Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) - and sexuality
(forward page from Clementina (Kit) Anstruther-Thomson (q.v.) To Kit Anstruther-Thomson page (back)

Vernon Lee was the pseudonym used by the writer, Violet Paget. In 1880, at the age of twenty four, after several journeys round Europe and living mostly in Florence, she published her best known work "Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy".

She was, some said, an eccentric and outspoken woman, often disliked as a result of her unconventional aggressiveness, her self-assurance and her intelligence. She had a passionate attachment to a life-long female friend, the beautiful poet-novelist Agnes Mary Robinson. During the latter part of the 1880s, Kit Anstruther-Thomson also became involved with her both in a romantic and in a literary context; the former relationship lasted for several years and well into the eighteen nineties. The literary link remained.

That decade, known colloquially as the "Naughty Nineties", marked a turning point in the way that British culture came to face and understand questions of sexual difference. England began to see that its society was sexually and ethnically more diverse than previous decades had been willing to admit.

In the midst of this stood Oscar Wilde. In the Spring of 1894, the young Oscar Wilde went to Florence where, by chance he met André Gide - whose acquaintance he had already made in Paris and whilst there he also visited Violet Paget, sharing with her theories, experiences and ideas. In the following year his extraordinary career - with its rapid success in the theatre world of London - was suddenly punctuated by his prison sentence in Reading Gaol which event served to intensify a growing public awareness of variations in male and female sexual orientation.

Violet Paget was friendly with the later celebrated artist, John Singer Sargent, who had known her since his teenage years. He was born in Florence. She later held many a debate over 'Art' with him - notably the relation between psychology and art - about which they eventually agreed to differ. Violet believed that their friendship lasted because she chose to not discuss it in his presence. She stated - "Sargent does not like opposition, nor do I dogmatism."

It is generally held that she made a significant contribution to the ćsthetic debate. Whilst not the final word, this quotation is as pertinent now as it was a century ago.

"Moreover, if the number of extensions, directions, real or imaginary lines or musical intervals, alternations of something and nothing, prove too great for your powers of measurement and comparison, particularly if it all surpass your habitual interplay of recollection and expectation, you will say (as before an over intricate pattern or a piece of music of unfamiliar harmonies and rhythm) that "you can't grasp it"-- that you "miss the hang of it." And what you will feel is that you cannot keep the parts within the whole, that the boundary vanishes, that what has been included unites with the excluded, in fact that all shape welters into chaos. And as if to prove once more the truth of our general principle, you will have a hateful feeling of having been trifled with."

Over the course of her lifetime, she published some 45 volumes, including essays on Italian history, art, ćsthetics, and travel; her travel writings such as 'Genius Loci', 1899 and 'The Sentimental Traveller', 1908 were much admired by others in literary circles, for example, Huxley. At the other end of the scale, Henry James described her novel 'Miss Brown' (1884) as 'a deplorable mistake'.

Kit Anstruther-Thomson died, aged 64, in 1921. Her work - "Art & Man: Essays & Fragments" - was published in 1924. The introduction was written by Vernon Lee. The early 20th century saw the blossoming of a host of influential groups and individuals - of all sexual persuasions - and all of them left permanent footprints in the world of the Arts whilst, at the same time, contributing to the development of a collective social, moral and political debate.

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