“Dionea”

It’s a welcome return to another Vernon Lee work this week at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Dionea”, Vernon Lee, 1890. 

The strange and sinister foundling child is a motif of weird fiction, myth, folklore, and fairy tales, and that’s what Lee gives us here. But, because it’s Lee, the story of that child is mixed in with all sorts of detail and description of the kind she presumably put in her many nonfiction works of art criticism and travel writing.

The story opens on June 29, 1873, and the place is Montemino Ligure in Italy. Our narrator is Doctor Alessandro De Rosis, and the story is told exclusively through his letters to an old frined, the Lady Evelyn Savelli, Princess of Sabina. 

It starts with him asking the Princess for money to take care of some poor people in the area, specifically a girl of four or five found strapped to a plank, presumably the survivor of the wreck of a Greek ship with distinctive eyes painted on its bows. 

The story proceeds casually over the years with the doctor detailing life in the area but increasingly referencing that girl.

Dionea is given to the local nuns for education. Her name comes from a scrap of parchment pinned to her original clothes. The latter seem to indicate her origins are in Cyprus or Crete. There is some dispute whether she should be christened. The consequences of possibly christening her twice are thought by some to be bad. Some of the locals definitely don’t think a girl in a convent should be named after a supposed derivation of the pagan goddess Dione, “one of the loves of Father Zeus, and mother of no less a lady than the goddess Venus.” However, a saint named Dionea is found, so she keeps her name. 

At age 11, Dionea is very pretty. But she’s not well-liked in the convent. She hates lessons, sewing, and washing dishes. She just likes to look upon the sea. She seems to have an affinity for myrtle and rose bushes. The ones she habitually lays near grow unusually large. One nun even claims Dionea makes weeds grow. Dionea also likes to play with pigeons who gather around her in large numbers. 

In 1882, the doctor starts on a history of the fall of the Pagan Gods. Dionea gets into trouble by trying to don some sacred garments that were once supposedly the Madonna’s. She also put sawdust and olive oil on the chapel floor and sat on the altar. 

Her beauty has grown, but it’s unsettling to the doctor: 

dark, lithe, with an odd, ferocious gleam in her eyes, and a still odder smile, tortuous, serpentine, like that of Leonardo da Vinci’s women. 

Dionea looks contemptously on signs on the convent door designed to ward off the Evil One. The doctor remembers that the door must have been missing when she first entered it. It seems the doctor is, perhaps subconsciously, starting to suspect something unearthly about Dionea. When she is punished by having to lick the sign of the cross onto the chapel floor 26 times, he expects, as happened when “Dame Venus” pricked her hand on a thorn bush, that roses would spring from the floor. 

In 1883, the question of marrying Dionea off comes up. She is accounted a great beauty by the village, but the local boys look at her suspiciously and don’t want to be around her. Women make the sign of the horned devil behind her back. Dionea seems involved with several people whose romances go sour. 

By July 1884, the doctor almost begins to think the locals are right to be suspicious of Dionea. She seems to bring chaos into people’s love by tangling up their emotions. Even a timid nun in the convent has left with a local sailor. 

In 1885, the doctor talks about Father Domenico, a monk. Normally, he doesn’t like monks, but he likes Domenico and is worried he seems sick.  He is saddened Domenico dies.

And he is surprised when Dionea tells him Domenico killed himself with charcoal. The doctor doesn’t like her tone and tells her God took one of his faithful servants to Heaven. Dionea just gives the doctor a myrtle leave and just repeats, over and over, “amor”. 

In 1886, at age 17, Dionea leaves the convent and goes to work for some masons. The doctor’s trepidation is increased when he talks about his eagerness to get Dionea hired out as a maid for the daughter of a rich man or send her to Rome to the Princess’ household. 

The idea of marrying her to that rich man, Sor Agostino, doesn’t last long. He is killed by lightenig under one of his olive trees. Dionea tells the doctor “I told him . . . that if he did not leave me alone Heaven would send him an accident.” 

At the Princess’ request, the doctor finds some local lodging for a famous sculptor, Waldemar, and his wife. The doctor, when speaking about Waldemar’s sculptures, wonders why they are only of men and boys or his thin wife, Gertrude, and not Amazons and “broad-flanked Aphrodite”. 

In 1887, we hear Dionea is now selling philters. Some of the women who bought the philtersare found dancing with other women and proclaim they are witches. The doctor flat out calls Dionea’s business evil. When he visits her, he hears Dionea proclaim  “Love is salt, like sea-water”. 

When Waldemar and Gertrude arrive, the doctor finds he likes Gertrude the best of the pair and doesn’t mind Waldemar when he is with his wife, comparing him to a tamed lion. Waldemar puts forth the idea that a woman’s main attraction is not her strength or beauty but her soul. Painting is more suited for depicting them than sculpture though he concedes some ancient female subjects are worthy of sculpture. 

The doctor is a little upset that Gertrude suggests that Waldemar sculpt Dionea. The doctor compares it to a wife not minding her husband committing adultery. The doctor tells Gertrude he will urge Dionea to refuse. 

Gertrude wants Waldemar to sculpt a Venus and doesn’t think Dionea will refuse. 

When viewing the clay model for the sculpture, the doctor notes that Waldemar’s sculpture of Dionea certainly supports the notion that sculpture “knows only the body, and the body scarcely considered as human”. 

The effect of the work on Waldemar and the doctor is to make Dionea’s beauty appear even greater: 

How strange is the power of art! Has Waldemar’s statue shown me the real Dionea, or has Dionea really grown more strangely beautiful than before? Your Excellency will laugh; but when I meet her I cast down my eyes after the first glimpse of her loveliness; not with the shyness of a ridiculous old pursuer of the Eternal Feminine, but with a sort of religious awe—the feeling with which, as a child kneeling by my mother’s side, I looked down on the church flags when the Mass bell told the elevation of the Host…. Do you remember the story of Zeuxis and the ladies of Crotona, five of the fairest not being too much for his Juno? Do you remember—you, who have read everything—all the bosh of our writers about the Ideal in Art? Why, here is a girl who disproves all this nonsense in a minute; she is far, far more beautiful than Waldemar’s statue of her.

But Waldemar destroys the model’s face, and, one morning, disraught, he visits the doctor. They talk about the doctor’s manuscript on “Exiled Gods” and real pagan survivals in modern Europe. Waldemar’s eye turns toward a small altar the doctor found. He wants to borrow the “little Venus altar” to make a copy of its pedastal for his studio.

The doctor’s July 25, 1887 letter starts out by talking about all the medieval legends of myth and literature that are not true. 

Apollo was never in Styria; that Chaucer, when he called the Queen of the Fairies Proserpine, meant nothing more than an eighteenth century poet when he called Dolly or Betty Cynthia or Amaryllis; that the lady who damned poor Tannhäuser was not Venus, but a mere little Suabian mountain sprite; in fact, that poetry is only the invention of poets, and that that rogue, Heinrich Heine, is entirely responsible for the existence of Dieux en Exil…. My poor manuscript can only tell you what St. Augustine, Tertullian, and sundry morose old Bishops thought about the loves of Father Zeus and the miracles of the Lady Isis, none of which is much worth your attention…. Reality, my dear Lady Evelyn, is always prosaic: at least when investigated into by bald old gentlemen like me. And yet, it does not look so.

(Spoilers ahead)

That night, Gertrude goes home and leaves Waldemar in the studio which, incidentally is in “an old desecrated chapel” once thought to be a temple of Venus. He asks Dionea (officially now a servant of his) to sit for him. Waldemar asks her to sit between the altar of Venus and his completed bust of statue of her. He wants to compare model and statue in artificial lifght.

The doctor surmises what happened next. Waldemar started to put incense on the embers on the altar and strew roses about. (In effect, he’s worshipping Dionea.) Gertrude shows up, and something happened. She was found dead on the altar, having bled to death.

Waldemar jumped off a cliff. 

Had he hoped, by setting the place on fire, to bury himself among its ruins, or had he not rather wished to complete in this way the sacrifice, to make the whole temple an immense votive pyre? It  looked like one, as we hurried down the hills to San Massimo: the whole hillside, dry grass, myrtle, and heather, all burning, the pale short flames waving against the blue moonlit sky, and the old fortress outlined black against the blaze. 

In the doctor’s last letter, dated August 30, 1887, we hear the last of Dionea: 

Of Dionea I can tell you nothing certain. We speak of her as little as we can. Some say they have seen her, on stormy nights, wandering among the cliffs: but a sailor-boy assures me, by all the holy things, that the day after the burning of the Castle Chapel—we never call it anything else—he met at dawn, off the island of Palmaria, beyond the Strait of Porto Venere, a Greek boat, with eyes painted on the prow, going full sail to sea, the men singing as she went. And against the mast, a robe of purple and gold about her, and a myrtle-wreath on her head, leaned Dionea, singing words in an unknown tongue, the white pigeons circling around her.

There are plenty of stories which imagine the return of one of the Greek gods or godesses into the contemporary world. I’ve recently posted on several that feature Pan. But Lee’s choice for a such a god is unusual. Unlike Aphrodite her daughter, Dionea’s beauty is more an awful, unsettling phenomena. Dionea is not the object of lust fo the local men. Nor, unlike Aphrodite, does she facilitate love affairs. She as often ends them as inspires them.

And what happened that final night? Did Waldemar worship Dionea as a goddess? And why was Gertrude killed and by whom?  Did Gertrude come to regret putting her husband and Dionea together? Was Dionea angered at some rite being interrupted? Did Waldemar offer her up as a blood sacrifice? Lee seems to imply the latter.

Appropriately, the mysterious Dione leaves us and returns to the sea.

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