- 1 Vernon Lee, ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’ (1896, 1909, 1927).
‘And into this are stuck seven gold-hilted knives’1
1During her visit to Southern Spain in 1889, the British writer Vernon Lee vividly recorded in her Commonplace Book the strong aversion that she felt for Catholic Spain: ‘on every altar, not a picture or a statue, but a monstrous painted & bedizened doll—a bleeding Christ with a velvet spangled petticoat round his loins, an enthroned Madonna in agony . . . Always dolls, and always dolls in agony’ (Lee 1889, 28). For Lee, there was in the Catholic Spanish imagination ‘a violence, a thirst for the exaggerated’, that she detested. Only the Moorish-Spanish Alhambra would escape Lee’s harsh criticism: ‘The Alhambra is exactly like the photographs & one’s expectations . . . & lovely’, wrote Lee to her mother a few days after arriving at Granada (Lee to Matilda Paget, 8 January 1889). The prosperous past of Moorish Iberia and its bright Arab-Islamic architecture acted as Lee’s only comfort during her forlorn one-month visit. Lee’s open repulsion to the Catholic country and specially to the Spanish Madonnas would prompt her to write ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’, the most consciously Decadent of all her works: a sacrilegious tale in which Catholic and Moorish Spain are intertwined to explore notions of spiritual and moral perversity.
- 2 Sigmund Freud gave the talk ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ in 1907, and subsequently published (...)
2Through the exploration of Vernon Lee’s unpublished Commonplace Book and family letters, this essay examines the relatively unnoticed visit that Lee made to Southern Spain. I suggest that, besides its disturbing character, the grotesque Spanish Catholicism that Lee found in 1889 resulted in fruitful productivity: it contributed to shape Lee’s pacifist aesthetic conscience and awakened her imagination. The mixture of repulsion and inspiration Lee felt towards Spain can be explained through the Freudian theory of literary creativity, which establishes a connection between unconscious phantasy and the creation of a work of art. In his essay on ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’, published in 1908, Freud proposed that the creative writer is able to alter an unpleasant reality by inventing a situation in which unsatisfied wishes are fulfilled.2 Likewise, Lee finds that she can only comprehend the existence of deplorable Spanish practices through their erasure from reality, placing them instead in a fictional realm.
- 3 For a complete biography of Vernon Lee see Gunn 1964 and Colby 2003.
3Vernon Lee was a multi-faceted and prolific writer of supernatural fiction, psychological aesthetics and travel essays. Above all, she was a truly cosmopolitan figure: she was born in France in 1856 to English parents, she spent her first twenty years moving from Germany, to Switzerland, to France, and to Italy, where she finally made her home. Partly as a result of her cosmopolitan upbringing, she adopted ardent pacifist views during the First World War.3 Her humanist and classical education, and her preference for the simplicity and purity of Classical and Renaissance architecture put her at odds from the start with the overloaded churches and cathedrals of the Spanish Baroque, characterised by a profusion of ornamentation.
4Lee decided to take a trip to Spain at the end of 1888 in an attempt to recover from the nervous breakdown she suffered after the abrupt break up with the poet Mary Robinson. She was accompanied by her friend Evelyn Wimbush, who was very attached to Lee but whose love was unrequited.4 In her Commonplace Book Lee admitted that ‘perhaps it is the fault of my illness that I should have received so gloomy an impression of this place & so far of Spain, that and also, in part, of the season’ (Lee 1889, 26). She arrived in Gibraltar in November 1888 on her way to Morocco. From Gibraltar she visited some Spanish villages. She then spent almost a month in Tangier before reaching Málaga (Spain) on 26 December 1888. Lee stayed most of her time in Spain in the city of Granada, but she also visited Málaga, Sevilla and Cádiz. She would finally spend a month in the country, until 26 January 1889, before returning to her much beloved Italy in the lowest of spirits. She could not help comparing everything to that country that she knew and adored: ‘(Spain), perhaps for my own fault, affects me . . . as a far less beautiful, less picturesque & distinctibly uncomfortable Italy’ (Lee to Matilda Paget, 2 January 1889).
5In her letters from Spain, we observe an evolution in her appreciation of the country, and her mixed feelings towards the land and its people. In a letter to her mother, dated 28–29 November 1888, Lee’s first contact with Spain appears promising:
We rode through several Spanish villages, sort of horrible dust heaps; along the sea shore . . . and into a wonderful, wonderful, half hilly country, rough roads between hedges of immense aloes and prickly pears, dabbed with geraniums, here and there . . . all the rest strange arid ploughed land. . . . It was savage and beautiful. (Lee to Matilda Paget, 28–29 November 1888)
6She would never again use the adjectives ‘wonderful’ and ‘beautiful’ to refer to Spain. As the days passed, her experience worsened. In another letter, dated 2 January 1889, Lee praised the ‘lovely’ position of the Andalusian city of Granada, though she would also emphasise that ‘still, there is a horrid want of vegetation’, the place is ‘fearfully dull’, and the people in the streets ‘the vilest I ever saw: hideous, stupid and intolerably rude. Every tenth creature is a beggar; everybody, well or ill dressed, makes faces or shouts at one, & one is mobbed by horrible imps of children’. The maltreatment of animals in Spain also scandalized Lee and contributed to her general distaste towards a people that she would incessantly describe as ‘cruel’: ‘The people not only jeer but amuse themselves smacking one’s horse & making noises at it to get it to shy’, wrote Lee (Lee to Matilda Paget, 5 January 1889). All, for Lee, was excess and cruelty:
’Tis the impression of a country and people without moderation . . . I began to feel it as soon as we got into that country … once we had left behind us the sea board, the wide valley, with its oranges … lemons … hedges of aloes …. Nay, it struck into me before, with the sight of that cathedral of Malaga, those pillars behind upon pillar, arches on arches and architraves on architraves … There is a violence, a thirst for the exaggerated, … a desire, as it were to be bruised & stunned, or to bruise & stun others in the imagination of this people whose holidays have been auto da fés and are bullfightings. One might think that no short of brutality, of brutal play or brutal tragedy could affect them (Lee 1889, 27).
7Above all, Lee despised the hyperbolism of Spanish Catholic practices: in every church there was ‘gold foil enough to make your eyes ache, & volutes, spirals, garlands, enough to make your head spin; paper flowers, chandeliers, silver… everywhere’ (Lee 1889, 28). The grim representations of Christ and the Virgin disturbed her especially. ‘For every Madonna with her child, for every peaceful mother you may count ten dolorosas, weeping, wringing hands, the seven daggers stuck on or near them’, she annotated in her Commonplace Book, and continued, ‘the Christ is always on the cross, or pulpit, or weeping and bleeding with strikes and crowning thorns. Of the delicate sweetness of medieval saintliness, nothing, and nothing, also, of the human kindliness and grace of a mother and laughing or pouting baby Christ. It is always wealth, pomp, ceremonial, and wounds and death’ (Lee 1889, 28–29).
- 5 For more information on Lee’s pacifist views see for example Colby 2003, Brockington 2006 and Kando (...)
8Lee had no commitment to any religion, but she declared herself ‘an old agnostic adorer of true Catholicism’ (Lee 2006, 245). Another dimension of Catholicism was revealed to her, however, in Spain. Almost forty years after her visit to Spain, in the preface to the final, 1927 version of ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’, Vernon Lee openly declared her detestation for those ‘Spanish cultus of death, damnation, tears and wounds’ (Lee 2006, 245). With this description, Lee was alluding to the French writer Auguste-Maurice Barrès’s (1862–1923) work Du sang, de la volupté et de la mort (1893), a passionate travel account in which Spain is portrayed as an exotic land characterized by the contrast between mysticism and voluptuousness, by the ‘pure, vital and elemental values of blood and death’ (González Cuevas 212). Lee was clearly against this French exaltation of the darkest side of Spanish life and culture and would ironically refer to Barrès as a ‘devotee’ of Spain (Lee 2006, 245). Lee clarified that she disliked the art of the Catholic revival ‘from a temperamental intuition that there is cruelty in such mournfulness, and that cruelty is obscene’; her distaste was thus rooted on ethical principles. As Vineta Colby writes, Lee considered that ‘art is good, not because it is good in itself (though she believed this) but because its effects on us are good’ (Colby 1970, 238). Simply, then, Spanish Catholic art was not good for Lee because it did not have good effects on the mind. This position certainly fits within the humanist philosophical and ethical stance that Lee maintained throughout her life. It also advances Lee’s pacifist views during the First World War, primarily rooted in her deep belief in humanity and refusal of all types of cruelty. She opposed all wars, regardless of the countries involved. At the beginning of the Italo-Turkish War in 1911, Lee stated her pacifist views openly, and her Italian friends shunned her; in 1912 she criticized British campaigns in Africa such as those in the Sudan (1896–98) and against the Boers (1880–81 and 1899–1902), and at the verge of the First World War she regularly published articles warning against war and stressing Britain’s obligation to prevent it.5 Lee’s apparently un-cosmopolitan remarks on Catholic Spain would find, then, an explanation on her firmly anti-violent and latent pacifist ideology.
- 6 Lee made several attempts to publish the tale in England between 1889 and 1894, but she had to wait (...)
9It was also and paradoxically in her aversion to Spanish Catholicism that Lee found the inspiration to create her darkest tale, ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’. During her visit to Spain, Lee wrote to her mother that she had ‘an idea for a ghost story called The Virgin of the Daggers,’ which was about a Spanish madonna and a Moorish Enchanted Princess (Lee to Matilda Paget, 8 January 1889). That is the germ of Lee’s most republished tale in her lifetime, ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’.6 In the story, Lee presents seventeenth-century Catholic and heroic Spain confronting its Moorish past. The tale, set in Granada, intertwines fictional and real characters and places to create a cruel yet exotic and seductive Spain. It tells the story of a brutal Don Juan who has made a pact with the Virgin of the Seven Daggers, also called Our Lady of Sorrows. He promises to proclaim forever her supreme beauty and asks that in return she save him from damnation. Emboldened by the deal and driven by insatiable greed, he embarks on one final necromantic and obscure escapade to an enchanted palace beneath the Alhambra, where he seeks to attain a hidden treasure and a long dead Moorish princess. After successfully bringing the princess back to life, she accepts his love provided that he disavows his loyalty to the Virgin. When he refuses to do so, he is beheaded by the Infanta’s African eunuch, and his disembodied spirit roams the streets of Granada unaware of his own death until he is confronted with his own funeral. In spite of his multiple sins, he flies to heaven in full sight of the Virgin of the Seven Daggers, to whom he has unfalteringly showed his dedication.
10The constant references to ‘blood’, ‘punishment’ and ‘wounds’ which serve to create the obscurely fantastic atmosphere of the tale can only be traced to the history and culture of Spanish devotion. Lee would also use the Catholic Velazquian palette of ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘bloody red’ up to ten times in her descriptions of things Spanish to create a disturbing environment: ‘a black and white rood’, Don Juan was ‘black and white in his lantern-jawedness’, the Virgin was ‘black and white in her stiff puce frock and seed-pearl stomacher’, there were ‘bloody wounds’, ‘blood-coloured damask’, and the snows of the Mulhacen mountain in Spain were ‘blood-red’ under the sun (Lee 2006, 249–78).
Illustration 1—Granada Cathedral. Façade.
Illustration 2—Interior of the Granada Cathedral in 1881. J. Laurent (1816–1886).
Illustration 3—Basílica de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias, Our Lady of Sorrows, of Granada. Façade. Javi Guerra Hernando.
11Lee would also replicate many real Spanish places in the tale. The Church of Our Lady of the Seven Daggers is presumably inspired by both the late sixteenth-century Cathedral of Granada (see illustrations 1 and 2), where there is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, and the seventeenth-century Basilica de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias, or Our Lady of Sorrows, of Granada (see illustration 3). Both temples represent what Lee described as ‘a superb example of the pompous, pedantic and contorted Spanish architecture of the reign of the later Philips’ (Lee 2006, 249), and the Basilica has a facade flanked by two tall towers, as does Lee’s church’s with its ‘two balconied and staircased belfries’ (Lee 2006, 249). Lee’s visit to the cathedral of Granada in January 1889 was minutely recorded in her Commonplace Book. It was the anniversary of the Conquest of Granada from the Moors, she wrote, and the organ of the cathedral
possessed me completely raising one into a sort of beatitude, a kind of rapture . . . For a few moments thus, in that chapel before the tombs of the Catholic kings; . . . with the gold pomegranate flower of the badges, and the crimson tassels of the Moorish standards before my eyes; . . .—for a moment while the priests were chanting and the organs quavering, the life of to-day seemed to reel and vanish, and my mind to be swept along the dark and gleaming whirlpools of the past (Lee 1897, 35–36).
12This aestheticised description of her sensuous experience in the cathedral echoes a scene in ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’, suggesting the decisive influence Lee’s visit to Spain had on the Decadent outcome of the tale: ‘The church was filled with ineffable fragrance; exquisite music, among which Don Juan seemed to recognize the voice of Syphax, His Majesty’s own soprano singer’ (Lee 2006, 252). More importantly, Vernon Lee’s figure of the Virgin of the Seven Daggers is also presumably inspired by three real-life Spanish madonnas of Sorrows: Virgin of Hope of Macarena of Seville (see illustration 4); Our Lady of Sorrows in the Cathedral of Granada, and Our Lady of Sorrows of the Basilica de las Angustias in Granada (see illustrations 5 and 6). All of them have a ‘sad and ceremonious smile’ and are ‘crowned with a great jewelled crown’ (Lee 2006, 250). When Lee writes ‘Is she seated or standing? ’Tis impossible to decide’, she is certainly echoing the image of these virgins (Lee 2006, 250). The image that more resembles Lee’s tale is, nonetheless, Our Lady of the Macarena, the Virgin of Seville, whose face ‘is made of wax, white with black glass eyes and a tiny coral mouth’ (Lee 2006, 250). She also holds ‘a lace pocket-handkerchief’, has ‘veils of delicate lace falling from head to waist’ (Lee 2006, 250), and in her bodice were, in Lee’s time, ‘stuck seven gold-hilted knives’—in 1913, the seven daggers of the image were replaced by seven little emeralds (see illustration 7).
Illustration 4—Close-up on the face of the image of the Virgin of the Hope of Macarena, Seville.
Illustration 5—Our Lady of Sorrows of the Basilica de las Angustias in Granada.
Illustration 6—Close-up of Our Lady of Sorrows of the Basilica de las Angustias in Granada. José Manuel Ferro Ríos.
Illustration 7—Virgin of Hope of Macarena. José Luiz.
13The contradiction–detestation and inspiration–on Lee’s part accords with Vineta Colby’s description of the writer: ‘Paradoxically, she was at once a puritan preaching a strict morality and an aesthete revelling in the absolute moral detachment of pure art’ (Colby 1970, 236). The moralist in Vernon Lee was revolted by the grim cruelty of Spain but the aesthete in her was drawn irresistibly to its allure. Lee, Catherine Maxwell also claims, seems to have been inspired by what she claimed to loathe, and Spain was no exception (Maxwell 2006). While as a critic she may have wanted to reject morbidity and decadence and embrace ‘health’, Maxwell notes, Lee’s ‘own strong creative impulses appear not to have allowed her the easy separation of material such a categorization would imply’ (Maxwell 2006, 38). Lee’s literary imagination seems to be in line with Freud’s theory of literary creativity, displayed in his essay ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ (1908). For Freud, the writer ‘creates a world of fantasy which he takes very seriously—that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion—while separating it sharply from reality’. This unreality of the writer’s imaginative world, writes Freud, ‘has very important consequences for the technique of his art; for many things which, if they were real, could give no enjoyment, can do so in the play of fantasy, and many excitements which, in themselves, are actually distressing, can become a source of pleasure for the hearers and spectators at the performance of a writer’s work’ (Freud 144). In the same way, Lee creates in ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’ a fantastical space in which she can explore the distressing reality of Catholic Spain.
14Spanish ‘doll-madonnas’ are central to the tension between Lee’s conscious reality and her unconscious. Vineta Colby comments that when Lee writes of the ‘culture ghost’ of her stories she is referring to some manifestation of art–painting, sculpture, music–that gives each story its unique flavour (Colby 2003, 242). ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’ also explores art-induced obsessions, in relation to the Catholic Marian devotion of figures of virgins. The representation of the Virgin Mary is in general, for Lee, a depiction of aesthetic values: ‘If I have anywhere in my soul a secret shrine, it is to Our Lady . . . for is she not the divine Mother of Gods as well as God . . . in whom the sad and ugly things of our bodily origin and nourishment are transfigured into the grace of the immortal spirit?’ wrote Lee in the 1927 preface of ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’ (Lee 2006, 245). Yet Spanish madonnas do not fit within this description. ‘And just in proportion to that natural devotion of mine to the Beloved Lady and Mother, Italian or High Dutch, who opens her scanty drapery to suckle a baby divinity, just in proportion did that aversion concentrate on those doll-madonnas in Spanish churches, all pomp and whalebone and sorrow and tears wept into Mechlin lace’ (Lee 2006, 246), stated Lee. The representations of the Virgin Mary in Italy, to which Lee was accustomed, were less pompous in their clothing and less grievous; restrained Catholic Italy was thus more acceptable than morbid Catholic Spain in Lee’s imagination. Patricia Pulham adds that, for Lee, ‘these wax doll-madonnas, with their uncanny verisimilitude to the female body, are perhaps too disturbing as objects of adoration and reverence outside the realms of fantasy’ (Pulham 92). It is clear, then, that only through fantasy and literary production is Lee able to accept the existence of such a disturbing icon.
15Not surprisingly, Lee linked her Virgin of the Seven Daggers to yet another type of culture that inspired her imagination and also caused her a deep cultural anxiety, Baudelaire.7 In the preface to the 1927 version of the tale, Lee uses as an epigraph the subtitle of the Baudelairean poem ‘À une Madone’ from Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), ‘Ex-voto dans le Goût Espagnol’, or ‘votive offering in the Spanish style’. In the poem, Baudelaire subjects the Virgin Mary to a combination of the sumptuous and the barbarian; describing her first in the imagery of the Immaculate Virgin, then planting the deadly sins like daggers in her heart. It is not by chance that Lee chooses this imagery of the Virgin to portray the cruelty of Spanish Catholicism at its best. When Baudelaire writes in ‘À une Madone’ [‘To a Madonna’] ‘And mixing love with pagan cruelty / Full of dark, remorseful joy I’ll take the seven deadly sins, / and of them make Seven bright Daggers; / with a juggler’s lore’ (McGowan 2008, 119), he is perfectly portraying the dark cruelty that Spanish Catholicism represents for Lee, and which she is only able to articulate in the realm of literary imagination.
16Vernon Lee found in late nineteenth-century Spain a country in gloom, a dark reflection of its former, golden imperial grandeur—splendour which, nonetheless, did not impress her. Spanish Baroque history and art were linked with cruelty and violence and were to be rejected. The unsettling Catholic practices of the country, in particular, were excessive and obscene. The ‘doll-madonnas in agony’ obsessively haunted Lee. Turning to creative writing with ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’ was Lee’s only option to digest an otherwise too agonizing reality. By writing ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’, Lee was affirming her pacifist and humanist views and articulating her pychological aesthetics. More importantly, she was accepting the inspiring possibilities of an unsettling country, and admitting the blackness and cruelty of Spain as part of its beauty.