A Violet Lily: Virginia Woolf and Vernon Lee


John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee, 1881

by Andre Gerard

Fresca was baptised in a soapy sea / Of Symonds—Walter Pater—Vernon Lee

— T.S. Eliot
from a cancelled draft version of “The Fire Sermon” in The Waste Land

In an 1893 letter of warning to his brother, the philosopher William James, Henry James wrote the following about Vernon Lee: “…she is as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent—which is saying a great deal. Her vigour and sweep of intellect are most rare and her talk superior altogether, but I don’t agree with you at all about her ‘style,’ which I find insupportable, and I also find that she breaks down in her books. There is a great second-rate element in her first-rateness. At any rate draw it mild with her on the question of friendship. She’s a tiger-cat.” When writing this letter James was likely smarting at the way Vernon Lee had skewered him in her short story “Lady Tal” — skewered him, Vinetta Colby and Geraldine Murphy suggest, for the uses and misuses James himself had made of Lee’s life in both Princess Casamassima and The Aspern Papers. Justified or not, James’s assessment and warning was most astute and accurate. The woman William James had first met in February of 1892 was formidable indeed.

Vernon Lee, born Violet Paget in 1856, was a major literary figure and intellectual who, by the time of her death in 1935, had published numerous essay collections on such subjects as music, art appreciation, aesthetics and travel writing, as well as several collections of short stories, and the 1884 novel Miss Brown, a roman a clef which satirised many of the aesthetic pretensions of the time. Born in France and raised in Germany, Italy, England, Switzerland and France, Lee was completely fluent in four languages but wrote primarily in English. Her first book, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), earned high praise in various cultural and literary journals such as the Athenaeum, The Spectator, The Westminster Review and the St James Gazette. Lee was only twenty-four when the book was published, but several of the essays which it contained had already appeared previously in Fraser’s Magazine.

Though never a popular writer, Lee was a singularly influential one, partly because of the erudition of her first book, partly because of her skill in creating astute intellectual and social connections, and partly because her home in Florence, Villa Il Palmerino, became a kind of expatriate salon. Despite a sometimes unsettling frankness, at one time or another her friends, correspondents and close social connections included Robert Browning, John Singer Sargent, Walter and Clara Pater, Leslie Stephen, Edmund Gosse, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth von Arnim, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Berenson, Mario Praz, Maurice Baring, Desmond MacCarthy and Lady Brooke, the Ranee of Sarawak.

Pater, with whom Lee would stay on her visits to England, considered her a disciple, and when Edith Wharton published Italian Villas and Their Gardens, she dedicated it: “To Vernon Lee, who better than anyone else, has understood and interpreted the Garden-Magic of Italy.” Lee, in turn, wrote “The Economic Parasitism of Women” as an introduction to the Italian edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics. Later, when Lee published her unusual hybrid work Satan the Waster, George Bernard Shaw strongly endorsed its vehement pacifist views. Though he used his Nation review primarily as a platform for his own ideas, he did say that ‘Vernon Lee is English of the English, and yet held her intellectual own all through. I take off my hat to the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism and salute her as the noblest Briton of them all.”

Subsequently rejected and mocked by the modernists, for much of the 20th century Lee was neglected or forgotten. More recently, her reputation has undergone a major re-evaluation. Interest in Lee and her work has come from several directions. Modernist scholars trying to gain a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the modernist enterprise and Victorianism are interested in the way she straddles and bridges both modernist and Victorian ideas and ideals. Her cross-gendered identity, her passionate female friendships, and the gender fluidity and sublimated sexual desire found in some of her short stories, as well as her defence of Oscar Wilde and what she called “the queer comradeship of outlawed thought”, have attracted the attention of queer theorists and scholars primarily interested in sexuality and sexual boundaries. As well, feminist scholars are interested in her ideas on women’s rights and her friendships with activist women such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ethel Smyth.

Further, as one of the first people to use and popularise the word “empathy” in the English language, a word in use only since 1908, Lee’s ideas are attracting increasing interest in the field of cognitive cultural studies. In particular, scholars exploring ideas of literary empathy are strongly interested in her work. Finally, an increased understanding of her position and role as a public intellectual is revealing her to be a much more central historical figure than has been previously appreciated. Her courageous pacifism and the consequent vilification which she experienced also merits more attention. With the relatively recent publication of Selected Letters of Vernon Lee, 1856-1935: Volume I (2016) and Volume II (2020), and with volume three still to come, Lee’s reputation will only continue to grow. Since 2012, there has been a peer-reviewed academic online journal dedicated to Vernon Lee, The Sibyl, founded and edited by Pr. Sophie Geoffroy; and Lee’s increased visibility and popularity is already such that she, along with John Singer Sargent, now figures in a detective series by Mary F. Burns.  A thoroughly modern apotheosis.

Vernon Lee was virtually unknown to me prior to starting this particular To the Lighthouse exploration, and without the good luck of discovering Angela Leighton’s stimulating On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Legacy of a Word (2007), I would never have noticed or suspected a Lee tunnel in Woolf’s novel. Biographical details excepted, most of the Lee mapping in this essay is Leighton’s work, and if it weren’t for copyright restrictions, I would simply post her Vernon Lee and Virginia Woolf chapters here. Mindful of copyright, I’ll limit myself to quoting only two paragraphs. They give a taste of Leighton’s style and the quality of her mapping. These two paragraphs, it is helpful to know, are preceded by one in which Leighton considers the penultimate fragment in Virginia’s short story “Portraits”, putting particular weight on the lines: “I never spoke to her. But in a sense, the true sense, I who love beauty always feel I knew Vernon Lee.”

During her life Woolf reviewed several of Lee’s books, though they caused her some bother. “I am sobbing with misery over Vernon Lee, who really turns all good writing to vapour, with her fluency and insipidity”, she laments in 1907. Although enraged by Lee, she nonetheless uses her as a yardstick for comparison: “My writing makes me tremble; it seems so likely that it will be d—d bad…after the manner of Vernon Lee.” She is infuriated by Strachey’s praise of Lee: he “jumps up and seizes withered virgins like Vernon Lee”. But her attitude in later life softened. She was intrigued, for instance, by Roger Fry’s praise for Lee’s book on Music and Its Lovers, and when Ethel Smyth condemned Lee’s pacifist views in 1933, Woolf rallied to her defence: “Why do you think Vernon Lees views on the war detestable? What would you say to mine?” Then, hearing of Lee’s death in 1935, she admitted a sense of missed opportunity: “I’m sorry old Vernon is dead. I had hoped rather to see her.” Woolf’s vehemence, antipathy, puzzlement, and then simple regret hint, somehow, at an unfinished story. “I who love beauty always feel I knew Vernon Lee”, her inconclusive portrait concludes.

There is one comment, from a letter of 1922, which makes the possibility of knowing Vernon Lee resonant beyond mere biographical facts. “Oh yes,” Woolf writes, “I remember Vernon Lee, in the dining room at Talland House, in coat and skirt, much as she is now—but that was 30 years ago. She was a dashing authoress. She gave my father her books, which were in the dining room too.” The specifics of that location go beyond personal anecdote, suggesting, as they do, the novel which takes its main inspiration from them. “It was all dry: all withered”, Lily Briscoe laments of her art. In one place she describes herself as “a peevish, ill-tempered, dried-up old maid presumably”. At another, looking at her own painting, “She could have wept. It was bad, it was bad, it was infinitely bad!” Being “d—d bad…after the manner of Vernon Lee” hints at an anxiety of influence which is also, covertly, an anxiety of self-identification. “I who love beauty” is an I who might have learned more from Lee’s books about beauty than she cared to admit. The intoning repetition of the word throughout To the Lighthouse draws, by association, on the memory of a presence at Talland House which is not only Julia Stephen, the original for Mrs Ramsay, but also the writer who wrote numerous books about beauty, about the difficulty of defining it or assessing its relation to ethics and history. Both Lee herself and her books figure at some level, however subconsciously, in that novel’s “dining-room”.

On Form, pp. 131-2

Leighton goes on to suggest that Virginia Stephen, along with Vanessa and Clive Bell may have visited and even stayed with Lee during a 1908 trip to Italy. As evidence, Leighton again mentions the letter of 1922 (the letter was written to Katherine Arnold-Forster) and a passage in which Woolf mentions visiting Lee in Italy: “I saw her ten years later, at Florence, when she fell in love with Nessa.” Leighton also quotes a comment made by Woolf in a 1926 letter to Violet Dickinson: “Do you remember taking us to see her at Florence?” While Leighton implies that both these letters refer to the 1908 Italian trip, and while Virginia, Vanessa and Clive may indeed have visited Lee on that trip, or during a stay in Florence the following year, Woolf’s remarks almost certainly refer to an earlier 1904 Italian journey, a journey which the Stephen family made shortly after the death of Leslie Stephen. Writing to Margery Snowden from Florence on April 25, 1904, Vanessa Stephen had this to say about a visit she, Virginia and Dickinson made to Lee:

We went one day to see Miss Paget who writes under the name of Vernon Lee—I expect you have heard of her. She’s very clever, but what interested me is that she has got a portrait of herself by Sargent, and several other sketches by him. The portrait is extraordinarily like, and it was interesting to see her beside it, as I hardly know any of the people he has painted. Certainly this was very like, though done when she was much younger, and she’s rather ugly but very clever looking.

There is no mention of this visit in Virginia Stephen’s letters or journals of the time. This is not surprising. Shortly after returning to England she experienced a major and lengthy breakdown which led to her being put into nursing care for several months.

In her mapping of Lee’s connections to Woolf, and of possible Lee traces in Lily Briscoe, Leighton notes that the Hogarth Press published The Poet’s Eye, a short pamphlet by Lee, in 1926. Lee, though now seventy years old, was still writing and publishing regularly, and the previous year she had published two books, a copy of one of which, The Golden Keys and Other Essays on the Genius Loci, was acquired by the Woolfs, and now forms part of the Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf in Pullman, Washington. Consisting primarily of travel essays, The Golden Keys is strongly pacifist and elegiac in tone. Its dedication and the concluding essay frame the volume as a plea for peace and good will. Significantly, the book is both a record of what has been lost, and a tentative step towards recovery from the devastation of war and towards rebuilding the moral and spiritual landscape. It may even be that The Golden Keys informs To the Lighthouse in a small way.

Although Woolf did not review The Golden Keys, she did, as Leighton points out, review two earlier works by Lee. Both of those reviews damn with a mixture of sharp criticism and faint praise. Reviewing the Sentimental Traveller for the TLS in January of 1908, she wrote, “Vernon Lee, with much of the curiosity, the candour, and the sensitiveness to trifles of the true essayist, lacks the exquisite taste and penetrating clearness of sight which make some essays concentrated epitomes of precious things.” In her 1909 TLS review of Laurus Nobilis: Chapters on Art and Life, she was, if anything, even more scathing: “But if Vernon Lee lacks the temper of the great aesthetic critic, she has many of the gifts of a first-rate disciple.” However, despite the reservations voiced in these reviews, and also in numerous letters and diary entries, Woolf admired Lee enough to eventually make her part of an illustrious female pantheon in A Room of One’s Own. “There are,” she writes, “Jane Harrison’s books on Greek archaeology; Vernon Lee’s books on aesthetics; Gertrude Bell’s books on Persia. There are books on all sorts of subjects which a generation ago no woman could have touched.”

Leighton does not mention The Golden Keys, but she does provide extensive and insightful comment on Woolf’s review of Laurus Nobilis. She convincingly argues that Woolf was strongly influenced by Lee’s ideas on beauty and supports her argument with quotations from Lee’s book, as well as from Woolf’s review. She then goes on to demonstrate how To the Lighthouse focuses on “the problem of beauty, both human physical beauty, and the beauty of artistic form which might be won from it.” As she says, “The tolling of that one word in Woolf’s work suggests the extent to which her experimental modernism is linked to an aesthetic creed. She cannot let go of ‘beauty.’” By carefully probing and examining some of the many ways which Woolf uses ‘beauty’ in To the Lighthouse (the word, or variants of it, is used eighty-three times), Leighton makes a strong and stimulating case that Woolf’s “idea of beauty, as rhythm, pattern, design, form” owes much to the ingenuity of Lee.

All I can add to Leighton’s insights is one small piece of speculation regarding Lily’s “Chinese eyes” as characterised (in — let’s say — antiquated phrasing) by Woolf in To the Lighthouse, where the descriptor appears five times. Although my evidence is rather anachronistic, it may be that Lee is, in part at least, responsible for that description. In her 1937 introduction to Vernon Lee’s Selected Letters Home, Irene Cooper Willis, Lee’s literary executor, made two references to the shape and appearance of Lee’s eyes. She first describes “Her unique personality, those intensely inquisitive (though not penetrating) eyes, almond-shaped and set slightly aslant in the small but long Hapsburg type of face” and she later makes the comment that “She had a Chinese Eye and a Chinese power of drawing sustenance from what is beautiful.” Willis’s observations were, of course, recorded long after To the Lighthouse was written, yet it may be that the shape of Lee’s eyes was distinctive enough to readily draw the “Chinese Eye” comparison. Lee’s eyes, indeed, do have such an aspect in a pencil sketch by John Singer Sargent, even if they look considerably rounder in an earlier oil painting of his. It is even possible that Lee, herself, sometimes used the term to describe her eyes, and that she may have used the expression when she showed the Sargent portrait and sketches to the Stephen sisters in 1904.

John Singer Sargent, Miss Paget (Vernon Lee), 1889

Slightly more speculation. While Lily Briscoe may or may not owe her eye shape to Woolf’s 1904 or 1908 memories of Lee, older memories may plausibly be at play…those created by the young Virginia Stephen. “I remember Vernon in the dining room at Talland House” wrote the 40 year old Woolf, and though there is no other evidence to confirm that Lee was ever at Talland House, the important thing is that Woolf, rightly or wrongly, remembered her as being there, and, four years later, when writing To the Lighthouse, would have had that memory to draw upon.

Though not mentioned, it is possible that along with “coat and skirt”, Lee’s eyes were part of the supposed St. Ives memory. Certainly Lee was intimate with the Woolf family from 1882 on, and Virginia Stephen would have met her on several occasions while growing up, in London as well as in St. Ives. Lee’s first meeting with Leslie Stephen was in 1881 and her description of him is Mr. Ramsay to the life…if a fictional character can be said to have life:

Presently in came Leslie Stephen, a tall sort of solemn, scraggy lantern jawed Rubens type, who looked hideously shy & sat in complete silence for half an hour. On my taking my departure he shambled forward & stammered inaudibly that he was sorry he had had no opportunity of speaking to me! Whereon I departed. Had I come to England to extend my literary connexions, or enjoy my great fame, I think I might go & hang myself for sheer despair on the first peg I met.

Letter home, circa June 25 to 27th, 1881, describing a June 26th dinner at Mrs. Clifford’s

A later letter, detailing Violet Paget’s first visit to the Stephen home, might well describe Lily dining with the Ramsays:

Last night I went all alone to dine with the Leslie Stephens. I wore my blue dress. They live a few doors off  from the Dicksons, a pretty, plain little house, but rents are high thereabouts & they keep a manservant. Mr. Stephen shook hands but seemed incapable of articulating a word; indeed throughout the evening, although there were only seven of us, he never addressed any remarks to me, looking most miserably shy. Mrs. Stephen, his second wife, is on the contrary a very amiable woman, quiet but very friendly, evidently has been very goodlooking.  She seems to have heard a good deal about me from Mrs. Stillman. To whom, or to what I owe this invitation I have not the faintest idea. They were very friendly, in their silent sort of way.

Letter home, circa June 22 to 24th, describing June 23rd dinner at Hyde Park Gate

Regrettably there is no mention of the infant or the young Virginia Stephen in these letters.  All the same, Vernon Lee’s intimacy with the Stephen family in those early years, and Virginia Woolf’s memory of her as being in St. Ives, make her a very plausible model for Lily in To the Lighthouse. When we first meet Lily she is approximately 34 years old, an age very close to that of  Lee as remembered by Woolf in 1922.  Not conclusive evidence certainly, yet given Virginia Woolf’s indirect methods it is possible, highly likely even, that there is a lot of Violet in Lily.



For anyone living near Cambridge (England) and interested in learning more about Vernon Lee and her ideas, on September 12th and 13th The Open University and the British Society for Aesthetics will be hosting a free, two-day conference titled Vernon Lee, Aesthetics and Empathy.

About the Author

Andre Gerard (@PatremoirPress), editor and publisher of Fathers: A Literary Anthology, no longer earns a living as tutor and apartment manager in Vancouver. He now camps and ocean kayaks among eagles and otters on Salt Spring Island, but his primary residence remains To the Lighthouse.

Image Details

The sketch is an illustration from a 1900 issue of Studio Magazine. Both Sargents are in the public domain.

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