Paget, Violet (1856–1935)

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Paget, Violet (1856–1935)

Prolific and wide-ranging English writer. Name variations: (pseudonym) Vernon Lee. Born on October 14, 1856, in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France; died on February 13, 1935, in San Gervasio, Italy; daughter of Henry Ferguson Paget and Matilda (Abadam) Lee-Hamilton; never married; no children.

At 13, published first essay (1869); published first and best-known book, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880); also won wide acclaim for another travel guide, Genius Loci (1890).

Selected writings:

Studies in the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880); The Countess of Albany (1884); Miss Brown: A Novel (1884); Euphorian: Being Studies of the Antique and Mediaeval in the Renaissance (1884); Hauntings: Fantastic Stories (1890); Vanitas: Polite Stories (1892); Genius Loci: Notes on Places (1899); Ariadne in Mantua: A Drama in Five Acts (1903); Penelope Brandling: A Tale of the Welsh Coast in the Eighteenth Century (1903); Pope Jacynth (1904); Horus Vitae (1904); The Enchanted Woods (1905); The Spirit of Rome: Leaves from a Diary (1906); Gospels of Anarchy (1908); The Sentimental Traveller: Notes on Places (1908); Vital Lies (1912); The Beautiful (1913); The Tower of Mirrors (1914); The Ballet of Nations: A Present-day Morality (1915); Satan, the Waster (1920); The Handling of Words (1923); For Maurice (1927); Music and Its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses to Music (1932); Supernatural Tales (2 vols., 1955–56).

Violet Paget, who used the pseudonym Vernon Lee, was a prolific writer whose 40-plus publications included travel books, short stories, novels, historical fiction, satire, international politics, women's rights, psychology, and aesthetic critiques of the arts. While her formidable intelligence, critical powers, and strong personality were widely noted, Paget's contemporary reputation and popularity peaked early, then steadily declined, in part due to what was perceived as arrogance as well as a certain lack of social tact.

Paget's English father, Henry Ferguson Paget, was involved in the Warsaw insurrection of 1848. Forced to flee Poland, Henry went to France, where he met a Welsh widow, Matilda Lee-Hamilton , and tutored her invalid son Eugene Lee-Hamilton, who later became a poet. Henry and Matilda soon married, and Violet, who would be their only child, was born in 1856 near Boulogne, France. The family moved frequently during her youth, mostly within Germany. Her parents and older half-brother, as well as a series of German governesses, were Paget's principal educational influences, and with her parents' tutoring she grew up evaluating the intellectual and aesthetic developments of the period. Matilda has been described as a highly intellectual but strongly anti-social woman, and Paget would later trace some of her difficulties in dealing with other people to having grown up with what she called her "acutely neuropathic and hysterical" family members.

During the winter of 1866–67, while in Nice, France, the Pagets met and became close friends with the Sargent family, whose young son John Singer Sargent was the same age as Paget. (Years later he would paint her portrait.) The following year, when Paget was 11 years old, the family began wintering in Rome, often with the Sargents. Mary Singer Sargent , who led Paget and her own two children on enthusiastic sightseeing excursions around Rome and its vicinity while vividly describing many other places, became a major influence on Paget, and in emulation of Mary Sargent's keen interest in Italian history she began collecting ancient Italian coins. She also wrote a short essay on the adventures of a coin, "Les Aventures d'une piece de monnaie," beginning with its coinage out of a Macedonian helmet and moving onwards as it passed through Italy's history. The piece was published in 1870, shortly before her 14th birthday.

The Paget family finally settled in Florence in 1873. Already a student of 18th-century Italy, Paget published four essays on Italian music and literature in an 1877 edition of Fraser's Magazine. Believing that the writing of a woman would not be taken seriously in those Victorian times, she published three of the essays under the pseudonym Vernon Lee. She would continue to employ this name in her professional life, and soon began calling herself Vernon Lee in her personal life as well. In 1880, using various collected bits of information from her trips around Italy, Paget published her initial major work, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. An examination of Italian art (the first by an English scholar) via the culture in which the artists lived, the book earned great respect for its research and "conspicuous ability," and secured Paget's literary reputation.

Paget, who never married, had a series of female companions throughout her life. Perhaps due to the lack of warmth she experienced in her upbringing, she avoided physical contact in public. (And, possibly, in private: according to her literary executor and friend Irene Cooper Willis , while Paget indeed loved women, "she never faced up to sexual facts…. [Her love affairs with women] were all perfectly correct. Physical contact she shunned.") After a brief early relationship with Annie Meyer , Paget met poet Mary Robinson (Agnes Mary F. Duclaux ) in 1880, and began a relationship that would last seven years. With Robinson, Paget began making annual trips to England in 1881 to promote her work and meet with publishers and with England's artistic society, including Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde, William Morris, and Henry James, whom she had become friends with in Italy. She found further success with a puppet show, a set of aesthetic essays, and, early in 1884, The Countess of Albany, a biography of Louise of Stolberg-Gedern , the incompatible wife of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Pressed to produce a novel, that year Paget also published Miss Brown: A Novel, which met immediate and intense criticism. Essentially a satirical attack on the London art scene, the book featured many characters who were thinly disguised representations of actual people (including Wilde, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Morris, and his wife May Morris ). Paget's reputation suffered, and a number of her friends and acquaintances "cut" her completely. Paget herself was astonished at the book's reception—she claimed she had never intended it as a roman à clef—and pondered with dismay her own motivations for writing it. While scandal raged that year, she published other works which were largely overlooked, including Euphorian: Being Studies of the Antique and Mediaeval in the Renaissance.

When Robinson left her suddenly in 1887 to marry a severely crippled man, Paget suffered a serious nervous breakdown. A previous acquaintance, Clementina (Kit) Anstruther-Thomson , aided her recovery, and they established a close relationship that would continue through the next decade. During her convalescence, Paget wrote her first major fiction, a series of short ghost stories published in 1890 as the well-received Hauntings: Fantastic Stories. Many later critics would consider her stories of the supernatural, including "Oke of Okehurst," "A Wicked Voice," and "Winthrop's Adventure," her best works of fiction, and Montague Summers himself claimed that "even Le Fanu and M.R. James cannot be ranked above the genius of this lady." Two years later, however, she published another collection of short fiction, Vanitas: Polite Stories (1892), which included the story "Lady Tal." The narrative, which contained an obvious and unflattering portrait of Henry James and, it has been presumed, Paget as the title character, caused much scandal among the cognoscenti. James ended their friendship without speaking to her again, and a number of her other friends abruptly dropped her as well. ("Lady Tal" remains one of Paget's most frequently anthologized stories.)

Returning to travel essays in the later 1890s, Paget contributed weekly travel pieces to the Westminster Gazette and described her philosophical approach to travel writing in Limbo and Other Essays (1897). Influenced by her ongoing relationship with Anstruther-Thomson, she wrote four more volumes, including the widely acclaimed Genius Loci: Notes on Places (1899), based on her extensive European travels. In that year, Anstruther-Thomson, her health failing and her equanimity perhaps tested by Paget's constant restless travel, moved away. Though missing her good friend, Paget continued her prodigious writing, including a play, Ariadne in Mantua: A Romance in Five Acts (1903), the short-story collection Pope Jacynth (1904), and the essay collections Hortus Vitae (1904), The Enchanted Woods (1905) and The Sentimental Traveller (1908).

As anticipation of war began brewing in the 1910s, Paget incorporated a strong and highly unpopular pacifist position into her works. Her acceptance and popularity waned once again while she preached against growing nationalism, although her efforts were appreciated by such fellow-thinkers as Bertrand Russell, Olive Schreiner , and Lady Ottoline Morrell . She published The Ballet of Nations: A Present-day Morality in 1915, followed by Satan, the Waster: A Philosophic War Trilogy in 1920, as well as several political pamphlets for the Union of Democratic Control. Damage wrought by World War I to society and the European landscape devastated Paget, and while her 1923 study of fiction, The Handling of Words, was respectfully received (and lauded in the later part of the century), her general reputation as a writer declined considerably during the '20s. New, younger writers had claimed the scene, and Paget belonged to the older generation; sadly, however, she spent most of her last years doubting her literary worth. In 1924, she received an honorary doctor of letters degree from the University of Durham, but she became increasingly reclusive as gradually she lost her hearing and began suffering from heart problems. Her last book, Music and Its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses to Music (1932), was considered too technical for the public but not sufficiently scientific for academia, and was poorly received. Violet Paget died in February 1935 in San Gervasio and was buried in Florence's Allori Cemetery.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

Edelstein, Debra, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 57: Victorian Prose Writers After 1867. Ed. by William B. Thesing. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1987.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

O'Neill, Patricia, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 174: British Travel Writers, 1876–1909. Ed. by Barbara Brothers and Julia Gergits. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1997.

Rutledge, Amelia A., in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 178: British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Before World War I. Ed. by Darren Harris-Fain. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1997.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Smith, Jane Bowman, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 156: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880–1914: The Romantic Tradition. Ed. by William F. Nafftus. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Srebrnik, Patricia Thomas, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 153: Late-Victorian and Edwardian Novelists. Ed. by George M. Johnson. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995.

suggested reading:

Gunn, Peter. Vernon Lee: Violet Paget, 1856–1935. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Richard C. C. , freelance writer, Eugene, Oregon