Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Required Reading: A PHANTOM LOVER by Vernon Lee
The fourth in Bleiler's collection FIVE VICTORIAN GHOST NOVELS, this is probably the most modern and psychological, a real contrast to the previous work, MONSIEUR MAURICE.
Also known as OKE OF OKEHURST (yawn-inducing, eh?), it's narrated by an artist who's hired by a Mr. Oke to come to his country seat and paint portraits of him and his wife.
Of course, it gets complicated. Mr. Oke is a nice enough guy, but bland and uninteresting. Mrs. Oke...Alice...is different. Exotic, beautiful, intense, and intelligent, she's also obsessed with the story of an ancestor who had a passionate affair with a local poet. Said ancestress later murdered, assisted by her husband, the poet, for unclear reasons. And now Alice seems to be having an affair with the poet's ghost.
It's a great story, simply great. There's all sorts of hints about the state of their marriage. Oke complains about his wife's health, and at one point complains of not having children. Has the marriage been unconsummated? Why did they get married? Oke is intimidated by his wife, and is always on edge. The narrator notes that Oke is horribly shy, and that shyness is induced by a fear of making a fool of himself in his wife's eyes, and it's only when he's away from her that he can relax. Alice barely notices her husband, and takes no interest in his political work (in which he seems diligent, but undistinguished). She moons and obsesses over her ghostly lover, claiming that he visits her.
And in that lies the story's brilliance. This is in tune with Henry James' ambiguity in THE TURN OF THE SCREW (and Lee was a great friend of James, making me wonder...). We never see the ghost ourselves, and it's never truly confirmed that it's supernatural. Alice may just be mentally ill, obsessing over an old family story. Or this may be a story of domestic violence, of the psychological sort. Alice is doing it to relieve the tedium of her unhappy marriage, and to torture the husband she's come to loathe and resent.
Of course, it all leads to an act of violence, and a wonderfully ambiguous last bit that doesn't resolve much of anything, but does it in great style.
Vernon Lee's real name was Violet Paget (1956-1935), and was one of the great decadent writers, as well as a noted travel author and art critic. She was also a feminist, a lesbian, part of the Aesthetic movement, and quite the thinker on topics like psychology and people's reactions to art. She spent most of her life on the Continent although she wrote in English for an English audience; her longest residence was near Florence, and her library remains there, at the British Institute. She's best known these days for her supernatural tales, but reading some of her biographical material, she sounds like a fascinating person and I'd like to dip into some of her works on aestheticism. Lee's enthusiasm for art shows in this novella, where she paints great visuals of the Okehurst mansion and of the narrator's artistic work, and her grasp of psychology is remarkable. (The portrait above was painted by John Singer Sargent.)
Some critics have said this story is definitely supernatural, but it's not. There's a ton of ambiguity here and there's an extremely good case to be made for it being a case of psychological torture as a result of an extremely unhappy and ill-matched marriage. I'm happy to include this in the Required Reading list, and recommend that readers delve into Lee's other works. I've read some of her other stories in the past and enjoyed them all, and I can't help but think her works on art and aesthetics will be interesting. And the good D&C fan also appreciates art...