Vernon Lee: A Glimpse at her Italian Cultural Circle “Isolated from society, there had been living in Florence, for many years, in her lovely villa in Settignano, the Englishwoman Vernon Lee. She was unmarried, and lonely. In her youth she had occupied herself with studies in the Italian eighteenth century and, in particular, with Metastasio and Goldoni, both so dear to Edoardo. She had been a pacifist and a feminist and had gloried in her moment of fame. Edoardo, who had a nodding acquaintance with her, in the bewilderment of that particular spring had felt the urge to go and visit her, to talk to her. Perhaps he would have been able to wheedle out of her the secret of that life completely lived in Italy, in contemplation of its beauty, and, yet, now, solitary.”
In 1999, the well-known Italian novelist Angela Bianchini published a novel, Un amore sconveniente (Improper Love), in which the protagonist, the Jewish young professor Edoardo Ascoli, whose interests and behaviour, at times, seem modelled on the scholarly pursuits and mannerisms of the young Mario Praz, feels a special kinship with Vernon Lee, regarding her as an ideal “friend in hard times” and, eventually, without ever really meeting her face to face, “the old, fearless signorina who has always gone against the grain”1, writes a long essay on her.
The presence of Vernon Lee in a recent work of fiction demonstrates how her fame in the intellectual circuit, at least in Italy, has never waned. Yet, she was skeptical to the point of writing to Maurice Baring: “Neither do I expect much dédommagement from posterity. That’s all lost nowadays. There is no posterity”2. What kind of compensation was she hankering after since in her adopted country she had been literally cuddled by many of the most important literary figures: the novelist and patriotic hero, Giovanni Ruffini, the influential editor Angelo De Gubernatis, who included the young writer in his Dictionnaire International des Ecrivains du Jour (Florence, Louis Niccolai, 1892, p. 1568), the famous poet and novelist, Gabriele D’Annunzio, under whose editorship at the “Cronaca Bizantina”, she contributed articles and by whom she was remembered, later on, as the pacifist “little Violet”, and, the best Italian critic of English letters, Enrico Nencioni who reviewed Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy as soon as it appeared in 1880. In the first decade of the twentieth century she even became a regular collaborator to “La Nuova Antologia”, where her only tragedy, Ariadne in Mantua appeared in 1907 translated by her good friend, Angelica Rasponi. Then in 1909 she contributed an article on the recent earthquake in Calabria and Sicily and in 1910 she published the quaint hagiography Suor Benvenuta e il Bambin Gesù3, composed as a diary. I’ve outlined these important relationships in my long introduction to the bilingual edition of Ariadne in Mantua4, but, lately, as I was trying to re-draw Vernon Lee’s Italian circle, I realized that the picture was full of shadows, blurred5.
Starting with Bologna, the city where Vernon Lee first decided to become a writer, I will try to fill in some of the gaps in this Italian picture.
When Vernon Lee went to Bologna with John Singer Sargent in 1872 was she aware that Giosue Carducci (1835-1907), who was already Italy’s leading poet, was teaching at the local University? Had she, by any chance, read his “Hymn to Satan” (1863), heard of his speech against the death penalty (1865), read any of the poems collected in Levia Gravia (1868) or Poesie (1871)? It seems probable that such an inquisitive, lively mind, who went about analysing and decoding heaps of old documents, might also have been interested in the current cultural affairs and might have, although her stay was very short, caught a glimpse of the distinguished man.
It also seems probable that Giosuè Carducci read Enrico Nencioni’s review of Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy published in “The Fanfulla della Domenica” , August 1, 1880, not only because the critic suggested that Vernon Lee should have included the name of the poet in her bibliography6, but also because – a fact which has been completely overlooked - he had been his closest schoolfellow since grammar school and the two men followed each other’s achievements closely. It’s undeniable therefore that Nencioni’s appraisal of Vernon Lee’s Studies introduced her to the mainly masculine hortus conclusus of Italian letters.
The first Italian translation by Alessandro Arnaboldi, a friend of Vernon Lee’s, mentioned in Richard Garnett’s History of Italian Literature (1898), was published in two volumes, in 1882 by Fratelli Dumolard, in Milan. In the Casa Carducci, where every book of the original library holdings can be easily consulted, there’s a copy of Il Settecento in Italia (catalogue number: 1.a.482) which bears the traces of a very scrupulous and attentive reading. Giosuè Carducci read the Essays with manifest and evident interest. Throughout the two volumes there are many question marks mainly to signal faulty translation (for instance, vol. 1, pp. 11-18) or typographical errors which, in this edition, abound. He often underlines interesting points. For instance, it’s quite clear that he approves of the two chapters concerning Metastasio and the Opera and The Comedy of Masks, but what seems to hold his attention most and inspire his complete contentment are all those passages that describe the poet and playwright Vittorio Alfieri with indignation. The adjective “Il fastidioso Alfieri” (p. 7) (the finicky/fastidious Alfieri) is heavily underlined and so is “Alfieri, il disdegnoso dilettante” (Alfieri the scornful dilettante). Regarding the “Misogallo”, “Hater of the French”, Alfieri, Giosuè Carducci and Vernon Lee see eye to eye and share the same point of view. It’s amazing that these two very outspoken writers who had so much in common never wrote to each other or never met. At least so far no documentary evidence has surfaced.
It’s not surprising, then, to discover that the other book by Vernon Lee held in the library7 is the original edition of The Countess of Albany (catalogue number: 2. b. 331), which she considered “a kind of completion to my previous studies of eighteenth century Italy”8. Carducci probably leafed through it, but there are no annotations.
In the Preface to The Countess of Albany Vernon Lee acknowledges her gratitude to her friend, “the eminent novelist” Mario Pratesi (1842 – 1921), who is remembered nowadays for his travel sketches and the novel, set in Siena, L’eredità ( The inheritance) (1889), but who, as a Tuscan, was also well known to the Tuscan Carducci. Just the same, it doesn’t seem that Pratesi ever introduced Lee to Carducci, but, in her reminiscences of Bologna, that date back to the years before the First World War and were later collected in The Golden Keys (1925), she pays her tribute to the great man of Italian letters by quoting his poem in the title of one of her essays, Dusky, Many-Towered Bologna9 .
The Italian poet, in a very short time, was to acquire European fame. In 1892, Frank Harris, who had been defined by Vernon Lee “a strange sort of cad of genius”10, sent a letter to Signor Carducci, at an address in Rome, to persuade him to write an article for “The Fortnightly Review”. When the letter from London arrived in Rome the address was crossed out and it was sent directly to Bologna where it was readily delivered to the man who- according to Harris, who certainly recognized genius - had won “a world-wide reputation”. And all this took 5 days! In 1906 Carducci won the Nobel prize for literature.
In Bologna Vernon Lee’s presence seems to haunt the old Biblioteca Universitaria. There are many first editions of her works which are still handed out to students for consultation and, some time ago, it was even possible to borrow the first edition of The Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy with her autographed dedication to John Singer Sargent. And, by the way, the library staff has not been able to unravel the mystery of this particular book in the library in Bologna. When I pointed out to a sensitive librarian that the book might be ruined or disappear and perhaps turn up at some antiquarian shop, she suddenly remembered that the library had sometime back acquired a holograph letter by Vernon Lee.
Ms. 4258, CLXX1 reveals to be an original, unpublished letter from Vernon Lee to Arnaldo Cervesato (1872- 1944)11, written in English, in which she apparently answers some questions dealing with the philosophical concept of idealism. It’s difficult to understand her frame of reference, but it seems quite clear that she rejects Cervesato’s definition. The letter is dated 18 May 1901 and, according to the Library records, it comes from Lucca. Arnaldo Cervesato was a journalist, who had worked at the newspaper “Italia” in San Francisco and at the “Tribune de Lausanne”. He also wrote novels, critical essays and published translations of Ibsen, Swinburne, Maeterlinck and Stevenson. He had many philosophical and esoteric interests, as his translations from Bergson, Gobineau, and Schuré testify. In 1902 he edited “La Nuova Parola”, a magazine concerned with art, science and life. Perhaps the letter he sent to Vernon Lee, to which she answers informally, beginning: “Dear Li, while feeling greatly honoured by your interesting communication and wishing you every degree of success in your enterprise I find myself unable to answer your interrogation…”, was an invitation to collaborate to his new magazine, or perhaps it was merely a friendly exchange of views dealing with spiritual issues. Many were the writers who accepted his invitation: Sibilla Aleramo, Giorgio Amendola, Lucio D’Ambra, Edmondo De Amicis, Arturo Graf, Ada Negri, Giovanni Papini, and Giuseppe Prezzolini, whose acquaintance, in the new century, Vernon Lee seemed to regard highly. But Cervesato was not to be trusted: his exuberant, ornate speeches and nationalistic leanings were soon enlisted in the depraved politics of the Fascist regime.
Reading her works, scanning her letters, Italian names crop up constantly: all the names of her Florentine aristocratic friends, her Roman friends, the many acquaintances all over Italy who admired her and asked her to be their guest because she had acquired, in time, not only a spiritual kinship with her Italian neighbours, but also a deep understanding of their ways and traditions12.
This is particularly true when Vernon Lee explores the simple religion of the Italian farmers by retelling the lives of their favourite saints. For instance, this is quite evident in her narration of Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child (1905), which is not an invented story, as many have thought13. As usual with Vernon Lee, research and thorough documentation were part of her craft of storytelling. Therefore any comment on her writings must take into consideration the slow process involved in making her characters come alive. As critics we must be aware of how each one of her works went through a rather laborious “gestation”, how it was originally composed.
Probably Lee began to write Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child when she visited Cividale14 around 1902 (in her essay she talks about the collapse of St.Mark’s campanile in Venice that took place in that year) and learned of the ascetic, visionary mystic, Blessed Benvenuta Boiani (1255-1292)15, who was known for her extraordinary devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, a figure, like the many Italian characters that crowd Lee’s writings, who belong to precise historical contexts and are transformed by her art. In December 1905 Lee published Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child in “The Fortnightly Review” using extant documentary material dating back to the eighteenth century, translating it into English and fictionalizing some episodes of the hagiography. In 1910 she contributed the same story to the Italian magazine “La Nuova Antologia”16 where Benvenuta’s diary entrances are translated into Venetian by Pia Di Valmarana. Before comparing Sister Benvenuta to one of Freud’s case study or dismissing it as one of her “tender little religious fables”17, critics should have considered how Benvenuta’s hagiography and Lee’s own travel account and knowledge of Italian eighteenth century sources informed and documented the whole story. Which is probably true for most of Lee’s writing that took place and dealt with Italy, where she encountered and mastered the genius loci ( an encounter that actually happened in Verona)18.
Lately, I’ve discovered that Vernon Lee had friends in Trento, the count and countess Salvatori, to whom she sent autographed editions of both Hauntings and Ariadne in Mantua. Although most of the many Italian names can be traced, it’s still impossible to snap a clearcut picture of the group. Identities and relationships with the writer are still blurred, which proves that Vernon Lee’s charmed Italian literary circle is very extensive, at times surprising, at times utterly amazing.
1 A. Bianchini, Un amore sconveniente, Frassinelli, 1999, p. 79 and p. 155.
2 Quoted in P. Gunn, Vernon Lee. Violet Paget, 1856-1935, London, Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 210.
3 The articles appeared in the following issues of “La Nuova Antologia”: 1 aprile 1907; 16 marzo 1909 and gennaio-febbraio 1910.
4 Vernon Lee and Italy, in Arianna a Mantova-Ariadne in Mantua, (bilingual edition), Gazoldo degli Ippoliti-Verona, Postumia-Cierre, (Fondazione Marcegaglia), 1996 (reprinted in 2003), pp. 10-45 .
5 Cf. Dalla stanza accanto. Vernon Lee e Firenze settant’anni dopo. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi (Firenze 26-27-28 maggio 2005), a cura di S. Cenni e E. Bizzotto, Firenze, Consiglio Regionale della Toscana, 2006. Through the many contributions it is possible to trace Vernon Lee’s involvement with the reality of the two cities she loved the most, Rome and Florence.
6 Cf. S. Pantazzi, Enrico Nencioni, William Wetmore Story and Vernon Lee, in “English Miscellany”, 10, 1959, p. 258.
7 Evidently Carlo Placci was mistaken when he said that Carducci had praised Vernon Lee’s Miss Brown, as reported by S. Pantazzi, Carlo Placci and Vernon Lee, in “English Miscellany”, 12, 1961, p. 109.
8 V. Lee, The Countess of Albany, London, W. H. Allen & Co., , 1884, p. vii.
9 R. Severi, Vernon Lee a Bologna: la scrittrice ricorda i suoi viaggi, in “Il Carrobbio”, xxviii, 2002, pp. 217-226.
10 P. Gunn, op. cit., p. 124.
11 Cf. N. Merola, Arnaldo Cervesato, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Roma, Treccani, 1980, vol. xxiv, pp.89-90.
12 Cf. Shafquat Towheed, Determining “Fluctuating Opinions”: Vernon Lee, Popular Fiction, and Theoris of Reading, in “Nineteenth Century Literature” vol. 60, no.2 (Sept. 2005), pp. 199-236.
13 See V. Colby, Vernon Lee. A Literary Biography, Charlottesville and London, University of Virginia Press, 2003, p. 240 defines it as “a simple miracle tale of a nun’s devotion to a doll that represents the Christ child in the Christmas pageant…”. P. Pulham, Art and the Transitional Object in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Tales, Aldershot, Hampshire, Ashgate, 2008, pp. 88-89, considers it a case study and offers a psychoanalytic reading. “Given the contemporaneity between Freud’s “Dora” (1905) and Lee’s story (…) , Benvenuta’s hours of contemplation in front of the painting of the Madonna inevitably recall those of Dora who spent “two hours in front of the Sistine Madonna rapt in silent admiration”” .
14 V. Lee, The River Temple of Cividale, in The Sentimental Traveller (1908), Leipzig, Tauchnitz, 1921, pp. 106-114.
15 Cf. A. Tilatti, Benvenuta Boiani, Trieste, Lint, 1994.
16 “La Nuova Antologia”, vol. CXLV, series V, January 1910, pp.4-72.
17 V. Colby, op. cit., p. 240.
18 V. Lee, Genius Loci. Notes on Places, London, Grant Richards, 1899, pp. 1-9.