Vernon Lee’s Occult Beauty

  • Mackenzie Brewer Gregg University of California, Riverside


Throughout her career, the late-Victorian essayist, fiction writer, and aesthetic theorist Vernon Lee (1856-1935) sustained a critique of the Aesthetic movement to which she was nevertheless an important contributorFinding that the doctrine ofl’art pour l’artsanctioned elitist self-absorption, irresponsible excess and intellectual vapidity, Lee sought to instead establish a connection between the worship of beauty and the development of ethics. One of the ways in which she achieved this divergent aestheticist project was, I wish to suggest, through occult theories of knowledge, learning, renunciation, and submission. My aim in this article is to approach the concept of beauty in Lee’s work, considering how it energizes and challenges her interwoven concepts of desire, history, and ethics. Turning first to the occult underpinnings of her essays on aesthetics, I subsequently unearth the queer historiographical injunction embedded within her Gothic fiction, exploring, through a reading of ‘Amour Dure’, how the historian’s encounter with occult beauty awakens affective and sexual investments in the feminist past.