Vernon Lee Archives - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

Vernon Lee

Vernon Lee

By: Dennis Denisoff, McFarlin Professor of English

painting of a woman with short hair and glasses, wearing a black sweater over a white-collar shirt
Vernon Lee, painted by John Singer Sargent (1881)

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.

the side of a two-story white building in Italy with four figures dressed in red gowns dangling on ropes from the second-floor windows
A scene from Lee’s “Ballet of Nations” performed at Lee’s former home, Villa Il Palmerino (2019)

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.

a man wearing an untucked white shirt and beige trousers standing outdoors in an Italian garden
Dennis Denisoff

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.

Works Cited

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, (Accessed March 1, 2022).

Does the shaping of lives and society by race, gender, sexuality, class and other factors fascinate you? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out TU’s welcoming and vibrant Women’s and Gender Studies program today.

Eco-politics through a decadent lens

Art history, environmental science, sexuality, poetry, spirituality: These are only some of the fascinating research interests that have coalesced in the latest scholarly study by McFarlin Professor of English Dennis Denisoff.

Cover of a book titled Decadent Ecology in British Literature and Art, 1860-1910

In Decadent Ecology in British Literature and Art, 1860-1910, published recently by Cambridge University Press, Denisoff focuses on the influence of decadence and paganism on modern understandings of nature and the environment, queer and feminist politics, national identities and contested social hierarchies. Decadent Ecology draws insights from a long list of notable figures in diverse studies of both art and literature, such as the painter Simeon Solomon, literary critic Walter Pater, novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and essayist Vernon Lee.

Decadence and queer ecology

Denisoff’s most impactful findings relate to the nineteenth-century development of terminology and conceptual models around new sciences, such as ecology, in relation to current research in eco-studies. Archival and theoretical investigations led him to discover that ecology was pervasively influenced by discourses of neo-paganism and decadence, both of which started to develop as spiritual, literary and artistic movements at around the same time as the study of ecology appeared. “Extraction ecology and environmentalism in nineteenth-century Britain used the same rhetoric of decay, excess and productivity that the decadents used to challenge monetary and productionist measures of human and ecological worth,” Denisoff observed.

New possibilities in queer ecology studies, meanwhile, gave Denisoff a valuable theoretical framework and language that, he said, “encourage sensitivity to differences that we, as a society, often tend to ignore. Queer eco-studies carries the hope of developing an approach to the world that is more self-aware, open-minded and inviting of difference not only among humans but across species.”

Invaluable perspectives

While queer ecology studies is a rather recent field, Denisoff notes that he has benefited greatly from membership in its vibrant, international community of scholars, writers and artists: “We are all building off of each other’s ideas and findings, helping the field take shape in this time of critical environmental change.”

While exploring fresh theories and materials can be disorienting at first, Denisoff credits the students he taught at The University of Tulsa in his Environment and Literature course for helping sustain and nurture his curiosity and interests. “Students ask the most fundamental and so, often, most difficult questions,” he commented. “Their willingness to enter into a new set of inquiries, to read current theoretical works in the field and to learn to cull useful insights and then work to prove the extrapolations, did more to change my own research questions than anything else.”

A royal fellowship

Now that the ink has dried on Decadent Ecology, Denisoff foresees his next research project picking up on research by Charles Darwin and others on the ways in which plants communicate and interact with their environments. With these interests in mind, Denisoff is preparing for an upcoming position as a Distinguished Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London. Postponed for two years due to COVID-19, Denisoff will begin his long-awaited fellowship in April.

Man posing for photo in front of a garden
Dennis Denisoff

In addition to giving talks and lectures at various universities, Denisoff plans to conduct research at the University of London, the Natural History Museum, the South London Botanical Institute and the Victoria and Albert Museum on a new book on plant sentience in literature and film. In light of recent works engaging apocalyptic climate change, I’m especially interested in nineteenth-century literary renderings of the growing awareness that, far from humans being stewards of nature and managing the environment, the biosphere is itself acting in what it senses to be its own best interests, with no discernible concern for what humans in particular think,” said Denisoff. “While writers have often rendered this situation as a type of existential horror, there are many works suggesting more respectful, even venerative models in which humans learn to respect and work with other species and forces, all acknowledging their mutual reliance and the limits of their knowledge.”

Does the prospect of studying literature in conjunction with various other disciplines such as art and science excite you? The Department of English and Creative Writing has all you need to dig in!