Vernon Lee: Decadent Woman?

  • Ruth Robbins
Part of the Warwick Studies in the European Humanities book series (WSEH)


Over the last twenty years or so, much energy and ink have been devoted to attempts to define the female writer’s relationship to various literary movements and practices. There is already available, for example, a large body of material examining gender and Victorian literature, and gender and Modernism.1 It is the issue of the relationship of gender to literary genres, movements and terminologies with which this essay is concerned. ‘Decadence’ is the movement which will be examined in respect of gender. The literary Decadence of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle might seem to be a strange choice: it is, after all, easy to see why feminists would wish to recuperate for their own use a term such as Modernism with all its implications of a radical, dynamic, forward-looking new art. Decadence raises rather different questions which are, nonetheless, instructive and can aid the literary critic’s understanding of how labelling processes operate, how they exclude or marginalise certain types of writing and writer, even when the label already — like Decadence — confers itself a marginal status on that to which it is applied.


Dominant Discourse Binary Opposition Woman Writer Literary Movement Literary Society 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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  1. 1.
    See for example Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1979)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Phyllis F. Mannochi, ‘“Vernon Lee”: A Reintroduction and Primary Bibliography’, English Literature in Transition, 26 (4), 1983, 231–267Google Scholar
  3. Elaine Showalter in A Literature of their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontä to Lessing (London: Virago Press, 1979, 1984, 1987)Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Vernon Lee’s biography, Vernon Lee, Violet Paget, 1856–1935 by Peter Gunn (London: Oxford University Press, 1964)Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, section 51, Leaves of Grass (New York: Airmont Publishing Company, Inc., 1965) p. 79.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
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  7. 6.
    Robert Browning, ‘Andrea del Sarto’, Robert Browning, The Poems, Volume I, ed. John Pettigrew (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981) p. 646.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Vernon Lee, Belcaro, Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887) pp. 203–5.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
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  10. 13.
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  13. 15.
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  14. 17.
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  15. 18.
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  16. 19.
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  19. 22.
    See Christine Battersby, Gender and Genius, Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (London: The Women’s Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  20. 23.
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  21. 24.
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  22. 30.
    Linda Dowling, Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986) pp. 115–16.Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    Vernon Lee, ‘The Craft of Words’, New Review, XI, December 1894, pp. 571–80Google Scholar
  24. 33.
    Oscar Wilde, Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Peter Ackroyd (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985) pp. 21–2.Google Scholar
  25. 35.
    Vernon Lee, Miss Brown, A Novel (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1884)Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    Holbrook Jackson, The 1890s (London: Cresset Library, 1988), p. 53Google Scholar
  27. John Stokes, In the Nineties (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989) p. 7.Google Scholar
  28. 38.
    Vernon Lee, ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’, The Yellow Book, Volume X, July 1896, pp. 289–344Google Scholar
  29. 41.
    The Lilith myth can be found narrated in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but I first came across it in a quotation from ‘The Alphabet of Ben Sira’ used as an epigraph in Michelene Wandor’s collection of poetry Gardens of Eden: Songs for Eve and Lilith (London and New York: Journeyman Press, 1984). For an analysis of Cleopatra’s erotic, exotic and wicked communion with the asp, see Lucy Hughes-Hallet, Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions (London: Bloomsbury, 1990).Google Scholar

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© Ruth Robbins 1992

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  • Ruth Robbins

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