extensive access to the development of Jervase Marion’s thoughts. As Vineta Colby notices in her analysis of the novella, this complex process of narration is at the origin of ambiguity, with the resulting embarrassing difficulty ‘to distinguish, for example, between Marion berating himself and the author condemning him’ (Colby 1970: 267). Nevertheless, as in the case of “‘Miss Grief,’” in Vernon Lee’s work the narrator’s pieces of negative criticism of Lady Tal’s novel seem to be the echo of the author’s own despising of her heroine’s poor literary style. Vineta Colby puts forward the similarities between Jervase Marion’s protestation – among others – against Lady Tal’s “taking all sort of knowledge for granted in your reader” (Lee 1892: 37) and Henry James’ own criticism of the work submitted to him by Vernon Lee (Colby 1970: 267). Yet, we can say that these same protestations are made Vernon Lee’s, her acute appreciation of style having doubtless been consolidated throughout her career by similar constructive remarks.

It seems that, as far as form and style are concerned, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s and Vernon Lee’s adoption of a masculine point of view allows them at certain points in the story to distance themselves from the imperfect woman writer of their creation, in an attempt akin to George Eliot’s anonymous decrying of the poor quality of the ‘silly novelist’s’ art (Eliot 1856). Indeed, in her originally anonymous critical essay on “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” George Eliot revealed her demanding attitude towards women writers, who seemed too often to shine by the presence in their works of ‘vacillating syntax and improbable incident’ (par. 2), thus echoing the reproaches expressed against the aspiring female novelists in both Woolson’s and Lee’s works. If they both appear through their respective works to fight for the recognition of woman writer’s right to equal status with men in the literary circle, neither of them denied the inherited masculine standards as a basis for a true mastery of the literary art.

Having thus conducted our comparative study of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “‘Miss Grief’” and Vernon Lee’s ‘Lady Tal,’ our main axis has been to underline the relevant elements contributing in placing these texts in the literary continuum as part of what Elaine Showalter designates as the literary ‘missing links’ (Showalter 1993: viii), leading to the opening of the era of feminine modern writing.

While our initial hypothesis had lead us to consider Lady Tal as the outcome of Vernon Lee’s rewriting Constance Fenimore Woolson’s novella, the intertextual relationship between these two works is to be considered outside this envisioned link of direct filiation. It now seems more accurate, in the light of the course taken in our comparative study, to consider these works, if not independently, as inter-related missing links representative of two pivotal points in the evolution of the woman writer’s status.

The element that led us to consider “Lady Tal” as the re-writing of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “‘Miss Grief’” had been the presence of a very similar plot in both stories. Yet, what appeared as Vernon Lee’s rewriting of a precise story turns out to be the rewriting of the female writer’s condition on a larger scale, with the presentation of her version of the new woman writer. While the general message conveyed through these two works is aimed at claiming the woman writer’s right to recognition and respect, with the presentation of two muses’ acts of rebellion, the contrasts underlined throughout our study point to the evolution that seem to have occurred in the temporal gap separating their creation and publication, as regards the gender issue in the female-male relation in literary circles. As put forwards in our analysis, Constance Fenimore Woolson approaches this issue by setting her heroine in complete opposition to the unnamed narrator: the solution that seems to be proposed in order to break the male-imposed mould of feminine writing appears in the symbolical, tightly-shut Armor, in which the woman writer finds refuge beyond the control of her masculine mentor. While Woolson presents her heroine’s career as still depending on men’s control, Miss Grief’s conception of the literary ‘sphere of her own’ appears to lie in a distinct and completely hermetic space in this novella. On the other hand, concerning Vernon Lee’s work, the elements gathered throughout our comparative analysis reveal a more sensible approach to this same issue of the dictatorship of gender in the world of literature. Indeed, where Miss Grief attempts to break the mould by bypassing it, Lady Tal subverts this same predetermination, making the mould implode. While Woolson’s heroine appears as the unfortunate, passive victim of this male-dominated universe, Lady Tal goes beyond her predecessor’s mere pointing at the injustices of this milieu, explicitly decrying them in direct confrontation with her masculine tutor. Yet, more than simply pointing at these disparities in treatment, Lee’s heroine, beginning with accepting the rules as defined by the masculine authority, eventually claims her right to stand as a fully recognised literary creator, able to stand on an equal footing with her masculine colleague, bringing her own contribution in the building of a common literary space. Contrary to Woolson’s presentation of a separate feminine sphere, Vernon Lee thus contemplates the woman writer’s sphere as part of what would no longer be a masculine but a global literary sphere, thus allowing exchange and collaboration.

The comparative analysis of these two works has thus revealed the two authors’ diverging presentation of ‘otherness’ in the field of literature: where Constance Fenimore Woolson’s creation proposes the vision of a compartmented literary space, where the only way for women writers’ independent creativity implies the shutting out of the male writer, Vernon Lee, in order to escape from the imposed feminine sphere does not choose opposition but transcends the gender distinction, displaying an androgynous literary sphere, an option which would later be explored and reinforced with Virginia Woolf’s efforts.[vii] Thus, considering the masculine literary tradition as indispensable in women writers’ tracing of their own paths, literary androgyny would constitute, in Vernon Lee’s view, a dynamic feminine response. Hence the New Woman writer would create with authenticity, from an appropriated tradition, transcending the weight of the anxiety of influence.[viii]

References

Blind, Mathilde. 1883. George Eliot. London: W.H. Allen and Co..

Bloom, Harold. 1997. The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry. 2nd edition. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boyd, Anne. E. 2004. Writing for Immortality, Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America. United States of America: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Colby, Vineta. 1970. The Singular Anomaly; Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. New York: New York University Press.

Colby, Vineta. 2003. Vernon Lee, a Literary Biography. United States of America: University of Virginia Press.

Delyfer, Catherine. ‘Rewriting the Myth of Atalanta; Sex and Style in Vernon Lee’s “Lady Tal”’ Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 2.2 (Summer 2006). 19 Nov. 2006. <http://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue22/delyfer.htm&gt;

Eliot, George. ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.’ Westminster      Review, Oct. 1856: 442-61. 15 Aug. 2007 (as reproduced on the James A. Cannavino Library website, <http://library.marist.edu/faculty-web-pages/morreale/sillynovelists.htm&gt;

James, Henry. 1896. The Figure in the Carpet. 1896. (as reproduced on the Project Gutenberg website, <http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext96/fgcpt10h.htm&gt;

Genette, Gérard. 1982. Palimpsestes: la littérature au second degré. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Kristeva, Julia. 1978. Semeiotike: recherches pour une sémanalyse. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Lee, Vernon. [1892]. 2004. Vanitas, Polite Stories. 1892. Pennsylvania: Wildside Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1869. ‘The Subjection of Women.’ 3 May 2007           (as reproduced on The Constitution Society website, <http://www.constitution.org/jsm/women.htm&gt;.)

Moore, Rayburn S. 1993. Constance Fenimore Woolson. New York: University of Georgia Twayne Publishers.

Showalter, Elaine. 1977. A Literature of Their Own, British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Expanded edition. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. 1993. Daughters of Decadence, Women Writers of             theFin- de-Siècle. London: Virago Press.

Tintner, Adeline. 1998. Henry James’s Legacy, The Afterlife of His Figure and Fiction.United States of America: Louisiana State University Press.

Vicinus, Martha. 1972. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Weber, Carl J. ‘Henry James and his Tiger Cat’. PLMA, Vol. 68, No. 4. Sept. 1953: 672-687. Modern Language Association of America. 28 Feb. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org&gt;

Woolson, Constance Fenimore. 1993. “‘Miss Grief’”. 1880. Daughters of Decadence, Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle. Ed. Showalter, Elaine. London: Virago Press.


[i] Expression taken from Anne E. Boyd, Writing for Immortality: ‘ The narrator of “‘Miss Grief’” here strongly resembles some of James’s early male characters, most notably Winterbourne in Daisy Miller and Rowland Mallet in Roderick Hudson. For these men, as Priscilla L. Walton says about Roderick Hudson, ‘women function as the Other, the “unknowable”’[…]At issue are the ‘true’ feelings of these women. […] Are these women displaying their ‘real’ selves, or are they, as Christina is accused of being, merely superb actresses?’ (Boyd 2004: 196).

[ii] In a letter directed to “Alla baronessa E. French-cini Pistoia per Igno”, written by Vernon Lee in October 1891 and appearing on pages 5-7 as an introductory notice to her collection Vanitas, Polite Stories as published by Wildside Press.

[iii] “‘Miss Grief’” consisted of showing that, in comparison with James, she was a more powerful, although an un-renowned, writer; there is nothing personal about him in it because she had not yet met him.” (Tintner 1998 : 36) Her establishing Woolson’s work as a personal revenge against James’ fame nonetheless appears rather reductive, as it would undermine the scope of its message concerning the woman writer’s lack of visibility in general.

[iv] Here referring to the image as used by Gérard Genette in the title of his work, Palimpsestes, Paris: Seuil, 1982.

[v] Allen, transl. of Julia Kristeva, Semeiotike: Recherches pour une sémanalyse (1980) (Allen, 39).

[vi] « To their contemporaries, nineteenth century women writers were women first, artists second.» (Showalter 1993 73).

[vii] Elaine Showalter dedicates a chapter to Virginia Woolf’s treatment of the woman writer’s androgynous solution in the setting of a ‘room of her own’, entitled ‘Flight into Androgyny’ in her work, A Literature of Their Own, 1977, pages 263-97.

[viii] For further information about this theory, see Bloom, op. cit., 1944.

Singing Things: The Castrato in Vernon Lee’s Biography of a ‘Culture-Ghost’

“Singing Things: The Castrato in Vernon Lee’s Biography of a ‘Culture-Ghost’”

ANTHONY TEETS, SUNY STONY BROOK

“Singer, thing of evil, stupid and wicked slave of the voice, of that instrument which was not invented by the human intellect, but begotten of the body, and which, instead of moving the soul, merely stirs up the dregs of our nature! For what is the voice but the Beast calling, awakening that other Beast sleeping in the depths of mankind, the Beast which all great art has ever sought to chain up, as the archangel chains up, in old pictures the demon with his woman’s face? How could the creature attached to this voice, its owner and its victim, the singer, the great, the real singer who once ruled over every heart, be otherwise, than wicked and contemptible? But let me try and get on with my story.” (Lee 156)

The singing voice, that very specific space in which a tongue encounters a voice and permits those who know how to listen to it to hear what we can call its “grain”—the singing voice is not the breath but indeed that materiality of the body emerging from the throat, a site where the phonic metal takes shape. (Barthes 255)

In the late nineteenth century a specter haunted the scenes of opera. That specter was Wagnerism, a musical movement that, as some critics thought, threatened to replace all previous innovations by swallowing musical things up in its oversized orchestras and the grand abstraction of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the integration of multiple forms of drama, music, and the visual arts. It was a “total art” that stormed the eighties and nineties decades leaving havoc in its train and altering forever the senses and sensibilities of its ghastly neurasthenic spectators. Recent critical work has underlined the impact of Wagnerism on late nineteenth-century British Aestheticism, drawing attention to the many ways in which consumer culture negotiated the demands of a new opera on preexistent theories of the voice and its relation to the opera. Theodor Adorno, echoing much twentieth century criticism, describes Wagnerism as a “culture industry” that produced a mass phenomenon making Bayreuth an institution of spectacle. (Huyssen 29)[i]

According to Vernon Lee, one of the casualties of Wagnerism with its absorption of all parts of an opera into the whole was the disappearance of the voice from its time-honored place at the center of opera. It has been argued that before Wagner, the singer’s voice was the thing central to the opera guaranteeing its cultural significance and meaning from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. With Wagnerism, all of that changed, totally. What the Wagnerites demanded was the saturation of their senses, as illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley’s semi-recumbent and over-taxed subject of “Les Revenants de Musique” (1892). Emma Sutton has observed that “the attributes of Wagnerian aestheticism which Beardsley treated in his Les Revenants appear in extremis in Vernon Lee’s short story “A Wicked Voice.” (Sutton 65) [Fig.1]

In Wagner’s operas, the medium was not specific to voice, music, or staging, but depended on the total bombardment of the senses. In a well-known caricature from “L’Eclipse,” (1869) telling in its fetishization of the aural, André Gill depicts a miniature Richard Wagner, eyes bulging and with hammer and notes piercing into the human ear. [Fig. 2] Though the human voice is still present in the new Wagnerian opera, it was felt that its role had changed. It was no longer the cynosure. It is specifically the singing voice that is of interest in this paper, since Lee’s characters are haunted by it. The voice itself does not sing – to sing is to transform the voice into a singing voice. It is therefore not the human voice itself that is being called a thing in this paper, but a specific kind of singing voice, that of the castrati of the title. A mere equal it had become “a voice and nothing more.”

It is against this operatic totalism that some vociferous critics of Wagnerism like Vernon Lee, wrote their polemics. In Germany, Nietzsche notoriously complained of Wagner’s appeal to the masses, the absorbing of the audience into a “herd,” of Wagner’s creation of an “affective art,” and his appeal to the Decadents. In The Birth of Tragedy Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk is set against the very invention of opera and its development in the Baroque. Nietzsche’s contradictions stem from his personal relations with Wagner. His polemic in ‘The Case of Wagner’ was written almost simultaneously to Lee’s short story “A Wicked Voice.” (Nietzsche 115) In Britain, George Bernard Shaw likewise inspected the political ramifications of Wagnerism in “The Perfect Wagnerite” (1898) while maintaining a steady fascination with its socio-cultural effects. Emma Sutton describes these Wagnerites and anti-Wagnerians as mixed cauldron. In their various responses, they are as much products of Wagnerism as critics and opponents.

Among these critics Vernon Lee alone is described as consistently critical of the “total art work” and pleading the case for the singing voice in opera. Fluent in four European languages, a traveler, writer of fiction and historiography, Lee is well-known for having published at age fourteen an “it-narrative,” at twenty four, a comprehensive history of literature and music dedicated to her mentor Walter Pater, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), and thereafter, a steady flow of books, essays, travel literature, and criticism. Much of this work is concerned with her musical interests in general, but the material presented here is about Lee’s engagements with the eighteenth century castrati.  Though most of her theoretical work is no longer read by musicologists, her fictional work is beginning to resurface in literary criticism. Over the last decade critics have begun re-examining Lee’s work in light of Talia Schaffer’s description of her as one of the “forgotten female aesthetes.” No critic can fail to recognize the unique emphasis Lee places on “object relations” in her texts, and that is the direction she takes with regard to the objects of music as well.

“Opera,” writes Lee’s biographer Vineta Colby, “which she…takes as the touchstone of eighteenth century Italian music, was composed for singers.”(Colby 36) In “Eighteenth century song and opera…the voice was everything, the instruments merely provided the support.” (Colby 217) It is above all to the Italians that we owe, according to Lee, the favoring of melody over harmony.

“It [melody, the singing voice] leaped up, broke loose, and giddily followed its own course; a strange wild course, from which it returned, trembling and terrified, seeking the shelter of the instruments. But independence once tasted was never forgotten; the single voice had learned the existence of a world of music whose doors had been closed to the compact harmonic groups; it had learned that it had the strength to move and work by itself. Henceforward the single voice is the main musical interest…the instruments have become the servants of this new master of the art, of this individual voice: they must prepare its advent, wait for it, sustain it, give it time for repose, receive it back after its triumphant journeying. But what shall this liberated voice do? Shall it follow boldly in the free, varying steps of the spoken word? Shall it sing or shall it declaim?…Accustomed but little to its liberty, uncertain of its powers, uncertain of what is in its store, it feebly attempts both to sing and to declaim; nay, sometimes in its foolishness, it tries to imitate its servants, the violins and fifes; worst of all, it still seeks safety in the shadow of its servitude, and would when free do what it did when imprisoned in its harmonic shackles.” (Lee 1887 161)

Writing under the influence of the eighteenth century Enlightenment her mother taught her to value, Lee’s sentences here recall a freedom tract or pamphlet proclaiming the emancipation of the singing voice. Like Emmanuel Kant’s citizens newly freed from their nonnage, the singing voice has the choice to go boldly into the world of melody, or remain behind in the “shackles” of harmony.

Though other critics objected to political, cultural, and social aspects of Wagnerism, Lee focuses more than any one else on its devastation of the voice as the thing of the opera. Wagner’s revolutionary writings and his well-known musical activism do not receive any attention, for Lee sees his “murder of the voice” as his politics. In her criticism of Wagner she turns to the polemical essay, imaginary portraits, and short stories to voice her attachment to the material culture of the eighteenth century. In her syntax the verb predominates as the singing voice takes on an ontological freedom released from its political bondage. Her micro-history of the singing voice has irony though, for it will be a class of persons generally regarded as enslaved to opera that will be its freedom riders and vocal champions.

What I would like to examine in this context, is Vernon Lee’s writings about a specific kind of singing voice, that of the eighteenth century castrato. The castrato’s voice in Lee’s texts is a “singing thing” just as much as the castrato himself was a singing person from a remote past.[ii] This dual attention to the voice as a thing and to the castrato as a unique class of persons standing on the threshold between personhood and thing will be constructed as a way of thinking through Igor Kopytoff’s argument about the commodity character of slaves as things. (Kopytoff 65) Secondarily, the argument will follow Bill Brown’s expansion of Kopytoff’s arguments by suggesting that Lee’s work may be considered not only as a response to material culture, but a unique recreation of it. (Brown 176 n.6) Her studies of the castrato may be read as a kind of exercise in historical ontology, what philosopher Ian Hacking calls “making people up.” (Hacking 229)

In his book Historical Ontology and the popular essay provocatively titled “Making up People,” Ian Hacking defines the scope for this field of study made popular by Michel Foucault. Historical ontology investigates the many ways in which beings are constructed at given moments in history through social and political discursive practices.  Moreover, the very conditions of possibility of knowledge, power, and ethics are investigated in historical ontology as being themselves historical. It is in Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” that Foucault first reads the project of a ‘critical ontology of ourselves’ delineating what we are, and how it is possible to become something else. This inquiry which constitutes the discovery an early critique of modernity is central to Foucault’s understanding of the Enlightenment.

In “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny,” Bill Brown refers to Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking’s notions of historical ontology as “the study of the possibility of certain objects coming into being, which includes the historical study of the kinds of persons it becomes possible to be: a pervert, a child, a homosexual, a heterosexual, a psychopath.” (Brown 2006 182) To this list I would like to add the castrato, who as a historical class of persons was constructed for one unique purpose, to become a “singing thing.” Material culture, whether aural, visual, literary, or technological, records the ongoing effects of the “commodity process.” Vernon Lee’s ventures into various literary genres while tracing the trajectory of this liminal figure may be read as attempts to negotiate and reframe the ambiguous ontology of the castrato. The common history shared by slaves, eunuchs, and singing castrati should be kept in mind while various products of material culture are explored.

The eighteenth century Italian castrato is what Lee called a “culture ghost,” which she vaguely defines with special attention to the substantive “culture” as “signifying in the earliest eighties anything vaguely connected with Italy, art, and let us put it, the works of the late J. A. Symonds.” (Lee 1976 xxxvi) In the texts examined here by emphasizing the material culture which produced the castrati, Lee places them and their unique voices at a blurred liminal site of person-thing relations: “the culture ghost”. The castrati are more than mere corpus vile though, they are elevated to a unique category by virtue of their singularity. Corpus vile, Latin for “worthless body,” refers to the treatment of persons, animals, or things as fungible, as experimental subjects regardless of whatever loss or damage suffered as the result. A critic of vivisection, Lee was peculiarly sensitive to the categories constructed to separate persons, things, and animals. Over a succession of years and in various texts, Lee writes the biography of a thing, the castrato and his unique singing voice.

Drawing on Igor Kopytoff’s processural definition of “biography” and the troubling of the boundaries between persons and things, it will be argued that Lee’s imaginary “hauntings” renegotiates and recuperates the cultural space of the singing voice in a particular historical context. While in Lee’s estimation the castrato’s singing voice had become evacuated by Wagner’s notion of the opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk, in her literary text the materiality of that voice would reappear as a ghostly haunting thing.[iii]

In “The Cultural Biography of Things,” Kopytoff builds on the idea of writing biographies of things, but he does so in order to stress paradoxes and contradictions at the heart of Western notions of personhood and ‘thingness.’ He challenges the difference between non-humans and humans, the animate and the inanimate, by proposing that all pass through similar processes of “singularization” and “commoditization.” Noting the strong tendency in the Western world to dichotomize people and things, Kopytoff emphasizes slavery, not as a limit case or an exception to a rule, but a condition in which the line between persons and things is temporal (a slave-thing can become re-socialized, but then thrown back into a state of commoditization.) This “cultural shaping of biographies” provides the basis for Kopytoff’s critical term “singularization.” Singularization is the process of decommodification that may occur in the biography of the thing in question. Looking at how things like persons may be understood as traveling through lifecycles (Appadurai’s “trajectories”); Kopytoff provides a list of questions to ask:

“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 the things “life,” and what are the cultural markers for them? How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness.” (Kopytoff 66-7)

Kopytoff explains that biographies of things are “psychological, professional, political, familial, economic…” that is, culturally specific. This extends to works of art as well, so that “a biography of a painting by Renoir that ends up in an incinerator is as tragic, in its way, as the biography of a person who ends up murdered.” (Kopytoff 67) What makes this kind of biography “cultural” is “how” and from “what perspective” it confronts the thing. In the present essay most important is Kopytoff’s “literal instantiation of the trope” used by Arjun Appadurai, that things have “social lives.” (Brown 2006 178)

As an anthropologist particularly interested in the history of African slavery, Kopytoff argues that the slave is the perfect example of a thing. As a commodity object, the slave circulates in and out of slavery thus complicating the unambiguous dichotomization of persons and things that in turn distorts historical realities of Western discourses on the construction of personhood. But Kopytoff pushes this notion even further when, towards the end of “The Cultural Biography of Things,”  he describes “a perennial moral concern in Western thought, whatever the ideological position of the thinker, about the commoditization of human attributes such as labor, intellect, or creativity, or more recently, human organs, female reproductive capacity, and ova.” (Kopytoff 84)

The idea of the voice as a commodity object in this context might not seem as extreme as Kopytoff’s slave-thing. Clearly the voice, like the eye, is also an object of scientific study. Like other objects animate and inanimate, the voice is reproduced mechanically, commodified, and even fetishized.[iv] The laryngoscope, invented in 1854, allowed throat specialists to peer into the throat and inspect its properties for the first time. As Wayne Koestenbaum notes, the intervention of this device ironically coincided with the demise of the castrato. (Kostenbaum 158) Instruments especially made in order to study the voice should alert us, not only to what Heidegger refers to as “equipment”, but also to the thing that is both the object of study and one that exceeds its status as object. (Heidegger 1978 97)

In “Eye and Mind,” Merleau Ponty also expressed the notion that “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them. It makes its own limited models of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals.” (Merleau Ponty 159) Like Heidegger, Merleau Ponty questions how the equipment of science mediates between the object of science, and the operating subject. This observation in no way aims to diminish science, but to reaffirm through a phenomenology of the body, the role it plays in constructing and creating it. Whatever the contribution of laryngology may have been, whether it emphasized the materiality of the voice rooted in the body, it would seem that in the nineteenth century the intervention of science began challenging long-held assumptions.

Can the human voice not escape its slavery to the ephemeral, to pneuma, the breath (or spirit) that carries forth its immaterial, non-fungible qualities? When the voice is given a life through literary, musical or other artistic means, it can become, or seems to become, an evocative object. In the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, familiar to most Victorian children, the story of The Little Mermaid (1837) associates the voice with the tongue which the wicked witch violently removes from the mermaid’s mouth. Without a tongue the mermaid has no voice, but her story has an afterlife in contemporary culture. In order to satisfy the materialist physical requirements of such a definition one may point to the materiality of the human body as Roland Barthes did in his notion of “the grain of the voice.”

An ongoing MGM amusement at Disneyland features the wicked Ursula from The Little Mermaid (Sony, 1986) stealing the voice from Ariel’s (mermaid) body in the form of a ball of light. The shiny white round object is expelled from Ariel’s body like a cat coughing a fur ball. This game allows participants to record their own voice into a machine and then watch the cartoon that now sounds like them.

Ursula’s wicked theft emphasizes the materiality of the voice-thing that may be extracted as easily as removing a gumball from a candy machine. Technology is the recorded history of how things are made to bear the mark of cultural memory.[v] What we apathetically regard as a mere amusement, an MGM display, would have frightened our Victorian ancestors considerably. Where they would have possibly seen ghosts or horrendous displays of the fantastic, we see devices and objects. Our loss of affect seems to register the notion that once we get used to the new technology we will conform to it, for if we cannot feel the difference, there won’t be any difference. Yet there is a difference, for the message that is given along with the new technology is that things like voices should be regarded as fungible commodities. This technology hidden behind the innocence of Disneyland objects of amusement also shows how in a dissimulating way, “persons and things” as John Frow observes, “are mutually constituted in the representation of things.” (Brown 2004 351)

Bill Brown has demonstrated how toys in American material culture of the Reconstruction period contributed through “reanimation” to the reification of racial and other stereotypes, a process he calls “the American uncanny.”  We are justifiably horrified by “Aunt Jemima cookie jars, Sambo art, and the Jolly Nigger bank” for these toys metamorphose stereotypes into fetishes. What was once regarded as a harmless toy now comes to life and haunts us. For Brown, “capitalism continually offers up examples of sudden rises and falls, of the animation of things and the deanimation of humans…” He wants to “understand this revenge of the black collectible come-to-life as the recollection of the ontological scandal perpetrated by slavery, as the reanimation of the reified black body: not some literalization of the commodity fetish, but the reenactment of the breakdown of the person/thing binary…that encapsulates a long biography of things—the “relentless objectification” that reappears as the personification of objects. Such reanimation constitutes the American uncanny.” (Brown 2006 197)

In Andersen’s fairy tale, as Nora Alter and Lutz Koepnick argue, the witch “embodies the dark side of capitalist modernization, namely the mystifying law of commodification and reification. Under the witch’s spellbinding influence, voices travel from one owner to the next like merchandise. They become things among other things, mobile and endlessly exchangeable.” (Alter 8) It is exactly this operation that occurs in Lee’s castrato texts as suddenly things like antique portraits, old buildings, and manuscripts are reanimated and take their revenge. The uncanny, however, is played out with the Wagner-like protagonist Magnus W. being haunted by the voice. In “A Culture-Ghost; or, Winthrop’s Adventure,” Lee’s earlier version of the story makes the castrato’s voice inseparable from material culture and things, as we shall see. Like Heidegger, Lee questions the relationship between the materiality of works of art and the transcendental notions we attribute to them through aesthetic theories.

Martin Heidegger, more than any modern philosopher has drawn attention to the “thingly” nature of art works. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” he notes the deceptions we suffer by attributing too much to the “aesthetic” aspect of things:

If we consider the works in their untouched actuality and do not deceive ourselves, the result is that works are as naturally present as are things. The picture hangs on the wall like a rifle or a hat. A painting, e.g., the one by Van Gogh that represents a pair of peasant shoes, travels from one exhibition to another. Works of art are shipped like coal from Ruhr and logs from the Black Forest. During the First World War Hölderlin’s hymns were packed in the soldier’s knapsack together with cleaning gear. Beethoven’s quartets lie in the storerooms of the publishing house like potatoes in a cellar. All works have this thingly character…even the much-vaunted aesthetic experience cannot get around the thingly aspect of the art work. (Heidegger 2001 19)

Where Heidegger designates the “something else in the work” its “artistic nature’ as allo agoreui (allegory) and sumballein (symbol), Lee, as imaginative writer, resurrects the musical manuscripts in the lumber room along with the dust and old clothes. Angela Leighton, writing about Lee’s material culture-ghosts, notes that “A ‘lumber room’ is a place full of stuff which has lost its relevant use, but has not therefore forgotten it.” (Leighton 4) For Lee, the task of the writer is to be a resurrectionist, to resurrect the life in the supposed dead things. Part of that process also involves thinking the thingliness of persons from a remote past.

While Heidegger is reluctant to call persons things, part of his project is to investigate the ontological possibilities. He notes that “we hesitate to consider the peasant in the field, the stoker at the boiler, the teacher in the school as things. A man is not a thing.” (Heidegger 2001 21) Furthermore, what processual anthropology and thing theory investigate is the liminal blurring that Western models of thinking paradoxically reaffirm by continuously reaffirming the dichotomies of persons and things. Kopytoff and Brown, like Lee, work with specific categories of persons, demonstrating how such thought can assist in thinking things through history. An important difference between Heidegger and Kopytoff is the latter’s processual thinking. Material objects circulating through social and cultural milieux provide, as Bill Brown has shown, opportunities to stage the afterlives of persons as things.

Like Kopytoff’s “processual perspective” disclosing the ambiguous status of some persons as slaves, Lee’s narratives understand the commodity-like character of her castrati as embedded in a material history. When Vernon Lee gives voice to material things (culture-ghosts) in her imaginative literature, she also does this by having them speak through the consciousness of thing-narrators who tell their own stories. One of her earliest literary endeavors, written at the age of fourteen, was her cultural biography of a thing, an antique coin. Narrated in the first person singular, Biographie d’une monnaie (“Biography of a Coin”) is an “it-narrative,” “a subgenre of fiction [that] appeared in the eighteenth century, preponderantly in English” that has recently gained critical attention.

The seeming confusion in genre here is explained by Lee’s unwillingness to forego the loss of subjectivity. Because a first person account would be an “object autobiography,” a contradiction, Lee appears to have dismissed the original titular “biographie.” In Les aventures d’une piece de monnaie (“The Adventures of a Coin”) her peripatetic coin passes through various hands over a period of history starting in ancient Greece traveling through time to the mid-nineteenth century. This story allows her not only to exercise her knowledge of history, but to promote the ethics of sympathy while recounting adventures verging on the picaresque. Most notable are several encounters with slaves who share a similar fate and thereby receive sympathetic attention from the coin. Here too then, Lee has given voice to an inanimate object and made Kopytoff’s point ante litteram that “biographies of things can make salient what might otherwise remain obscure…” (Kopytoff 67)

Though Biographie d’une monnaie is Lee’s earliest thing-biography, it is by no means an isolated case in her literary work. Her later narratives continue blurring the boundary between persons and things. Whether writing about the voice of things or the singing voice of persons that serve as things, it is always in the open space that subjectivities are negotiated. Christa Zorn describes Lee’s writing as troubling the boundaries between genre and subject matter, noting also her resemblance to Monique Wittig’s “lesbianization of mythological texts.” (Zorn 62) In this context it is worth noting that Lee’s “gender trouble” works in tandem with the textual troubling mentioned above. Lee frequently provides her masculine characters with conventional feminine traits and many of her women characters display aggressive and powerful traits in sharp contrast to Victorian gender norms. (Vicinus 114) In the case of Biographie d’une monnaie however, it appears that Lee was at least willing to experiment with the ambiguities of subjectivity.

Describing herself as a materialist in For Maurice (1927) one of her late collections of “unlikely stories,” she attempted to “raise a spectre of the antique.” She achieved this by focusing on the material culture of history always with particular things in mind. Her ghosts are “culture ghosts,” old things that carry with them a sense of the past. Things haunt the characters in her short stories. Whether an Italian Renaissance cassone, a doll, statues, portraits, jewels or clothes, these things carry with them the power to be imagined as:

“things of the imagination, born there, bred there, sprung from the strange confused heaps, half-rubbish, half treasure, which lie in our fancy, heaps of half-faded recollections, of fragmentary vivid impressions, litter of multi-coloured tatters, and faded herbs and flowers, whence arises that odour (we all know it), musty and damp, but penetratingly sweet and intoxicatingly heady, which hangs in the air when the ghost has swept through the unopened door.” (Lee 1976 48)

The introductory remarks to the “Fourth Unlikely Story: Winthrop’s Adventure” emphasize the material culture of her castrati-ghosts through references to portraits, old musical manuscripts, instruments, and voice-recording technology. Describing a famous portrait of Metastasio, Teresa Castelli, and Farinelli painted by artist Jacopo Amigoni (1682-1752) [Fig. 3], the castrato “would not have been merely a ghost but an awful, audible, deathless reality like Caruso quavering from a house boat at Hampton Court, if gramophones had been invented a couple of centuries earlier.”[vi] These stories are instances of history recorded at a particular juncture before and after the invention of the gramophone. The technology gets hijacked in order to upgrade and improve her “ontology in things.”

Nostalgically, Lee remembers the moment when she became obsessed with the idea of hearing Farinelli’s voice. Visiting the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna with her friend John Singer Sargent, Lee was fascinated by a portrait of Farinelli painted by Corrado Giaquinto (1703-66) [Fig. 4]. The association between the portrait and the technology of the gramophone is an indication that the ghosts haunting For Maurice are not considered “supernatural.” The supernatural is merely a word and a means of “making people up” to create “unlikely stories.” She writes: “But when we were a couple of romantic hobbledehoys, my friend John and I, spellbound (by our own childish, self-complacent spells) in front of Farinelli’s picture, and ignorant that gramophones were about to be invented, what would we not have given if some supernatural mechanism had allowed us to catch the faintest vibrations of that voice!”[vii]

Ironically an attempt to recreate that thing does exist in Gérard and Andrée Corbiau’s film biography Farinelli (Sony Picture Classics, 1994). The problem of finding the right kind of voice that would fit a castrato was resolved by a digital engineering team at IRACAM where the voices of American countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and Polish soprano Ewa Mallas-Godlewska were “combined through digital interpolation (or, morphing) to yield a single, unified timbre.” Katherine Bergeron notes that “In Farinelli, of course, the mistaken thing is an unnaturally high male voice.” (Bergeron 183) Here the digitally mastered voice reinforces a gender stereotype by representing the castrato’s voice as somewhere between two adults, a male and a female. The banality of the project lies in its caricature of our singing thing, the castrato Farinelli, while it also points to the voice’s transition in contemporary technology from thing (vox antiqua) to bits (vox nova).[viii]The project’s literal recreation of a voice that might also be described as somewhere between child and adult or angel and monster, is fixated on an uninformative gender dichotomy.

Before people have asked if the singing voice is a thing, they have presumed that voices are gendered. Joke Dame, in her essay “Unveiled Voices: Sexual Difference and the Castrato” asks the perplexing questions “What is a male soprano? A castrato? An extremely high falsetto voice?” She observes that “Even in our time the need to categorize a voice according to gender, to assign a sex to the voice, has not ceased.” (Joke 139) Apparently, the reconstruction of a historical singing thing such as the castrato’s voice, requires considerable imaginative effort on our part along with a great deal of technological wizardry. Most of the literature about the castratos of the eighteenth century continues to register this sense of wonder about its ambiguity. Poised somewhere between male and female; angel and monster; child and adult, the castrato remains a mysterious cultural anomaly.

Closer to the production side of these constructed singing-things, the historical castrati pose problems that gender criticism is uniquely capable of theorizing. Patrick Barbier opens his The World of the Castrati with the question “How can the ‘modern’ mind, moderately influenced by the nineteenth century, understand how a particular period dared to seek pure and ‘gratuitous’ Beauty through a mutilation so ‘costly’ to the individual who was subjected to it?” (Barbier 1) John Rosselli likewise registers surprise: “This well-known fact has long been an embarrassment. That people should have castrated numbers of boys, not in antiquity or in another continent but in early modern times and at the heart of Western Christendom, arouses fear, distaste, sometimes a prurient interest.”(Rosselli 32) The pathos and poignancy expressed in such questioning is partially a response to the permanent ignorance we must embrace. Not knowing exactly how the castration procedures worked, under what conditions they were performed, and what the end product sounded like, all contribute to the mystery.  The castrati are as much singing things (musici), as slaves were res to the Romans, or negotium to the Kentucky court that ruled (1828): “whether it be politic or impolitic, a slave by our code is not treated as a person, but a thing.” (Brown 2006 179)[ix]

Taken from their families (usually peasants) and sometimes sold by them, little boys between the ages of eight and twelve were made to endure the painful operation and sent to musical conservatories where they would be vocally trained. Though a few cases of willing self-martyrdom are on record, the overwhelming evidence of this culture industry suggests that “herding” and “farming” are not exaggerated descriptions of its systems of production and marketing. Histories of castrati generally begin with some explanation of origins associating castration with the remote other and employing a kind of naïve orientalism. Located in some other nation’s history at a safely remote distance, the practice of castration is considered “premodern.”

The Persians may well have been the first people to use emasculation, but it is difficult to establish a chronology among all the civilizations (Indian, Chinese or Arabic, for example) that have had recourse to it. The terms ‘castrato’ or ‘castration’ seem to have come from the Indian world, deriving more particularly from the Sanskrit word sastram, meaning a knife. It is known too that the Chinese used it in order to satisfy the widespread taste in their country for young boys with a feminine appearance. (Barbier 6)

This kind of orientalism reinforces the ideological association of southern Italy with the “Orient” allowing the stereotypical linking between the eunuch as a slave, and the castrato as a sexual go-between. Stolen from his family and placed in a harem-like conservatory, the romantic origins of the castrato (generally, and mistakenly placed in Naples) also invest them with the symbolism of the foundling. Castrati are supposed “marvelous creatures” that provide the missing link between beasts and the gods, persons and things.

Musicological research on the popular responses to leading castrato figures in the eighteenth century provides evidence that eighteenth century opinion held the castrato to be a thing. By the early nineteenth century however, this creature had become a veritable monster, “the voice that would not go away.” Two popular anonymous caricatures from 1825 illustrate the changing notions of human nature that came to the fore during the Romantic period. [figs. 4 and 5] In both caricatures the castrato Giovanni Battista Veluti (1780-1861) is ambiguously depicted as both a “Thing” and a “No-thing.” The semantic play corroborates with the new scientific view of the vocal as a property of the “natural” (gendered) body, and properly observes that the castrato is no longer in fashion.

Arguing that the castrati were a doomed species by the first quarter of the nineteenth century, J. Q. Davies notes “a worldly and embodied view began to dominate—and it excluded the category of the male soprano.” In other words, the conditions of possibilitythat were realized with Wagner’s total demotion of the voice in opera were already present at the turn of the century. Davies writes: “that the species ended up being projected below language was confirmed…at a time when, as The Musical World [1844] put it, even ‘the negroes of the British dominions have been placed in the class HUMAN’.” (Davies 275) In a world where the ambiguously gendered voice and body are no longer in fashion, the castrati are never quite persons but merely some kind of “singing things.”

In one of her late castrati writings, an “An Eighteenth Century Singer: An Imaginary Portrait,” (1891), Lee introduces the young Antonio Vivarelli.[x] Those familiar with Lee’s writings would have known of her close affiliations with Pater, as well as his proclivity for “strange souls.” In 1883, while concluding his Marius, Pater confided to Lee that he had “visions of many smaller pieces of work the composition of which would be actually pleasanter to me.”[xi] These smaller pieces would be the Imaginary Portraits (1887) for which Pater has become so celebrated. Though the standard definition of the imaginary portrait emphasize its interartistic concerns and its reliance on the reader’s heightened consciousness and attention to detail, this has been substantially broadened by critics sensitive to its biographical and autobiographical potential.

Since the imaginary portrait as a genre is a kind of biography of an imagined person, they really have no stated purpose or argument. They are imaginary works somewhat like biographies but exploring the boundaries of rational thought and blurring artistic genre (music, painting, sculpture). Opening her imaginary portrait with a spurious quote from a supposed lost page of Stendhal’s diary, she writes: “Spent the day with Vivarelli, Ultimus Romanorum of Singing, at his country house on the Brenta…we know that no creature has ever possessed such a magical charm. ‘Tis the living allegory of music, born in the days of pigtails and of Voltaire’s plays, and, nevertheless, a more poetical art than painting and sculpture, both arisen when the world was picturesque and passionate.”(Lee 1891 842) The allegorical and poetical art that exceeds both painting and music combines both the singing-thing and the song. Here moreover, as a mere fancy and creature of the imagination, Vivarelli and his world may be reframed in a zone safe from censure.

Vivarelli is described as a product, a singing thing made by the maestro vocal alchemists of the eighteenth century. The thing not named (castration) is appropriately buried deeply in the heart of her portrait:

“To make a voice out of nothing at all, or at all events to make a voice into something totally different from the sort of elemental force at which it had begun, was possible to those masters and pupils who virtually knew no limits to time. The necessity of dealing largely with the now obsolete chairbags [italics mine] and with a class of singers preserved from mutation of voice had given the singing masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the habit of taking up their pupils exceedingly young, and teaching steadily on through the long period of vocal development and change…This early beginning not merely enabled the master to make the young voice—watching it and manipulating throughout its growth and changes—instead of merely teaching certain tricks to an already made one, but enabled him to devote months to things now hurried over in as many weeks or days…”

Lee’s emphasis on the production side of this castration farm (‘make’ is italicized in the original), although properly subordinated to the training industry which followed, delicately passes over the naming of the thing itself. Her nonce word “chairbag” almost joycean in its bathetic and gleeful flaying of the “fleshly bag,” announces the fait accompli.[xii] The indeterminacy of the naming process, aside from possible (and unknowable) editorial dictates, may be read as the site of both a loss and a creation. One thing is certain, the “chairbag,” or castrato as understood through Lee’s italicized verb “make,” is an instance of Hacking’s notion of “making people up.”

The description of the castrati as “singers preserved from mutation of voice” both celebrates the historical emergence of the singing-things while burying the fact of what was not “preserved from mutation.”[xiii] Lee’s subtle elision appearing in the heart of a text otherwise verbally uneconomic (thirty-eight pages) might also be read as a way of mirroring the condition of consumer economics in the late-nineteenth century. To hide the production side of things from the consumer’s view becomes a sign of distinction as well as a mode of capitalist consumerism. (Saisselin 37) In this way Lee inserts a barb against Wagnerism in the context of a reference to castration. Just as Wagner’s opera as phantasmagoria operates by stealth, so too, the scene of the castration crime will be occluded in riddle.[xiv] Castration is a dark secret that must be talked through endlessly.[xv]

It is through the reified and disembodied voice that Lee’s castrato stories show the mechanisms and processes involved in the commodification of persons. The earliest of these texts, “A Culture-Ghost; or, Winthrop’s Adventure” first appeared in Fraser’s Magazine (1881). In its basic plot structure it differs little from “A Wicked Voice,” suggesting just how intense was her engagement with this figure. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, Lee’s story is also an allegory of the quest for a lost voice. “In Andersen’s fairy tale, the material realities of modern life are, of course, nowhere mentioned in either word or phrase. And yet the whole story hinges on a peculiarly modern anxiety about corporeal and perceptual disintegration, a fear caused by the shock like separation of sights and sounds in industrial culture.” (Alter 7) The little mermaid wants to bridge the gap between the archaic world of sea things and the modern world of land dwelling men. In order to join that world she must undergo a double symbolic castration. Her mermaid tail must be split into legs and her tongue is cut out as payment. Lee’s Winthrop and Magnus also undergo symbolic castrations worked out through the horrifying spectacle of the voice severed from the body.

Julian Winthrop suffers terrible anxiety when at a soirée he hears an eighteenth century piece of music sung by one of the guests. Composed by Barbella, the aria “Sei Regina, io son pastore” (“You are a queen, I am a shepherd”), is described by the singer as “an old air which I discovered last week among a heap of rubbish in my father-in-law’s lumber room. I think it quite a treasure, as good as wrought iron ornament found among a heap of old rusty nails, or a piece of Gubbio majolica found among cracked coffee cups.” (Lee 1976 145)

The Countess’ remark about the music being “as good as” the objects she describes brings to mind the experimental recordings of the early forties (musique concrète) where the object was to make music out of things in the real world that made sounds and noise. Like Heidegger’s Beethoven quartets found among the potatoes; the aria, a thing among things, will drive Winthrop on his quest. That quest brings him face to face with a portrait of the castrato Rinaldi that comes to life for Winthrop. He wants to know the history of it so that he can begin to piece together a biography, and later he will worry about what is to become of it once its owner dies and his collection is dispersed. He is as concerned about the future of the thing as he is of the historical person represented. Also like Kopytoff’s suggestion quoted earlier, that the biography of a portrait ending up in an incinerator can be as tragic as the biography of a murdered person, Winthrop’s concern makes the portrait and the person overlap.

The “adventure” in the story title is Winthrop’s retelling of a visit to the Lombardian palace of Maestro Fa Diesis (F-sharp major), a veritable museum of manuscripts and instruments. An obsessive collector, Fa Diesis is a character who is a symbol for written music. His sole aim in life is to acquire the next manuscript for his collection which he always urgently needs. “What makes a collection transcend mere accumulation,” writes Baudrillard “is not only the fact of its being culturally complex, but the fact of its incompleteness, the fact that it lacks something. Lack always means lack of something unequivocally defined: one needs such and such an absent object.” (Baudrillard 23) It is even suggested that Fa Diesis may be nourishing himself on ink or “some mysterious vivifying fluid from his MSS.” This character is sharply contrasted to Winthrop who is in search of a specific sung aria: “For music itself I firmly believe he [Fa Diesis] cared not a jot, and regarded it as useful only inasmuch as it had produced the objects of his passion, the things he could spend all his life in dusting, labeling, counting, and cataloguing, for not a chord, not a note was ever heard in his house, and he would have died rather than spend a soldino on going to the opera.” (Lee 1976 156)

Winthrop encounters in one of the many rooms the mysterious portrait holding in its fat painted hand a score with “the name—Ferdinando Rinaldi, 1782; and above it, the words—“Sei Regina, io pastore sono.” The fact that the aria’s words and the composer are altered does not seem to matter, for what is of concern is what lies all around. When Winthrop inquires about the history of the subject in the painting, Fa Diesis tells him that his own aunt and Rinaldi had been involved in a scandal resulting in the singer’s murder some ninety-four years previous.

Winthrop is seized by the idea of visiting the scene of the murder and sets out to find the old abandoned palace of the Marchese Negri. Unsuccessful in his first quest because he was given faulty directions, he returns to his inn in despair. He spends the following day in town where preparations were being made for a fair. The passage that follows seems deliberately placed between Winthrop’s two adventures as if to emphasize that the real ghosts are found among things. The quest for the voice, the singing thing in the portrait is delayed by the extra-diegetic detailing of things seen at the town fair. He saunters about “among the crockery and glassware…the packing-cases and hay…figs and cherries and red peppers in the baskets…old ironwork, rusty keys, nails, chains, bits of ornament on the stalls…vast blue and green glazed umbrellas…old prints and images of saints tied against the church bench.” (Lee 1976 174)

This narrative detail is not what Barthes calls l’effet de réel but rather a necessary textual clutter indicating the accumulation of things that make up the “culture-ghost.” Constructed as a kind of symbol of the eighteenth century art of song, the castrato is the site of an excess. The “thingness” of the voice and the “singing-things” are this excess. The voice as thing is both more and less than the object it is. In his introduction to Things, Bill Brown notes that we could imagine “things” as “what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their materialization as objects—their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which things become values, fetishes, idols, totems.” (Brown 2004 5) The past is made up of things that return at a later time to haunt us, part of what Derrida calls a “hauntology.” Both Lee and Derrida refer to Hamlet when expressing this idea that “time is out of joint.” In Lee’s case her present which meant Wagner’s “culture industry,” (the opera as phantasmagoria) was haunted by the specter of the music of the past. The “culture ghost” is made up of heaps of material objects, and Winthrop’s attempt to get at the ghost leads him down a path winding through thickets of things.

Treating the voice as a material thing of the body, a product, or a commodity risks blurring “the conceptual distinction between the universe of people and the universe of objects.” (Kopytoff 84) This is precisely what Winthrop does when he encounters his culture-ghost. He sees in its eyes those of the portrait of Rinaldi that he gazed upon at Fa Diesis’ mansion. Here the voice is so closely associated with a work of art that it causes Winthrop to worry about its future. The difference between Winthrop’s adventure and Magnus’ madness in Lee’s rewriting would be lost without the Wagnerism against which Lee stages her parody. (Caballero 401) The Wagnerian specter alluded to earlier is itself haunted by the cultural material of the past and played out over the body of the castrato.

While Lee’s criticism of Wagnerism in the various reviews she published participate in the debates of her day, in her literary and imaginative writings, the full impact of Wagnerian culture can be gauged by probing the “material unconscious” of the texts. Bill Brown has identified this as, the “granting [of] dimensionality to a passing reference or impression… [to] confront an image of the past that otherwise inexplicably renders the text as a whole, and its moment in history, newly legible.” (Brown 1996 14) Not only does material culture open literary texts, but its history is written by it. Likewise, in staging the singing voice-thing as a “culture ghost,” Lee’s texts expose the Wagnerian opera to what she conceived of as its “murder of the voice.” Something covered up newly emerges from the grave to haunt the musical scene. According to Huyssen’s reading of Adorno, Wagner’s techniques for hiding the voice involved submerging the orchestra at Bayreuth and dimming the lights in the opera hall. As if to cover up the murder of the voice, Wagner also hides the instruments of his crime.

In Shakespeare’s play, the murder of King Claudius is staged by Hamlet in such a way that the ghostly father is both a thing and nothing:

Hamlet: The king is a thing—

Guildenstern: A thing, my lord?

Hamlet: Of nothing.

Staged as play within the play, the father’s death allows Hamlet to make a person that is a thing and nothing in the Lacanian sense. To make an inexact but plausible comparison, in Lee’s texts the voice of the castrato is “a sublime thing, irreducible to the physical object…at once physical and metaphysical, sensible and suprasensible, both object and thing.” (Brown 2003 41) Music is uniquely capable of achieving this effect because the singing voice has always been regarded as ephemeral, intangible, and music as “the condition to which all the arts aspire.” Likewise, as Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux observes, “because music is the genius of both time and space, it makes the voice heard as necessarily phantom-like and of the past: reappearance of the returned, and return of the repressed.” (Geoffroy-Menoux 58)[xvi]

Serving as musical things embedded in the material unconscious of her texts, Lee’s eighteenth century castrati “culture ghosts” emerge from an erased historical past pointing to their materiality as culture while simultaneously debunking their ephemerality as “unlikely.” Thus, it is the cultural work that enters into the play of the text, and the voice itself as thing becomes more than an object of study (a sign). It is in Lee’s “A Culture-Ghost; or, Winthrop’s Adventures” that the voice is a thing (a portrait) that sings.[xvii]


[i] Huyssen contends that, “Wagner is indeed the pivotal figure in Adorno’s prehistory of the modern.” (29) For a very different reading of why the music overwhelmed the opera, see Dolar, Mladen. Music under Wagner “became much longer, actually took gigantic proportions…” as it “lost its power to elicit mercy and love,” the latter being the original raison d’être of the opera according to Dolar. (17)

[ii] Though castrati continued to play roles in the opera well into the nineteenth century, and the supposed “last castrato” Alessandro Moreschi being a contemporary of Lee, her focus is exclusively on the eighteenth century.

[iii] It should be understood that the argument offered here is partially a critique of the Lacanian notion of the voice as objet a appearing in the work of Mladen Dolar and Slavoj Žižek. My reading of the materiality of the body in Lee’s texts is closer to that of Roland Barthes and queer theorists who have drawn on his work. Dolar argues that the voice is not “reducible to what Barthes has called the “grain of the voice”—“the materiality of a body speaking its mother tongue,” “the body in the singing voice.” For to attach the voice to the body and to endow it with materiality involves all kinds of obstacles…” (Dolar 1996 10)

[iv] While a commodity may be marketed and sold, reproduced and exchanged, fungibility refers to products that are not interchangeable commodities like petroleum, electricity, and precious metals.

[v] This notion is elaborated by Bernard Stiegler who proposes that memory may be transmitted genetically or through culture, and technology is one way in which objects retain the memory of passing time.

[vi] For Maurice.  xxviii. Koestenbaum notes: “Technology has had a profound impact on opera from the first days of the media explosion. The voice of Enrico Caruso [1873-1921] was committed to records as early as 1902; these recordings soon became the most popular of the era, and they were in many ways responsible for the initial growth of the recording industry.” The Queen’s Throat. 167.

[vii] For Maurice. xxviii-xxix. Ivan Kreilcamp notes: “Edison’s phonograph—invented in 1877, “perfected” in 1888, first widely available commercially in England in 1898—was greeted as a radically strange device by its earlier auditors, who viewed with disquiet and astonishment the capture and reproduction of a distinctive human voice by a machine…The discourse surrounding the invention of the phonograph claimed that, in seizing a human voice as a thing apart from its origin, one might resist mortality itself.” Kreilcamp, Ivan. “A Voice Without a Body: The Phonographic Logic of Heart of Darkness” Victorian Studies, 40: 2 (1997)

[viii] Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie. Les voix maudites de Vernon Leehttp://pagesperso-orange.fr/oracle974/text/74c21e88-577.html. n.17 remarks on Farinelli’s strong resemblance to Lee’s story. Dierickx, Jelle. “Somebody’s Voice, Nobody’s Voice.” Trans. Helen White: http://so-on.be/?id=706, for the comparison between the vox nova and vox antiqua.

[ix] The Italian “musico” connotes both musician and castrato. While other Italian terms such as “castrato,” and “evirato” focus on the production side of castration, “musico” stresses the fact that this class of persons was made to serve an unique purpose: to sing.

[x] Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. New York: MacMillan, 1899. Walter Pater’s notorious “Conclusion” had previously appeared in an anonymous review “Aesthetic Poetry.” Linda Dowling observes “Pater’s publication of the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance under his own name in 1873…marks a turning point in the history of Oxford Hellenism and homosociality.”  Lee’s association with Pater was well-known in Victorian intellectual circles. To the Victorian subscribers of the Fortnightly Review, the literary genre identified in the subtitle would have already been suggestive enough of what was to follow. Walter Pater, her mentor who defined the genre of the “imaginary portrait” notoriously scandalized readers of the reviews with his philosophy a few decades earlier.

[xi] Monsman, Gerald C.  Pater’s Portraits: Mythic Pattern in the Fiction of Walter Pater. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins Press, 1967. 99. Lee seems somewhat confused in presenting the topic for unlike Pater’s portraits, this one is more of an instructive essay attempting to resurrect a real history from a remote past in the guise of a fictional account.

[xii] In personal correspondence with Lee scholar Sophie Geoffroy, it was determined that this is a nonce word possibly introduced to soften the effect of signified.

[xiii] Making a similar point Wayne Koestenbaum notes that “Castration freezes the boy-voice before puberty can wreck it.” Koestenbaum, 166

[xiv] Huyssen, in After the Great Divide, 39-40 notes: “Adorno’s characterization of Wagner’s opera as phantasmagoria is an attempt to analyze what happens to aesthetic appearance (ästhetischer Schein) in the age of the commodity and as such it is the attempt to come to terms with the pressure commodity fetishism puts on works of art. As phantasmagorias Wagner’s operas have veiled all traces of labor that went into their production…In Wagner’s day the consumer goods on display turned their phenomenal side seductively towards the mass of consumers while diverting attention from their merely phenomenal character, from the fact that they were beyond reach. Similarly, in the phantasmagoria, Wagner’s operas tend to become commodities.”

[xv] Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat, 159 notes that contemporary loquacity might also have something to do with “voice culture’s affinity with psychoanalysis. Both systems believe in expressing hidden material, confessing secrets. And…[they both]… take castration seriously: voice culture wants to recapture the castrato’s scandalous vocal plenitude, while psychoanalysis imagines castration as identity’s foundation—star player in the psyche’s interminable opera.

[xvi] My translation of: “Car la Musique, génie du temps et génie du lieu tout ensemble, fait entendre la voix, nécessairement fantôme, du passé:  une résurgence du révolu, et le retour d’un refoulé.”

[xvii] The conscious play here refers to Daston, Lorraine. Things That Talk: Objects Lessons from Art and Science. New York: Zone Books, 2004.

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Le Don Juan fidèle dans “La Vierge aux sept poignards” de Vernon Lee

Le Don Juan fidèle dans « La Vierge aux Sept Poignards » de Vernon Lee

ou la dé-figuration d’un mythe

Alice Mussard

Université de la Réunion

La littérature regorge de ces serial-séducteurs peu scrupuleux qui ont fait de la séduction, bien plus qu’un art, leur mode même d’existence. La liste de ces beaux[i] serait probablement de mille et trois, aussi longue que celle de leurs conquêtes, en viendrait-on au répertoire exhaustif d’un Cœur dévoilé (Rétif de la Bretonne, 1787). Parons donc au plus (em)pressé. En bonne place parmi les figures les plus reprises de l’homme à femmes se trouve le vénitien Casanova[ii], insatiable épicurien du moment que prévaut la condition du moindre effort, éternel jouisseur du plaisir facile d’accès, séducteur accidentel : en un mot, l’anti-don juan[iii]. Car la philosophie de vie de son cousin espagnol, auquel nous allons nous intéresser ici, lui est fondamentalement opposée. Don Juan[iv] ne trouve le plaisir que dans la trépidation de l’exploit et, pour relever les défis les plus irréalisables, l’homme de toutes les missions impossibles ne ménage pas sa peine. A lui seul, cet homme à femmes a fait couler beaucoup d’encre[v]. Et partout, on trouve une certaine constance, sinon en l’homme, du moins dans le mythe. A la seule évocation de son nom l’on entend bruire le feu de l’ardeur, crépiter la flamme du désir, et crisser, sous la botte cavalière, les pavés de l’enfer. «‘Je suis Don Juan et je ne serais plus rien si je devenais un autre. Mieux vaut être ce que je suis dans un abîme de soufre qu’un saint dans la lumière du paradis’» (Grabbe dans Brunel, 1988 : 485). Un saint dans la lumière du paradis, Saint-Patron de la fidélité… Voilà un éclairage peu banal et bien improbable pour ce vieil habitué des antichambres. C’est pourtant précisément cette rédemption inespérée qui attend la version leeienne d’un libertin capable de correction – aux deux sens du terme – à l’endroit même où la chute de la nouvelle consiste non en un dérapage inéluctable dans les flammes de l’enfer, mais en une élévation spectaculaire, après que Don Juan est mort en odeur de sainteté. Partant naît un modèle de vertu canonisé : le Saint Don Juan.

Comment procède l’absolution d’un séducteur incorrigible lorsque la reconversion de l’Infidèle par excellence renie la quintessence même du donjuanisme? Du beau-parleur dont les mots sonnent creux à l’homme du serment dont la parole vaut de l’or, comment Vernon Lee se réapproprie-t-elle ce mythe séculaire et à quels desseins voue-t-elle son récit? Le protagoniste leeien n’est-il enfin qu’une contrefaçon ?

A travers l’esquisse que « La Vierge aux Sept Poignards » (Lee dans Geoffroy-Menoux, 2001) brosse d’un antipathique womanizer, nous reconnaissons bien un avatar conforme à l’idée que nous pouvons nous faire du Don Juan type. Dans la nouvelle leeienne, le portrait de ce conquérant effréné se fait jusque dans le choix du genre littéraire qui accompagne le héros dans ses tribulations : le fantastique prête main forte au séducteur dans la résurrection d’une morte à conquérir. Cependant, le genre ne fait pas que desservir les ambitions démesurées d’un personnage mégalomane. Il officie également pour littéralement – et littérairement – mettre à mort la figure classique de l’inconstant, et confronter l’homme frivole et volage à sa propre image destituée. Subséquemment se met en route l’engrenage grinçant d’un processus de dé-figuration. Seront en conséquence développés dans la seconde partie de notre analyse les thèmes de la douleur et de la décapitation, ainsi que la remise en question identitaire et idéologique qui les sous-tend. Pour finir, nous montrerons comment la récriture du mythe permet à Vernon Lee de signer une version féministe de l’aventure donjuanesque. L’équilibre du rapport homme-femme est rétabli dans une nouvelle qui entremêle les genres les plus disparates sous couvert du récit hagiographique.

I- Un anti-héros archétypique

Parmi mille et trois Don Juan, celui que nous présente Vernon Lee se conforme à l’image que l’on est en droit d’attendre d’un « grand seigneur méchant homme » (Molière, 1994 [1665] : 25). Le caractère bassement vénal de cet homme de haute lignée émerge dès la première mise en scène du personnage et vient parasiter jusqu’à l’espace solennel de la prière. Intéressons-nous donc de plus près aux propos donjuanesques et à ce que le séducteur laisse transparaître de lui-même à travers la question de son éloquence.

Un noble mal famé: l’homme de la parole et du profit immédiats

Typiquement, Don Juan a le verbe facile et fleuri. Une bonne partie de son pouvoir de séduction passe par la parole, et le séducteur est sans doute, entre autres, l’homme du bon mot. Nulle surprise, donc, si sa première apparition nous le présente dans la fièvre de l’art oratoire, monologuant. Son discours pour la Vierge aux Sept Poignards excède la simple déférence religieuse. Il commence avec la verve lyrique d’un poème en prose : « [ô] grande Madone, ô neige vierge des altières Sierras, ô mer tropicale restée incognita » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 123). Portant dans un premier élan le sentiment d’exaltation religieuse vers les hauteurs montagneuses, le discours de Don Juan retombe pourtant vers des considérations triviales au moment même où l’on entend sonner dans ses louanges l’espèce sonnante et trébuchante. L’expression métaphorique s’émancipe alors de l’objet de comparaison initial. L’éloge de la femme s’édulcore tandis que l’on voit poindre une véritable vénération pour l’argent : « ô mine d’or épargnée par l’Espagnol, ô doublon tout neuf jamais empoché par le Juif » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 123). Il faut préciser que le Don Juan leeien est loin d’être insensible au roulement de la pièce de métal sur le comptoir. Quand il faut passer à la rétribution financière de Baruch, Don Juan, telle la girouette sur le toit de l’église de Grenade lorsque tourne le vent, fait volte-face. Il reprend le trésor qu’il n’avait d’ailleurs jamais cédé – la promesse donjuanesque n’est-elle pas par définition vide de contenu ? Tel est Don Juan, non pas homme de parole, mais homme de la parole – si l’on entend par là que l’on peut tout entendre de lui, le vrai comme le faux, le langage tantôt châtié, tantôt ordurier, la flagornerie du prieur agenouillé comme les menaces du croyant risquant de ne pas être exaucé, les éloges mielleuses du séducteur comme l’insulte pour les femmes d’autrefois dont les voix insupportent. Avec Don Juan, dire ce n’est pas faire, ce n’est encore que dire, et il n’y a  – qu’on se le tienne pour dit – rien qui ne soit susceptible d’être dédit, puisque les mots n’engagent à rien, ou tout aussi bien au contraire d’eux-mêmes. Ils sont, comme les pièces d’or de l’Infante, aussi vite offerts que repris. Ce sont des chèques sans provision pour le futur, et l’on ne peut accorder de crédit au beau-parleur sans qu’il ne se mette aussitôt à découvert : Don Juan n’est pas fiable. Puisqu’il est homme de l’instant, c’est la notion de promesse elle-même qui, en s’énonçant, s’engage dans l’impasse aporétique.

De ce même premier discours vient sourdre, de surcroît, l’antisémitisme. Mais, là encore, l’homme versatile est capable de prodigieuses contorsions morales quand il sait qu’ajourner momentanément sa xénophobie peut jouer en sa faveur. Quand bien même tout commerce avec les Juifs l’indispose et qu’il trouve « inconcevablement odieux d’avoir à user de civilités envers leur chien de Mahomet (sic) » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 127), Don Juan a recours aux services de Baruch pour parvenir à ses fins. C’est un opportuniste prêt à prendre le contre-pied des valeurs qui sont les siennes. Même les hommes qui œuvrent pour lui devront souffrir d’une franche et indolente ingratitude. Il suffit d’une conversation trop animée à son goût pour qu’une pluie d’objets s’abatte sur ces fidèles sujets. De la même façon, une fois qu’il n’a plus besoin de Baruch, Don Juan le passe au fil de l’épée sans autre forme de procès.

De ces épisodes on peut tirer deux observations majeures. D’une part, Don Juan éprouve du mépris pour les hommes et la condition humaine en général, qui est incarnée à travers ses hommes de main – le bretteur et l’écrivain – sous deux de ses aspects les plus caricaturaux : la souplesse du corps et l’agilité de l’intellect. Comme le remarque Micheline Sauvage, « ­[l]a seigneuriale et intolérable désinvolture de don Juan est une riposte d’homme à la condition d’homme » (Sauvage, 1953 : 11). Cette facilité à lapider symboliquement ou à assassiner avec nonchalance est fruit d’une semblable révolte. En outre, cette aisance à se départir des objets comme des hommes, à jeter ou à tuer, dépeint le héros comme un impulsif, un nerveux, un sanguin. Don Juan est l’homme de la pulsion, de la spontanéité, qui vit aux prises avec l’instant[vi].

Finalement, Don Juan misanthrope est aussi Don Juan tartuffe. C’est un dévot impénitent qui, dans ce discours liminaire, se targue d’avoir « commis tous les crimes, et le meurtre et le parjure, le blasphème et le sacrilège » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 123). La femme sert de marche-pied qui met en exergue les mauvais agissement. Voilà pourquoi Don Juan évoque ces sept dames « pour chacune desquelles [il a] violé un commandement et occis plusieurs créatures de Dieu (la dernière, qui plus est, étant une nonne cloîtrée, ce qui est un cas de sacrilège inexpiable) » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 123-24). L’euphémisme est emporté par la vague de l’arrogance et de la surenchère. Ce qui aurait tenu lieu de confession honteuse dans la bouche de tout autre paroissien, d’un aveu qui s’étrangle dans l’obscurité grillagée d’un confessionnal, ouvre la porte en grand pour ce présomptueux à l’autopromotion et à l’encensement de soi. Voilà que se profile une attitude profane qui n’aura de cesse de se manifester dans la suite du récit. Que dire de l’épisode où il fait basculer la religieuse délatrice dans un puits ? Don Juan se remémore ce souvenir non sans quelque bonne humeur empreinte d’une pointe de jubilation sadique : ces évocations sont « pimentées par l’attrait du sacrilège affreux, de se faufiler en cachette entre les citronniers de la cour du cloître et d’y jeter au fond du puits la sœur portière et ses dénonciations » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 126). Cet anti-héros n’a visiblement égard ni pour la féminité, ni pour l’institution que la cornette incarne, ni pour aucune forme d’autorité. De façon systématique, il accumule les oppositions aux groupes des Autres : piètre croyant, rebelle à l’ordre public et misogyne avéré. Dans cette mesure, l’offense à la chrétienté devient comme un leitmotiv de la nouvelle. Pour faire régner le silence, c’est son missel qu’il jette par la fenêtre, un acte symbolique au possible : « [e]t tous de décamper illico, avec force courbettes obséquieuses à son intention, […] esquivant les bottes cavalières, la guitare et le missel de sa Seigneurie » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 126). De toute façon, quand la colère s’empare de Don Juan, il devient incontrôlable – mais est-il jamais un tant soit peu maîtrisable? Ses propos outrageants indignent la morale puritaine qui les censure. On ne peut qu’imaginer Don Juan invoquant en vain le nom du divin, car le narrateur prendra soin d’épargner au lecteur des « menaces et jurons trop affreux pour être répétés ici » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 126). Don Juan porte derechef atteinte à l’Eglise en ayant recours à des pratiques païennes pour relever son ultime défi. « Il était terrible, après tout, d’avoir à blasphémer contre la Sainte Eglise catholique apostolique et tous ses saints » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 127) reconnaît-il en son for intérieur. Mais la séance d’invocation des esprits ne lui en apparaît que plus délectable. En dernier lieu, sur la place publique, l’affrontement se joue physiquement entre Don Juan et un ecclésiastique lorsque, « empoignant par le col un prêtre corpulent, il le secou[e] sans ménagement » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 146). L’esprit tourmente certainement à la fois l’institution religieuse et l’homme ayant fait vœu de chasteté. Don Juan est en toutes circonstances un hors-la-loi qui se rit des injonctions des codes, principes et autres commandements. Aucune réglementation n’existe, qui le refoulera au pied du mur des lamentations.

Don Juan, dans son premier discours, offre un dernier exemple d’infidélité religieuse : il promet de vanter les mérites de la Vierge devant les dieux de l’Olympe dans une mise en commun de divinités qui établit un panthéon aussi bigarré que profanatoire. Non pas que Don Juan se pose sérieusement la question du polythéisme. Mais sait-on jamais… Et s’il se trouvait là-haut quelque Aphrodite ou quelque Héra à séduire ?

Un homme à femmes : catalogue d’un collectionneur

Aphrodite, Héra et sans doute toutes les habitantes de l’Olympe seraient susceptibles de représenter un enjeu pour ce charmeur infatigable. Mais d’abord qu’est-ce qu’un séducteur ? Se-ducere, c’est littéralement « conduire à part » (Picoche, 1987 : 159). Donc, en un sens, le séducteur est celui qui rend unique chaque femme sur laquelle il jette son dévolu : en soustrayant sa conquête à la masse informe du plus grand nombre, il fait de celle qu’il mène à l’écart une exception – à ceci près que chez le séducteur, la règle n’est constituée que d’exceptions. Il faut ajouter, pour parachever notre définition, que le séducteur est surtout cet homme qui étymologiquement (se) conduit mal. La séduction est comme une ruse et un louvoiement, l’ « action de mener de côté », de faire dévier de la juste trajectoire, d’arracher la brebis du troupeau. D’où les sens dérivés qu’a sédimentés le verbe « séduire » de « charmer », « tromper », « amener à la faute » ou « corrompre » (Dubois, 2001 : 699). N’omettons pas à ce stade de notre analyse les antécédents familiaux : l’arrière grand-père du Don Juan leeien n’est autre que le dénommé El Burlador, autrement réputé comme l’abuseur[vii] de Séville. Dans l’univers impitoyable de la séduction, même les femmes les plus vertueuses se commettent avec le séducteur, causant leur propre perte. Dans la nouvelle de Lee, c’est la petite nonne du récit qui fait les frais des frasques du séducteur, celle-là même qui « n’était pas loin d’incarner l’idée qu’il se faisait des anges » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 127). Au final, Séraphita fait figure d’ange déçu et désormais déchu, comme dans la pièce d’Alexandre Dumas où c’est un ange-gardien qui, séduit par Don Juan, littéralement, y laisse ses plumes[viii]. Il est à noter néanmoins que, pour Otto Rank, le séducteur est moins celui qui perd la femme, que celui qui la sauve.

Don Juan est aussi dans un certain sens le véritable émancipateur de la femme. Il libère la jeune fille des chaînes dans lesquelles la religion et la morale, créées pour l’avantage de l’homme, l’ont emprisonnée, par le fait qu’il ne veut pas mettre sur elle son emprise définitive, mais seulement en faire une femme (surtout les nonnes enlevées au cloître). (Rank, 1973 : 165)

Le séducteur est, de fait, celui qui déjoue la règle patriarcale. Mais, de façon plus égocentrique, chaque succès agrandit l’idée que Don Juan se fait de lui-même, un narcissisme qu’il gonfle à l’éclatement en choisissant une femme toujours plus impossible à saisir : la mondaine, puis la nonne. Toutefois, lorsque de grenouille Don Juan veut devenir bœuf, la structure trop petite du réalisme tremble sur ses fondations. Le fantastique intervient pour ouvrir une brèche vers un monde de possibles quand le cadre réaliste a implosé, inapte à contenir davantage le débordement des objectifs donjuanesques, lorsque la dernière lubie du séducteur consiste à vouloir séduire une morte dont il n’a cure qu’elle soit « grosse et grasse » (Lee dans G-M, 2001 : 130), car Don Juan n’est pas nécessairement fin esthète. Et pourquoi ne pas jeter son dévolu sur la Vierge quand on est parvenu si loin? Don Juan compose des poèmes à brûle-pourpoint lorsqu’il interpelle la Madonne : « ô Brûlure d’Eau, Fraîcheur de Feu, ô Soleil de Minuit, Galaxie de Midi » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 123). L’oxymore qui écartèle chaque syntagme entre ses deux pôles jusqu’au point de rupture, l’hyperbole qui va grossissant comme vers un futur Big-Bang, donnent à ce discours grandiloquent un tour parodique : la prière se transforme en pastiche de déclaration amoureuse. C’est moins un croyant qu’un soupirant qui pose le genou à terre :

“j’ai toujours respecté ton nom sans jamais souffrir d’entendre quiconque chanter plus grandes louanges des autres madones, ni celle du Bon Conseil, ni celle du Prompt Secours, ni Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel, ni la Dame de Saint-Luc à Bologne en Italie, ni la Dame à la Pantoufle à Famagouste de Chypre, ni celle du Pilier à Saragosse, toutes madones plus grandes les unes que les autres, et dont le monde entier révère le pouvoir, et que la plupart te préfèrent. Pourtant, moi, Don Juan Gusman del Pulgar, ton rhéteur, bretteur et serviteur, j’ai toujours protesté qu’elles étaient infiniment inférieures à toi.” (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 123)

Don Juan suppose à la Vierge une très terrestre et profondément impie vanité féminine. Le discours qu’il délivre est alors comme la pomme de Pâris à l’attention de Vénus. Orateur adroit, Don Juan renverse les rôles. Si la Madone peut voir en lui un adorateur, c’est en somme à elle qu’il fait un privilège.

Don Juan n’a au final de barrière ni le rang social, ni la qualité de l’être, qui peut être indifféremment vivant, mort ou éternel. Mais plus qu’une litanie de prénoms féminins – au nombre desquels on peut compter « Dolorès, Fatma, Catalina, Elvire, Violante, Azahar et sa sœur Séraphita » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 123) –, plus qu’un agrégat de nationalités où se bousculent « Espagnoles et Italiennes, Allemandes et Françaises, Hollandaises et Flamandes, Juives et Sarrasines » (Lee dans G-M, 2001 : 123), la séduction est, de façon primordiale, une question de vie ou de mort. C’est la confidence que le Don Juan de Mozart fait à son valet au sujet des femmes : « Ne sais-tu pas qu’elles me sont plus nécessaires que le pain que je mange, que l’air que je respire ! » (Da Ponte, 1994 [1787] : 127). Ces femmes sont vitales ; elles communiquent un sursaut de vie à Don Juan, qui, à chaque conquête, ressuscite :

“C’est par la besogne, comme on dit dans la langue galante pour l’acte d’amour, que Don Juan cherche à faire travailler ce corps mort qui est le sien, parce que, comme nous le verrons à propos du Surmâle d’Alfred Jarry, il l’identifie à un cadavre, peut-être celui qu’incarnait déjà le Christ.” (Winter, 2001 : 40)

Il s’agit tellement de fureur de vivre et de dénégation de la finitude humaine que le héros leeien rappelle, à travers l’acte de séduction, une morte à la vie. En considérant la mort non pas comme un aboutissement inexorable, mais comme un obstacle que l’on peut contourner par la ruse, Don Juan désavoue le concept de la mort, et, par là même, nie sa propre fin.

Tout feu tout flamme : le diabolique dans l’homme du défi

De l’homme absurde à l’ange de la mort

Ce besoin impérieux qu’a Don Juan de renouveler le défi[ix], et de le vouloir plus inatteignable que le précédent, est avant tout une urgence de vivre et de prendre le pas sur la mort, sur cette extinction menaçante du désir repu qui, si l’on vient à bout de l’équation terrifiante qu’il pose, équivaut à la disparition du personnage et à l’anéantissement de l’homme sans dernier recours. En n’admettant pas que la mort s’interpose entre lui et l’objet à séduire, mais aussi à travers chaque acte de séduction réitéré, Don Juan repousse le funeste dans ses retranchements. Mais la mort qu’il croit faire fuir ne recule que pour mieux bondir : l’hybris, l’outrecuidance fantastique seront châtiés. Don Juan s’agite dans des sables mouvants, et chaque mouvement qu’il fait, fût-il de séduction, rapproche un peu plus l’heure fatidique. N’est-il pas à ce titre l’homme absurde par excellence, au sens que lui attribue la réflexion camusienne[x], celui-là même qui est au faîte de sa gloire dans la gratuité de l’acte?

Néanmoins, il est un autre point de vue qui ferait valoir Don Juan non pas comme un adversaire farouche, mais comme un médiateur de la mort. Songeons à ces voix d’outre-tombe qui interpellent le héros :

“Don Juan ! Don Juan ! appelaient les voix ténues tapies dans les ténèbres. Il lui vint à l’idée qu’elles tentaient de le retenir. Et il crut reconnaître la voix de Dolorès et de Fatma, ses défuntes maîtresses.” (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 134)

On peut gager que ces femmes sont mortes parce que dans le basculement fantastique les rapports au temps sont inversés. La résurrection des morts (de l’Infante, de son entourage) sonne le glas pour les vivants (les anciennes amantes, Don Juan lui-même doivent disparaître). Mais les femmes délaissées sont au fond mortes d’avoir connu Don Juan, mortes sinon dans l’événement, du moins symboliquement au souvenir d’un séducteur oublieux. Du reste, il importe peu que la mort soit physique, puisqu’elle est déjà dans la disparition du désir et la distanciation – voire l’oblitération possible – du souvenir. Ainsi, le lit des amours heureuses devient pour Azahar le lit de la lente agonie. Don Juan serait alors un ange de la mort.

Percée dans l’outre-monde : une descente aux enfers ?

L’aspect diabolique de Don Juan, annoncé en préambule par cette « moustache fourchue » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 124) qu’il arbore, est d’autant exacerbé qu’il se pose sur une toile de fond religieuse.

Ennemi de Dieu, don Juan est en puissance un Antéchrist […]. Imagine-t-on un don Juan dans la Rome païenne ? Le voit-on à une époque où toutes les contraintes auraient disparu ? L’idée même d’un don Juan est étroitement liée à celle de religion à tel point que, parlant de lui, on finit invinciblement par évoquer la possession du démon. (Marceau, 1985 : 153)

Ainsi, la flamme du désir qui brûle en lui a tout des langues de feu infernales :

“le séducteur si prompt à s’embraser qui finit en enfer est le plus souvent comparé au diable, démon ou Belzébuth. Alors sa fin dans les flammes n’est peut-être qu’un retour à son élément naturel : mal guéri par le mal, ou mâle par le mâle, il est sans doute le phénix qui renaît des cendres du désir, toujours renouvelé, dans lequel on le croyait consumé.” (Tirso de Molina, 1993 [1630] : 201)

Le Don Juan leeien a-t-il en coin le sourire méphistophélique ? Il y a de toute évidence une monstruosité dans l’absence de considérations éthiques du personnage, à commencer par son désir de braver la mort, qui est présenté comme une effraction satanique. Don Juan, homme de la parole – de la parole mauvaise par opposition à la Bonne Parole – se livre avec empressement à la lecture des formules incantatoires qui invoquent les démons. Des figures monstrueuses entrent aussitôt en scène, qui font des combinaisons anatomiques insolites : « corps de singe, serres de rapace et groin de porc » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 130). Ne peut-on reconnaître dans l’insolence simiesque, dans l’avidité du rapace et l’appétit du pourceau d’Epicure des fragments épars d’un miroir donjuanesque brisé? La figure éléphantesque donne un nouvel exemple de ce confondant syncrétisme physiologique. Elle fait valoir l’humanité d’êtres qui exécutent « une ronde frénétique autour du chaudron, en se donnant la main » et l’animalité de ces mêmes créatures « en équilibre sur leurs pattes de derrière » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 131). C’est aussi une figure hypersexualisée et hermaphrodite qui greffe le masculin (la trompe, la queue de serpent) et les attributs féminins (les seins de jolie femme). Ces bêtes anthropomorphes, à l’instar de Don Juan, s’opposent violemment aux personnages du récit qui vivent dans une sphère désertée par la sexualité (eunuque, duègne, Infante, prêtre, Vierge, chérubins). Elles sont, d’un point de vue interne au récit, un avertissement de mauvais augure pour le protagoniste. L’on pourrait, dans cette optique, comparer Don Juan a un docteur Frankenstein qui, à vouloir réveiller une morte, ne mesure pas les conséquences fâcheuses de ses actes et les risques qu’il encourt pour lui-même. Cette flamme qui jaillit sous le chaudron de Baruch ouvre ce qui ressemble à une gorge reliant la terre et les abîmes sulfureux au point que Don Juan se demande : « Et si c’était l’Enfer ? » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 134). Dans ce couloir exigu, les voix qui se font entendre ressemblent à celles d’âmes damnées : « – Don Juan, Don Juan, chuchotèrent, un peu plus loin, les murs et le plafond » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 134). Déstabilisé par ces appels inquiétants, le protagoniste leeien poursuit pourtant sa quête obstinément : « [l]e cavalier magnanime sentit son sang se glacer dans ses veines et une sueur froide lui coller les cheveux sur le crâne. Cependant, il continua d’avancer» (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 133). Don Juan n’a en tête qu’une idée fixe, sorte de monomanie dont même le brasier infernal ne saurait le détourner ; il court ainsi droit à sa perte.

Nous conclurons cette première partie sur l’idée que le Don Juan leeien (en tant que cas) est fidèle à lui-même (en tant que type). Tout d’abord, il semble n’avoir de noblesse que la litanie de titres honorifiques que pour lui-même il énonce religieusement. Mais les trompe-l’œil sont vains : la grandeur de son titre elle-même s’effrite par l’annexe à son nom de « Gusman », le nom du valet d’Elvire (Molière, 1994 [1665] : 20). La bure du roturier dépasse de la cape du Seigneur. Par extension métaphorique, c’est la noblesse de l’âme qui est minée du dedans. L’imposture se vérifie puisque Don Juan est homme de la parole creuse, celle qui offre à toutes les femmes la pomme dédiée « à la plus belle ». Pourtant, le compliment qu’il va refuser à l’Infante signera son arrêt de mort. Dans la perspective dramatique, Don Juan avance vers cet épisode comme un mort en sursis. Ses accessoires vestimentaires tiennent visiblement lieu de ressort proleptique. S’il est toujours drapé de noir, d’un certain point de vue, c’est comme si transparaissaient dans ses atours de corbeau, une intériorité, la noirceur de son âme. Mais c’est aussi que, personnage funeste, Don Juan est un moribond. La mort lui colle comme une seconde peau. Les habits endeuillés qu’il porte à l’église, le drap cramoisi de sa chambre, qui est comme mortuaire, convoquent très tôt dans le texte le linceul tâché de sang. Le décor, l’écriture, suintent de cette mort à venir, jusqu’au soleil « badigeonnant de sanguine le lointain lavis de la rivière […], éclaboussant d’écarlate les neiges de Mulhacen, et ensanglantant les pentes de la Sierra de taches de rouille, comme des gouttes de sang sur un marbre » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 128). Sa conduite, son inconduite, font de Don Juan un personnage qui n’est pas viable. Et qui ne fera désormais plus long feu…

II- La mise au pilori fantastique d’un séducteur mythique

Les mutilations du récit : décapitations multiples et castration symbolique

Le cœur transpercé de poignards

 La douleur et le corps supplicié sont des thèmes récurrents de la nouvelle. Les effigies de l’église plantent dès le départ le décor de la souffrance avec ses représentations du martyr déployant à la vue les signes du supplice et de l’affliction. On y voit « un cortège de christs de cire ceints de pagnes pailletés exhibant leurs plaies sanglantes » entourés de « saintes éplorées de moindre renom versant des larmes de perle » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 122). Cette idéologie doloriste voit son apothéose en la Vierge au sein criblé de lames de poignards. Logé au cœur du texte comme au sommet de l’édifice en guise de girouette, dans une symbolique mystique à la fois baroque et surréaliste, le cœur blessé symbolise la déconvenue sentimentale des femmes abandonnées par Don Juan : le séducteur est un crève-coeur.

Dans cette atmosphère lourde de la notion biblique de la faute – les poignards dans le cœur de la Madonne, comme les Dames que Don Juan a séduites, sont au nombre des péchés capitaux – le sentiment de culpabilité, s’il est tapi dans les recoins du décor, existe en toutes circonstances en dehors du personnage. C’est ce qui fait hésiter Paul-Assoun à se prononcer sur la perversité de Don Juan :

“on ne sait jamais tout à fait si le sujet pervers est ‘inconscient’ de la portée de ses actes – ce qui serait une forme de ‘sincérité’ – ou s’il joue à l’innocence, ce qui l’acculerait au cynisme. Ce trait caractéristique d’indétermination renvoie à un élément essentiel du type pervers : il est dans un rapport à la transgression qui la contourne, faisant ainsi l’économie de la culpabilité – que le névrosé, lui, affronte de plein fouet.” (Assoun, 1989 : 14)

Toutefois cette dispense d’empathie est temporairement suspendue dans ce tunnel où un brouhaha de voix féminines se fait entendre. La mémoire de ses anciens forfaits semble revenir tout en bloc à Don Juan. C’est une véritable traversée de son inconscient qu’il entreprend dans ce long corridor souterrain où frétillent sous ses pas les serpents bibliques, une plongée au cœur de la culpabilité occasionnant un brusque retour du refoulé. Comme ce chat qui se plaît soudainement à miauler derrière le mur où l’on s’est débarrassé d’un cadavre encombrant (Poe, 1974 [1839] : 70), ou ce cœur de vieillard assassiné que l’on est persuadé d’entendre palpiter à nouveau sous les lattes du plancher (Poe, 1974 [1839] : 117-118), la culpabilité dénigrée par le personnage remonte jusqu’à lui par vagues sonores qui font frissonner le monde sans reproches dans lequel il croyait pouvoir vivre. Troublée l’eau calme et lisse d’une conscience en paix avec elle-même. Les onduleuses reptations finissent toujours par rattraper le fugitif aveugle. Elles rampent, se hissent alors jusqu’à l’oreille de qui refuse de voir sa faute. Ainsi, les voix féminines se font récriminatrices. Elles hantent l’accusé qui se sait coupable au point de déclencher l’hystérie masculine :

Pareillement à Ulysse, Magnus, Winthrop, Don Juan tentent de rester sourds aux appels des sirènes d’outre-monde. En vain : car cette voix est celle du daimon. L’explication psychologique du phénomène comme hallucination auditive ne résoudrait pas tout, car au mystère du symptôme (le dédoublement) se substituerait alors celui des causes : alors que l’hystérie est à l’époque considérée comme la maladie féminine par excellence, Magnus, Winthrop, Don Juan seraient-ils, entre paradoxe médical et phénomène de cirque, des mâles hystériques ? (Geoffroy-Menoux, 2002 : 125)

Agité de tremblements, trempé de sueur, Don Juan « se sen[t] tout à coup près de défaillir » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 134). Il doit alors négocier un compromis avec sa conscience, ce qui passe par une modification de la représentation mentale qu’il se fait des femmes. Puisque sa propre intégrité est menacée, l’heure n’est plus à l’attendrissement. Ses anciennes conquêtes passent pour des catins ; la petite nonne qu’il avait prise en affection est reléguée au statut de sorcière. Les femmes sont devenues des harpies tandis que lui se pose comme victime. Ce ré-étiquetage suffit à mettre fin à la parenthèse du remords. La lumière réapparaît. Don Juan voit le bout du tunnel. Il retourne dès lors à sa coutumière insouciance, tout entier à son nouveau défi.

Une légion de têtes sans corps

 Des têtes où le corps vient à manquer apparaissent dès les premières lignes de la nouvelle. Dans l’architecture foisonnante de fioritures baroques, des têtes innombrables surgissent des arches de l’église, des têtes grotesques sinon de par le ridicule de leurs traits, du moins en raison de leur existence précaire et dérisoire sans l’appui du corps. La mise à l’écart de ce corps est soutenue jusque dans la rhétorique, par l’hypallage qui affuble ces têtes d’épaulettes[xi], faute que les accessoires vestimentaires puissent prendre prise ailleurs.

Le thème de la décapitation repose à fleur de texte. Un peu plus loin, les lignes abruptes de l’édifice religieux servent de prétexte à évoquer de sordides avertissements : « ce ne sont que lignes brisées brandies comme lances au bout desquelles on exhibe la tête des traîtres » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 121). Une ligne (celle de l’architecture, celle du texte) suffit à convoquer l’idéologie du sadisme, de la cruauté du sacrifice humain et la barbarie des figures suppliciées, des têtes-fétiches brandies qui ne sont pas sans rappeler l’effigie de Lord of the Flies (Golding, 1954) ou la haie de têtes rétrécies dans Heart of Darkness(Conrad, 1899). Les particularités architecturales font jaillir en saillie la brutalité de scènes d’autrefois et font de l’endroit non pas un havre de paix comme on serait en droit de l’attendre d’un lieu solennel, mais une galerie de violence, stèle commémorative de champs de bataille qui débordent les uns sur les autres. Les murs de cette église de Grenade tremblent de siècles d’histoire espagnole, jusqu’à ces corniches qui sont à leur manière les remparts d’où l’on a précipité les indésirables : « ce n’est qu’un vertige de corniches encorbellées comme montagnes d’où précipiter les rebelles mauresques » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 121). Si la pierre froide de l’église peut s’animer brusquement de ces scènes historiques, c’est que le lieu n’est pas une page vierge. Il porte en lui emmuré son passé. C’est l’esprit de ce drôle de farfadet, le genius loci, qui rôde dans les lieux chargés d’Histoire et se révèle à ceux qui sentent que le lieu est pourvu d’une âme. « Le Génie des Lieux », décrète Vernon Lee, « comme toutes les divinités dignes de ce nom, est de la même substance que notre cœur et notre esprit, une réalité spirituelle. Pour ce qui est de sa manifestation physique, elle tient dans le lieu lui-même »[xii]. Ainsi, dans le silence de cette église espagnole, ce génie du lieu crie-t-il la souffrance et la mort, le crime et son châtiment, amorçant dès les premières lignes la fin du récit. La corniche annonce la mort de Baruch, qui sera précipité dans le vide ; les lignes dures de l’édifice préfigurent l’étêtement à venir de Don Juan.

De même, l’ekphrasis a une fonction proleptique qui anticipe sur le passage de Don Juan de vie à trépas. Les portraits figurant ses ancêtres les représentent avec sous le pied la tête d’une victime aussi dérisoire qu’ « une tête à perruque de coiffeur » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 127). Le tableau au-dessus du lit de Don Juan évoque le répertoire iconographique des vanités. Ce tableau de l’ermite caressant « une tête de mort de belle apparence » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 126) ramène en mémoire les memento mori où un personnage médite, un crâne posé dans la main. Telles sont les représentations de Saint-François ou de Saint-Jérôme – le Saint-François à genoux avec une tête de mort (1658) de Zurbaran par exemple ou le Saint-Jérôme (1521) d’Albrecht Dürer. Le tableau agit ici comme une vignette à la fonction anticipatoire. Il fait entendre comme une menace sourde mais certaine le sort réservé à Don Juan. On pourra aussi voir en l’ermite famélique caressant ce crâne un personnage nécrophile – la mort avec sa faux qui s’amuse de l’insignifiance de la vie des mortels – ou un symbole de la toute-puissance de l’auteur méditant sur l’espérance de vie de son personnage. En tout état de cause, placée au-dessus de Don Juan, la peinture reste suspendue comme une épée de Damoclès. Le sens de la nouvelle tient dans cette seule image qui fait office de « tableau-récit » (Geoffroy-Menoux, 2003 : 46). La carte fatale d’un jeu de tarot vient d’être tirée. Il ne reste au récit qu’à honorer les promesses de cette vision prémonitoire…

L’angoisse de castration

La souffrance, cette substance qui s’inscrit en filigrane dans la nouvelle qui nous intéresse, nourrit aussi l’interminable quête donjuanesque. L’histoire de Don Juan est celle de l’éternelle poursuite d’un désir fuyant toujours d’une femme vers l’autre, de cette hémorragie du désir. Don Juan est un Sisyphe de la séduction sans espoir de répit. Pire, la montagne qu’il se propose de gravir doit être à chaque fois plus haute que la précédente, la pierre toujours plus lourde. Il s’ensuit que cet être défiant est aussi un être défaillant. Selon Paul-Assoun, reprenant à son compte le point de vue jungien, Don Juan renouvelle constamment la séduction à la recherche d’une femme première, la mère, qu’il ne retrouve jamais dans l’amante – mais que pourrait incarner la Vierge que nous trouvons ici.

A travers son attitude défiante envers la Loi, Don Juan réitère également la riposte contre l’autorité du Père. Dans un film éponyme [Weber, 1998], Don Juan pousse l’effronterie jusqu’à se mettre en costume de bain  – c’est-à-dire nu  – pour recevoir son père. Il est en prise avec une angoisse de castration qui toujours dans la confrontation ressurgit. « Il est essentiel de comprendre que la croyance à l’immortalité du Moi », nous dit Paul-Assoun,

“va de pair chez Don Juan avec l’incroyance envers l’autorité paternelle. Or, cela ne peut s’appuyer que sur la croyance primitive à une possession de la mère, précocement volée au Père, ce qui donne au pervers la conviction que [le] Père est ‘nul et non avenu’ – ainsi que la menace de castration par laquelle s’exprime son pouvoir au regard de l’inconscient.” (Assoun, 1989 : 14)

Et pourtant le Père finit par vaincre : dans la nouvelle de Vernon Lee, la castration symbolique coupe court à la cavale effrénée du coureur. L’imposant Grand Eunuque compense amplement sa supposée amputation par une démonstration de son hypermasculinité, quand une seule parole de lui suffit à commander l’immense cimeterre qui tranche net la gorge de Don Juan. Le grotesque associé aux têtes encastrées dans les arches de l’église ressurgit à l’instant même où la tête de Don Juan dégringole les escaliers comme un insignifiant ballon. Son existence est aussi dérisoire que la tête du guillotiné, dans La Reine Margot (1994) de Chéreau, que l’épouse emporte sous son bras. Déjà s’annonce la fin de la nouvelle, cet écart fatidique d’un centimètre entre la tête tranchée et la gorge ensanglantée.

 Questionnement identitaire et métamorphose

 « De qui s’agit-il ? » : l’impossible retour sur soi

Le Don Juan du récit, en élisant une favorite, se renie lui-même au point qu’il est incapable de se reconnaître. « De qui s’agit-il ? » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 146-47) reprend son fantôme comme une sempiternelle rengaine, qui attend – mais en vain – l’intermédiaire des autres pour reconnaître son identité propre. L’auto-identification laisse de la même manière le Don Juan mériméen pantois :

“don Juan éprouva d’abord cette espèce de dégoût que l’idée de la mort inspire à un épicurien. Il se leva et voulut s’éloigner, mais le nombre des pénitents et la pompe du cortège le surprirent et piquèrent sa curiosité. La procession se dirigeant vers une église voisine dont les portes venaient de s’ouvrir avec bruit, don Juan arrêta par la manche une des figures qui portaient des cierges et lui demanda poliment quelle était la personne qu’on allait enterrer. Le pénitent leva la tête : sa figure était pâle et décharnée comme celle d’un homme qui sort d’une longue et douloureuse maladie. Il répondit d’une voix sépulcrale : ‘C’est le comte don Juan de Maraňa’.” (Mérimée, 1998 [1834] : 72)

Le miroir lacanien est brisé avec ces héros qui refusent de se reconnaître. Du point de vue de la logique introspective, la nouvelle illustre la discordance du retour sur soi. Le fantastique montre l’impossibilité ontologique pour le soi de se contempler sans se dénaturer, sans faire du soi observé un être inanimé, objet hors d’état d’être, mis à mort dans l’acte contemplatif par l’acte contemplatif en lui-même : l’autoscopie paraît ici exiger le détour de l’autopsie. En termes symboliques, le soi observé est un corps posé dans un cercueil qui ne donne plus signe de vie. Quant au soi observant, il devient un fantôme de soi inopérant sur le monde, ectoplasme insignifiant traversant les corps des hommes qui l’entourent, inexistant en tant qu’acteur dès lors qu’il s’assied dans le fauteuil du spectateur. Le soi-observant est un « revenant » pour lui-même, effectuant, dans l’intention de se voir, le virage dangereux du serpent qui se mord la queue. Il y a là la dérive du détective qui se lance sur sa propre piste avec un aveuglement innocent, comme le héros d’Œdipe-Roi (Sophocle, 1383) ou des Gommes (Robbe-Grillet, 1953), qui se voit opposer cette terrible vérité que celui qu’il pourchasse n’est autre que lui-même. Voilà donc Don Juan qui flaire ses traces de sang comme le limier insensé qui mène l’enquête sur sa propre vie :

“Don Juan remarqua parmi les pavés et la boue sèche de la rue, de grosses taches de sang ; de plus en plus grosses à mesure qu’il avançait, elles ne tardèrent pas à former une ligne presque continue, et même, se mêlant aux flaques d’eau, un petit ruisseau rouge. [C]e filet de sang exerçait une fascination étrange sur Don Juan ; sans s’en rendre compte, au lieu de prendre le raccourci qui le menait à son palais, il la suivit […]” (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 146)

En substance, tous les éléments sont présents : le sang, le corps, l’âme errante qui se déplace entre les éléments épars. Rien ne manque, sauf l’alchimie qui fait de toutes ces pièces démantelées un système cohérent. Dans l’acte d’auto-observation, il y a un double et un autre double, mais l’original est à jamais perdu. Il y a un clivage qui suppose dans chaque moitié de soi autonomisée une part de vide : un observateur sans réalité corporelle ni substance, un objet d’étude sans conscience de soi. Il faut dès lors

“renoncer à l’idée que le soi puisse être perçu dans une réplique qui permette au sujet de se saisir lui-même. Le double, qui autoriserait cette saisie, signifierait aussi le meurtre du sujet et le renoncement à soi, perpétuellement dessaisi de lui-même au profit d’un double fantomatique et cruel.” (Rosset, 1976 : 113)

Ici, le sujet est bien mort, un centimètre de vide en répond. Ce qu’il reste de vie est un double fantomatique, et lorsqu’il se penche sur lui-même pour (se) découvrir un corps sans vie, c’est l’horreur :

“Don Juan del Pulgar dévisagea longuement le cadavre.

C’était le sien.” (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 147)

Ce cri d’horreur que poussent les quelques lignes muettes de ce passage, ce mouvement de recul qu’opère le texte fictionnel dans l’alinéa, et Don Juan avec lui, résident dans l’atrocité d’une aberration que seule la boucle fantastique peut opérer : se voir mort.

L’identité donjuanesque : le je(u) dangereux

Il y a dans cette confrontation au soi-mort l’idée que Don Juan puisse se voir lui-même tel qu’il fut, qu’il voie dans ce cadavre une sorte de ça-a-été barthien, qu’on lui glisse sous les yeux un miroir fêlé révélant sa dernière image. Pourtant, Don Juan est définitivement Autre que cet être ensanglanté, sans vie, qui gît sous les yeux du fantôme. Le Don Juan tel qu’on le connaissait, tel qu’il se connaissait lui-même, est mort. En illustrant son attachement envers une femme seule, il a procédé à une forme d’auto-escamotage, le sabotage de ce qui faisait jadis sa moelle substance. Il se retrouve dans le dénigrement de lui-même qui s’exprime symboliquement dans la mort du double. C’est un peu l’expérience troublante que vit William Wilson. Lorsque le héros de Poe élimine son homonyme, le fantastique lui permet de faire dans le sosie défiguré le constat impossible de sa propre mort : « – Tu as vaincu, et je succombe. Mais dorénavant tu es mort aussi, – mort au Monde, au Ciel et à l’Espérance ! En moi tu existais, – et vois dans ma mort, vois par cette image qui est la tienne, comme tu t’es radicalement assassiné toi-même ! » (Poe, 1974 [1839] : 97). C’est mot pour mot ce qui est arrivé à l’anti-héros leeien : en tenant ses promesses de fidélité, il s’est lui-même assassiné.

L’articulation logique entre sa vie dissolue et sa vie de saint est une incarnation de lui-même se dissolvant. Progressivement, il perd consistance, comme une outre percée se vidant peu à peu de son contenu. Sa présence au monde devient ténue, il se sent fondre : « les seules sensations qu’il éprouvait encore étaient celles que doit ressentir une mare qui lentement se vide, ou une congère de neige en train de fondre, ou encore un nuage qui se pose sur un rocher plat » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 147). Don Juan fait l’expérience de la désincarnation. Il sent que son intériorité lui échappe, sa substance éthérée s’évapore : c’est le concept volatil de l’infidélité même qui va fuyant pour se désagréger dans l’air. Pour admettre cette métamorphose viscérale qui transforme Don Juan en homme fidèle, le personnage doit sortir de sa peau de chagrin, marcher à côté de ses pas, et recommencer une vie nouvelle en marge de lui-même.

De l’homme fatal à la femme fatale

Avant d’être fatal pour lui-même, Don Juan est fatal aux autres. Derrière le masque séduisant, se cache, nous l’avons vu, un être menaçant pour qui le rencontre. « Je suis un être bien fatal aux autres et à moi-même ; tout ce que je touche se brise ou se flétrit ; et ceux à qui je n’ôte pas la vie perdent la raison » disait le Don Juan d’Alexandre Dumas (Dumas, 2001 [1836] : 198). Dans le même ordre d’idée, le don juan leeien est porteur de désastre. Il emmène la mort avec lui dans son sillage. C’est un féminicide[xiii] qui fait retentir après lui les voix de femmes à l’agonie. A ses yeux, la mort d’un maître d’armes, celle d’un geôlier ou d’un mari sont des dommages collatéraux envisagés avec beaucoup de détachement : le meurtre est tout au plus pour Don Juan un mal nécessaire, et les pertes humaines, même lorsqu’elles jouent en sa défaveur – comme la mort de son ancien maître d’arme – sont un désagrément négligeable. En règle générale, le pouvoir de donner la mort participe même du plaisir qui mène à la conquête[xiv]. Ce frisson qui parcourt Don Juan, c’est celui que procure le traquenard machiavélique : « la joie féroce de l’attente, en compagnie d’une bande de vaillants assassins, de quelque fâcheux, père, frère ou mari » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 126) promis à une mort imminente. Don Juan tue l’homme qui est un compétiteur encombrant, et la femme qu’il vampirise. Pourtant, il est intéressant de voir qu’à travers les figures féminines du récit leeien, la femme fatale prend le relai de l’homme fatal.

Avec la Vierge apparaît l’idée d’une femme préférée aux autres qui va inverser le rapport de séduction. Se profile alors l’idée d’une favorite, cette

“femme hors du commun qui arrête un temps ce vertige du nombre, qui fige la liste. Si sa présence témoigne d’un pouvoir viril et d’un pouvoir politique, elle représente aussi un certain pouvoir féminin. Savoir triompher de toute la cohorte des candidates, puis savoir faire durer cette emprise, quelle extraordinaire ascension pour une séductrice !” (Marnhac, 2002 : 62)

Dans la relation entre Don Juan et la Vierge, les rôles sont soudain permutés. N’est-ce pas Don Juan en somme sur lequel la Vierge exerce un certain pouvoir de séduction, de fascination, voire même de possession? Ainsi la Vierge est-elle cette femme favorite, être de pouvoir et créature létale. Comme la Vénus d’Ille (Mérimée : 1837), ou la défunte des Noces funèbres (2004) de Burton, elle n’admet pas qu’on lui passe la bague au doigt sans venir, au terme de l’échéance, réclamer son dû. Peut-être faudra-t-il voir en cette Madone aux sept poignards une femme dont l’abord est tranchant, tout comme l’Infante, cette femme au cimeterre. Toutes deux sont des femmes mortelles, des Méduse potentiellement viriles avec leurs lames affûtées. Leur ressemblance – si ce n’est leur identité – est accentuée dans la mesure où l’Infante s’exprime sans que ses lèvres ne semblent remuer. Comme la Vierge, elle a cette présence inquiétante de statue ni tout à fait immobile, ni tout à fait en mouvement. La déesse de marbre qui brille dans le jardin de Don Juan fait un écho discret aux femmes-statues du récit. L’Infante – et la Vierge à travers elle – apparaît comme la femme mortifère et castratrice, une Salomé[xv] qui réclame la tête de Don Juan, une Judith triomphale tenant à la main la tête d’Holopherne.

A la statue du Commandeur se substitue celle de la Vierge avec laquelle Don Juan a conclu un pacte malheureux. Les termes du contrat ont certes été respectés, mais il existait une clause secrète : Don Juan devait perdre la vie. La protection promise était morale et n’engageait pas la préservation d’une vie de mortel précaire. Le séducteur trompé, qui revient demander des comptes à la Madone, apparaît comme une version parodique du Christ crucifié qui demande à Dieu, incrédule, pourquoi il l’a abandonné. Don Juan n’a-t-il pas été dupé ? La Vierge aux sept poignards ne l’a-t-elle pas en définitive poignardé dans le dos ?

Il semble en définitive que la Madone a une fonction sur-moïque qui ramène le personnage livré à ses impulsions de ses incartades. C’est bien la femme qui donne à la fois la vengeance des poignards et le pardon de la Vierge qui est mise à l’honneur par le titre même de la nouvelle. A ce stade du récit, il reste de Don Juan le fantôme sans substance du séducteur compulsif qu’il fut, mais surtout l’esprit d’un saint en devenir.

III- Le rapport homme-femme : un équilibre précaire rétabli à la lettre

Homme, femme : des univers parallèles non-synchrones

Quels que soient leurs avatars, Don Juan et la femme existent toujours dans des mondes parallèles. Lorsque l’homme est fait de chair et d’os, la femme a la pâleur de l’albâtre, qu’elle soit entreposée au sein d’une église ou subrepticement aperçue dans le jardin de Don Juan. « Il alla au balcon et regarda par l’une des fenêtres. Là, une déesse de marbre brillait parmi les haies de myrtes et les cyprès du jardin dallé » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 126). Le mouvement preste et leste de Don Juan est en butte à la rigidité marmoréenne. Il en va de même lors de la rencontre avec l’Infante qui tout au long de l’entretien conserve une « rigidité de statue » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 139), au point qu’elle parle « sans que bouge un seul muscle de son visage » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 142). Le fossé se creuse au sein de ce couple si dissemblant, entre prise de parole expressive et ventriloquie, entre un homme de son temps et une morte qui a existé trois siècles auparavant, entre un tempérament impétueux et la lenteur de rouages protocolaires grippés. Pour finir, lorsque Don Juan est fantôme se frayant un chemin dans la cohue, la femme est une spectatrice bien vivante jouissant du spectacle de la mort parmi la foule des badauds attroupés devant l’hôpital.

Cette impossibilité à exister dans un même univers donne lieu à des modalités de communication exceptionnelles. Lorsque Don Juan vient se recueillir devant l’idole, lui communique par le verbe et la Vierge par le geste, si imperceptible le mouvement soit-il. Lorsque Don Juan est soupirant, la femme est une Infante et le protocole interdit le libre échange entre les deux jeunes gens. L’étiquette complique à loisir le dialogue. C’est le jeu du téléphone arabe qui se met en place : l’Infante confie son message à la Duègne, qui le transmet au Chef des Eunuques, qui enfin le rapporte à Don Juan. Pour finir, le contact entre un Don Juan revenant et la curieuse attirée par l’odeur de la mort est celui d’un choc frontalier : Don Juan bouscule sans ménagement la mère et son enfant, comme il avait fait basculer la religieuse dans un puits. La coexistence de l’homme et de la femme les maintient toujours à bonne distance. Seule la sanctification finale fait fusionner leurs deux univers.

La récriture : un donjuanisme féministe

Nous avons parlé du fantastique en tant qu’il satisfaisait la fougue donjuanesque. En définitive, il sert tout aussi bien à dé-figurer le mythe. Le fantastique réside finalement dans toute l’ambiguïté d’un concept mis en lumière par la nouvelle, celui d’un fidèle donjuanesque, une notion forte au point d’écarteler l’oxymore entre les deux extrêmes qui le sous-tendent : la dévotion, le caractère sacré du serment, ont d’autant de prix qu’ils viennent d’un inconstant notoire sur lequel les nœuds de l’attachement n’ont d’ordinaire pas de prise. La « monotonie donjuanesque »[xvi] que définit Brunel tend dans la nouvelle de Vernon Lee vers une monogamie donjuanesque. Il y a une mise à mort de l’« épouseur à toutes mains » (Molière, 1994 [1665] : 23) – une expiation si l’on veut dans la métaphore conserver l’atmosphère religieuse. Don Juan est lui-même pris de vertige à prendre conscience qu’il est lié à une femme unique.

Avant d’être renouvelé, le Don Juan leeien est plongé au cœur de la décadence. Lorsqu’il reprend ses esprits, il est allongé dans une décharge publique, et son réveil ressemble au pénible retour au réel d’un ivrogne après une soirée d’excès :

“Cette confusion dans l’esprit du cavalier était excusable. Car, en ouvrant les yeux, il s’était trouvé étendu en un lieu extrêmement inattendu à cette heure-ci et en cette saison : à savoir sur un tas de vieilles briques et d’immondices à moitié envahi par les herbes folles […].” (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 144)

L’assimilation de l’homme aux déchets et à la souillure, le double sens du mot « ordure » ne peuvent qu’évoquer un traitement sarcastique de la figure du coureur de jupons. Comme dans La Mort qui faisait le trottoir (Montherlant, 1972 : 1020-2), où à deux reprises une ménagère déverse le contenu d’un pot de chambre sur la tête de Don Juan, comme dans La dernière nuit de Don Juan (1921) de Rostand où l’homme est transformé en guignol, le séducteur a perdu de sa superbe. Tous les personnages insultés réapparaissent pour constater son naufrage. Tous sont présents dans la foule qui se recueille devant son cadavre : l’homme d’église pour l’institution religieuse bafouée, la mère de famille[xvii] pour toutes ces femmes séduites puis repoussées. Ayant touché au plus bas – la cuvette où l’on se déleste des rebuts, les tréfonds de l’âme où la vilénie ne connaît plus de limites – Don Juan ne peut qu’aller vers l’élévation.

“Sous-tendu par le thème de la rédemption, le destin du monstre libertin se donne pour l’illustration de ce grand principe, fondement de la métaphysique romantique, selon lequel l’ascension procède du gouffre […]. La rédemption de Don Juan proposerait donc la vision prophétique d’un monde dans lequel le mal se résorberait dans le bien, exhibant dès lors la réconciliation des contraires chère aux romantiques.” (Ensenat dans Dumas, 2001 [1836] : XX)

Il s’ensuit une promotion fantastique : après l’Enfer et les bas-fonds de la déchéance, Don Juan se voit conférer l’auréole du saint. Don Juan devient un homme « éclairé ». Il est sublimé : l’ancien séducteur devient un parangon de vertu.

D’un genre littéraire à l’autre : une technique d’expression donjuanesque?

La mutabilité du genre caractérise la nouvelle. Certaines scènes empruntent au vaudevillesque ou à la farce : la nouvelle se dote d’un rebondissement moliéresque lorsque Don Juan envoie son missel à la tête de ses hommes de main. De même, le genre de la comédie s’impose à l’esprit lorsque Don Juan fait basculer la religieuse dans le puits, ou lorsque le prêtre assailli par l’esprit de Don Juan se propose de résoudre le problème en brûlant quelques sorcières (belle erreur de jugement, quand c’est justement un esprit misogyne qui le tourmente). Mais la nouvelle installe aussi un univers féerique lorsque Don Juan va retrouver l’Infante. Le château et ses habitants s’éveillent à son passage comme dans le conte de La Belle au Bois Dormant. Pourtant les descriptions de ce royaume nous invitent à l’exotisme, et à ce titre nous rapprochent moins d’un conte européen que du conte oriental des Mille et une nuits.

Lorsque Don Juan se réveille de sa décapitation comme d’un mauvais rêve, ce basculement semble un retour à un univers réaliste – on pourrait même dire dans l’hyperréalisme pour ce Don Juan qui se réveille sur le tas de déchets abandonné par une ville à sa périphérie. Sur les lieux mêmes où le fantastique avait pris et flambé, comme le feu sous le chaudron du magicien Baruch, la tension fantastique est au petit matin retombée, consumée comme un tas de cendres refroidies, à peine fumantes encore. Mais ce pas en arrière du fantastique à travers le monologue intérieur d’un Don Juan qui fulmine, croyant qu’on l’a drogué, n’est qu’un leurre. C’est plutôt un point d’orgue, une respiration dans un cheminement qui va prendre l’élan pour gravir une nouvelle pente fantastique : l’adrénaline coule de nouveau dans le récit lorsque Don Juan se retrouve face à face avec lui-même… mort.

Néanmoins, lorsque dans l’église le fantôme du séducteur s’élève au côté de la Vierge, tel le Christ à la droite du Saint-Père, Don Juan, fasciné par son nouvel état d’âme, ne s’étonne plus du tour que prennent les événements : « tandis que Don Juan traversait en flottant la coupole de l’église, son cœur se gonfla soudain de la certitude d’être extraordinairement vertueux » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 148). Le récit oscille alors à la lisière entre le fantastique et le réalisme merveilleux.

La mise en abîme permet d’aller un pas plus loin. Les hommes d’Eglise authentifient le récit sur Don Juan, jaugeant de la force persuasive d’un récit qui serait « fort apte à étendre la gloire de [la] Sainte Eglise » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 149). Racontée par l’archiprêtre Morales, dont le prénom n’est évidemment pas anodin, l’histoire est accueillie avec enthousiasme par le poète Calderon. Selon l’écrivain, il ne lui manque plus qu’à être « présentée sous forme de pièce et ornée des grâces du style et des fleurs de la rhétorique » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 149). Un narrateur excessivement humble s’acquittera de cette tâche, qui « entrepr[end] de s’efforcer de conter, de sa modeste et fort indigne plume, l’histoire véridique et très morale de Don Juan et de la Madone aux Sept Poignards » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 149). Sur ces mots s’achève le récit. L’histoire gagne en lettres de noblesse par le moteur de l’autojustification, validée par l’instance religieuse, reconnue par un grand nom de la poésie, séduisante aux yeux d’un écrivain anonyme. De main en main, le récit s’autovalide, donnant en l’espace de quelques lignes de l’épaisseur à son nouveau mythe.

Un récit fantastique, merveilleux, une fable moralisante, à mi-chemin entre le conte européen et le conte oriental, un texte hagiographique, un récit à valeur de parabole, une satire sociale. Tout se passe comme si le récit, une fois un genre exploré, partait à la découverte du suivant, refusant de se ranger, de s’enfermer dans le tiroir de la fidélité générique. Doit-on y voir un esprit de conquête des genres et de papillonnement typiquement donjuanesque ? Est-ce à dire que l’énergie du séducteur communique son mouvement impulsif (et compulsif) au texte, à la plume qui passe frénétiquement d’un genre à l’autre ? N’est-il pas alors possible de voir en Vernon Lee, cette auteure dont la plume caresse aussi bien les productions théoriques que les ouvrages de fiction, une don juane littéraire ? Et pourtant, comme cet engagement final de Don Juan pour une femme unique, la nouvelle se veut avant tout dévoué à une seule : la littérature de fiction.

Nous pouvons conclure que dans « La Vierge aux Sept Poignards », le protagoniste affiche les traits attendus d’un homme sans principes, n’ayant de foi ni de loi que celles du défi. Le fantastique participe de l’essence donjuanesque puisque même la radicale coupure de la mort ne saurait endiguer les désirs inflationnistes de Don Juan. Le personnage leeien n’hérite pas du séducteur que le nom. C’est bien un Don Juan dans les faits : Seigneur mal famé, homme à femmes enflammé par les cycles du désir.

Nous avons indiqué dans une seconde partie que le motif de la souffrance irrigue la nouvelle. Ces poignards qui fendent le corps de la Madone semblent faire allusion au geste désespéré de femmes (dés)abusées. Le cœur de la femme est comme la cible d’un jeu de fléchettes pour le séducteur. Mais l’homme fatal cède finalement sa place à la femme fatale : quand vient l’heure, la Vierge aux sept poignards sait se faire amazone. La femme – qu’elle soit Infante, Vierge, ou auteure – est une meurtrière qui élimine le séducteur. L’insulte faite au sang royal, le trait de crayon décapitent – ici un personnage, là un comportement machiste.

A la fin de la nouvelle c’est le fantôme de Don Juan qui est mis en face de son cadavre. Aux yeux de Brunel, immanquablement, au terme de ses pérégrinations, Don Juan « cède au poids, il retombe comme un jouet d’enfant dévalué, incapable d’essor et dépourvu de magie icarienne » (Brunel, 1988 : 487). La nouvelle de Vernon Lee fait figure d’exception puisque ce regain de légèreté est rendu possible : Don Juan sera finalement béatifié. Par la mise en abîme littéraire, la nouvelle identité de Don Juan est accréditée par le corps ecclésiastique et l’instance poétique, de sorte que Don Juan devient en l’espace d’un texte une référence en matière de fidélité, comme s’il ouvrait le chapitre d’une nouvelle tradition littéraire.

Pour finir, ajoutons que la mise à mort de Don Juan semble procéder d’un même mécanisme que le déchaînement de la violence collective sur la place publique. Il y a un amalgame implicite entre le rite sacrificiel de la tauromachie et le propre sang de Don Juan éclaboussant les ruelles de la ville comme si la Bête devait être mise à mort par la communauté, comme si sur le séducteur devait se déverser l’opprobre, l’anathème, la vindicte générale. L’exécution publique sur la place de Bibrambla a pareille fonction cathartique. Baruch prévient Don Juan qu’il risque de figurer au gibet de potence, pendu pour ses audaces. A travers cette menace de lynchage, puis l’immolation effective, Don Juan ne fait-il pas l’objet de représailles féministes en tant que victime primordiale? L’enjeu est de contrecarrer le déchaînement de la violence essentielle (en l’occurrence misogyne) par une forme de violence sacrificielle (littéraire) pour reprendre la terminologie girardienne. Le texte met à mal l’idée du prêtre qui veut museler l’esprit donjuanesque en répétant le procès de Salem : « il est grand temps que nous brûlions quelques sorcières » (Lee dans G.-M., 2001 : 146) suggère-t-il. Il s’agit cette fois de choisir comme bouc émissaire de la violence l’homme-charmeur en lieu et place de la femme-ensorceleuse. Suite à cette expi(r)ation du séducteur, Don Juan est sublimé : on retrouve ici l’ambivalence du pharmakos, traîné dans la fange et divinisé. La violence fondatrice prend effet. « Si la victime émissaire peut seule interrompre le processus de déstructuration, elle est à l’origine de toute structuration » (Girard, 1995 : 140-1). Ainsi Vernon Lee sacrifie un personnage sur l’autel du respect de l’être. Elle ne procède pas qu’au sacrifice, mais à une palingénésie. La femme est alors celle par qui l’homme renaît : Vierge qui élève un ancien pécheur au rang des saints et enfante ainsi un homme neuf, auteure qui opère un glissement d’un mythe vers l’autre.

De la pérennité du type à la variété du cas, le héros leeien est un Don Juan ex-centrique, qui intervient dans une période où, déjà, le personnage est en crise[xviii]. Dès la deuxième moitié du XIXème siècle, Don Juan donne les premiers signes de faiblesse. « Décidément, le mythe vieillit » observe Christian Biet, avant de s’interroger : « Don Juan est-il mort? » (Biet, 1998 : 60). Ainsi dans Don Juan de Marco (1995) de Leven, un héros décalé – qui déclare être le Don Juan du XVIIème siècle en plein cœur d’une Amérique ultra-moderne – est interné dans un hôpital psychiatrique. Dans Don Juan 73 (1973) de Vadim c’est l’héroïne, Jeanne, qui s’accapare l’héritage donjuanesque, réduisant les hommes qu’elle abandonne à la misère psychologique ou les acculant au suicide. Au travers de quatre siècles d’histoire, Don Juan, entré dans la littérature avec Tirso de Molina en 1630, fait d’innombrables apparitions et toujours se renouvelle. Ses contours sont fuyants comme un séducteur se lançant à la poursuite de son prochain objectif, mais jamais ses ressources ne s’épuisent. Aussi vrai que le galant part à la conquête des femmes, Don Juan, de l’une à l’autre de ses multiples incarnations, part à la conquête de lui-même.

Dans la nouvelle de Vernon Lee, c’est un peu comme si le bourreau de son cimeterre et la femme de ses poignards défiguraient Don Juan. Cette défiguration passe par une brutale décapitation mais aussi par la déconstruction d’un mythe et son dépassement. La toute-puissance de l’écriture a l’envergure et l’omnipotence d’un pouvoir religieux, capable de transformation miraculeuse, ici d’expurger le séducteur légendaire de ses errances premières. Désormais, Don Juan est un personnage banni du champ de la sexualité. A une forme d’immortalisation religieuse, la canonisation, répond une autre forme de fixation, littéraire celle-ci, le mythe du séducteur reconverti. Et voici l’épitaphe que la postérité gardera en mémoire, moqueuse comme une vérité de La Palice.

Don Juan fut un homme exemplairement fidèle.


[i] Pour une typologie détaillée du personnage du séducteur, qu’il s’agisse du libertin concupiscent, de l’opportuniste nécessiteux, du dandy dédaigneux, du vieux beau incorrigible, du fade bellâtre, des modernes  dragueurs, tombeurs et latin-lovers, des séducteurs de masses comme la star ou le sex-symbol, nous renvoyons le lecteur à l’ouvrage d’Anne de Marnhac, 2002, Séducteurs et séductrices : de Casanova à Lolita, Editions de La Martinière, Paris.

[ii] Casanova dont Félicien Marceau prend bien soin de nous signaler dans un ouvrage biographique que s’il séduit, il n’en est pas pour autant un séducteur au plein sens du terme : « [c]e n’est pas du tout comme Valmont, comme don Juan, un homme qui se borne aux femmes. Tous les plaisirs existent pour lui. Ce n’est pas un séducteur, c’est un jouisseur. Bien sûr, il lui arrive fréquemment de séduire. Dès lors, si les mots veulent dire quelque chose, c’est un séducteur. Mais le séducteur véritable aime davantage la séduction que les femmes. Il en aime les détours, les ruses, les patiences. Casanova, point. Il ne prend la peine de séduire que lorsqu’il n’y a pas moyen de faire autrement », Félicien Marceau, 1985, Casanova ou L’Anti-don Juan, Gallimard, pp. 115-16.

[iii] Il en va « [a]insi de don Juan et de Casanova, à genoux devant la même idole et non pareils cependant, frères ennemis, contradictoires. Tout en eux se ressemble et s’oppose. Ils sont collés l’un à l’autre comme la négation et l’affirmation, comme l’envers et l’endroit, comme le plafond et le plancher. C’est à la même heure que les clochers de Paris et d’Auckland sonnent douze coups. Mais il fait nuit d’un côté, jour de l’autre », op. cit., p. 146.

[iv] Pour ce qui concerne la typographie, nous userons des deux majuscules au nom de « Don Juan » lorsque nous nous référons à l’une ou l’autre des représentations du personnage littéraire, les lettres minuscules ne se référant qu’à l’essence donjuanesque faite homme (l’on pourra dire de Bel-Ami ou de Valmont par exemple que ce sont des dons juans au plein sens du terme). Notons que seul le Don Juan de Molière procède à la modification orthographique « Dom Juan ».

[v] Des ouvrages dont Christian Biet recense les représentations majeures dans son ouvrage Don Juan, Mille et trois récits d’un mythe, Gallimard, Coll. « Découvertes », 1998. On dénombrerait pas moins de 3081 Don Juan selon le recensement d’Armand Edward Singer publié en 1954 et cité dans le Dictionnaire de Don Juan, Pierre Brunel , 1999, Editions Robert Laffont, Paris, avant-propos, p. I.

[vi] Cet écart minimal entre le vouloir et le faire, entre la volonté et son accomplissement a été analysée par Benito Pelegrin dans son rapport à l’instantanéité : « Don Juan tend à réduire de telle sorte la distance entre le projet et son exécution qu’il y a en lui une visée de rétrécissement violent de l’espace entre début et fin, entre passé et futur […] qui donne l’impression de le situer en permanence, libéré d’un passé et d’un futur qui ne touchent pas à l’essence de l’être, dans cette intuition de l’instant chère à Bachelard », Don Juan ou Le Baiseur de Séville, Tirso de Molina, titre or. El Burlado de Sevilla, trad. Benito Pelegrin, 1993, Editions de l’Aube/Théâtre Gyptis, p. 221.

[vii] C’est le cas de la traduction de Pierre Guenoun (1991, L’Abuseur de Séville, Aubier, Coll. « Domaine hispanique bilingue, Paris). La traduction de Benito Pelegrin joue sur la polysémie et privilégie l’expression du « baiseur de Séville » (Don Juan ou Le Baiseur de Sévilleop. cit.).

[viii] Dans le roman, même la figure asexuée de l’ange se laisse prendre au charme donjuanesque, jusqu’à laisser ses ailes au vestiaire céleste et demander la réincarnation en femme (« j’étais un ange du Seigneur ! et, par amour, j’ai perdu mon auréole pour toi » se lamente Marthe dans Alexandre Dumas, 2001, Don Juan de Maraňa, Phénix Editions, annexes ili).

[ix] Dans L’Antilégende, Don Juan, sorte de méta-personnage émancipé, se veut self-made man du monde fictionnel et renie jusqu’à l’être démiurge qui enfante la créature de papier, à savoir l’auteur ou les auteurs à qui il doit d’exister : « Pas un livre ne me retiendra, pas une ligne. Je suis un personnage sans Auteur. Nul ne pourra venir et dire : ‘Cet homme, je l’ai baptisé de ma sueur et de mon inspiration ; il est ma chose et ma créature ; j’ai sur lui tout pouvoir.’ Je n’accepte qu’un seul pouvoir, qu’un seul maître : ma passion pour les femmes », Fabien Clavel, 2005, L’Antilégende, Mnémos, Coll. « Icares », p. 346.

[x] « L’homme absurde est celui qui ne se sépare pas du temps. Don Juan ne pense pas à ‘collectionner’ les femmes. Il en épuise le nombre et avec elle ses chances de vie » (p.102-3). Ainsi, « [l]’homme absurde ne peut que tout épuiser, et s’épuiser. L’absurde est sa tension la plus extrême, celle qu’il maintient constamment d’un effort solitaire, car il sait que dans cette conscience et dans cette révolte au jour le jour, il témoigne de sa seule vérité qui est le défi » (p. 80), Albert Camus, 1942, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Editions Gallimard, Coll. « Folio Essais ».

[xi] Nous nous référons ici à la traduction de Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux, par contraste avec celle de Michel Chrestien par exemple, qui dit ces têtes « couronnées de lauriers », Les Epées de l’effroiop. cit., p.181.

[xii] « The Genius Loci, like all the worthy divinities, is of the substance of our heart and mind, a spiritual reality. And as for visible embodiment, why that is the place itself », Vernon Lee, 1931, Genius Loci : Notes on Places, New York : John Lane Company, nous traduisons.

[xiii] Du serial séducteur au serial killer, Don Juan devient à la lettre un meurtrier de femmes et hérite du titre de féminicide dans Fabien Clavel, 2005, L’Antilégende, Mnemos, p. 37.

[xiv] Ainsi avec le Don Juan russe la mort du Commandeur est réduite à l’anodin de l’euphémisme : « il s’enferra sur mon épée, et il est mort, vrai papillon sur une épingle », Le Convive de pierre, trad. Henri Thomas, 1947, titre or. La Roussalka, Seuil, Edition Bilingue, p. 61.

[xv] Sur le postulat que ces deux femmes renvoient à une Vierge-Hérodiade et à une Princesse-Salomé, voir « Time and Art in Vernon Lee’s ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’ and ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’ », Stéphanie Guerdin, 1998, mémoire de maîtrise dirigé par Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux, Université de la Réunion, pp. 133-4.

[xvi] « On pourrait dire : ce qui ne change pas en Don Juan, c’est son goût du changement. Il y a même une monotonie donjuanesque », Dictionnaire des mythes littérairesop. cit., p. 487.

[xvii] Le personnage s’oppose au Don Juan d’autant plus fortement que, comme le note Charles Minguet, « le Don Juan traditionnel n’a pas d’enfant. Il peut renaître de ses cendres, chaque siècle peut forger un nouveau Don Juan, mais Don Juan ne laisse rien après lui », Charles Minguet, 1977, Don Juan, Editions hispaniques, Coll. « Thèses, Mémoires et Travaux », Paris, p. 13.

[xviii] Anne de Marnhac parle des « fatigues de Don Juan » : « [q]u’est devenu Don Juan passé le cap du romantisme? Exit le grand seigneur flamboyant qui défiait la statue de pierre ; exit le maître allègre d’une fête italienne : Don Juan n’est plus que l’ombre de lui-même. Le voici vieux, malade, impuissant, lassé de son passé, démystifié par les écrivains. Le superbe héros de l’opéra a quitté la scène lyrique pour promener sa silhouette décrépite dans des sonnets satiriques ou des nouvelles. A la fin du siècle, sa décadence le sépare de ce qui faisait de lui un mythe, le défi à Dieu, le jeu splendide avec l’enfer […] C’est que le pouvoir a changé de camp ; ce sont désormais les femmes qui mènent la danse, qui le poursuivent et l’assaillent », Séducteurs et séductrices : de Casanova à Lolitaop. cit., p. 98.

BIBLIOGRAPHIE

Ouvrages

Assoun, Paul-Laurent, 1989, Le Pervers et la femme, Paris, « Anthropos ».

BietChristian, 1998, Don Juan, Mille et trois récits d’un mythe, Paris, Gallimard, Coll. « Découvertes ».

Brunel, Pierre, 1999, Le Dictionnaire de Don Juan, Paris, Editions Robert Laffont.

Camus, Albert, 1942, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Paris, Editions Gallimard, Coll. « Folio Essais ».

Clavel, Fabien, 2005, L’Antilégende, Mnémos, Paris, Coll. « Icares ».

Da Ponte, 1994, Don Giovanni, Paris, GF Flammarion.

De Marnhac, Anne, 2002, Séducteurs et séductrices : de Casanova à Lolita, Paris, Editions de La Martinière.

De Molina, Tirso, 1993, El Burlado de Sevilla, Paris, Editions de l’Aube/Théâtre Gyptis.

Dumas, Alexandre, 2001, Don Juan de Maraňa, Paris, Phénix Editions.

Girard, René, 1995, La Violence et le sacré, Paris, Grasset.

Lee, Vernon, 1931, Genius Loci : Notes on Places, New York, John Lane Company.

Lee, Vernon, 1970, Les Epées de l’effroi, Histoires surnaturelles, Editions Gérard, Coll. « Bibliothèque Marabout ».

Menoux-Geoffroy, Sophie, 2001, La Voix maudite, Nouvelles, Rennes, Terres Fantastiques, « Terre de Brume ».

Mérimée, Prosper, 1998, Les Ames du purgatoire, Paris, Librairie Générale Française, « Le Livre de Poche ».

Marceau, Félicien, 1985, Casanova ou L’Anti-don Juan, Paris, Gallimard.

Minguet, Charles, 1977, Don Juan, Paris, Editions hispaniques, Coll. « Thèses, Mémoires et Travaux ».

Molière, 1994, Dom Juan ou Le Festin de pierre, Paris, Bordas, Coll. « Classiques Bordas ».

Montherlant, 1972, La Mort qui faisait le trottoir, in Théâtre, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

Poe, Edgar Allan, 1974, Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires, Paris, Gallimard, Coll. « Folio Classique ».

Rank, Otto, 1973, Don Juan und Der Doppelgänger, Paris, Editions Payot, Coll. « Petite Bibliothèque Payot ».

Rétif de la Bretonne, Nicolas Edme, 1797, Monsieur Nicolas ou Le Cœur humain dévoilé, Paris, Gallimard, Coll. « Pléiade ».

Robbe-Grillet, Alain, 1953, Les Gommes, Paris, Les Editions de Minuit.

Rosset, Clément, 1976, Le Réel et son double, Paris, Gallimard, Coll. « Folio Essais ».

Sauvage, Micheline, 1953, Le Cas Don Juan, Paris, Editions du Seuil.

Thomas, Henri, 1947, La Roussalka, Paris, Seuil, Edition Bilingue.

Winter, Jean-Pierre, 2001, Les Errants de la chair, Etudes sur l’hystérie masculine, Calmann-Lévy, « Petite bibliothèque Payot ».

Articles

– Brunel, Pierre, 1988, « Don Juan », Dictionnaire des mythes littéraires, Ed. Du Rocher.

– Dubois, Jean, 2001, « Séducteur », Dictionnaire étymologique, Larousse/VUEF.

– Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie, 2002, «Voix maudites de Vernon Lee: du bel canto à la mal’aria dans “Winthrop’s Adventure” (1881), “La Voix maudite” (1887), “The Virgin of the Seven Daggers” (1909) », Alizés n°22, Université de la Réunion.

– Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie, 2003, « Images, textes, voix : les modalités de leur co-présence, leurs fonctions respectives, leur interaction dans la création littéraire : le cas de Vernon Lee », Langues, littératures et cultures étrangères : champs épistémologiques, n°19, Université de la Réunion, Travaux et Documents.

– Guerdin, Stéphanie, 1998, « Time and Art in Vernon Lee’s ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’ and ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’ », mémoire de maîtrise dirigé par Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux, Université de la Réunion.

– Picoche, Jaqueline, 1987, « Séducteur », Dictionnaire étymologique du français, Paris, Les Usuels du Robert.

 

Filmographie

– Burton, Tim, 2007, Les Noces funèbres, Warner Home Vidéo.

– Chereau, Patrice, 2007, La Reine Margot, Fox Pathé Europa.

– Leven, Jeremy, 2001, Don Juan de Marco, Entertainment in Video.

– Vadim, Roger, 2001, Don Juan 73, Home Vision Entertainment.

– Weber, Jacques, 2005, Don Juan, Koch Lorber Films.