Saturday, 9 April 2011

Supernatural Tales by Vernon Lee (Edited by I. Cooper Willis), Peter Owen Publishers

The precise flipside of Hill’s novella is this collection of six longish short stories, edited by Irene Cooper Willis.  Where Hill is uncoloured, internal and spare, this writer emotes in prose richly purple, brimming with heightened reaction and mythical allusion.
  Violet Paget burst onto the literary late-Victorian scene a precocious 24-year-old, self-taught, Italian scholar when, in 1880, her Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy was published.  No, I had never heard of her either.  At least, not until the wonderfully titled Virgin of the Seven Daggers was republished in paperback by Penguin Pocket Classics in 2008, (and featured here) accredited to one ‘Vernon Lee.’  (A pseudonym whose resonance I had mistakenly associated with the American Deep South and the world of Mark Twain).
  You will find tongue-twisting Latin names of people and place here, which may be off-putting to the eye in the attempts to focus upon plot.  Yet, there is humour also, delivered in tandem with the vain personal knowledge of her subject that – in equal measure – charms and disarms with wit.  This is especially noticeable in ‘Amour Dure,’ where you will find wry narrative humour suddenly punctuating the hopelessly swelling paranoia of its protagonist.
  These Supernatural Tales – penned by Paget through the 1880s’ for contemporary collections in the wake of her successful Studies – evoke the rich Gothic tapestries of Ann Radcliffe, with the delightful addition of proto-feminist phantoms making justifiable mockery of idiot male passion.  It is therefore no surprise to learn she was ‘in touch with European liberal opinion’ and ‘an acknowledged pacifist’ in Cooper Willis’s Introduction.
  They also evoke an even earlier time – of the Borgias and Orsinis - suggestive of where Paget’s romantically red-blooded heart truly resides.
For students of post-18th century Gothic romance, this collection cannot be overlooked.  For most fans of genre fiction however, its’ equally rich Italianate descriptions might be perceived as obstacles.

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