Vernon Lee

Pseudonym of Violet Paget

English essayist and novelist who is best known for her works on Aesthetics

Oct. 14, 1856, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France – Feb. 13, 1935, San Gervasio, Florence, Italy
 

Violet Paget was born to cosmopolitan and peripatetic intellectuals who settled in Florence with their family in 1873. Five years later, in 1878, she became determined to publish under a masculine pseudonym, thinking publishers would take her more seriously. A collection of her essays, which had originally appeared in Fraser’s Magazine was published in 1880, under, Vernon Lee, the name by which she became known personally and professionally.

 

This work, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, gave English readers access to the hitherto unexplored world of poet-librettist Pietro Metastasio and dramatists Carlo Goldoni and Carlo Gozzi. Her collections of essays Belcaro (1881), discusses Aesthetics, whilst Euphorion (1884) comprises essays on William Shakespeare and Renaissance Italy. Both works spotlight her scholarship, dynamic wit and ever-present imagination. Numerous volumes of critical essays would follow spotlighting mostly Italian culture, art and landscape, such as Genius loci (1899) and The spirit of Rome (1906). In her three-volume novel Miss Brown (1884), she pens harsh caricatures of English aesthetic coteries, especially the Pre-Raphaelites.

​Lee wrote more than 50 books, including the play entitled Ariadne in Mantua (1903). She would also pen several collections of stories, Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales (1904) among them. Her powerful allegorical drama, Satan the Waster (1920), reveals her devotion to pacifism. Unfortunately, one of her most curious works – at least judging by the title – The Economic Parasitism of Woman was published in 1912 and is currently out of print. Later, Vernon Lee would author several physiologic essays, such as her last work, Music and its lovers. Vernon Lee and her brother, Eugene Lee Hamilton, lived with their family Florence.

 

Until 1882, they lived at Via Solferino 12, in a house overlooking the Mugnone Canal, before moving to Via Garibaldi 5 for a time. Later, in 1889, would move into Villa Il Palmerino, just below Fiesole, which Vernon would eventually purchase in 1906. In 1922, she would move into the complex’s central building, which she had previously restored for a friend, German writer Irene Forbes Mosse, who was forced to return to Germany with the onset of the Great War. Lee would remain in the ‘villino piccolo’, or little villa, as she called it, until her death in 1935. During her youth, especially, she did not spend much time with her family and would travel extensively throughout Europe. In winter, however, she would always return to Florence.

Accused of being cold and exceedingly cerebral, Lee was considered incapable of giving in to her feelings and thought to be inclined towards rigidity and puritanism. In reality, however, her friends frequented her for decades on end, fascinated by her company. Indeed, she would remain a reference point for generations of intellectuals. Vernon Lee’s rediscovery and re-evaluation in recent years, places the author at the centre of complex turn-of-the-century thought, as a representative of her multi-faceted cosmopolitan culture.

In 1935 a commemorative plaque, tributing the artist

was installed at Il Palmerino:

VERNON LEE VIOLET PAGET BORN 1856 DIED 1935

LIVED IN THIS HOUSE SINCE 1889.

FROM HER YOUTH SHE LOVED ITALY

AND SPENT HER LONG LIFE & RARE INTELLECT 

IN THE PERFECTING AND UNDERSTANDING THAT

& IN THE PASSIONATE SEARCH FOR BEAUTY,

HER MANY BOOKS LIVED TO PROVE IT. 

Vernon Lee resources:

Isolated from any village. Vernon Lee’s Florence and Villa il Palmerino

The Sibyll, A journal of Vernon Lee Studies