From Plato’s metaphysical beauty to the synaesthesia of Edmund Burke 

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The appropriation of traditional codes of Decadence

« [W]e have but a narrow conception of life if we confine it to the functions which are obviously practical, and a narrow conception of reality if we exclude from it the Past65 ». This quotation sums up her sources of inspiration: aesthetics and the past. She was convinced that the past can help people understand the present, not only in terms of history but also in terms of feelings. According to her, the past is the source of inspiration for the present; « and unless it be gathered up into the present and there revived66 », it will shrink and disappear. That is why she actually conceptualized the term and wrote the word with a capital letter. Indeed, what was important for Vernon Lee were the feeling, the experience and the emotions brought by a work of art. This is why she also thought that aesthetics had a major importance because it contributed to extend people’s vision of life. This interest for aesthetics is an aspect of her work which connects her to the Decadent Movement. Indeed, the movement is well-known for valuing intense refinement, artificiality and beauty above everything—including morality: « […] the task of defining the word decadence is the most difficult because unlike other literary designations, it arouses inescapable pejorative associations. Decadents […] have a bad reputation. Exactly what the badness consists of we are not sure, but clearly some kind of perverted notion or action is expected of the decadent67 ».
Although she is faithful to some of the Decadent standards—such as the themes she explores —she manages to step back from the movement and from her sources of inspiration and make traditional codes hers in order to create her own path. That is where her art lies: she borrows from her predecessors or from her contemporaries what she needs in order to make her work the best it can be: a work which corresponds to her ideas and her values. Thus, Hauntings is a work mixing Lee’s interest in the past with aesthetics. Actually, she goes even further by using these themes: she wants to make women’s voices heard in an attempt to change mentalities.

Hauntings: when the format and nature of the text serve the plot

As we have seen previously, the short story was flourishing at the end of the nineteenth century. The development of newspapers and literary magazines such as The Yellow Book or The Savoy widely contributed to its expansion and its popularity. These periodicals (linked to the Decadent Movement because of their sometimes contentious content) published literary and artistic works. They were not dedicated to a specific genre: they printed poetry, essays, portraits and also short stories. Yet, short stories were not only famous because of the materials they were printed on, but also for their own well-defined characteristics. First of all, in a short story, the plot comes first. Indeed, all the devices are used to serve the plot. This focus on the achievement of the plot can be one of the reasons why short stories were so trendy at that time: people needed to be entertained and stories with well-chiseled plots fulfilled this requirement. Moreover, the short story is a kind of hybrid genre. In Introduction à l’étude de la nouvelle littérature contemporaine de langue anglaise, Liliane Louvel and Claudine Verley explain that this genre has the capacity to absorb different characteristics of other genres. This is what they call the polysynthetism of the short story. On the one hand, it can be compared to a novel because of its narrativity. Yet, on the other hand, the authors suggest that Thus, the use of figures of speech helps to create images (such as in poetry) which contribute to making the story interesting. Also, the brevity of the text reminds us of the poetic structure. The description must be short and, as in poetry, the use of images and metaphors allows the reader to create the setting in his mind, as in the description of Mr Oke’s house in « Oke of Okehurst »: Out of the huge hall, with its immense fireplace of delicately carved and inlaid grey and black stone, and its rows of family portraits, reaching from the wainscoting to the oaken ceiling, vaulted and ribbed like a ship’s hull, opened the wide, flat-stepped staircase […]. It seemed to me that I was being led through the palace of the Sleeping Beauty69.

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« One really sees with the eyes of the body and the eyes of the spirit90 »

In order to understand Vernon Lee’s writings and the importance descriptions have in her texts, we have to study more closely the concept of description itself. According to the essayist and literary critic Philippe Hamon91, description is not a genre but a speech type: it is actually a variant of the argumentative speech. He adds also that its definition is not a grammatical one. Indeed, a description is not recognizable by its words, by a specific vocabulary or by a particular use of language. It is rather a set of logical operations. Moreover, the description depends on the genre of the text its belongs to because it has to adapt to a literary text, its purpose is to explain the reality the narrator has in front of him, most often listing what the descriptor sees92.

Table of contents :

I. The beginnings of « [a] more […] flexible model of society » 
1. The changing context of Britain: a response to industrialization
a) The social aftermath of the Industrial Revolution
b) The rise of education
2. The fear of the « new »
a) A Sense of anxiety and collapse
b) Decadent literature : definition and birth of the movement
c) A movement seen as a threat
II. The appropriation of traditional codes of Decadence 
1. Hauntings: when the format and nature of the text serve the plot
a) The short story: brevity and confusion of genres
b) Men’s diaries or letters
c) « One really sees with the eyes of the body and the eyes of the spirit »
2. Beauty: « the main interest of the artist, and […] his highest aim »
a) From Plato’s metaphysical beauty to the synaesthesia of Edmund Burke
b) Major sources of inspiration: Walter Pater, the Pre-Raphaelites
c) « [B]eauty exists in many forms »: Vernon Lee’s appropriation
3. Mythical characters who convey new messages
a) The myth: a universality Decadents have appropriated for themselves
b) Lee’s inspiration: Medusa and Pater’s Gods in exile
c) Lee’s deconstruction of myths
4. The theme of love in Hauntings
a) Pessimism: Schopenhauer’s breeding ground for impossible loves
b) « ‘Decadence’ was also a fin de siècle euphemism for homosexuality »
c) Hysteria and violence cannot lead to love
III. Hauntings’ ambivalence: a criticism and a product of the society 
1. Hauntings and its relation to the Gothic genre
a) A « combination of ‘high culture’ and ‘low culture' »
b) The Gothic genre reflecting our cultural selves
2. Death: the appropriation of an elusive event
a) Between certainty and uncertainty
b) The ills of the society highlighted through the theme of death
3. « Imaginative suggestiveness »: a strategy to manipulate the reader’s mind
a) « [T]his vague we know not what »
b) A sense of reality which challenges the content of the stories
c) « [C]’est le lecteur qui fait le texte »


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