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Lee, Vernon (1856-1935)  

Although Vernon Lee does not explore lesbian themes directly in her literary or aesthetic works, she was committed both intellectually and emotionally to other women, and her creative writings reveal a fertile lesbian imagination.

Born Violet Paget at Château Saint-Léonard near Boulogne, France, on October 14, 1856, into a privileged and cosmopolitan family, Lee was educated by her mother, half-brother, and governesses. Her travels in Europe with her family aroused her interest in learning new cultures, aesthetics, and art.

By the age of fourteen, she had written Biographie d'une monnaie (Biography of Money, 1879) in French, in which she used a narrative frame to weave portraits of a coin's owners from the Roman civilization of Hadrian to her own time. She also wrote in Italian, German, and English.

She published in Frazer's Magazine in 1878 and 1879 on art and aesthetics, adopting the pseudonym Vernon Lee, believing that a masculine name would lend greater credence to her writings. Along with her male pseudonym, she also adopted male attire.

Lee was a prolific essayist, critic, novelist, biographer, dramatist, travel and short story writer, publishing some forty-five major works. She understood the Victorians' love of travel and created a genre called "genius loci" or "spirit of places." These works are impressionistic travel sketches, which delineate the spirit of a particular region. From 1897 to 1925, she produced seven volumes of this genre, most notably, Genius Loci: Notes on Places (1899).

Her Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), which describes the characters and lives of musicians and singers, catapulted her writing career to the literary and artistic circles of London. Her collection of essays on art, Belcaro (1881), and her collection of essays on the Renaissance, Euphorion (1884), were also highly acclaimed. Her drama Ariadne in Mantua (1903) featured a cross-dressing heroine.

Her collection of aesthetic essays on Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics (1912) initiated the theory of "empathy" or the German concept "Einfühlung" into English aesthetic discourse, while The Beautiful (1913) continued her exploration of aesthetic theory.

Lee's first "romantic friendships" may have begun in the 1870s. Her relationship with her companion Annie Meyers ended in 1881. From 1881 to 1887, her traveling companion was Mary Robinson, whom she met at a drawing-room party. Mary's eventual marriage to James Darmsteter, which was probably not consummated, ended Lee's passionate attachment.

Devastated by Mary's marriage, Lee was comforted by her new friend Clementina (Kit) Anstruther-Thomson, who was to have a profound effect on her work. Lee described her friendship with Kit Thomson as a "new love and new life." This friendship lasted from 1887 to 1897. Kit was a "Venus figure" for Lee; she described her in her correspondence as a "Venus de Milo," a woman of beauty, a friend, and a spiritual lover. This relationship inspired Lee's creativity, and during this time, Lee wrote and perfected her writings on aesthetics.

Lee's involvement with the aesthetic movement of the nineteenth century brought her close to such prominent people as Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Walter Pater, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, John Singer Sargent, and Oscar Wilde. Mrs. Sargent encouraged Lee to develop her creative potential. Robert Browning, a lifelong friend, acknowledged her in his poem "Inapprehensiveness," collected in Asolando (1889).

Lee's pacifist manifesto, Satan the Waster (1920), which explored the ruinous psychological effects of World War I, was attacked in the Times Literary Supplement in 1920, but George Bernard Shaw responded in a review in the Nation by praising Lee's intellectual acumen. Edith Wharton's "Life and Letters" in A Backward Glance (1934) is also a complimentary reminiscence.

Although Lee does not explore lesbian themes directly in her literary or aesthetic works, she is a significant figure who successfully pursued a literary life at a time when women faced serious obstacles in doing so. Perhaps her most enduring legacy is the example she left of a woman who was committed, both intellectually and emotionally, to other women. Her correspondence with Anstruther-Thomson is especially intriguing as a passionate and animated commentary on women's friendships, while her creative writings reveal a fertile lesbian imagination.

Clarence McClanahan


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A portrait of Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent.
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Cary, Richard. "Vernon Lee's Vignettes of Literary Acquaintances." Colby Library Quarterly 9 (September 1970): 179-199.

Gardner, Burdett. Lesbian Imagination (Victorian Style): A Psychological and Critical Study of Vernon Lee. New York: Garland, 1987.

Gunn, Peter. Vernon Lee/Violet Paget, 1856-1935. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Mannocchi, Phyllis A. "Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson: A Study of Love and Collaboration between Romantic Friends." Women's Studies 12.2 (1986): 129-148.

Ormond, Richard. "John Singer Sargent and Vernon Lee." Colby Library Quarterly 9 (September 1970): 154-178.


    Citation Information
    Author: McClanahan, Clarence  
    Entry Title: Lee, Vernon  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 12, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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