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. 

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The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins)

This one ended up being a Low Res Scan for a few different reasons.

First, I was feeling a bit lazy last January when I read it and didn’t make notes on every story.

Second, there are a lot of stories and a few poems in this book, 18 French pieces and 18 English pieces. It’s a sampler of British and French literary Decadence.

Third, a lot of the stories are quite short and a review risks spoiling their often surprise endings.

Fourth, not all of the pieces were fantastic. Since the blogging madness has to have some kind of limit, I don’t normally review fiction that isn’t fantastical in some way.

Review: The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins), ed. Brian Stableford, 1990, 1993.

If this book just had Stableford’s long introduction, it would still be worth reading. Stableford has been writing about weird and decadent fiction almost as long as he’s been producing critical work on science fiction. Here, he produces a useful history and definition of Decadent fiction

Decadence is a concept going back to Montesquieu’s writings on the fall of the Roman Empire, and the first true Decadent work was Charles Baudelaire’s poetry collection Fleurs de Mal in 1857. Decadent fiction was a short-lived phenomenon in France in the 1880s and works in it are sometimes cataloged in the Symbolist movement (which, in my vague understanding, involves non-realistic narratives with allegorical symbols). 

The English Decadent movement was in the 1890s, and, after Oscar Wilde’s conviction for sodomy, few people wanted to be associated with the label. 

Stableford usefully lists Decadent fiction’s primary themes: a celebration of artifice and skepticism of the Romantic ideal of nature (that virtue reposes in nature), impuissance (the feeling of powerlessness), and spleen (an angry melancholy). There was also a drug element. Sometimes, as in Théophile Gautier’s case, drugs were taken under supervision of medical men; however, in other cases, like Arthur Rimbaud seeking his “rational derangement of the senses”, they were not. 

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“Amour Dure”

This week’s weird fiction is a welcome return by Vernon Lee. Her “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” proved, surprisingly, one of my most popular posts.

I suspect MarzAat, the weirdly named blog, is supplying material for school papers the world over.

You’re welcome.

Review: “Amour Dure”, Vernon Lee, 1890.

This is a clever ghost story told in the form of diary entries from a Polish historian named Spiridion Trepka.

The story takes place from August 20, 1885 to Christmas 1885.

Trepka goes to Urbania in Italy to write a history of the area. He’s mostly bored there, especially by the Director of Archives.

However, in the week of September 9, 1885, he comes across the story of one Medea da Carpi. She reminds Trepka of Bianca Cappello and Lucrezia Borgia. Murder and violence trail in her wake.

Born in 1556, she is engaged at age 12. A year later, the marriage is cancelled because the other family has become poorer. At 14, she is married by proxy to Giovanfrancesco Pico. However, Pierluigi Orsini the Duke of Stimigliano gets the marriage annulled on some pretext. Pico isn’t allowed to plead his case before the Pope,  so he abducts Medea with whom he is madly in love (he finds her very lovely, cheerful, and amiable). However, Medea escapes and Pico, only 18, is found stabbed by Medea. Continue reading

“Schalken the Painter”

This week’s weird fiction is …

Review: “Schalken the Painter”, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1851.

Like Vernon Lee’s “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady“, a work of art is at the center of this story. It shows a woman robed and partly veiled in white confronting a shadowy figure drawing a sword.

The painter was Schalken. The scene, the narrator tells us, was drawn from life.

Le Fanu presents a simple plot but with mysteries not completely answered.

When he was an apprentice painter, Schalken, an apprentice painter, was in love with Rose Velderkaust, the ward and niece of his master Gerard Douw. She is the woman in the painting.

One day a mysterious visitor shows up (and mysteriously leaves since Schalken doesn’t spot him in the street afterwards) and asks to talk to Douw. The stranger is curt, impatient, and unrevealing of his station, but he wants to make a deal to marry Rose and will pay a large some of money to do so.  Continue reading

“Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”

This week’s reading for the Deep Ones over at The Weird Tradition newsgroup on LibraryThing —

Review: “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”, Vernon Lee, 1896.Yellow Book

Vernon Lee was a name unknown to me as was the name behind the pseudonym, Violet Paget.

Based on this story, I think it’s a name I’ll keep in mind.

Lee wrote travel works and on art. About the latter, my favorite literary critic, Brian Stableford, said,

Vernon Lee never saw her supernatural stories as central elements of her literary endeavour–they were always diversions from more serious work–but they have lasted far better than her essays on art, most of which now seem relentlessly dull as well as maddeningly unfocused.

I’m not going to summarize this story. It’s 55 pages in its original form, and, as you might expect from a writer on art, it’s filled with long descriptions, but Lee makes them strongly evocative. Continue reading