Vernon Lee—the pen name of the English writer Violet Paget—was a travel writer, novelist, musician, and critic with a strong interest in aesthetics. One of the first to bring the concept of Einfühlung, or empathy, into English criticism, she was also an outspoken follower of Walter Pater’s aestheticism. “An engaged feminist, she always dressed à la garçonne,” someone has written, amazingly, on Wikipedia.
Lee’s work is included in any collection of Victorian ghost stories. Her work is haunting in the true sense and not merely because it deals so frequently with possession. Her stories are graceful, engaging, surprisingly strange. There are often lesbian subtexts; the supernatural was a vehicle for a writer like Lee to indirectly explore such themes.
I first came to Lee through a novella called A Phantom Lover in a collection from the 1960s. As with many of Lee’s works, the narrator is male. This one also features a woman given to cross-dressing, specifically period Elizabethan cross-dressing. A nameless painter is invited to an isolated, beautifully preserved country house to do portraits of the young squire and his wife. The latter proves to be a mysterious and somewhat perverse creature, remote and self-absorbed, utterly obsessed with the story of a long-dead ancestor. The love triangle that arises is not what one might expect: it’s far creepier. Find it if you can, and then if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to seek out the 1890s collection Hauntings.
The essays age less well, unless you have a particular taste for Victorian rhetoric. But one of my favorite Lee quotes comes not from her fiction but from the 1897 essay “Limbo”:
Let us rather think gently of things, sad, but sad without ignominy, of friendships stillborn or untimely cut off, hurried by death into a place like that which holds the souls of the unchristened babies; often, like them, let us hope, removed to a sphere where such things grow finer and more fruitful, the sphere of the love of those we have not loved enough in life.
But that at best is but a place of ghosts; so let us never forget, dear friends, how close all round lies Limbo, the Kingdom of Might-have-been.