A Phantom Lover
and Other Dark Tales
by Vernon Lee
by Sarah Johnson
Reading A Phantom Lover and Other Dark Tales by Vernon Lee (1856-1935), edited by Mike Ashley, I was struck by the exploration of European culture that many of them present. Maybe my reaction is a reflection of recent times: being confined by travel restrictions and weary of the uneasy relationship between the European Union and the UK. In this volume, published by the British Library as part of its Tales of the Weird series, five of the eight stories are set in Italy, and Lee wrote numerous works about the country and its art and music, in addition to her supernatural fiction. She travelled all over Europe in her lifetime, experiences which inform the settings, characters, and events described in this collection. Mike Ashley writes in the introduction that Lee: ‘surrounded herself with a study of European art and culture, especially Italian,’ being ‘haunted by the past.’ Lee creates landscapes both rural and urban, set in archaic worlds, many of which – despite their strangeness – I would like to visit.
The Venice of ‘A Wicked Voice’ is considered by the narrator, Magnus, as ‘cursed Venice, with its languishing moonlights, its atmosphere as of some stuffy boudoir, long unused, full of old stuffs and pot-pourri!’ Yet it is also undeniably alluring, with descriptions such as:
‘The gondola glided through the long, glittering track of moon-beams, and rent the great band of yellow, reflected light, mirroring the cupolas of St. Mark’s, the lace-like pinnacles of the palace, and the slender pink belfry, which rose from the lit-up water to the pale and bluish evening sky.’
Attracted to (but also repulsed by) the place and, inevitably, the owner of the wicked voice, Magnus’ observations are coloured by the atmosphere of corrupt and decaying decadence that pervades a city built on vanishing glories and glamour. The past pursues him in the form of a voice singing ‘voluptuous phrases and florid cadences’ – presumably that of the long-dead ‘coxcomb of a singer’, Zaffirino. The voice follows Magnus, infuses his dreams, but worst of all transforms his music compositions: from a contemporary form to that of the corrupting past. As with other stories in this collection, the protagonist is haunted as much by an idea as a ghost. The resultant change in character this brings about is occasionally unsettling to read, even more so than encounters with supernatural beings that might exist but could also be the product of overwrought emotions.
The experiences of Sister Benvenuta Loredan in ‘Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child’ leave much to the reader to decide regarding their miraculous or psychological origin. Destined to be a nun since birth, Sister Benvenuta is of noble birth but regarded as ‘simple,’ with a fixation on a figure of the Christ Child. The arrival of a puppet show at the Convent of St. Mary in Friuli causes much excitement, disrupting the monotonous existence of the sisters. The puppets represent numerous stock characters, including the Devil ‘Beelzebubb Satanasso, Prince of all Devils,’ with legs like those of a horse, long ears, and scarlet horns.
With this puppet, the Sister makes a bargain that leads to events which some call miraculous. Yet, in the descriptions of convent life – the jealousies, pettiness, and mundanity – there is a suggestion that such an atmosphere can contribute to skewed perceptions. At times, deliberations over questions of theology are presented in all their ridiculousness, and the sisters are victims of a patriarchal system which has no use for women of little value in the marriage market. While the focus of these stories is not primarily on the status of women in male-dominated societies, their experiences often contribute to the supernatural events that take place.
In ‘The Legend of Madame Krasinka’ there is a stark contrast drawn between the widows Signora Maddalena and Madame Krasinka. One is elderly, destitute, and considered mad, while the other enjoys a life of luxury, having successfully negotiated the marriage market and been widowed at a young age. The young widow, Madame Krasinka, ‘had always had money, health and good looks’, whereas Signora Maddalena is a ‘hideous old draggle-tailed mad woman’ who suffers terribly on the death of her sons. The question ‘Have you ever tried to imagine what it is to be poor and forsaken and old?’ is posed, and Madame Krasinka is fated to learn the answer. The tale is as much an examination of the politics of class, gender, and privilege as it is a narrative of ghostly revenge.
My favourite piece of writing in the collection, however, takes the form of an essay, ‘The Enchanted Woods,’ which I read here for the first time. Creating a strong sense of place, Lee draws the reader through a magical landscape while reflecting on the nature of the imagination, travel, and journeys. The Enchanted Wood is ‘full of spells and of adventure without end, drawing one, up that dark, gliding river, into their hidden heart.’ Much the same can be said of A Phantom Lover and Other Dark Tales. If you desire a journey into the haunted past of forgotten worlds and people, you will find it here.
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