The novel and domestic history were free reign for the woman writer. However, she shied away from philosophy and sage writing. An exception to this rule was the indefatigable Vernon Lee (Violet Page) who wrote extensively on the art of writing and the morality of art itself. Lee was innovative in the field, a pioneer in addressing a reader/audience response theory. As Vineta Colby points out in her study of Lee in her book The Singular Anomaly, Lee

along with her friend and mentor Henry James... was one of the first to write criticism... of fiction, to analyze technique, to examine the psychology not only of the writer and his characters but of the reader who responds to the novel. [237]

In 1923, Lee's essays on writing were collected into a volume, The Handling of Words, and included such discussions as "On style," "On Literary Construction," and "Can Writing Be Taught?"

Though she disliked the analytic novel, preferring the "synthetic" which seems like it is being lived out, Lee uses analysis as a method of criticism. She examines the novelist's techniques of interacting with the reader through the piece's construction and language. In addition, she analyzes passages randomly picked from a variety of writings. In these analyses, Lee records what sensations the narrative invokes in her, describing the writer's techniques give rise to these feelings. Colby, who admires Lee's revolutionary approach, reminds us that "Long before the formal study of semantics and the 'communication arts' Vernon Lee was exploring questions of connotative meaning, patterns of association, the effects of sentence length and prose rhythms" (246).

Lee was important in establishing roots for this field, approaching the novel as an artistic creation. Yet, she believed the novel really did not concern itself so much with aesthetics, that is, a study of beauty. In that realm, she believed that other art forms, such as painting, music and architecture were of a higher status. For Lee, the novel was more concerned with an ethical agenda and portraying an opinion rather than the creation of something beautiful.

Lee wrote a great deal about the importance of her brand of aestheticism. For her, art played a spiritual, quasi-religious role, saying that "Art is the expression of man's life, of his mode of being, of his relations with the universe, since it is, in fact, man's inarticulate answer to the universe's unspoken message"(241). Moreover, in a strange melding of puritanical and humanist ideals, she believed beauty was essentially good, both in itself and the bettering effects it had on the audience.

Though most of Lee's fiction has disappeared into the background, her work on literary and art criticism endured and laid the foundations for future work.

Bibliography

Colby, Vineta. The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. New York: New York University Press, 1970.


Women in Victorian Art

Last modified 1996