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Lost in time: the wicked voice of Vernon Lee

Vernon LeeThe Gothic is obsessed with the past. In older texts this can be seen most obviously with the settings, such as castles, ruins and monasteries but also with regard to the characters that inhabit these stories. Creatures like demons, incubi and succubae belong to a mythological past whereas a whole host of monsters impervious to the passing of time  the undead, phantoms and ghosts  are themselves traces of a past that need to be reconciled with the present if they are ever to move on. And it isn’t just monsters and ghouls doing all the haunting in these stories; ancestral crimes, hereditary curses and secrets long buried can also be seen as ways that the past intrudes on the present. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), often considered to be the first Gothic novel, took this a step further. Initially published anonymously, Walpole duped his readership into believing that his story was a genuine translation of an ancient medieval manuscript, in the same way that today’s found footage films attempt to persuade audiences of their authenticity. But why did Walpole and so many others feel the need to legitimise their stories by providing them with a history? And why is looking back so scary in the first place?

The term ‘Gothic’ goes some way in addressing these questions. Deriving from the name of the Germanic people  the Goths, who fought against the Roman Empire  the term came to encapsulate everything that Western Europe was not. It became synonymous with barbarism and superstition, with the Dark Ages before Europe’s enlightenment. To readers at the end of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, such a deep dark past must have been a frightening concept. Though some writers and artists, such as the Romantics and later the Pre-Raphaelites, looked to the past as an idealistic alternative to the changes that were taking place in society (notably the increasing industrialisation and urbanisation) others regarded the past as a place to fear because it was so far removed from the modern world. The past, as Vernon Lee put so aptly in the Preface to her short story collection Hauntings: Fantastic Stories “is the place to get our ghosts from.”

As the aim of this column is to look back, to unearth the lost and forgotten voices of horror from the depths of our literary past, it seems fitting to begin with a writer whose preoccupation with the past was clear from her first published sale, a critical work entitled Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880). Vernon Lee (1856-1935) was the pseudonym of Violet Paget (she took the alias due to concern that women writers were not taken seriously) and she wrote during the second wave of the Gothic. She was a major figure in the Aesthetic Movement, moving in literary and erudite circles among the likes of Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning and Henry James, producing over 43 major works and achieving international prominence. Yet today, she is hardly remembered.

Hauntings, Fantastic Stories Vernon LeeHauntings: Fantastic Stories was published in 1890 and draws on mythological and historical influences. My favourite of these stories ‘A Wicked Voice’ explores overtly the power of voices from the past. The narrator Magnus is a composer attempting to write his great opera Ogier the Dane. Set in Venice, the “stagnant lagoon of the past”, it is the perfect place to feel the influence of history, which he hopes will act as his muse. But Magnus gets more than he bargained for, as after a few careless words about a particular portrait of a once great eighteenth-century castrato named Zaffirino, Magnus becomes haunted by Zaffirino’s ghost and, more specifically, by his voice.

We learn a little of Zaffirino’s strange history straight away, that he was called Zaffirino (Italian for sapphire) having been given a sapphire by, “that great cultivator of the human voice, the devil”. We also learn via Magnus’ friend Count Alvise that no woman could resist the power of his voice. Zaffirino’s music, ironically called L’Aria dei Mariti, the ‘Husbands’ Air’ could make slaves of his listeners; indeed, “his first song could make any woman turn pale and lower her eyes, the second could make her madly in love, while the third could kill her off on the spot.” Zaffirino’s voice is the source of his power and his allure. Castrati were men castrated before puberty in order to retain an alto or soprano voice (a practice that thankfully died out in the nineteenth century). Magnus isn’t immune to Zaffirino’s charms either, referring to his apparition as “beautiful” and feeling both attraction and repulsion simultaneously. The same is true of Zaffirino’s music; even though he’s eager to hear more he despises it, knowing that while he listens he obliterates every chance he has to make music of his own.

The idea of a wicked voice has echoes in mythology, most obviously with the devil and his ability to persuade men into bartering their souls (as is implied in Lee’s story when Zaffirino obtains the sapphire  the symbol of his power  from the devil), but also with figures such as the sirens and nymphs responsible for luring men to their destruction. It also resonates in Magnus’ own opera Ogier the Dane, based on the Norse legend, in which Ogier, a knight of Charlemange falls under the spell of a beautiful enchantress. Ogier spends one day and one night with her, yet when he returns to his homeland hundreds of years have passed. All that remains of the life he once had is a song, “the song of the prowess of a hero dead for hundreds of years, the Paladin Ogier the Dane.” Ogier, like Zaffirino, exists outside his place in time, haunting the present in the form of a song. He may as well be a phantom, listening to the stories of his youth with the distance of a hundred years.

But why is the past so important in this story? Lee, writing on the cusp of the twentieth century draws on a mythological past as well as the eighteenth century; a golden age of music, when castratos were the celebrated voices of Europe. The very act of looking back, perhaps suggests that all art relies on what has come before, that even when Magnus is making music, it is not his own but Zaffirino’s  a voice of the past  that fills his head. This sense of a dependency on the past was the subject of Lee’s Preface to Hauntings. She explains the reliance we have on the past by drawing attention to the fact that we still live in buildings that were built centuries before. In a similar way, modern horror writers are surrounded by the literary architecture of the past  the ruins of the Gothic that have shaped the genre for so many years. It is hard not to look back and resurrect the same tropes time and time again. Modern horror is still filled with many of the same monsters and ghosts of times gone by, though they are often housed in modern ruins, housing estates, derelict warehouses, places that evoke a sense of decay and the passing of time.

Unfortunately, Lee’s voice was lost to the past until very recently. Why some voices endure and others do not has no straightforward answer (at least not one short enough for this column) but like her characters in ‘A Wicked Voice’ there’s a sense that Vernon Lee existed outside her place in time, or as her biographer Vineta Colby put it, “She was too late to be a Victorian, too early to be a Modernist.” But for me, Lee is timeless. Her prose is sharp and engaging, her stories rich with mythological and cultural references, the supernatural rendered scarier because of the intellectual viewpoints she often adopts to tell her tales. Lee celebrates the past, not as a mere “stagnant pool” from which to fish for ideas but as a place alive with voices worth listening to (if you dare).

V.H. LESLIE

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1 comment

  1. Excellent article – thank you. The story that turned me onto her work was OKE OF OKEHURST in Robert Aickman’s SIXTH FONTANA BOOK OF GREAT GHOST STORIES. I bought the Ash-Tree reprinting of HAUNTINGS as a result.

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