By: Dennis Denisoff, McFarlin Professor of English
I have studied women’s literature and lives for decades, so having to choose one person to signify the importance that women have had on my work is quite a challenge. But then, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I suddenly realized that the woman whom I would like to acknowledge most is the pacifist Vernon Lee. She is the intellectual who has remained key to my scholarship throughout my career, even as my work has developed from gender studies to queer studies, and eventually to aesthetics, ecology and trans-species relations. For our current moment, it is as a pacifist during the First World War that Lee again proves a relevant, complex voice on Western and global culture and politics.
Born Violet Paget (1856-1935) in France to British parents, Lee lived most of her life in Italy, traveling extensively within Europe and meeting with a variety of scholars. It would have been impossible not to recognize the biases against female scholars at the time, but Lee lived her life with no doubt of herself as an equal to other European intellectuals. And most of them recognized her as the same.
Lee’s varied interests included queer identity, ecology, nature writing, and horror and weird fiction. She wrote entire books on the complex connections among historical time, memory and place. She was instrumental in introducing the German concept of Einfühlung (empathy) into English aesthetics. And she and her long-term partner, Kit Anstruther Thomson, worked for many years on a theory of psychological aesthetics.
Lee offers dozens of essays articulating an environmentalism remarkable for not adhering to the stewardship model popular at the time, where humans are seen as the wise managers of “nature.” Lee mixed her environmentalist views with notions of the genius loci (spirit of place) that appealed to both scholarly and popular audiences. At the same time, she relied on elements of horror and the weird to critique the sense of humans as an especially knowledgeable species. Her essay “The Forest of the Antonines,” for example, depicts a local village that relies on harvesting fir trees from the surrounding forests. The process results in mass flooding and a horrifying scene of a local cemetery being washed away. As Lee concludes, “This, then, was the Apennines’ revenge! And it was the coffins, very likely, of the self-same men who had cut down the forests which were dragged out of the ground and hurled along by those torrents of their own making” (Enchanted, 150).
In recent days, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is Lee’s work as a pacificist — writing creative works and public letters arguing against the war — that speaks to us most vitally. In a 1915 letter to a friend, she writes: “I live with a «respirator» against chlorine bombs in my drawer and a bucket of sand in my fireplace! That’s where we are now! Notice that in the event that such a bomb shortens my days, my executor happens to be Mrs Forbes-Mosse with whom I am quarrelling just like with my local chauvinists here […]. Oh hatred, dear Mathilde, the stupid, stupid hatred!” (letter to Mathilde Hecht). The fact that Lee, in London, was at this time also corresponding with Irene Forbes-Mosse, a German living in Germany, hints at the thoughtful, complex approach Lee took to her position on war.
In her play The Ballet of Nations (1915) and the expanded Satan, the Waster (1920), Lee presents war not as a fight between humans or even between nations, but as a force of evil operating beyond the machinations of nations and cultures. The argument is not only a broader philosophical perspective, but an act of diplomacy that recognizes the complicity of so many of us in a world-system that relies on competition, greed and conflict.
Lee, Vernon. The Enchanted Woods. London: John Lane: The Bodley Head, 1905.
—. Letter to Mathilde Hecht, June 16, 1915, The Sybil, A Journal of Vernon Lee Studies, https://thesibylblog.com/page/5/ (Accessed March 1, 2022).
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