I’ve been reading a fine biography of Edith Wharton written by Hermione Lee (and hope to have a few excerpts of Wharton’s thoughts upon old Italian gardens ready for posting soon) when I came upon this frank account of Vernon Lee in Hermione Lee’s book which will serve nicely as an introduction to Vernon’s place in the literature of the time. (A bit more information is available on Vernon Lee at Wikipedia).
Following that is a chapter, Old Italian Gardens, from Limbo And Other Essays by Vernon Lee that will, no doubt, add to our appreciation for Italian gardens. It can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg in a variety of eBook formats.
John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee 1881
Excerpted from Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee
Wharton met through Bourget the third of her Italian mentors, the only one of the three to have gone enviably native. ‘Vernon Lee’, the extraordinary Englishwoman Violet Paget, was only six years older than Edith, and provided her first close encounter with a professional woman writer. Wharton made few friendships with other women writers, and Vernon Lee, brilliant, loquacious, difficult, eccentric and mannish (she wore ‘the style preferred by intellectual lesbians – a man’s shirt, foulard and velvet jacket over a long skirt’), was not to be a lifelong friend. But, just when Wharton needed it, she was a perfect guide to Italy and an inspiring intellectual example.
Wharton often told Vernon Lee what an important guide she was to her, that when she was twenty ‘your Eighteenth century studies were letting me into that wonder world of Italy which I had loved since my childhood without having the key to it’. Vernon Lee’s Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880) gave vivid evocations of the hitherto neglected musical, literary and theatrical life of the period. In Vernon Lee’s ‘aesthetic essays’ Belcaro (1880), which Wharton called one of her ‘best-loved companions of the road’ in Italy, she would have recognised glimpses of a childhood in Rome very much like her own. ‘The Child in the Vatican’ remembers – as Wharton did – playing in the ruins, picking up pieces of ancient porphyry, watching the religious processions, and imbibing – in the classical term Lee made her own – the ‘genius loci’, the spirit of the place. Like Wharton, Vernon Lee had an itinerant European childhood. Hers was with a domineering mother, an absentee father, and a permanently ill, demanding and gifted half-brother, Eugene Lee-Hamilton, whom one Wharton biographer calls ‘a neurasthenic paralytic’. Edith was as much intrigued by the frail, poetic Lee-Hamilton as by his sister. He visited her at The Mount in 1896 and she was delighted when he compared The Valley of Decision to Stendhal. When he died, she wrote an effusive tribute to him, comparing his poems to Leopardi’s. The family settled in Florence in the 1880s, where they met the Bourgets, and then moved outside the city in 1889 to the Villa Il Palmerino, where Vernon Lee lived for most of her life. The simple, rambling house stood on the road winding up from Florence, overshadowed by a tall umbrella pine, backing onto fields, vineyards and woods, and surrounded by olives and cypresses.
Violet Paget was much quicker and more assertive than Edith Wharton in her jump into literary fame. She took the name Vernon Lee in her teens, as she was sure that ‘no one reads a woman’s writing on art, history or aesthetics with anything but unmitigated contempt’. The Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy was her first book, published when she was twenty-four. It made her into a young literary success in late-Victorian England, where she got to know Henry James, Maurice Baring, Ethel Smyth, Mrs Humphry Ward, William Morris and Leslie Stephen. She followed her early success with a Germanic, quasi-incestuous romance, Ottilie, clearly based on her relationship with Eugene, and a decadent novel, Miss Brown (1885), deeply embarrassing to Henry James, to whom it was dedicated, for what he called its ‘intellectual rowdyism’. Then there was a succession of essays on places, art and aesthetics, and of plays and romances set in Italy.
She quarrelled with everybody (notably, in 1897, with her neighbour Berenson, who accused her of plagiarism; they did not make up until 1920, by which time Wharton was firmly in the Berenson camp). In the years when Wharton came to know her, between 1894 and 1906, there were tumultuous fallings-out not only with her fellow Anglo-American Florentines, but with Eugene (who made a miraculous recovery in 1896, and even got married, much to his half-sister’s horror) and with her companion Kit Anstruther-Thomson, who, like others of Vernon Lee’s women friends, gave her up in despair to go and look after some other woman’s needs. Everyone, even people who liked her, made rude jokes about her. Max Beerbohm, who caricatured her, called her a ‘dreadful little bore and busybody’. Nicky Mariano, Berenson’s companion, used to see her in the 1920S on the tram from Settignano to Florence, mannishly dressed, and marvelled at her face of ‘almost baroque ugliness and high intelligence’. Wharton was so amused by Henry James’s spoken description of Vernon Lee that she noted it down:
The long lean face of a starved horse, large and intelligent eyes not wholly devoid of obliquity, a flabby pendulous nose covered with cutaneous scabs, an underhung jaw revealing a dental display of a really deplorable character, and on her head, my dear boy, from nine to thirteen hairs.
But everyone who met her said how wonderful it was to be shown Italy by Vernon Lee, and that passionate inwardness with the country is found in her books. She loved to lure the reader into a historical moment through evocations and personalities, and then let the figures of the past linger like ghosts. In her essay on ‘Old Italian Gardens’ of 1897, in the middle of a hard-headed account of the phases of fashion in Italian garden-design, she breaks into a fantasy about how these gardens are haunted by ‘the ladies and cavaliers of long ago’ and by ‘the ghost of certain moments of their existence, certain rustlings, and shimmerings of their personality … which have permeated their old haunts’, and invokes Verlaine’s poem ‘Clair de Lune’ (a favourite of Wharton’s, too), as set to music by Faure, to sum up the haunted magic of the gardens: ‘Votre ame est un paysage choisi / Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques / ]ouant du luth … Et leur chanson se mele au clair de lune .. .’
Wharton occasionally allows herself such flights of fancy in Italian Villas and their Gardens, which she dedicated to Vernon Lee (‘Who, better than anyone else, has understood and interpreted the garden-magic of Italy’), as when the ‘mysterious silence’ and neglect of the gardens of the Florentine Villa Campi makes her think of ‘a haunted grove in which the statues seem like sylvan gods fallen asleep in their native shade’. In Italian Backgrounds, Wharton also quotes ‘Clair de Lune’, and says that, under the spell of the poem’s ‘masques et bergamasques’, she was so allured by the idea of the ‘Bergamasque Alps’ that in 1899 she dragged her travelling companions for miles in pursuit of them, though in the end ‘the most imperturbable member of the party’ (Teddy, as he was then) noted that, interesting though their journey had been, they had never actually reached them.
Vernon Lee gave Wharton a model for a way of invoking the past, an authoritative woman’s voice confidently taking on the male terrain of travel and aesthetics, and a deep knowledge of and passion for Italy, especially its eighteenth-century history. When Vernon Lee reviewed The Valley of Decision in 1903, in Italian, greeting it with generous enthusiasm as ‘a wonderful account of historical truth’, she would have seen her own influence at work in the novel. (This essay was to be an introduction for an Italian translation of the novel which never materialised.) She was equally influential, ten years later, on the young writer Geoffrey Scott, a protégé of the Berensons, who would become a close friend of Wharton’s, and whose book The Architecture of Humanism (1914) helped to revive a taste for the Italian baroque. It was written with Vernon Lee in mind, and with much advice and encouragement from Wharton, by then an acknowledged Italian expert: ‘Her opinion is the most useful I can get’, Scott said.
Wharton had to outgrow Vernon Lee, as she did her other ‘introducers’. She made a point of telling her editor at Scribner’s Magazine that her discovery about the terracotta figures at San Vivaldo was news even to ‘Miss Paget, who has lived so long in Italy and devoted so much time to the study of Tuscan art’. When Vernon Lee’s unperformed ‘romance in five acts’, Ariadne in Mantua, came out in 1903, Wharton told her it was ‘exquisite’ but lacking in ‘movement and clash of emotions’. In later years, when in bossy letters Vernon Lee would tell her that she should write about Proust with less ‘piety’, or that Hudson River Bracketed contained too much ‘cult chat’, Wharton received these criticisms ironically: ‘for a damsel of over seventy (a good deal) this is symptomatic, isn’t it?’ By then Vernon Lee was a sad figure, suffering from failing health and deafness, and the two women were not close. But Wharton still wrote to her kindly, sympathising with her affliction and assuring her of her achievements:
I was very much grieved by what you told me of the increase in your deafness. I cannot tell you how I feel for you in this great privation, and how distressed I am when I am with you that my voice should be so powerless to reach you. I am particularly unfortunate in this respect for my voice has no carrying power, and I feel I can be of so little use or companionship to my friends who cannot hear. And yet we did manage to have a talk that last day at 11 Palmerino, and it seemed to me that we were as much together as we used to be in the old days when the physical barrier did not exist.
If you don’t know the great figure you’ve been, in letters & friendship, to me & many others I cd name it’s time you learnt it, & I’m proud to be your informant! So there –
Read on for Vernon Lee’s incantation for Italian gardens.