1In 1917, Vernon Lee writes in her essay ‘In Time of War’ that ‘among the many things, spiritual even more than material, which the war will have wrecked and my generation can never see re-made, is the cult of the genius of places: frivolous, of course, … but decent and kindly’ (241). She expresses a melancholic nostalgia for the pre-war era: its intense way of experiencing places is something she already sees as a lost thing of the past. In addition, she predicts that textual representations of such experiences of place will suffer a similar fate.
2In the same essay—the concluding piece in Lee’s last volume of travel writing, The Golden Keys (1925)—she also states that its final essays are ‘likely enough the last of their kind I shall ever be able to write’ (241). Though she did in fact go on to write a further collection of ‘notes on places’, Lee’s prediction was not entirely wrong, for these remained unpublished (Cary 137). The First World War had marked a point of decline in the literary market for the ‘impressionistic European travel essay’ (Colby 250), and Lee’s charming, idiosyncratic accounts of her extensive travels on the Continent thus essentially remained a product of the middle phase of her career, chronicling her impressions and experiences between the fin de siècle and the First World War. Most of them were first written for publication in magazines such as the liberal Westminster Gazette and then collected into a total of seven books, published between 1897 and 1925 yet never reprinted.
3I will concentrate on these relatively little studied texts to examine Lee’s visions of Italy and what she terms ‘the South’. Lee was a self-described ‘votary of the Genius Loci’ (‘Et in Arcadia … ’, 318) and she wrote extensively on the elusive spirit of places which fascinated her throughout her life. As her friend and executor Irene Cooper Willis commented, ‘the places she visited were to her more than her friends’ and
[t]o go a walk [sic] with Vernon Lee, to climb with her the quarry valleys, thick with myrtle scrub, near her Florentine home, to visit some village church or old villa, was to be admitted into her rapt enjoyment and to feel how vital—as vital as air—to her were [these] impressions. (Lee 1937, xiii–xiv)
- 1 See for instance Maxwell & Pulham, eds (2006); Pulham (2007); Zorn (2003); Billiani & Evangelista ( (...)
4Considering how strongly Lee’s experience of life was shaped by her encounters with places, a spatial approach to her work constitutes an important addition to existing Lee scholarship, which so far has focused primarily on issues of gender and sexual identity, ethics, and Lee’s role in discourses of aesthetics and fin-de-siècle cultural politics.1 In particular, her ongoing fascination with the concept of the genius loci, and her preoccupation with different types of nostalgic emotion, memory and loss, distance and absence in her response to places, constitute a central aspect of Lee’s short fiction and especially her essays on places. Moreover, Italy, as Lee’s adopted home, is of special interest and emotional significance to her during her travels.
5As I will show, Lee’s textual representation of ‘Italy’ cannot be equated with Italy as a geographical entity. Instead it functions as the self-conscious construction of a space which is defined as much by emotion and memory as it is by sensory perception. It becomes a signifier, for Lee, of a particular mental as well as actual landscape; of a state of mind as well as a cluster of sensual perceptions. It also overlaps with, but is not equal to, Lee’s related concept of ‘the South’, forming two distinct yet interacting spatial topoi. ‘The South’ in Lee’s essays is carefully distinguished from its broader, geographical meaning as the European Mediterranean and, like Lee’s Italy, it is constructed as a half real, half imagined place in the text.
- 2 The passage also recalls her earliest conceptualisation of the genius loci as ‘the lie of the land’ (...)
6Throughout Lee’s essays on places, the genius loci or ‘spirit of places’ is a central concept, appearing in five out of seven titles of her essay collections and explicitly discussed in a number of essays. In its ancient Roman origin, the concept of the genius loci originally referred to the spirit or deity that inhabited a place; later this genius was taken to refer figuratively to the associations or inspirations derived from a place (‘Genius Loci’). Lee frequently alludes to this connection of the term with classical divinities in her writing (‘The Enchanted Woods’, 10), but she states that to her, the genius loci is ‘not a personification’. Instead, she writes in 1899, ‘like all worthy divinities, [it] is of the substance of our heart and mind, a spiritual reality. And as for visible embodiment, why that is the place itself, or the country; and the features and speech are the lie of the land’ (‘Introduction’, 5). Here, Lee already expresses the mental-emotional ‘spiritual’ quality combined with the specific ‘features’ of a place which would continue to essentially define the genius loci for her over the following decades.2
7In ‘The Sentimental Traveller’ (1908), it becomes even clearer that for Lee, the emotional reaction to a geographical place and its genius loci is preceded and overlaid by the mental construction of an imagined place shaped by desire and ‘fancy’:
For the passion for localities, the curious emotions connected with lie of the land, shape of buildings, history, and even quality of air and soil, are born, like all intense and permeating feeling, less of outside things than of our own soul. They are of the stuff of dreams, and must be brooded over in quiet and void. The places for which we feel such love are fashioned, before we see them, by our wishes and fancy; we recognize rather than discover them in the world of reality; and this power of shaping, or at least seeing, things to suit our hearts’ desire, comes not of facility and surfeit, but of repression and short commons. (3–4)
8This interplay of longing, desire and imagination with the actual, sensual perception of a place is not only central to Lee’s appreciation of individual places, but it is also found in the two recurring tropes of ‘Italy’ and ‘The South’. A particular state of feeling and a particular type of imagined place become tied to an actual, perceived geographical site in a process that is frequently triggered by an intense sensory perception. The genius loci of such sites is thus fused with a pre-existing vision in Lee’s mind of an essential ‘Italy’ and ‘the South’, which in turn provoke memories and emotions of nostalgia and longing. In the following passage, taken from the essay ‘Castiglione d’Olona’ (1914), Lee describes this phenomenon in detail:
I had emotions the whole time I was in the place… It was the Emotion of Italy. Or rather, one, perhaps the most poignant and almost harrowing, of the emotions which Italy can give . . . .
It is largely a matter of smells. Not merely because smells have that unrivalled power of evoking past states of feeling, but because smells seem to distil and volatilise so many undefinable peculiarities of season, of climate, and of civilisation. At Castiglione d’Olona it was all three. For after I had crossed the chief square of that village of escutcheoned, dismantled palaces, and was bruising my feet upon the hard uphill cobbles leading to the church, there rose to my nostrils in the autumn afternoon the mingled scents of long-neglected drains, of sun-dried filth, of mint crushed underfoot, and purifying all with its sense of life and ripeness, the smell of leaves baked by a summer’s heat and fresh from a frosty dew. That mingled scent meant what cannot be put into words, the faint thrill of hundreds of such impressions, long merged and forgotten; blurred memories of other solitary walks through other forlorn little places of the past, between dust-heaps and palaces, past little corners of garden and terrace, which might be that where Romeo’s ladder had hung. (149–50)
9The spirit of one particular place, Castiglione d’Olona, made concrete in sensory impressions of sight, touch and smell, triggers a set of nostalgic associations in Lee’s mind, which she relates to the general ‘Emotion of Italy’. According to Edward Casey, ‘it is exceedingly rare that we are nostalgic about something that is unplaced or placeless’ (363). Lee’s phrase ‘places of the past’ confirms this spatial dimension of her nostalgia, with one specific place awakening memories of others and thus highlighting the link between a particular type of Italian place and a special feeling of solitude and forlorn beauty. Lee’s encounter with a real, geographic site, which is made even more concrete through the precise evocation of smells, thus assumes its full complexity through the mental presence of imagined spaces of the past. The space of a quintessential ‘Italy’ emerges in the textual fusion of the real and the remembered, resulting in a recognisable ‘Emotion of Italy’.
10Lee’s love of Italy frequently mingles with her general fascination for the Mediterranean South. However, although the two tropes of ‘Italy’ and ‘the South’ in her writing overlap in some of their characteristics, they are not identical. Not all of Italy is quintessentially Southern according to Lee; nor are all Southern places similar to her beloved Italian South. As a whole, Lee’s South forms an opposite to the English climate and countryside; it is associated with health and purity as well as a set of special smells, sounds and features of the landscape. In her essay entitled ‘The South’, Lee writes:
The sense of being in the real South is made up of many and various impressions, and leads to many more: the nobility of an excellent climate; the sort of purity and vigour of life due to abundant air and sunshine, as opposed to the deathliness and ignominy of our English fields, which I had left steeping in cold or steaming in lukewarm vapours. Then, the odd quality of being precious (I noticed this very much in Southern Spain and at Tangier) which such excellence of climate lends to the cheapest material. (195)
11Yet the binary contrast to England is not enough to define ‘the real South’ in Lee’s eyes; nor is being located in Italy—although she herself is easily mistaken at first about this conflation:
I was returning to Italy after many months in the North, and after a horrible precocious London winter. . . . Italy, and (as I thought) the south, had met me already in the Alps. . . . The delusion (for it was such) enveloped me more and more descending into the plain, where the bare poplars made a delicate pinkish mist across the bright green of the first corn-sprouts. . . . I thought that was the South; but it was merely Italy. (‘The South’, 194–95; emphasis added)
12Lee therefore distinguishes between Italy and the Italian South, coming to the conclusion that ‘Genoa is the gate into the Second, the Southern Italy. People may have thought they had got there in Lombardy, on the Lakes (Garda especially), at Venice or Verona; but then crossed those Ligurian mountains, and, suddenly, behold! this coast’ (‘The South’, 193). However, her careful distinction between ‘Italy’ and ‘Southern Italy’ does not, as one may think, indulge in facile stereotypes of ‘the classic (or shall we say?), the Northern Tourist’s South’ (‘The Villa of Tiberius’, 233). Lee, in fact, also has a keen eye for Italy’s regional diversity and differences and she has a strong interest in carefully delineating the unique qualities of particular regions or cities. In her essay on the old Florence-Bologna road, for instance, she finds that the villages along the route ‘sample the two so different regions which those passes separate; bits of Florence with pigeon-towers and flights of steps, yet not without a mediaeval or fortress look, on the south side; bits of Bologna, of the Lombard plain, porticoed and extinguisher-belfried, on the north…’ (‘The Old Bologna Road’, 51).
13At the same time, Lee is equally keen to distinguish between various different ‘Souths’ beside the Italian prototype that she knows best. In ‘Albi’, she recalls her experience at the place of the same name, where the French countryside seems familiar and Southern at first but slowly reveals itself to be wholly different from Lee’s own Italy:
I became gradually aware, in the declining light, that this country was the South, or, rather, that the sky was; the sky pure, pale, pearly after sunset, with the scant black tree-tops lying gently against it. . . .
The moon had risen, summer-like, as we approached Albi . . . . This Southern impression was continued for the ear. . . . . There were the sonorous voices of the South, so different from the ordinary French ones; and real singing. . . . (49)
14The next day, however, that particular thrill of the Southern vision is gone and Lee realises, ‘I recognized it all as Southern; yet it had nothing to do with my moonlight vision of the night before, and I had no use for it’ (‘Albi’, 51). She concludes by stating that
This was the South, I then understood, but not the Italian South, which is my reality. Rather the beginning of an unknown and imaginary Spain that I shall, perhaps, never see, but always henceforward dream of: a South with the mad swagger of that cathedral fortress, and its odd, savage look of an unavenged past, with the fierce colour of the orange-brick and the tawny river beneath the great red span of its bridges: a tragic South flaring at sunset as if to tell of some great burning of heretics. (‘Albi’, 54)
15Lee’s experience at Albi thus points to the existence of several different Souths, which may overlap and partly suggest each other, recalling memories of similar places. Yet they may equally quickly produce a reaction of alienation and of nostalgic longing for Lee’s own Italian South. This Italian South, where the two topoi overlap and converge, perhaps presents the climax of Lee’s emotional reaction to places, fusing her entranced recognition of the well-loved and well-known Italian landscape with the sensuous quality of an idealised South:
I have never seen lovelier country than about Arquà; and what is more, of that particular southern loveliness which, even in Italy—perhaps most in Italy—has for me the fascination of something rare and precious—I would say classic, Odyssean, Hesperidean . . . .
The rocks! That is perhaps the southernmost thing at Arquà. For there is a kind of rock, white and friable, as if from steady generous heat, tufted with aromatic herbs and sunburnt grass, which, to anyone knowing the South’s especial emotion—the emotion one gets at Portofino and Alassio, in the Maremma and Greece, and, most of all, from Provence (I am thinking of the Abbey of Montmajour, near Arles) means the South far more than any detail of vegetation. (‘Petrarch’s House at Arquà’, 183–84).
16In this passage, Lee perceives the countryside at Arquà as much through envisaging and remembering a mental space of ‘southern loveliness’ as through the intense sensory experience of the rocks, sun and grass. I will now further explore this nostalgic recognition of a ‘classic, Odyssean’ southern landscape in Italy in Lee’s writing.
17While Lee’s love for Italy, and her nostalgia for it in its absence, pervade many of her essays, she also writes of a yearning for more remote parts of the Mediterranean when she is at home in Tuscany, as in the following passage from ‘Et in Arcadia…’ (1905):
- 3 The essay’s title, ‘Et in Arcadia…’ is an allusion to the well-known Latin phrase et in Arcadia ego(...)
Suddenly, at a turning, there came the smell, very sweet and peculiar, of burning olive twigs; and with it, to my soul, a pang and a vision of Sicily, Greece—the real South which I shall never go to.
Such homesickness for places I have never been to, is not uncommon with me at this time of year, and on days like this one; making me aware, unexpectedly, of fancied resemblances, and giving to details of the familiar Tuscan landscape a foreign significance and the poignancy of the rarely seen. The South! something exclaims within me. And I have vague recollections of the Odyssey or of Theocritus.3 (313)
18Lee’s ‘homesickness for places I have never been to’, denotes a sort of Fernweh as opposed to Heimweh—a longing for unknown places which constitutes a form of spatial nostalgia. This longing intensifies the nostalgic connection to place to the extent that a distant point in space, rather than in time, becomes the object of nostalgia. It is thus somewhat related to the seventeenth-century conceptual origins of nostalgia in homesickness, which similarly expressed a longing in spatial rather than temporal terms, contrary to the modern understanding of ‘nostalgia’ (Phillips 64–65; Daniels 78; Davis 1–3). Yet in contrast to ‘proper’ homesickness, Lee’s emotion specifies that the yearned-for place is distant and unknown, rather than ‘home’. As she writes in another essay, it is a ‘nostalgia’ for imagined but unvisited places:
There are moments . . . when I feel just a little saddened at seeing [friends or neighbours] start without me for wonderful places—Egypt and Spain and Greece, which I shall never go to; and when certain names, mere casual references to this thing or that, drive into my heart a funny little wedge, gentle and yet quite sharp, of longing—the nostalgia of the hills and streets one will never see with bodily eye. (‘The Enchanted Woods’, 6–7)
19Lee yearns to return to a place she has not visited; a place which is strange but at the same time familiar. In the previously cited passage, it is her ‘vague recollections’ of classical texts which explain this familiarity, constructing a mental space that interacts with Lee’s physical surroundings to create a ‘vision’ of a distant ‘real South’. True to Lee’s own theory of the genius loci that ‘[t]he places for which we feel such love are fashioned, before we see them, by our wishes and fancy’, the landscape around her is ‘fashioned’ out of pre-existing memory and imagination as much as it is sensually perceived. The nostalgia for a distant, unknown Greek South thus creates a vision in Lee’s prose of a half real, half imagined place, which I would like to describe through the spatial theoretical concept of Edward Soja’s Thirdspace (1996).
20The idea of ‘Thirdspace’ combines and transcends two other types of spaces, ‘Firstspace’ and ‘Secondspace’. Building on Henri Lefebvre’s seminal La Production de l’espace (1974)/The Production of Space (1991), Soja develops a ‘trialectic’ logic of space to explain the interaction of real and imagined spatial aspects. Soja defines Firstspace—or ‘spatial practice’ in Lefebvre’s terms—as ‘materialized, socially produced, empirical space’ (66). It is a ‘perceived space, directly sensible and open, within limits, to accurate measurement and description’ (66). Secondspace, in contrast,—Lefebvre’s ‘representations of space’—is a mental space, a ‘conceived space’ that is tied to the production and ordering of ‘spatial knowledge’ and that is strongly related to language and discourse (67). Moreover, ‘it is also the primary space of utopian thought and vision, of the semiotician or decoder, and of the purely creative imagination of some artists and poets’ (67).
21Finally, Thirdspace ‘closely approximates’ what Lefebvre terms ‘spaces of representation’, and which he sees as both distinct from and encompassing the other two. As a ‘lived’ space (67), it ‘overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects’ and combines ‘the real and the imagined, things and thought on equal terms’ (68). Bringing together Firstspace and Secondspace, Thirdspace is ‘a creative recombination and extension, one that builds on a Firstspace perspective that is focused on the “real” material world and a Secondspace perspective that interprets this reality through “imagined” representations of spatiality’ (6).
22In Lee’s essay, the text recombines her impression of the material Firstspace of Tuscany—which incorporates sensory perceptions such as smell—with an imagined Secondspace. This Secondspace is constructed in Lee’s mind through her ‘vague recollections’ of literary descriptions of Greece in Antiquity. The result is a ‘vision’ of the South which extends beyond the two, both material and unreal to Lee as she perceives the landscape around her. This quality is what Soja calls ‘[s]imultaneously real and imagined and more (both and also…)’, and which constitutes the Thirdspace of ‘real-and-imagined’ places (11). The ‘familiar’ Firstspace of the Italian landscape is merged with the envisioned, deliciously ‘foreign’ Secondspace of a mythical Greece, to the extent that the combination of both becomes an oscillating, tantalising ‘both and also’, ‘real-and-imagined’ Arcadia:
I do not call, I feel, the place, Arcadia. Here, not an hour’s walk from my home, it is, and at the same time tantalizingly, enchantingly, is not—Greece, Sicily, the South of the Odyssey and Theocritus. The South I shall never go to. (‘Et in Arcadia…’, 320)
23Lee’s emphasises the sensual quality and tangible reality of this Arcadian space in the verb ‘I feel’, but she also denies its existence and accessibility at the same time as she affirms it. It remains a vision of the ‘South’ she ‘shall never go to’; a Thirdspace whose both real and imagined qualities make it an object of unattainable desire. And conversely, it is her nostalgic longing for this enchantingly unstable South which enables her to envision it so strongly from her home in the first place. Lee writes:
And so, if I did not want … if I did not want the South, Sicily, Greece, Arcadia, it is probable I should not have felt that little stab of envy and sadness when the smell of burning olive-wood met me on my hillside. But it is certain also that I should not have made those places for myself, extracted and built them up out of this Tuscany lying at my hand. There would have been only one South, one Sicily, Greece or Arcadia. Now there are two. (‘Et in Arcadia...’, 318)
24Lee has created her own Arcadian South out of the geographical Firstspace of the Italian countryside and the mental Secondspace of her poetry-infused imagination. It now exists in her text alongside the ‘real’, geographical Greece and it, rather than that real Greece, is the destination of Lee’s homesickness for the distant and unknown.
25Instead of a conclusion, I would like to investigate the possibility of ever reaching the South of Lee’s visions in reality. As the object of nostalgic longing for the unknown and as an only partly real Thirdspace, it only exists fully in Lee’s mind and on the page. However, contrary to her earlier prediction in ‘Et in Arcadia...’, Lee did in fact travel to Greece in 1907 and recorded her impressions in a sequence of six travel essays which were published in the Westminster Gazette between January and March 1910.
26Initially, it seems that Lee’s spatial nostalgia for the Southern landscape of Greece, which she felt so keenly in the Italian countryside, has actually been fulfilled:
I knew, by that sound, that scent, that this real Greece was the one I have loved for years, recognising, I scarce know how, its every vestige in other places: the Greece I have loved in the stony torrent bed behind Nervi and in its pines overhanging the sea; in the ever-green hills and wide stubble valley where the Albegna runs swift and shallow through the empty Sienese Maremma; in the island valleys of Monte Argentaro; above all, where the goats browse among the rocks above my house.
Yes; the Greece I have made up is the real one; or the grace and the loveliness of the real one is that of the Greece of my fancy. I have known, by a sort of feeling quite different from any other, whenever, so to speak, I touched Greek ground: saying to myself, ‘This is Greece’—whenever my foot has crushed the wild balm, whenever my hand has broken the resinous twigs of the myrtle or lentisk; whenever, on a dusty road, the sheep coming from the mountain have brought with them the scent of sun-dried aromatic sweetness. (‘Greece at Last’, 2)
27The Thirdspace vision of Greece which Lee had in Tuscany has been realised within a Firstspace location now that she stands on Greek soil, a real space she can touch, smell and hear. Or is it perhaps that Lee’s recollection of her own previous longing is actually necessary for turning the Greek landscape she now encounters into such an emotionally charged place; and that this landscape is therefore turned into yet another Thirdspace through the memory of her earlier vision of it? The chain of constructing Thirdspace visions of the South through previously existing and remembered Southern visions continues.
28On leaving Greece, however, Lee strikes a more elegiac note as regards her fantasies of Greek Antiquity. Writing again from Italy, she says that
I have brought back from [Greece] a sadness which is new and unexpected. The sadness of understanding, what I seem never to have guessed before, that the world of Hellas has perished; is dead, buried, its very grave devastated.
Till now, somehow, one seemed to think that it still existed; a land east of the sun and west of the moon, where temples stood, and statues still arose out of the earth; and the gods might still haunt their groves and the nymphs their well-heads.
And now I know that such a country does not exist; that these museums, all the world over, hold far the greater amount of the wreckage of that lost world.… And that beyond the sea is a little country, very poor, very new, arid and empty, with people who look, some like Turks, some like Slavs, a few like Italians, but whom it is impossible to connect with the people of marble, the people drawn in red upon black or in black upon red, whom I think of as ‘Greeks.’
Not the gods of Greece only have vanished, but Greece itself. (‘Farewell to Greece’, 3)
29Even though the natural space of Greece, the ‘Greek ground’ (‘Greece at Last’, 2), is still present and alive for Lee, her vision of ancient Hellenic culture has to remain only that—a vision, across time and space, long ‘vanished’ along with its classical myths. The ‘world of Hellas’ is now a fallen, buried one, contrasting with the vertical imagery in Lee’s fantasy of a land ‘where temples stood, and statues still arose out of the earth’ (emphases added). This discrepancy between fantasy and reality leads to disappointment and ‘sadness’; the nostalgic vision of Greece remains unfulfilled. The preservation of ancient remains in museums is no solution to bring back the ‘lost world’ of Greece for Lee, who criticises museum practices heavily in another essay:
This is what scholarly institutions have made of all Greek things: Antiquity broken and stained and damaged inevitably; but which might at least have been stained and broken like the figures which have remained on the Parthenon, or the statues in the groves of Roman villas, made almost into organic things by the mere action of the centuries. But soot and dust and caster’s seams in a museum! (‘Things of the Past’, 178)
30Lee therefore prefers the presence of architectural remains within their original space in the landscape—where the visibility of passed time creates ‘almost […] organic things’—over the ‘broken and stained’ decontextualised exhibits (sometimes mere copies or casts) in museums. It is in the actual locations of the ancient Greek and Roman South that the genius loci can be present; and at its most powerful the spirit of place can bring together the unvisited, the envisioned and the remembered in order to create a temporary Arcadia in a Thirdspace vision. The lasting effect of Lee’s writing depends on the transient, textual nature of this vision, for Lee’s South and her envisioned Hellas can be found, far more than in any tangible place on earth, in her texts and their nostalgic representations of real and imagined places.