Monday, September 25, 2023

Review: Supernatural Tales, by Vernon Lee

Review: Supernatural Tales, by Vernon Lee

by Rich Horton

Vernon Lee was the name used by Violet Paget (1856-1935), an English writer who lived her entire life on the continent -- born in France to English parents, she eventually settled in Italy. Her primary interest was esthetics, and she wrote extensively on the subject, influenced by Walter Pater and then by her lover, Clementina Anstruther-Thomson. She also wrote on travel, a couple of novels, and a great many supernatural stories. She was very prominent in intellectual circles in her life, and was friends with the likes of Edith Wharton, Henry James, and her exact contemporary John Singer Sargent (who was a very close childhood friend, and who much later painted her portrait.)

While Lee's intimate relationships were always with women, and were quite "open", she refused the term Lesbian, and given that she used the name "Vernon Lee" not just as a pseudonym, but in her personal life as well, it is tempting to wonder if in contemporary terms, she might have identified as a trans man, though who can say? Her most controversial view, in her day, was her very passionate pacifism, which formed the thematic basis for her 1921 novel Satan the Waster. These views were very unpopular in her time, and seem to have contributed to her declining reputation late in her life. I recently wrote about Rose Macaulay, who was likewise a fierce pacifist during the first War, and who changed her views with the rise of Hitler. It’s interesting to wonder if Lee might also have moderated her views had she lived longer.

It is her supernatural stories that are best known in the present day, and after some long period of relative neglect, I sense that in the past few decades her work has achieved a significant reputation among aficionados of "weird fiction". The book at hand was assembled in 1955 by her executrix, Irene Cooper Willis, collecting six of her better known Supernatural Tales. Willis also contributes an introduction, discussing Lee in quite personal terms (they were close friend from 1911 until Lee’s death) and also including some words from Lee herself about a few of the pieces. My edition is a 1987 reprint.

I'll briefly consider each story:

“Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” (18,000 words, originally in the July 1896 issue of The Yellow Book, collected in Pope Jacynth, 1904)

This is one of Lee’s most famous stories, and it was published in one of the most central (and controversial) periodicals of the 1890s. The Yellow Book may be best known for the illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, John Singer Sargent, Walter Sickert and others; but the literary contents were also significant – they published the likes of Max Beerbohm, H. G. Wells, Henry James, and W. B. Yeats. They were famous for a highly esthetic approach (surely much in sympathy with Vernon Lee’s views) and for an attitude of decadence.

Prince Alberic is the grandson and heir of Duke Balthasar. The Duke is a vain and arbitrary man, and when he redecorates his Red Palace, he notices for the first time that Alberic’s chambers are hung with an old-fashioned tapestry, and he replaces it with a new one. But the boy had loved the older tapestry, which showed his ancestor, also named Alberic, and the half-snake/half-woman Oriana. Young Alberic destroys the new tapestry, and the Duke, in fury, exiles him to a remote estate. This backfires, however, for Alberic had hated the Red Palace, and became much happier in the new place, especially after he made a pet of a grass snake, and also met an older woman who visited him for an hour each day and instructed him.

It’s easy enough to see where this is going, though the story rather takes its time getting there. The Duke’s rage at his heir’s behavior increases, and the Duke’s three chief counsellors, who each hate the others, begin to compete to either be in position to take credit for Alberic’s death if the Duke so desires, or to be in the boy’s favor if things to in a different direction. But mysteriously, all their efforts are trumped by another influence. Eventually, financial pressures force the Duke to try to find an advantageous marriage for his heir – but by this time, Alberic, now a young man, has no interest in other women – for, of course, he has fallen in love with Oriana. There is a back story for the Snake Lady, and a dark resolution for everyone. It’s a fine story, though I felt it might have been a bit better if a bit shorter, and I also found the prose a touch too fussy – which is not the case for the other stories collected here. All that said, on reflection the story still seems to me quite powerful – perhaps it deserves a reread.

“A Wedding Chest” (4200 words, from Pope Jacynth, 1902)

This is a short and very dark story, rather nicely structured. It opens with a description of a 15th century front panel painting on the subject of “The Triumph of Love”, used for a wedding chest, and continues to describe the circumstances of its painting. The chest was for the wedding of a powerful man, Messer Troilo. The painter, Desiderio, had refused to use the beautiful Maddalena as a model, for she was to be his wife – which incensed Troilo, who already had his eye on her … and who proceeded to kidnap and rape her. The end result is very dark – it’s a striking story, a conte cruel, in my opinion one of the best in the book, though there is no real supernatural element. I was reminded of the incident that drives the plot of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (a novel Lee certainly must have known), and there is also a reference to the plague, though I’m not sure the same plague that features in Manzoni’s novel is intended.

“Amour Dure” (14000 words, from Hauntings, 1890)

My favorite of these six stories. It’s presented as extracts from the diary of Spiridon Trepka, a young Polish professor working in the Archives of a small Italian town, Urbania. He is interested in the history of the town, but distracted by the modern day annoyances of life there. But he becomes obsessed with the story of Medea di Carpi, a young woman born in 1556, with a somewhat legendary scandalous history, in that her various husbands and lovers all ended up murdered, either by her or some other mischance. And as Spiridon learns more, he begins to receive strange letters, on ancient paper, urging him to visit a certain decrepit church … and soon he is convinced that it is Medea herself, begging him to free her from her ghostly existence. His fate is easily guessed! But the story gets to that end very effectively.

“A Wicked Voice” (11,000 words, from Hauntings, 1890)

This story concerns a late 19th century composer, a devotee of Wagner, who has nothing but contempt for the music of the 18th century, and especially for the singers of that time. His project is an opera based on Ogier the Dane, but he ends up, to his disgust, an expert on an 18th century singer named Zaffarini, and on a legend concerning this man, who apparently could sing so beautifully that he could make any woman fall in love with him, and then kill her with his song. Inevitably, the composer begins to hear a mysterious singing voice, and the voice overwhelms his inspirations for his opera, completely taking over his true ambitions.

“The Legend of Madame Krasinska” (10,500 words, from Vanitas, 1892)

Another favorite of mine. Madame Krasinska is an American woman, still quite young though a widow (she had married a wealthy Polish man.) She is an idle woman, given only to frivolous amusements, not even to love affairs. And then, for a costume ball, she decides to go as Sora Lena, a mad old woman well known around town, who constantly visits the train station, waiting for her sons to return from the war – alas, they had been killed in the war decades ago. Madame Krasinska’s cruel impersonation is a hit – but soon after Sora Lena commits suicide. And then Madame Krasinska becomes increasingly unhappy, and feels more and more that she is a different person – she begins wandering to the train station, and starts to think her real apartments are somewhere else. The climax, in the abandoned room where Sora Lena had lived, is beautifully done, with an effective surprise. There is a bit more of a moral here than with many of these stories.

“The Virgin of the Seven Daggers” (11000 words, from For Maurice, 1927)

The only one of these tales not set in Italy, this story begins in Grenada, with a depiction of the Church of Our Lady of the Seven Daggers (including criticism of the architecture.) Then we go back to the late 17th century, during the reign of Charles II, “the Melancholy”. Don Juan Guzman del Pulgar is introduced as a man of extreme wickedness, in many ways but particularly in his treatment of women, in particular his seduction and/or rape of seven beautiful women, including, most scandalous, a nun. Now he has become obsessed with the legend of a surpassing beautiful Moorish Princess, buried alive by her father as the Moors retreated from Spain, and supposedly kept alive by magical means. He begs forgiveness from his patroness, the Virgin of the Seven Daggers, for all his previous sins and for whatever sins he might commit in his effort to penetrate to this Princess’s tomb, and claim her for his latest mistress. This leads to a dangerous descent into the depths, where her tomb lies, and his battle to reach the tomb, in which he commits further atrocities. Only to reach the Princess, and wake her – and have her demand of him one thing … the conclusion is logical and queerly moving in the context of the story.

This is truly a very fine collection of stories, effectively “supernatural” in a very 19th century manner. I will be making an effort to hunt down some more examples of Vernon Lee’s fiction.

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