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A Phantom Lover: and other Dark Tales by Vernon Lee review – a writer ahead of her time

Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of Violet Paget (1856–1935), an extraordinarily prolific and versatile writer who published essays, novels, stories and pamphlets on topics including aesthetics, travel, music and the art of writing. A lesbian who, as her Wikipedia entry delightfully puts it, “always dressed à la garçonne”, she was a feminist, a pacifist, spoke four languages (and wrote in three), and is credited with introducing the concept of empathy – then a newly translated word – to the British Aesthetic Movement. Much of Lee’s work is concerned with ideas of beauty, art and aesthetic experience, but she is also known for her supernatural short fiction – work this new British Library volume sets out to introduce to a new audience.

A Phantom Lover: and other Dark Tales by Vernon Lee book coverIt’s worth mentioning Lee’s biography, not only because she was a fascinating person, but also because her stories contain so many traces of her other passions. Her interest in aesthetics, her preoccupation with art and beauty; all are strongly present in these “dark tales”. They’re stuffed with rich and decadent language and unusually physical description. In the 1897 essay “Beauty and Ugliness”, Lee argued that one’s physical responses to a work of art constitute the experience of beauty; it’s undoubtedly significant that we so often see her characters momentarily lost in their appreciation of art, music or environment. (In “A Phantom Lover” the narrator, soaking up the beauty and history of his surroundings, writes of feeling “quite alone, isolated from the world, separated from it in this exotic enjoyment.”) The effect of all this heady detail gives Lee’s supernatural stories a unique aspect; they are gorgeously vivid, and they seem startlingly modern. As editor Mike Ashley writes in his introduction, they are in “a class of their own”.

A short essay, “The Enchanted Woods” (1905), opens the collection. It depicts a wander through a verdant landscape, which is revealed as a metaphor: an enchanted forest, Lee argues, can exist anywhere, defined by one’s own emotional response to a place or experience. It’s a sentiment typical of her writing and sets the tone for a set of seven evocative tales. The first of these, “Winthrop’s Adventure” (1881), involves the titular character finding himself unwillingly captivated by an old portrait which depicts a singer clutching sheet music. Naturally, art and music play central roles here, and many passages are devoted to illuminating them. You might be wondering whether such dense descriptions make the story difficult to plough through; on the contrary, “Winthrop’s Adventure” is absolutely gripping, drawing the reader along on the protagonist’s obsessive quest.

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“A Phantom Lover” (1886) is arguably Lee’s best-known supernatural story, and for good reason: in terms of innovation and sheer strangeness, it still feels remarkably fresh today. It’s framed as the story of a portraitist who reluctantly agrees to paint William Oke and his wife Alice, whom he imagines to be dull, provincial people. Instead, he quickly finds himself overcome by the strange beauty of both their home, Okehurst, and Alice Oke herself. But something is rotten at Okehurst: Alice is obsessed with a 17th-century ancestor, and this single-minded preoccupation is driving her husband mad. There is a striking sense of physicality; in the introduction, the narrator asks his addressee to “help me to move these pictures away from the wall”. It’s replete with rich, decadent imagery and vivid characters, and the result is a story that is very eerie yet undeniably beautiful.

“Amour Dure” (1887) is told as a series of diary entries. Spiridion Trepka, a Polish professor, is conducting research in a small Italian town when he learns about the legend of a 16th-century seductress named Medea. Her many suitors inevitably met a bloody end, yet Trepka finds himself in sympathy with her, and increasingly occupied by thoughts of her. Such is the power of Lee’s storytelling that, until I tried to look up “Medea da Carpi”, I was fully convinced that the character was a real historical figure. And the final scene, as Trepka takes a fateful walk at midnight, creates an indelible impression.

Though the stories in A Phantom Lover and other Dark Tales are presented chronologically according to their original publication, they seem to fall into a natural order: the first three are the most substantial, and the collection is rounded out with four shorter tales. “A Wicked Voice”(1887) concerns the legacy of a singer who could reputedly kill with his voice. “The Legend of Madam Krasinka” (1890) has a delicious premise: a wealthy girl dresses up as an elderly homeless woman to mock her – but, after the woman dies, the girl finds herself haunted in a rather unusual way. “Marsyas in Flanders” (1900), the tale of a seemingly miraculous yet troublesome effigy, contains some of the most alarming imagery in the book. “Sister Benvenuta and the Christ-Child” (1905) is unexpectedly funny; it’s about a simpleminded nun writing letters to a model of the baby Jesus (“my dear Holy Bambino!”), but of course there is a dark twist. Even at their weakest – “A Wicked Voice” seems to repeat elements of both “Winthrop’s Adventure” and “Amour Dure” – the stories are so beautifully written that they remain a wonderful pleasure to read.

Vernon Lee was a writer ahead of her time; while many ghostly tales of the Victorian era might seem tame to the modern reader, hers remain extraordinary. Moreover, this collection is excellently assembled, highlighting some of Lee’s most compelling, innovative and interesting writing. Lee’s supernatural fiction should be more widely read, and hopefully, this collection will help to introduce a new generation of readers to the brilliance of her work.


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