Ethics and Empathy in the Literary Criticism of Vernon Lee

By Mahoney, Kristin | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring-Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Empathy in the Literary Criticism of Vernon Lee


Mahoney, Kristin, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Although Vernon Lee's literary theories and critical methodologies altered radically over the course of her career, her interest in relationality and contact with otherness remained a constant. From the beginning her critical work is a compound of aesthetics and ethics; for Lee, ethical feeling is intimately bound up with the experience of empathy. A transitional figure between the moral criticism of the Victorians and the formalist criticism of early twentieth-century practitioners, Lee moved between and integrated aestheticism, moralism, and formalism into her own criticism, bringing to each of these methodologies a concern with relationality and ethics and a belief in the ennobling effects of reading. An analysis of Lee's assessment of the beauty, morality, and form of the literary experience reveals that her underlying concern remained a belief in the ethical relevance of that experience. And even though, early and late in her career, Lee was drawn to critical practices that seem to bracket ethics, her criticism demonstrates the malleability of critical methodologies, exhibiting a capacity to open into concern for and engagement with alterity.

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Vernon Lee's February 1891-January 1892 commonplace book begins with a list of the books that she had read and written that year (Fig. 1). Under the heading "read," she lists Zola's Nana (1880), Pot Bouille (1882), and An Bonheur des Dames (1883) as well as Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), Tolstoy's The Fruits of Enlightenment (1891), and Ibsen's The Wild Duck (1884) and Rosmerholm (1886). Under the heading "written" appear the essay "Of Writers and Readers" (1891), the dialogue "On Friendship" from Althea (1894), and the preface to "three stories" (presumably those that appeared in the collection Vanitas [1892]). She invites us to read those works "written" as emerging from her contact with those "read," to see the ideas about "frivolous women" and what it is that makes us "thoughtful for our fellows" expressed in Vanitas and Althea as the outcome of her interaction with Zola's representations of desire and consumerism, Tolstoy's critique of class hierarchy, and Ibsen's treatment of excessive idealism (Vanitas vi; Althea 113).

Lee began each of her commonplace books in this manner, noting carefully what literature she had consumed and what, in turn, she had produced, demonstrating that her books were made from her contact with other books, that her thinking resulted from the interplay of her own ideas with those of other writers. The essay "Of Writers and Readers," which emerges from this very period, argues that this is, in fact, why we read, so that our experiences might "mingle [...] with something foreign to our own experience" (530). In order, she argues, for our thoughts to be "agreeable and pleasant" "our life must needs be double, interwoven of absent and present," and each experience is typically read through the lens of "[digested]" and "[assimilated]" material that we first encountered in books (532). The "fragments of colour, snatches of melody" that we retain from our reading "lie in our minds and perfume times and places like orrisroot and lavender among our linen" (532). The content of the books that we read becomes entwined with our own perception, remaking us and inflecting our vision. Through reading, our subjectivity mingles with another's. Our lives become double.

Lee's literary theories and critical methodologies altered radically over the course of her long career, but this interest in relationality and contact with otherness remained a constant. In writing about how we read, she is almost always writing about how we encounter and engage with alterity. Her literary criticism is from the beginning a strange compound of aesthetics and ethics, and, for Lee, ethical feeling is intimately bound up with the experience of empathy. (1) The term empathy came to mean something very specific to Lee in her psychological aesthetic theory at the turn of the century, in which she theorized the manner in which we "feel into" art objects (Beauty and Ugliness 337). …

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