Vernon Lee – Hauntings

November 3, 2009 at 10:14 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

Vernon Lee (1856-1935) – real name Violet Paget – was one of the most prominent female writers of the fin de siecle. She was a follower of Walter Pater, and wrote several essays on art and literature, but she is probably best known these days for her supernatural stories, most of which are collected in Hauntings.

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There is a sense of ambiguity in her tales, a sense of not knowing what’s real and what isn’t, a reluctance to reveal all to the reader, which I think is the mark of a really good supernatural tale. And they’re full of the occult, femme fatales and the pursuit of art and pleasure, which fits them nicely into the Decadent category.

Amore Dure is about a young scholar in Italy, who becomes obsessed with the portrait of a beautiful Renaissance noblewoman, renowned for having caused the deaths of all the men who ever came into her life. His fixation deepens, and he starts to see the Contessa everywhere he goes. Has she returned from the grave to lure another young man to his doom, or is it all a product of the narrator’s troubled mind?
Dionea tells the story of a remote Italian coastal village which is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a young Greek girl in their midst, who, it is implied, is an incarnation of the goddess Aphrodite.

Oke of Okehurst is narrated by an artist commissioned to paint a young aristocratic couple, and he quickly realises that something is amiss. The wife seems convinced that she is the reincarnation of her ancestor, Alice Oke, adulteress and murderer, and that Alice’s lover has returned to claim her. Her obsession drives her husband to distraction, as he desperately tries to deny what she claims to believe, and defy the curse on their family.


A Wicked Voice is set in Venice, where a composer suffering from ill-health is drawn in by the tale of a famous male singer of yesteryear, who claimed that his voice was so perfect that it could kill. Again, it is left unclear whether the composer’s heath is affecting his mind, or whether the intoxicating voice he hears across the lagoons really belongs to the malevolent ghost of the singer, Zaffirino.


Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady is almost like a dark fairy tale. It tells the story of a good and handsome young prince who makes a pet of a little grass snake he fins in the palace gardens. Over the years, he discovers that the snake is an enchanted woman, who must obtain the loyalty of a lover in order to regain her human form.


A Wedding Chest concerns the rape and murder of a young bride, and her fiance’s quest for revenge.


The Virgin of the Seven Daggers is a tale of occult practices, where a corrupt Spanish nobleman uses black magic to catch a glimpse of a beautiful, mythical Infanta.

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Portrait of Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent

2 Comments

  1. Meredith said,

    Quite question/point of clarification.

    When you say most well known for her short stories, do you mean today or during her writing career?

    As far as I’ve found, her criticism doesn’t get much mileage these days, but during the 1880-1920s that was at least on par with the popularity of her fiction. If you’ve found sources that talk about such things in detail I’d love to find them. I’m always on the lookout for more Lee folks.

    • Decadent Handbook said,

      I meant in the modern day – I probably should have made that clearer. I may have to go back and do a quick edit! I have managed to find some of her criticism, but you’re right, it’s pretty much neglected now which is a shame. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more Lee info, and I’ll post anything I find.

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