Gothic, weird, folk, feminist, psychological horror…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Vernon Lee, real name Violet Paget, wrote prolifically in many fields during her long career which lasted for over half a century between the 1870s and the 1930s, but her output of supernatural tales was small, mostly written in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This collection brings together ten of them, plus an essay from Lee in which she discusses the supernatural in art. It is headed by an introduction from the always interesting Aaron Worth, one of my chief guides into the world of classic horror over the last few years. There are, of course, the usual notes at the end, and I must say I found them indispensable in this case – Lee’s encyclopaedic knowledge of art, history, folklore, mythology, psychology, etc., etc., would have left me floundering without a good guide to light my path.
By nationality British, Lee was quintessentially European. Born in France to British parents, her early years were spent moving from country to country on the continent, and she seems to have continued this rather peripatetic existence throughout her life, with Italy as her most frequent home. This is reflected in the stories, many of which have settings and backgrounds culled from the art and history of various European countries, especially those in Southern Europe. Her themes are just as widely spread, ranging through high Gothic, weird, folk, feminist, psychological horror – I would find her unusually hard to categorise or pigeon-hole. The two standard features of her style are her astounding erudition on a vast number of subjects, and the excellence of her prose whether she is working in the high melodrama of Gothic or the lushness of Decadence or sometimes a plainer, more realist approach. She is said to have been influenced by Henry James, but Worth makes the argument convincingly that she in turn influenced his writing, especially in his later more ambiguous ventures into the supernatural. Certainly some of these stories have that same aspect of The Turn of the Screw of leaving the reader to decide whether events are truly supernatural or arise from the psychological flaws of the protagonists.
I loved them. They are stories to read slowly (with notes!) and to savour the language, and I found that many of them left me mulling them over for quite some time. There is suspense and spine-tingling horror, but these are also thoughtful, with much to say about the concerns of her time, and, while never strident or polemic, I felt that many of them were also strongly feminist in their underlying themes.
“Enough analysis!”, I hear you cry! What about the stories? I gave six of the ten stories five stars, and the rest four, so it’s hard to pick favourites. And little summaries don’t do them justice, since there is so much more in each one than simply the plot. But let me try to whet your interest with a few that might show the variety in the collection…
Amour Dure – the story of a young Polish historian, Spiridion Trepka. who is commissioned to write a history of Urbania in Italy. He reads about a young woman, Medea da Carpi, who died in the early 17th century, and finds himself becoming obsessed by her. She had had a variety of lovers, husbands and infatuated youths, all of whom eventually died for her and possibly at her hand or her command. It is unclear until near the end whether Trepka is really being haunted by the witchy Medea or if his obsession is purely in his mind. Lee gets fabulous tension into the end of this one in a scene that reminded me a little of Dickens’ great horror writing of the murder of Tulkinghorn (Bleak House). Art, literature and history all play their part in this Gothic tale, as they do in nearly every story.
Dionea – the story is narrated by an old man in a series of letters to a Princess, who at his request has sponsored a child who was apparently washed onto the shore of an Italian village, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Dionea, as she is called, is placed with the nuns in a convent school to be educated and brought up. But she grows up wild, beautiful and pagan, and has an unfortunate effect on the morals of those who encounter her, arousing wild sexual longings in them which lead to passionate affairs, adultery and general decadence. There is wicked humour in the early part of this but it builds to an odd and disturbing ending. Male visions of women as sexual beings, temptresses, underlie the story. It is a typical, though superior, Pan story, full of lush descriptions of nature and lust, but in this case the Pan figure is female. A story that lingers…
The Doll – Our narrator this time is a woman, who collects bric-a-brac. A dealer takes her to a decayed palace in Umbria, where she first sees the Doll. It is a life-size, incredibly lifelike figure of a young woman, and the dealer tells her tale. She was the very young wife of an older Count, who worshipped her excessively, to the point of obsession. When she died in childbirth, he had the Doll made in her image, installed it in her boudoir and spent hours with it every day, raving of his love and grief. The narrator buys the Doll, and comes to believe that in some way the dead woman is trapped within the Doll, just as the living woman was trapped inside her husband’s obsession. This one is strongly feminist, and put me in mind of The Yellow Wallpaper, although the stories are very different. It’s much more plainly written than most of the stories, and I found the ending unexpected and quite disturbing.
Really an excellent collection, filled with stories that I am sure will give more on each re-reading. Lee’s essay, too, is fascinating as she mulls on the effect of literature and art on our imagination of the supernatural. Highly recommended!
(The fretful porpentine and I thought this was a wonderful one to end spooky season with
and now that the evenings are beginning to lighten
the porpy has toddled off to his hibernation box, to sleep, perchance to dream…)
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.