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Who is Vernon Lee?

Hauntings is an afternoon of performances and discussion inspired by the work of Vernon Lee, a pseudonym of the British writer Violet Paget (1856 – 1935), devised by Sally Blackburn, doctoral researcher at University of Liverpool and Marie-Anne McQuay, Head of Programme, Bluecoat. The event also features Dr Sondeep Kandola (LJMU English) with contributions from artist/writers Maria Fusco and Nathan Jones

Hauntings is part of a wider on-going programme at Bluecoat reappraising the work of lesser known, minor or overlooked Modernist and Victorian authors in the light of their new found resonance for contemporary writers and artists today. Previous events, symposia and publishing projects have focused on modernist author Malcolm Lowry, philosopher and science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon and Futurist poet, playwright and artist Mina Loy. 

Here Sally Blackburn, Phd student at Liverpool University whose thesis focuses on Vernon Lee’s approaches to reading, answers the question, ‘Who is Vernon Lee?’

Vernon Lee is in fact the nom de plume of writer Violet Paget, born in Boulogne on the 14th October 1856. Lee adopted a male pen name in 1877 due to her engagement with traditionally masculine subjects. She was, as Desmond MacCarthy notes, a historian, an aesthete, a psychologist and a writer. But furthermore, she was an ardent pacifist, antivivisectionist, a campaigner for female rights, a Doctor of Letters and polyglot intellectual.

As an English national, born to ex-pat parents, Lee lived a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Travel through Europe was interspersed with extended stays in Germany and Italy. Her work reveals that traveling was essentially a sensual experience; through her texts we bear witness to Lee attuning herself to the resonances and frequencies of place. This awareness and analysis of physiological response was later applied to her work on aesthetics, in particular how the experience of viewing art works and objects affected the body. 

Lee’s writing career began at the age of fourteen with Les Adventures d'une piece de monnaie (1870). In her lifetime she produced over 180 texts, articles, novels and short stories on subjects as diverse as art history, aesthetics, psychological aesthetics, mnemonics, music criticism, travel writing and fiction. The transitional object was an enduring fascination for Lee, with the artefact/ object/ fragment becoming a site of intersection for her own history and that of the reader.  

Lee was acquainted with many notable Victorians; William Morris, Walter Pater, The Rossettis, H. G. Wells. Henry James wrote that Lee is one of the ‘best minds’ he knows, intelligent with a vengeance, disputatious, paradoxical and a superior talker. But Lee’s long-standing and long-lasting associations were with strong, quick witted and talented women; Mary Robinson, Kit Anstruther Thomson, Bella Duffy were partners emotionally and intellectually. These female friendships endured national boundaries and marriage (not her own).

She felt most content in Florence, and she lived at the Villa Palmerino for the considerable bulk of her adult life (between 1889 and 1935). Lee passed away in San Gervasio, on the 13th February 1935 at the age of 79, having witnessed the uptake of Darwinism, the application of 

Freud’s theories, the first aircraft flight and the rise of Nazism in Germany.

To learn more about Vernon Lee, book now for our event Hauntings, taking place Sat 21 May, 2-3.30pm, when we'll be discussing her writing style and legacy. 

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Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, Bluecoat showcases talent across visual art, music, dance, live art and literature. As the most ...

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