Introduction Violet Paget
Violet Paget (14th October 1856 – 13th February 1935) was born in France, more precisely in Boulogne-sur-Mer, from mother Matilda Lee-Hamilton (born Adams) and father Henry Ferguson Paget. This last had been living in Poland but left the country after he became involved in the 1848 uprising. Although she was the only child born from this marriage, her widowed mother Matilda already had a son with a certain Captain James, named Eugene Lee Hamilton (1845-1907). Matilda and her half-brother Eugene were Violet’s main influences, especially concerning her intellectual development. Hence, she made up her pen name, Vernon Lee, as a reference to her half-brother. Her literary inspirations came from the several continental European countries she lived in both as a child and as an adult. Indeed, as Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham put it in their Vernon Lee : Decadence, Ethics and Aesthetics’ brief chronology of Vernon Lee, the author and her family had an unconventional way of living, as they “maintained a nomadic lifestyle, at times moving twice a year”(xvi). She was plurilingual as a consequence of her parents’ origins and as she lived in several countries such as France, England, Switzerland and more importantly Italy, her adoption country and most beloved one ; which enabled her to write in different languages. In addition to being a notable critic and aesthete, Vernon Lee was a creative author, as she wrote in many genres: from novels, to essays and short stories, she was a woman with no literary boundaries. She started writing from a young age, and first encountered great success with her pioneering Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, published in 1880, a scholar collection of essays on Italian culture which permitted a better interest and propagation of the Italian culture of that period. But although considered as the influencial, intellectual and cosmopolitan woman and writer she was, she was also considered a controversial writer who was influenced by modernism and “expressed her strong, individual views and … undertook new and original pursuits” partly during the Victorian era. Being a writer of two centuries, taking her influences from several artistic and cultural movements, Vernon Lee was sometimes misunderstood. As Vineta Colby puts it in the afterword of Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography :
Vernon Lee believed that it was her misfortune to have been born before her time, a Victorian who should have been a modern. Women poets and novelists were acceptable, within the boundaries of Victorian society. But a woman who ventured into intellectual history, aesthetics, and pshychology with her bold self-assurance confronted formidable obstacles. In the twentieh century, when she might rightfully have established her claims to authority as a woman of letters, she was a relic of Victorianism. Her aestheticism was Walter Pater’s ; her psychology a product of what she herself called “those ingenuous, unpsychological days” ; her experiments in psychological aesthetics unscientific and naive ; her writings on art and music superseded by more-expert specialists ; her travel writing dismissed as subjective and self-indulgent. (P335)
In 1890, she published her masterpiece Hauntings: Fantastic Stories, a collection of four supernatural tales: ‘Amour Dure: Passages from the Diary of Spiridion Trepka’, ‘Dionea’, ‘Oke of Okehurst’ and ‘A Wicked Voice’. The one with which the collection starts, ‘Amour Dure’, is the one on which our study will focus. However, ‘Amour’Dure’ had already been published before the publication of Hauntings and had suffered the translation of its title in one of the twentieth-century re-print. In Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography, Vineta Colby states that :First published in Murray’s Magazine in 1887, then in Hauntings in 1890, “Amour Dure” … has been re-printed in several twentieth-century collections, including Italo Calvino’s Fanstastic Tales : Visionary and Everyday (1997), where the title has unfortunately been changed to “A Lasting Love,” missing the irony of the French “Amour Dure” (love lasts) and “Dure Amour” (hard or unrelenting love). (P230-231)
The short-story narrates the adventure of a young man named Spiridion Trepka, through his own personal diary. The youthful Pole who has lived the major part of his life in Germany, came to Italy on a scholarship in order to write a book on the history of the town where the story unfolds, the town of Urbania.While making researches in the archives of the city, Spiridion becomes acquainted with the Duchess Medea da Carpi, a woman who died two hundred and ninety-seven years before. Through Spiridion’s discoveries, the reader is transported in the 16th century life of the young unfortunate Medea, who is presented as a lady who was “most lovely and of most cheerful and amiable manner”. We learn that she was first “affianced at the age of twelve to a cousin”, then after the engagement was broken, she was “married … by proxy at the age of fourteen”. But after being kidnapped by her second husband-to-be, the portrait made of the Madonna grows darker, as she murders him and all her following husbands and lovers, one after the other. As the story of Spiridion unfolds, it slowly mingles with the one of this Medea da Carpi as he gets more and more interested in her past life, until his story and hers become one and the same. As he becomes obsessed with Medea and her story, he falls in love with her, whom eventually comes to life for him. Ultimately, Spiridion, driven by his blind passion for the ghost lady, becomes another name on the list of her lovers, and like all of them, at the price of his own life. In the light of these numerous elements, we could ask the following question: how does the character of Medea da Carpi come to embody “the new femme fatale” in Vernon Lee’s ‘Amour Dure’? In order to answer this problematic, we shall first remind the litterary and historical backgrounds with a focus on the period in which the short-story was conceived, that is to say the Victorian age. Furthermore, we shall investigate the romantic influence that lies in ‘Amour Dure’, before examining Lee’s literary feminism and how her short story embodies her literary activism. Then, we shall discuss the empowerment of the female character of Medea da Carpi. It shall be done thanks to the analysis of the deconstruction of established conventions, through the idealization of the ghost lady. Accordingly, we shall consider the destruction of the powerful image of the male characters’ status, through the gaze of the male narrator. Finally, we shall probe the inquiry that becomes quest. In this context, we shall delve into the supernatural atmosphere of the ghost story, especially with attention to comparisons between the original text and the translation we propose. Eventually, we shall construe the reconstruction of a new myth through the character of Medea da Carpi.
I – Historical background and literary context of ‘Amour Dure’
The literary work under study, ‘Amour Dure’, was written and published at the turn of the nineteenth century, at the crossroads of Victorianism and Modernism, but it also bears a clear literary legacy of Romanticism. As a consequence, Vernon Lee’s gothic story displays features of the several literary movements. The literature of the Victorian era gathers all the literary works, written mainly in English, which were written under the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), which took place after the romantic period and was followed by the Edwardian era (1901-1910) and modernism. As a consequence, the Victorian literature, which therefore includes Vernon Lee’s gothic short story, conveys some of the characteristics of both romantic and modern literary styles, in addition to those of Victorianism. These three different literary movements and their particular aspects all had their influence on Lee’s writing, we will demonstrate, as she belonged to a post-romantic and pre-modern age. Nonetheless, although Lee herself and her works are often regarded as avant-gardiste, we will focus on Romanticism and Victorianism as the background for the writing of ‘Amour Dure’; as the pre-modern characteristics that can be found in ‘Amour Dure’ are manifested mainly in the interest for psychology through the male narrator Spiridion Trepka and the exploration of the Beyond that will be dealt with in our second part of our analysis. In order to replace Lee’s ghost story in its contexts, we will first remind and analyze the social and literary backgrounds of each movement that had a particular influence on Lee’s work, in chronological order, with, certainly, a peculiar attention to the Victorian age. Then, as our point is to prove the latent feminism that lies in ‘Amour Dure’, we will consider Lee’s feminist engaged works before ‘Hauntings’ and pave our way for our analysis of the character of Medea that will be done in our next analytical part. Thus, let us focus first on the age that preceded the one she was born in, that is to say the Romantic age.
The romantic period in literature
Romanticism is a cultural movement that influenced several forms of art including literature, painting, architecture and music, which first arose in England and Germany and later spread to the rest of Europe. In literature, the romantic period encompasses the literary works written and published from the late eighteenth century, around 1798, to the mid-nineteenth century, around 1830. Preceded by classicism, romanticism rejected literary rules and spirit of the former movement, that is to say order, formality, discipline, idealization, harmony and the cult of reason over passion. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, classicism is referred to as:
A term as replete with varied and contradictory meanings as romanticism (q.o.) and considerably complicated by the antinomy of classicism/romanticism (q.v.). In general when we speak of classicism we refer to the styles, rules, modes, conventions, themes and sensibilities of the Classical authors, and, by extension, their influence on and presence in the works of later authors. For the Romans classicism was Greek influence.
Common themes which were addressed in classical literature were the human nature, realism, religion, and the modern civilization, love, good versus evil, the valorisation of moral values, and the importance and benefits of resisting temptation. It must be noted that before the appearance of Romanticism as we will define it, occurred the period named ‘Pre-Romanticism’. It is during this period, that took place in the Middle Ages, that the medieval romance, which is it as the origin of the so-called Romantic movement, was born. A ‘romance’ then referred to an imaginative tale that recounted the adventures of a heroic knight, willing to defy any obstacle in order to save his beloved lady. Other characteristics of the chivalry romance include the vagueness of the settings and the disguised identity of one or several characters, including the main character, the epic cavalier.Let us now present the Romantic movement in a more detailed way in order to contrast it with the classical works, before examining the ‘antinomy’ of the two terms. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, the distinctive features of the eighteenth century Romantic genre included:
… (a) an increasing interest in Nature, and in the natural, primitive and uncivilized way of life; (b) a growing interest in scenery, especially its more untamed and disorderly manifestations; (c) an association of human moods with the ‘moods’ of Nature – and thus a subjective feeling for it and interpretation of it; (d) a considerable emphasis on natural religion; (e) emphasis on the need for spontaneity in thought and action and in the expression of thought; (f) increasing importance attached to natural genius and the power of the imagination; (g) a tendency to exalt the individual and his needs and emphasis on the need for a freer and more personal expression; (h) the cult of the Noble Savage (q.v.).
As one can assume, contrary to classicism, the romantic style further focused on the individual and its bond with nature, but it also made great use of symbolism, gave importance to the spectrum of human’s psychological possibilities, the irrational side of mankind, therefore exploring the imaginative, the emotional and the overcoming of the intellect by the senses. Indeed, romantic works had a penchant for the mysterious, the supernatural, the obscure, the gloomy and the frightful, which are the main features of Lee’s ‘Amour Dure’. Naturally, according to its topics of predilection, it was the romantic period that saw the born of the gothic fiction. As ‘Amour Dure’ is considered one of Lee’s greatest ghost stories, which also falls within the broader frame of the gothic fiction, we must give a more detailed definition of these terms. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, a ghost story is defined as:
A fictional narrative, usually in prose (there are some in verse, such as R. H. Barham’s tales in The Ingoldsby Legends), of variable length, but usually in the range of 1,000 to 2,000 words, in which the spirit of a person (or the spirits of persons), no longer bound by natural laws, manifests itself, or seems to do so (either embodied in some form or disembodied), and ‘haunts’ a place, person or thing as a kind of ‘presence’. As a genre the ghost story proper does not include demonic pacts, doppelgängers, vampires, werewolves, succubi, poltergeists et al. Nor as a rule does it involve witchcraft and the prolepses of magic, or occult practices associated with such activities as Cumberlandism, exorcism, spiritualism, telekinesis, hylomancy and so forth. Ghost stories probably antedate literature and belong to a primordial world in the dark backward and abysm of time’. In primitive religion, mythology and ancient epic (q.o.) the inter-relationship of the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural, is commonplace. …Until very early in the 19th c. most stories about ghosts were anecdotal (often with a basis of fact) and could not be regarded as fiction in the way that we now regard the ghost stories of, say, Charles Dickens and Henry James. …
We are also provided further information about the apparition of the genre. It is in the early nineteenth century that both the form of the Nouvelle, as conceived by Goethe, and the form of the short story emerge. From then, both the short story and the ghost story (in the form of the short story) are materialized in the way they are referred to nowadays. Amongst the most eminent ghost story writers that must cited are Washington Irving (1783-1859), as The Sleepy Hollow (1820) was the first prominent ghost story written by an American author; and also Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), whom had a major influence on the ghost story as a genre; as well as Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and his collection of ghost stories The Pickwick Papers (1837). It must be noted that in the eighteen-sixties and eighteen-seventies, most of ghost stories writers were women, as it enabled them to express their pent-up emotions without risking any backlash. The most praised feminine authors regarding the ghost story were Amelia Edwards (1831-1892), Rosa Mulholland (1841-1921) and the famous trio of Mrs Braddon, Mrs Riddell and Mrs Oliphant who were recognized for The Open Door. From the eighteen-sixties, a real interest was shown by the authors for a serious approach towards the potential of the human psychic. Of course, Vernon Lee must be cited as one of the best ghost story writers, with her collection of four ghost-stories that is not other than Hauntings: Fantastic Stories from which the object of our study, ‘Amour Dure’, is taken from. As for the gothic fiction and the gothic novel from which the former comes from, the terms are defined as “a type of romance (q.v.) very popular from the 1760s onwards until the 1820s. It has had a considerable influence o, fiction since (still apparent in the 1990s), and is of much importance in the evolution of the ghost story and the horror story (q.v.).” In the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, The gothic novel and the gothic fiction in general are defined as:
… tales of mystery and horror, intended to chill the spine and curdle the blood. They contain e strong element of the supernatural and have all or most of the now familiar topography, sites, props, presences and happenings: wild and desolate landscapes, dark forests, ruined abbeys, feudal halls and medieval castles with dungeons, secret passages, winding stairways, oubliettes, sliding panels and torture chambers; monstrous apparitions and curses; a stupefying atmosphere of doom and gloom; heroes and heroines in the direst of imaginable straits, wicked tyrants, malevolent witches, demonic powers of unspeakably hideous aspect, and a proper complement of spooky effects and clanking spectres… The whole apparatus, in fact, that has kept the cinema and much third-rate fiction going for years, is to be found in these tales. The most popular sold in great quantities and they were read avidly.
This extract attests of the peculiarities of the narrative of the gothic novel and the gothic story. Thereupon, we have made clear the divergence in style and concerns between Classicism and Romanticism. These divergences are the reason why a strong opposition was made between the two movements by Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829) in Das Athenaeum (1798). However, he was not the only one to write about the Romantic theory, as one Lee’s feminine icons, Mme de Staël, was also involved in the diffusion of the theory, as reported in the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory:
Schlegel saw classicism (q.v.) as an attempt to express infinite ideas and feelings in a finite form and romanticism (q.v.) as an attempt to express a kind of universal poetry in the creation of which the poet made his own laws. Mme de Staël (1766–1817) first publicized this idea in De l’Allemagne (1813) and it was through this work, as much as through Schlegel’s, that English and French writers became acquainted with the theory. Mme de Staël rejected classicism. Once this antinomy was established, many people modified and expanded it. The most notable person to do so was Goethe who equated classicism with health and romanticism with sickness. This over-simplified antinomy has been much debated ever since.
Thus, we have made clear the essential differences and oppositions between the Romantic and the Classical approach towards the role of the author and his literary aims. Let us now focus on the age Lee was born in, that is no other than the Victorian age.
The Victorian age
The Victorian era and its appellation refer to the reign of Queen Victoria, that is to say the period between 1837 and 1901. However, Historians debate over the precise dates, as for some of them the Victorian era rather corresponds to the period between 1830, which is the date of the end of Romanticism in England, and 1880. Victorianism is often referred to as a paradoxical period. Indeed, although the Victorian society was extremely conservative, it was also a time of great change and evolution in many fields in England. Socially as well as industrially, the English nineteenth century saw a great number of transformations and the rise of a whole new society. We will try and give a general overlook over the spirit of the time and present the main improvements of this period, logically focusing on the areas that are relevant to our topic, that is to say literature and the place of women in the Victorian society. Although the Victorian age was considered “an association, and at times a marked dissociation, of very different ways of life”, some social and literary characteristics were anchored deep enough and worth citing in order to analyze and understand Lee’s work.
Victorianism was an age of social reform, especially in the first half of the century. Indeed, generally considered an age of affluence and progress, this historical period was the time for numerous social reforms, especially in the 1830s. Let us then give a quick account of the main amendments. The First Reform Act, passed in 1832, changed the electoral system in Parliament and permitted the enlargement of the right to vote to middle-class males. A year later, The Factory Act limited child labour and The Slavery Abolition Act ends slavery in the British Empire. In 1834, The Poor Law Amendment Act established parish workhouses and their harsh conditions in order to reduce the cost of the care of the poor caused by The Poor Law (1815). The same year, The Grand National Trade Unions were created by social reformer Robert Owen and the Chimney Sweeps Act regulated the employment of children in chimney sweeping. Around this date also starts Chartist agitation in order to obtain universal male voting rights. We must note that all these reforms should be understood in the framework of History, as the everyday life of the early Victorians was completely different from the one of the late Victorians. Indeed, before all the social improvements that happened in this period, the first Victorians were believed to have lived in a chaotic environment. One example cited in The Victorian Period (P8) is the ‘Bloody Code’, the criminal code that governed England between 1688 and 1815, which proved to be barbaric and ineffective, even called ‘the curse and disgrace of the country by British historian and Whig politician Macaulay. Concerning health, a great progress in made in 1840 with the Vaccination Act, which enables free vaccination for everyone. However, two years later, secretary to the Poor Law Commission Edwin Chadwick’s report on Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain points out the unsanitary conditions of the working-class. Indeed, with the growth of the population came the increase of poverty. From 1847 to 1849, cholera epidemics happen in England industrial cities, causing tens of thousands of deaths.
Economics and politics
Under the reign of Queen Victoria, England was known as the most powerful nation of the world. This admirable status was achieved by dint of several economical and political choices. One of the most significant changes underwent during the Victorian era was the industrialisation of the country. England went from an agricultural to an industrial society, which altered its landscape and its population’s way of living. The industrial revolution permitted developments in textile industries, railways and steam navigation thanks to the development of the factory system and the transition to the use of machines. However, industrialisation of the country also led to increased poverty. Imperialism was also one of the most essential features of Victorianism. During the reign of Queen Victoria, at the end of the nineteenth century, the size of the British colonial Empire was tremendous, as it was believed to be in control of a quarter of the world lands with territories in North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, India and Africa. Trade had become the representation of hierarchy, which led to other social abuses, such as child labour, as we have already mentioned in the social background portion. It was only in 1870 that attending school was made mandatory for children between five to ten years old to go to school thanks to the Education Act; and it was only in 1881 that the law was effective in Britain. These political and social improvements led to the Great Depression of 1873.
Science and Technology
The second half of the Victorian age saw the development of science and technological advancements in England, which permitted thereafter the improvement of people’s everyday life. The technological progresses made during that time were made possible thanks to the industrial revolution. Amongst the greatest inventions were the railways, the telegraph, and steamships. In 1851 the Great Exhibition opens up at the Crystal Palace in London. This exhibition, which celebrated the wonders of industry and technological accomplishments draw the attention of millions of visitors. Major discoveries were also made in the fields of medicine, physics and chemistry. But one of the greatest scientific discoveries of that time in the field of biology was of course Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In his On the Origin of Species, which he revealed to the world in 1859, he presented the process of ‘natural selection’. Besides, this scientific work and the general scientific development of the Victorian period also had an impact on the place of religion in society, in addition to all the technical and technological improvements it brought to daily life.
During the Victorian era, religion played a major role in the design of the society. Indeed, religion was completely part of people’s everyday life and the spirit of that time, as they were expected to live a pious life which respected the ‘moral code’ of that time. Attending church regularly was indisputable, and the bible was considered the guide which carried and delivered not only the religious truth, but also the concrete truth to live a moral life. Well-known for its very conservative morals, the Victorian period was characterised by the incredible religious power held over the English people, particularly in the early years. Indeed, one of the main singularities of the Victorian age was the importance of moral values. As asserted in Victorian England:
If, however, one looks for the most enduring and distinctive characteristic of the Victorian age, one finds it in its high sense of moral responsibility. A consideration of this is more important to an understanding of the Victorians than any other factor. For, whether they were being humanitarian or utilitarian; benevolent or heartless; sentimental or pornographic; religious or irreligious; … the Victorians were almost always acting with reference to their all-pervading belief in the moral imperatives of personal responsibility, of duty, and of living for something other than the satisfaction of the immediate needs of the self. (P6)
The dominant religion of Victorian England, as in many countries of that time, was Christianity. Not only was it the religion of the people, but it was also an institution. According to Taine, respect to Christianity and its precepts is a duty to the people, and any unbeliever would be considered someone respectable with difficulty. However, it must be noted that although faith certainly existed among the Victorian Christians, “… the good behaviour of Christians was based on fear, or love, of God and was undertaken out of a dread of eternal punishment or in the hope of eternal bliss”. But despite the fact Christianity was the established religion, it was also subjected to reforms. The most important religious reform of the Victorian era was the evangelical revival movement within the Church of England.
This movement dated from John Wesley’s conversion experience in 1738, it was by 1800 operating in upper-case form within the Church of England (Evangelicals) and in lower-case form among the newly formed Methodists, through whose influence it passed to other Nonconformist groups (evangelicals).
The religious doctrine was based on integrity, decency, and an obsessive faith in the idea of self-help through work. Because of these harsh principles, the evangelical movement was seen as a way to justify, in the eyes of the population of England, the toughness of the working conditions at that time. Indeed, this doctrine based on restrictions and sternness was a solid ground for the development of capitalism. However, these principles already existed before Victorianism, which justifies the assertion according to which they were more of a means of control rather than a purely religious course of action. As explained in Victorian England, “Since none of these ideals of behaviour was new, being an integral part of the traditional Puritan ethic, there is little need to disagree with the Marxist view that they became a predominant creed in the Victorian period because they were socially useful” (P7). However, due to scientific progress, the Victorian period was the time which marked the decline in the Church’s power over the population. Indeed, as stated before in our previous part dealing with science and technology in the Victorian age, scientific advancements was the major reason of the decline in religious beliefs in the second half of the century. Religion suffered the progress of its time in this field, as Darwin’s theory of the evolution of the species was in contradiction with the message of the Bible. From this point began the questioning of the superiority of religion over science.
The Condition of Victorian Women
Within the patriarchal social structure of the Victorian age, the place of women was one of the major social inequalities. Indeed, Victorianism, often referred to as the great age of the middle classes, was “predominantly middle-class, masculine, and metropolitan.” In spite of the legal improvements achieved in favour of women by the end of the century in the professional, educational and legal domains, gender equity was never reached: customs and prejudices kept women from any social power within the English society. Let us then present some of the legal improvements that permitted the commencement of belated women’s emancipation. Indeed, it is not before the second half of the century, in the 1860s, that campaigns for women’s right were organised. As a consequence, various laws were passed in favour of women’s emancipation. In the educational area, a few improvements were made. In 1848, was founded the Queen’s College for Women, which was also the first girls’ school to bestowed a Royal Charter. In 1874 opened the London Medical College for Women and the women’s Trade Union League was created. In 1878 was founded the Maria Grey Training College for women teachers, and from this date, women were also accepted to degree courses at the University of London. Concerning married women property rights, it was not before 1882 that de second Married Women’s Property Act enabled married women to preserve and control separate ownership of property they owned before their marriage. One year later, married women get the right to acquire their own property. In 1923, the Matrimonial Causes Act enables both sexes to divorce on same ground. Before this, men could divorce by proving their wives’ infidelity, while women had to prove infidelity, desertion and repeated assault. Regarding women’s suffrage, it is only in the twentieth century that campaigns intensify. Indeed, women over thirty who met a property qualification were not given the right to vote before the end of the First World War, thanks to the Representation of the People Act, which, on the other hand, granted the vote to all men of twenty-one. Finally, in 1929, every woman over twenty-one was given the suffrage. As one can deduce, although these acts were passed in the second half and late nineteenth century, the condition of women in England would not be altered and improve before the following century. Now that we have globally reminded the legal status of women over the nineteenth century, let us now give an account of their everyday life in the restrictive Victorian society of that time. As men and women were not treated equally, Victorian women lived with different standards and did not have the same preoccupations according to their social rank. But although divided into three main categories; nobility upper-class, middle class and the working class (sometimes itself divided into upper working class and lower working class); the social expectations towards women were the same. Men and women lived in what Victorians called ‘separate spheres’, as women were expected to stay at home all day while men were at their workplace. Women’s life moved around family, their role in society being reduced to pleasing their husband, taking care of their children and the household. Indeed, women had no right to vote, or to earn property during the Victorian age. Yet, women pertaining to the higher classes had of course a more luxurious and pleasant life even if they remained dependent on their husband and had no power in regards to society. Upper-class women were taken care of by their servants and could enjoy participating in activities as well as having an agreeable social life with their counterparts. Another advantage noble women and young ladies enjoyed was the chance of receiving an education, that was made to shape them into the loving and caring mothers, but also submissive and passive wives they were expected to become. Their role in the household was to educate their servants, who would in turn inculcate the ‘right values’ to their mistress’ daughters. Middle-class women, who had the chance of being wealthy, also had the benefit to have an education, and their main aim was to marry a man from the nobility. The two remaining social class women, that is to say upper working class and lower working class women were naturally the unluckiest ones. On the one hand, upper working class women had at least the possibility to earn enough money as school teachers or housekeepers to live a decent life. On the other hand, lower working class women had the harshest living conditions. In order to survive, these women had to abandon themselves to degrading practices or physically gruelling employments such as prostitution, or working in textiles mills. But in addition to their role as good wives and procreators, Victorian women also carried the burden of the carnal issue. Although they were advised from the youngest age that their first quest for the domestic virtuous life they had to live was to find a husband, Victorian women were also advised to try and not be too expressive about it. Indeed, the sacred image given to their body bestowed them the role of keeping it pure through behaving in the respectable way the moral code imposed them to. As a consequence, the rapport Victorian women had with desire and sexual intercourses were completely different from those of their male homologues. According to Victorian England, Aspects of English and Imperial History (P13-14):
It was ultimately their women’s responsibility to maintain sexual moral standards by being unapproachable before marriage and unresistingly available to their male partner on demand thereafter. They were expected to be as physically unaroused when behaving as chaste wives as when being chaste spinsters. … It may be suspected that the amount of private misery resulting from conformity to the Victorian sexual code was not greatly less than that which resulted from departing from it. In time, it came to be the code above all that mattered. … If it were departed from, at all costs scandal must be avoided; for, if scandal they were, the guilty ones must be punished. And since that punishment was social ostracism, avoidance of scandal, rather than abandonment of the conduct that gave rise to it, was of primary concern.
Fortunately for women of England and the United Kingdom in general, major changes occurred towards the end of the century, especially thanks to the industrial revolution. Finally, Victorian women were entitled to earn money, and the birth rates of the time went decreasing, due to the changing ideal family model, that went from large family to smaller ones; somewhat freeing them from their ‘traditional duties’. Just as the Victorian woman was idealized into the stereotype of the chaste woman, wife and mother in real life, the Victorian heroine was also idealized in the same way in Victorian literature.
The Victorian Woman in/and Literature
Early Victorian novels were generally about struggling, the difficulty of everyday life with all the harsh living conditions of the time, with a ‘happy ending’ and a moral. The past had a major importance in Victorian literature: the Victorians had a particular love for chivalrous stories, which echoed the nobility of their own time. However, with the evolution of the society came the evolution of literature and its purposes. Indeed, Victorian literature became more and more moral, increasingly rolling away from the aestheticist ‘art for art’s sake’ vision. With all the social abuses and inequalities, literature became a major tool for the awakening of consciousness and the spreading of modern ideologies, as the middle-class, the favourite class of the Victorian age, had access to literature and the power to spread it. As men were depicted as strong and powerful, women, on the contrary, were depicted weaker. However, marriage was commonly cheerfully idealized, contrasting with the reality of the marital unions of that time when women were often cheated on and physically and verbally abused by their husband. But although the average Victorian husband was not depicted in his true light, the Victorian woman was as idealized in literature as she was in society: she must stay pure and keep the angelic etiquette assigned to her. If females chose to break from those stereotypical image inculcated from the youngest age, she was then considered an impure being in literature. Women had only one choice, between purity and death, therefore being “deprived of that internal dialectic, social and psychological”. As Francoise Bash puts it in her Relative Creatures, it is striking how the role and symbolism of women in Victorian novels stuck to this one, as “the change in the code of female behaviour took place as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century” but the preceding novels gave women much more character, and room both for psychology and carnal presence. Daniel Defoe’s Roxana and Moll Flanders are accurate examples of the previous image of women given in novels, as these two characters succeed in freeing themselves from the stereotypical expectations towards women. Francoise Basch confirms that “the revalued, and even sanctified image of the wife-mother, prevails over “the two negative images that are the reverse of its ideal: that of the single woman, debased and largely caricatured, and the impure woman, condemned and even damned.” For the last two, the woman is generally depicted as weak and powerless because of either the way she is treated or her fate. But in addition to being a time of craze for the novel, the Victorian age was also the period in which the fantastic fiction developed.
Gothic fiction and ghost stories
The Victorian period is also considered the golden age of gothic fiction. Indeed, it is in the late nineteenth century, from the 1760s that the Gothic novel developed until the 1820s, which preceded the development of the ghost story.
The arrival of the popular ‘Graveyard Poetry’ (q.v.) in the 1740s marked the beginning of a shift in sensibility (q.v.), and the sepulchral meditations of those later called ‘graveyard poets” were to have a pronounced influence on the evolution of the Gothic novel, which was soon to appear and, with it, the ghost in fiction (e.g. the monstrous ghost in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, 1964), plus much other supernatural apparatus. The overall effect of Gothic fiction was remarkable, and the way was prepared for the ghost story.
According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, the main characteristics of most Gothic novels are “that they contain a strong element of the supernatural and have all or most of the now familiar topography, sites, … presences and happenings: wild and desolate landscapes, …, ruined abbeys, … monstrous apparitions and curses”. The atmosphere is built up around the gloomy, the dark and the horrific. It must be noted that in the 1860s and 1870s, most of the great ghost-story writers were actually women. We must mention Amelia Edwards (author of The Engineer and The Phantom Coach), Rosa Mulholland, Mrs Braddon, Mrs Riddell and Mrs Oliphant, who wrote The Open Door – one of the best of all ghost stories. We might suppose that women had in fact a dazzling talent for writing ghost stories due to their status and their experience as women in patriarchal societies. Indeed, the genre in which the author decides to write and the way the characters are presented are often revealing of the social structures of the author’s time. Literature then enables the reader to have a glance the author’s personal judgment and critic of society. Regarding feminine authors, and particularly Victorian feminine authors such as Vernon Lee, ghost stories allowed them to externalize and share their feelings towards the duties, morals, prohibitions and stereotypes imposed on them, through the use of Gothic metaphor. In fact, common ghost stories deal with the themes of unreasonable or morbid love, the burden of marriage, motherhood, death, sexuality, and the duality of sin and purity, good and evil. The place of women in gothic works is then obviously central to the plot. Female characters generally embody either a victim, or a predator in the storyline. However, the feminine icon can also be more intricate and built on the two features, as it is the case of Lee’s Medea da Carpi in ‘Amour Dure’ as we will later demonstrate. Then, the gothic heroine can become a symbol for a feminist reconsideration of feminine identity.
Social and literary background
The modernist period, which started in late nineteenth century before World War one, is a literary period that followed the Realistic period, and was a reaction against it. Both followed the Edwardian age, which corresponds to the period of King Edward VII’s reign, from 1901 to 1910. The aim of Realism was to give an accurate account of life, that is to describe the environmental and social realities without any filter. Realism “rejected classicism (q.v), romanticism and the doctrine of art for art’s sake (q.v).” Indeed, contrary to classic and romantic works, the ambition through realistic works was not idealizing what it described in order to prettify the common. The Western notions of progress and superiority developed in the Victorian age were falling apart, because of the World War one. Literary modernism emerged in England around 1910, at the very end of Victorianism as a reaction against Romanticism. It is the portrayal of society given in the literary works that differed between realism and modernism. Indeed, realist works depicted society as they saw it, while modern works showed their experience and convictions: modern writings showed a society in rebellion against traditions. Modernism was more subjective and focused more on human psychological analysis. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory,
As far as literature is concerned modernism reveals a breaking away from established rules, traditions and conventions, fresh ways of looking at man’s position and function in the universe and many (in some cases remarkable) experiments in form and style. It is particularly concerned with language and how to use it (representationally or otherwise) and with writing itself. Thus, structuralism was (and is) from the outset closely connected with modernist tendencies, though the theories of structuralism (q.v.) did not gain a strong foothold until the 1960s, by which time postmodernism was well established as a new movement.
As the historical and social backgrounds of Modernism were prone to revolutionary ideas, modernist works focused on topics such as the human dislocation within society, exploring identical issues and social abuses. Common modernist themes were life after death, the human psychological
Lee’s modern feminist literature in the Victorian age
Miss Brown, published in 1884, is Vernon Lee’s first novel was a “scathing satire of the Aesthetic movement and its London devotees”. But it can also be read as a modern feminist work, despite the fact that it was published more than twenty years before the ‘official’ beginning of Modernism in early twentieth century. The novel is indeed modern in its study of behavioural psychology of women. Let us give a definition of the term ‘feminism’ before going any further into our analysis. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory,
Feminism questions the long-standing, dominant, male, phallocentric ideologies (which add up to a kind of male conspiracy), patriarchal attitudes and male interpretations in literature (and critical evaluation of literature). It attacks male notions of value in literature – by offering critiques of male authors and representations of men in literature and also by privileging women writers. In addition it challenges traditional and accepted male ideas about the nature of women and about how women feel, act and think, or are supposed to feel, act and think, and how in general they respond to life and living. It thus questions numerous prejudices and assumptions about women made by male writers, not least any tendency to cast women in stock character (q.o.) roles.
The novel portrays the emergence of, the modern woman in the fin-de-siècle society, the ‘New Woman’. Indeed, the behaviour of women changed from the 1880s, transforming into ‘intellectuals’. The accessibility to literature of Victorian women and their growing interest for it accelerated the process of emancipation. In Miss Brown, the ‘new woman’ is embodied by Anne Brown and the Leigh sisters, who have access to spare-time activities and items that were previously reserved to the masculine gender. Moreover, themes like feminine sexuality outside marriage contribute to the novel’s modernist aspect. Moreover, the presentation of marriage for one of the feminine characters as a misfortune, and the ‘classes’ given by another one to working class women brings the philanthropist characteristic of the Victorian ‘new woman’. Furthermore, Lee’s sexual orientation also echoes the ambiguity conveyed in Miss Brown, as well as the role of marriage. It must be noted that Vernon Lee herself delivered these ‘classes’ to working class women. According to the video ‘Vernon Lee, une femme libre, partie 2’, Lee became acquainted with these practices thanks to Isabella and Emily Ford, two campaigners for women’s right. During the war, Lee stayed at their place as she was far from her Italian home when the war began. Thanks to the sisters and Isabella Ford in particular, Lee discovers the working class people of Leeds. Emily offers free ‘lessons’ to working-class women. At first, Lee attends Emily’s classes, then she decided to participate and offered her help. Through her novel, Lee clearly transposes her own modern personal convictions and demands in favour of women emancipation. However, her social message was unfortunately not understood by the readers of her time, which is revealing of her avant-gardism. Indeed, the reception of Miss Brown, which was considered a controversial novel due to the themes explored, such as intersectionality regarding sex and social class, did not meet Lee’s hopes. As the video ‘Vernon Lee, une femme libre, partie 1’ asserts, the reception of her roman a clef was disastrous, and she lost a certain number of friends after the publication of Miss Brown. Lee suffered all the more from this incomprehension because despite being reputed for being prudish, she was wrongfully accused of being coarse. Lee did not understand the accusations of lechery as she considered herself a stickler for morality. In a more recent worker, ‘The Economic Parasitism of Women’, which is part of her volume of essays on contemporary social issues, Gospels of Anarchy published in 1908, Lee further studies of the ‘woman question’. Vernon Lee’s ease in many literary genres enables her to deal with her convictions in different ways, such as in fiction. In ‘The Economic Parasitism of Women’ in her 1908 Gospels of Anarchy, Lee addresses the fundamental roles attributed, or rather refused to women within Western societies. In ‘Amour Dure’, it is through the unavoidable character of Medea da Carpi that she proposes a feminist view on the condition of women, this time in the Italian Renaissance. However, this empowering of the feminine character is made possible only thanks to the historiograph gaze of Spiridion Trepka.
Spiridion Treapka as the female voicing media
It is interesting to delve into Vernon Lee’s treatment of her feminine character Medea da Carpi in ‘Amour Dure’, as it differs from the conventional Victorian approach of the gothic feminine character. Indeed, in the short story, Medea is a ghostly incarnation, a symbol of resistance, against Victorian gender stereotypes. First of all, let us investigate her relationship with men. Throughout the entire storyline, Medea’s power over the male characters involved in her story is obvious. Indeed, all the male characters but one, that is no other than Duke Robert, lose their life in favour of hers. However, even if he does succeed in not dying because of her and actually organises her execution, it is necessary to observe that he lived in the fear of meeting her after his earthly death. As a consequence, he materializes his protection thanks to the effigy. Likewise, Medea’s hold on the narrator and main character of the gothic work, Spiridion Trepka, is undeniable. Besides, it is through his eyes that the discovery of her character, past life and reputation is made possible. The modern literary form of personal journal chosen by Lee enables the reader to directly fall into the plot. As and when the story unfolds, the narrator starts from being merely interested and intrigued by her story and portrait, and ends up being obsessed and (literally) mad about her. The power of Medea relies in relationship with Trepka and her physical presence in his spirit. Indeed, her power is shown through her intrusion into the young male character’s concrete world. This intrusion into the world of the living is made through Trepka’s senses. Indeed, the narrator thinks he can smell her presence, but he can also see her at some point in the church, and is able to find the rose she left for him. In this case, as we can point out, it is not the woman who is depicted as mad, but the make character, which is exemplified by his sensorial hallucinations. The power of her beauty, materialized by her portraits found by Trepka is central to her position in the story. Finally, the ending is the last coup de grace in favour of the Renaissance ghost. Indeed, the masculine narrator, who pleaded her cause throughout the entire tale, turns out to be her latest victim. By killing the masculine character that was on the side of the dangerous feminine predator, Vernon Lee strongly affirms her willing to deconstruct masculine power over women. The fact that Trepka brought to light a positive image of Medea and still became one of her victims makes the novel even more feminist. The male characters rather judges Medea’s masculine oppressors like Duke Robert, her fathers and previous husbands than her. She is then shown into the light of the ‘femme-objet’, victim of the masculine totalitarianism of her time. This leads us to the second part of our research, dealing with the deconstruction of the historical figure of the femme fatale.
II – Empowerment of the Female Character
The feminist empowerment of the main female character, Medea da Carpi, is made by means of several strategies. We will focus on the empowerment of Medea through already existing femmes fatales. First, we will consider the deconstruction of the myth of the femme fatale through an analogy of feminine figures that were at the origin of the myth, then the mythical figures made femmes fatales in the Romantic and Victorian periods, alluded to by Spiridion. By doing so, we will put under scrutiny Lee’s destruction of male authority thanks to the historical background restored by Spiridion Trepka.
The deconstruction of the mythical figure: Medea as the “new femme fatale”
In ‘Amour Dure’, Spiridion Trepka makes a parallel between Medea da Carpi and several other feminine figures, the majority of which are considered historical femmes fatales, which enables both the deconstruction of the mythical figure established by men throughout history but, above all, in Romantic and Victorian literature; and the restoration of the feminine identity. In order to better understand Lee’s intentions mediated through her ghostly character and her story, we must investigate and analyze the different feminine figures whom she is compared to, and the way they were treated in literatur. But before doing so, we must investigate the origin and connotation of the term of femme fatale, as well as the origin of Medea’s own denomination.
The myth of the femme fatale: origins
The mythical figure of the femme fatale has existed since the very first writings involving women. As Italian critic Mario Praz stated,
There have always existed Fatal Women in both mythology and literature, since mythology and literature are imaginative reflections of the various aspects of life, and the real life has always provided more or less complete examples of arrogant and cruel female characters.
From the biblical literature, to ancient Greek mythology, and the literature and folklore of many different civilizations and their cultural background, women have always been endowed with a negative connotation throughout ages. Indeed, although the myth has no official source, its power over the human mind has proved to be continous, and this is why it was used at social purposes by men in order to both assert men’s power over women throughout the years and as well as to express their fears towards the so-considered strange beings that were women. Lets us first give a definition of this term which is going to accompy us throughout our analysis. According to The Dictionnary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory,
Myth is a term of complex history and meaning. Homer used the word muthos to mean narrative and conversation, but not a fiction. Odysseus tells false stories about himself and uses the term muthologenevein to signify ‘telling a story’. Later, Greek mutbos is used to mean fiction. Plato refers to muthoi to denote something not wholly lacking truth but for the most part fictitious. It has been surmised that the transition of muthos to mean fiction may have been helped by a kind of association with muein, ‘to initiate into secrets’ (hence, mystic, mystery). The word nuthikos (‘mythical’) went into Latin as rnythicus. Muthos has also been equated with the Latin fabula (q.v.). Nowadays a myth tends to signify a fiction, but a fiction which conveys a psychological truth. In general a myth is a story which is not ‘true’ and which involves (as a rule) supernatural beings – or at any rate supra-human beings. Myth is always concerned with creation. Myth explains how something came to exist. Myth embodies feeling and concept – hence the Promethean or Herculean figure, or the idea of Diana, or the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Many myths or quasi-myths are primitive explanations of the natural order and cosmic forces.
The word ‘myth’ itself has been concerned with evolution throughout time, ending up with the meaning of fiction. However, the connotation of expressing a certain truth (or at least explaining the origin of something) remained, as did the “feeling” of men towards women remain with the feminine myths. The construction of myth of the femme fatale of Lee’s nineteenth century, although influenced by the historical and social situation of the time, found notwithstanding its origin in previous depictions of evil and monstrous mythical women. Romanticism was indeed a period of great revival of the mythic femme fatale, as testifies the eminent poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (1819) by early Romantic John Keats. Later on, the theme continued to be taken advantage of by the fin-de-siècle ‘Decadents’ such as Algernon Charles Swinburne with his famous poem “In the Orchard”. In The Romantic Agony (1970), Mario Praz analyzes the representation of femmes fatales in the “decadent spirit”. Praz assumes that the first fin-de-siècle femme fatale appears in John Keats’ (considered the youngest Romantic) Romantic ballad ‘Belle Dame sans Merci’ (1819). It must be noted that the ballad’s title originates in a fifteenth century poem written by Alain Chartier, French poet. Keat’s ballad narrates a conversation between a knight, condemned to eternal wandering, and the lady he is in love with, presented as a magical creature, who does not love him in return. However, the myth of the femme fatale is a historical one: from Lilith in the Bible and Medusa to half-animal half-human creatures such as mermaids and vampires, the femmes fatales embody a distorted vision of women to whom were attributed evilness, magical powers and an overwhelming erotic power. According to Béatrice Grandordy, a femme fatale is
… a woman or a character, commonly feminine, whose attitude, conscious or unconscious, aims at bringing a man to disgrace or ruin, or aims at putting him in a shameful position. The femme fatale usually uses her charms, and … tends to engage in aggressive behaviour.
In her book, Grandordy analyzes the evolution of the femme fatale throughout history until modern days, and traces back the origins of the modifications applied to the concept of femininity which led to the conception and blooming of the femme fatale between 1880 and 1920, commonly attributed to Darwin’s and Freud’s groundbreaking ideas. Indeed, as we have elucidated in the first part of our analysis, their scientifical discoveries, coupled with the economic evolution, contributed to the reworking of womanhood and the development of literary diabolization of women in patriarchal English society of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the myth of the femme fatale reached its literary climax in the context of late Victorianism and Edwardianism. In Nina Auerbach’s Woman and the Demon: Life of a Victorian Myth, the author explicits the opposition which lied in the Victorian duality of masculine apprehension of women: hitherto stereotyped as angelic figures, representative of the social oppression they suffered, women were then depicted as diabolic creatures. As Heather L. Braun puts it, although the myth already existed, “by the time the femme fatale reached her glory years between 1860 and 1910, she was closely aligned with the Decadent Movement”. In fact, the ‘decadent spirit’ was marked by the animalisation of feminine representation in late nineteenth century literature, with an unparalleled obsession with figures such as mermaids, vampires, lamias and harpies, which attest of the bestial connotation attributed to women by male writers. The fragmented feminine identity, which is central to the myth of the femme fatale of the nineteenth century, stems in fact from patriarchal oppression on women. By the time Vernon Lee wrote and published ‘Amour Dure’ in 1890, the vilification of women through the use of the femme fatale was already common use in literature, as she cites as Medea’s equals several women known for being prominent femmes fatales such as Lucrezia Borgia and Vittoria Accoramboni, who was made the main character from John Webster’s play The White Devil (1612). Therefore, it is interesting to investigate the deconstruction of the mythical femme fatale vehiculated by ‘Amour Dure’, through the masculine gaze of narrator Spiridion Trepka, and his intrusive allusions to existing femmes fatales in the plot. In fact, the searcher’s investigation into the past serves a different purpose than exposing the story of a fatal woman, actually seeking the identity behind the myth. As Zorn puts it, through his quest, the male narrator not only disassembles the myth of the Renaissance woman but also exposes the historical conditions of its production thereby subverting the notion of myth itself.” Then, we must recall eminent femmes fatales of history before closely examining the story of the women cited by Lee through Spiridion, in order to get a better undertsanding of the mythic figure, and to follow the construction of a new femme fatale through the deconstruction of the established traditional myth of the femme fatale which proves to be “the much-maligned hyperfeminine fantasy of heterosexual patriarchy” .
The analysis of the character of Medea da Carpi cannot be done without a comparison with the Greek Medea, as they share a significant feature of the femme fatale. Furthermore, her relationship with masculine figures is relevant to our analysis of the role of Medea da Carpi in denouncing Lee’s patriarchal society. In Greek mythology, Medea is a notable figure. Daughter of Aeëtes, King of Colchis and Idyia, the youngest of the Oceanides, she is the granddaughter of Helios, Titan of the sun. Medea is best knwon for her appearance in Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica (3rd century BC). In Euripides’s version, her story is the one of a sorceress guilty of both fratricide and infanticide, who betrays her family and her country. Jason is asked by his uncle to get hold of the Golden Fleece. As it was offered to Medea’s father, Aeëtes, Jason formulates his request to the King, who declares that he will donate the precious fleece if he succeeds in accomplishing three missions. But the king has no intention of ceding the coveted item, as the adventure would result in Jason’s death. However, Medea falls in love with Jason, and secretly offers him her magical power, in exchange for his promise to marry her after escaping from Colchis, which he accepts. Furious, Aeëtes threatens Jason to kill him. Jason, the Argonauts and Medea flee Colchis with the Golden Fleece and Absyrtus, Medea’s as hostage. In a murderous madness, Medea kills her brother and cuts him into pieces and sows behing them in order to slow down her father, whom stops his chase to collect his son’s remains to organise his funerals. As they arrive at Iolcus, Jason’s home kingdom, the latter realizes his uncle Pelias has killed his family. Jason asks Medea her help in order to get rid of him, which she does. Thanks to her magical powers, she convinces Pelias’s daughters to kill and dismember their father. As a consequence, Medea and Jason are exiled and flee to Corinth, where they are welcomed by Creon, King of Corinth, who protects them during the several years they inhabit his city. Medea gives birth to two sons born out of her marriage with Jason: Mermeros and Pheres. However, Jason falls in love with Creon’s daughter, Creusa and repudiates Medea, as he does not love her, in order to marry Creusa. In addition to this betrayal, Medea is chased out of the city with her two children. She does not leave without avenging, killing Creusa, her father and her children. Medea flees to Athens, where she marries the King Aegeus, in exchange for a son she would give him. She does so and gives brith to their son Medus. However, the arrival of Theseus, Aegeus’s son disrupts Medea’s plans for her own. She decides to convince her husband to poison young Theseus, which he does not as he discovers who Theseus really is. Medea flees Athens with her son Medus and the city treasure on her burning snakes-drawn chariot. Disillusioned, Medea goes back to her natal Colchis, where her uncle Perses is the new ruler, as he had dethroned her father after she betrayed her family and fled with Jason. Finally, she decides to kill Perses in order to restitute her father’s kingship. In Euripides’s classical version of Medea’s story, the rest of Medea’s life and her death remain unnarrated. Several elements of the Greek Medea’s story find echoe in Lee’s Medea. Indeed, in addition to sharing their name, both are represented as murderers who only chose masculine figures as victims. Although Medea does not kill her brother as revenge in the first place, she does so with her two sons. It must be noted that Medea’s murderous thirst for revenge in the Greek myth is at the origin of the psychoanalytic term ‘Medea complex’, which refers to a mother’s homicidal wishes towards her children or to the instrumentalization of children as means of hurting the father, that stem from a abandonment of the latter. Both Medea and Medea da Carpi highlight the injustice underwent by innocents that stem from abuse. As Marie Carrière puts it in her Médée Protéiforme,
“Mauvaise mère par excellence, ‘barbare’ d’origine, furieusement dissidente, sorcière, guérisseuse, Médée a fait bonne et surtout mauvaise figure à travers les siècles, ayant mis en évidence la violence et le sacrifice des innocents commis (par elle ou par d’autres) dans le sillage de l’oppression”.
Both Medeas the ultimate punishment to innocents: as Medea kills Jason’s wife Creusa, Creon and her own children, Medea da Carpi ends the life or commands the killing of innocent men who are in love with her. Another common point is the reward promised for the needed help, although the two Medeas endorse opposite roles. On the one hand, Medea is the one who asks for sentimental union to masculine figures in exchange for her help. She always ends up disappointed and disillusioned, first by Jason and Aegeus. On the other hand, Medea da Carpi is the one who promises her love in exchange for help. By being represented these ways, Medea appears to be a victim despite her murderous folly each time she is betrayed, contrary to Medea da Carpi, who is presented as a cold-blood manipulative murderer as her only aim is to destruct masculine authority. However, the message behind the Greek myth, must be taken into account. Indeed, according to Chrsita Zorn, “The Medea myth, especially in Euripides’ version, has been read as a trope for the historical circumstances, in which she represents woemn’s oppression and desperate revolt.” Lee’s intentions through her story echoe the interpretation of the ancient myth, as both Medeas put in danger the established order.
Medusa is one of the most famous feminine monster creatures of Greek mythology. Her origins dating back from Ancient Greek literature, Medusa is one of the Gorgons of Greek mythology. Medusa, alongside her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale, is the most eminent one. The three of them, characterized by their living hair made out of venonimous snakes, were often portrayed as being winged, serpent-like sclay skin and also having facial tusks, as Apollodorus puts it: “The Gorgons had heads twined about with the scale of dragons, and great tusks like swine’s, and brazen hands, and golden wings, by which they flew.” They were also feared for their terrifying face, which would petrify any form of life that would cross their look. The major difference between the three gorgons was Medusa’s mortality: her two sisters were, on the contrary, immortals. In a great majority of source texts, Medusa is presented as the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, two primordial brother and sister sea god and sea monster goddess in Greek mythology. In other existing versions of the myth, such as Hesiod’s poem Theogony, Medusa was born out of an incestuous relationship too, between Gaia, personnificaion of Earth, and her brother Pontus, a sea-god. Although depicted as being born a monster in Ancient Greek mythology, later descriptions, such as Ovid’s in his Metamorphoses, portrayed Medusa as being born incredibly beautiful but later transformed into the monster she is known to be, contrary to her divine sisters who were born Gorgons. Medusa’s fate is a tragic one, as she was doomed to be a monster after having endured a crime commited by Poseidon. Indeed, the myth narrates that her extreme beauty led her to be raped by the god of the sea and earthquakes. The horrific deed took place in a temple dedicated to Athena, virgin goddess, who decided to punish her by turning her hair into snakes and made her face so horrifying it would turn any man who saw it into stone. We must note that in Greek tradition, male gods were seldom punished for their mrally reprimandable actions. In other versions, Medusa was transformed by Athena in a Gorgon due to her overconfidence in her physical appeals, and especially her hair as Ovid narrated: “Beyond all others she was famed for beauty … Words would fail to tell the glory of her hair, most wonderful in her charms”. Medusa then joined her two sisters who lived in an isolated cave, far from civilization or gods. Medusa is also known for the story of her death, caused by Greek hero Perseus. The latter, who was the son of Zeus and Danae, was sent by King Polydectes, ruler of the island of Seriphos where the three of them lived, in an attempt to have him far away and abuse his mother. Perseus was then requested to bring back the head of the Gorgon. In order to do so, Perseus went to the Gaeae, three sisters of the Gorgons. Perseus forced them into helping him accomplish his quest, and ended up being offered winged-sandals, a mirrored shield and Hades’s helm of invisibility to kill Medusa. In other versions, it is the Gods themselves whom provide for the hero’s equipment. Perseus was then able to behead her by looking at her reflection in his shield. As Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon, Pegasus and Chrysaor, sprang from her body. In other versions, each drop of blood became a snake. After the murder, Perseus used Medusa’s head in his best interests, killing his enemies with the dreadful look of his victim. The myth of Medusa as well as the myth of Lamia, the serpent-like monster woman, made their way through literary history and has contributed to the development of the femme fatale in the Romantic period. Tainted with sinful behaviours, their figures were broadly used in literature in order to convey the decadant negative vision of women, as in Keats poem Lamia, published in 1820.
The Mona Lisa, which is one of the most famous paintings on a worldwide scale, is admired mostly for the mystery that surrounds the painted feminine model. Far from the explicitly diabolized and animalised femmes fatales cited previously, Mona Lisa is however transformed into one of them through the look of Walter Pater, fervent aestheticist, in his Renaissance. It is interesting to compare the depiction which is made by Pater of The Mona Lisa to Lee’s approach of Medea’s portrait, regarding their intertextuality. As Christa Zorn puts it, “Medea’s portrait strikes us as another version of ‘La Gioconda'”. Indeed, the description that Lee makes of her Medea is to some extent reminiscent of Walter Pater’s depiction of the Mona Lisa in his Renaissance, as it models the main characteristics of Mona Lisa’s mysterious beauty. Indeed, the enygmatic facial expression of the Mona Lisa is what made her the absolute fantasy of the femme fatale, in the eyes of the Romantics. Let us take a look at Pater’s description of ‘Mona Lisa del Giocondo’, in order to compare it with Lee’s portrayal of Medea. As Pater wrote:
“We all know the face and hands of the figure, set in its marble chair in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea … the unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work … The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.”
Although Lee’s version of Medea’s portrait is more detailed concerning the face of the Renaissance lady than Pater’s account of the one of Mona Lisa, the intertextuality is undeniable, as the two share the same inscrutable spirit that emanates from them. First, we must note the similarity with which the two male admirers approach the portraits. Similarly to Mona Lisa, who features an “unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo’s work”, Meadea’s portrait carries “a strange refinement, and, at the same time, an air of mystery, a somewhat sinister seductiveness”. In the eye of Pater and Spiridion, the malignant magnetism generated by the two portraits stems from the dark nature of their attractiveness. Furthermore, one must not miss the association of the two Renaissance ladies’ charm with the dark, and more presicely the world of the dead. In addition to associating of Mona Lisa’s mysterious facial expression with the uncanny and the immortal, Pater also associates the Giconda with a “vampire” who has “learned the secrets of the grave”. As for Spiridion, he sees Medea’s mouth “as if it could bite or suck like a leech.” Althoug the connection of Medea with the emblematic figure of the gothic is more subtile, the association with the bloodthirsty figure enhances the mythical nature of the two women. However, albeit the two portraits convey the same energy in the eye of the male onlookers, ‘Amour Dure’ can be read as a deconstruction of Pater’s Mona Lisa. Whereas Pater merely evokes the picture of an enigmatic woman who resolved the secrets of history and his reception of it, Lee allows us to see the feminine identity behind the mythmaking process. By telling the story hidden behind the portrait through a modern male eye, Lee thus impedes any genderstereotyping interpretations of Medea. In addition to describing Medea’s beauty, Lee provides the history behind the beauty, the life of the woman depicted, which misses in Pater’s aesthetic view that reduces Mona Lisa to Leonardo’s “ideal lady”. Lee’s character lives through her story, while Pater’s rendering of Mona Lisa is fixed. As such, ‘Amour Dure’ can be read as an “an animated version” of Pater’s depicition of ‘la Gioconda’. Through giving a story to her femme fatale, Lee breaks the codes and gives a new light of the mythical figure thanks to her modern psychological approach of the myth. Zorn interprets ‘Amour Dure’ as a deconstruction of the myth of the femme fatale enacted by Pater’s Mona Lisa. According to Zorn, Lee’s short story “exposes the limitations of the male point of view from which traditional historiography is written and discovers behind the glory of ‘great’ men in history immense fears and anxieties”. The evil characteristics attributed to the femmes fatales of all times were indeed a transcription of men’s trouble regarding the nature of women, chiefly in the decadant period. The feminine mystery that both attracted and repelded men was at the very origin of the creation of the various figures that enter in the category of femme fatale. Both intruiguing and captivating at the same time, Lee’s Medea is representative of the most emblematic femmes fatales of their era. However, Lee’s ‘Amour Dure’ is not only a deconstruction of Pater’s Mona Lisa but the deconstruction of the myth of the femme fatale itself, through the several references to illustrious and historical femmes fatales in her short story. By associating her mythical character, Medea da Carpi, to other already existing mythical women who suffered a biased historiography conveyed by the masculine discernment, Lee constructs her own myth. In order to get the essence of her feminine character, let us take a closer look at the several women to whom Lee associates her Medea in her deconstruction of the myth of the femme fatale.
The made up femme fatale
In ‘Amour Dure’, the deconstruction of the myth of the femme fatale through the portrait of Mona Lisa enables a reconstruction of the feminist myth of Medea da Carpi. Let us then take a closer look at the historical femmes fatales through which the new myth of Medea is constructed.
In the list of femmes fatales compared to Medea also appears Cleopatra. Spiridion Trepka compares the Renaissance Duchess to the Queen of Egypt when he enumerates the portraits of Medea he has been able to find. Indeed, one of them is actually a painting the Cleopatra and Augustus:
I have for some time been hunting for portraits of the Duchess Medea … Three or four I have, been able to find … one in a large composition, possibly by Baroccio, representing Cleopatra at the feet of Augustus … Cleopatra seems to me, for all her Oriental dress, and although she wears a black wig, to be meant for Medea da Carpi.
As Cleopatra was the name of several rulers of Egypt, it must be noted that Trepka actually refers to the legendary Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, the last Pharaoh of antique Egypt before it became a Roman province. She is still remembered nowadays for being one of the most famous seductress of history, characterized by her intriguing beauty and force of character. She is also famous for both her military alliances and relationships with Roman military generals Gaius Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. But Cleopatra was more than an irresistibly attractive woman, as she was a learned woman and an ambitious ruler. Cleopatra was the (supposedly illegitimate) daughter of Ptolemy XII, Pharaoh of Macedonian Greek Ptolemaic dynasty of ancient Egypt. The identity and origins of her mother remain a mystery to the great public, as her mother may either be Cleopatra V Tryphaena of Egypt, a Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt, or a second unknown wife. Although Cleopatra is considered an Egyptian woman in the collective imagination as she ruled in Egypt, her Egyptian origins have never been proved. Suspicions arose as her mother may have been Egyptian as her father engaged in polygamy, and as she was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn the Egyptian language. When her father died, Cleopatra acceeded t the throne with one of her brothers, Ptolemy XIII, with whom she had turbulent relationships, which led to civil war. After his death, Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIV were declared joint rulers by Caesar. Out of the relationship between Cleopatra and the Roman magistrate was born the only biological son of Caesar, commonly known under the names of Caesarion or Ptolemy XV. However, it is Octavian who was chosen as Caesar’s heir after the murder of the latter. Cleopatra then had her brother Ptolemy XIV killed for her son to rule with her. It must be noted that Caesarion survived his mother and was the last Pharaoh of Egypt. During the civil war that was led by Octavian and Mark Antony in order to revenge Caesar’s murder, Cleopatra was their ally. Three children were born out of Cleopatra’s relationship with Mark Antony, whom she married after his divorce to Octavian’s sister. Later on, the Final War of the Romantic Republic, led by Octavian against the couple following the Donations of Alexandria, led to Antony’s suicide. Cleopatra commited suicide in turn, but only after having supposedly tried to seduce Octavian in order to negociate his clemence towards her and her descendance, in vain. Afterwards, Octavian became Emperor Augutus, and ruled over Rome for approximately fourty years. Later on, he ordered Ceasarion’s murdered and adopted Cleopatra and Antony’s children. The precise conditions of her death, however, remain mysterious. Several versions are considered possible, as the authenticity of the ‘official’ one involving suicide by asp biting leaves room for questioning. In her Cleopatra: A Biography, Duane W. Roller explicits the doubts that surround the Queen’s death, based on Plutarch’s report:
Yet the discussion is full of reservations and alternative versions, not only about the asp itself but the manner of death, suggesting poison in some hollow implement, a more reasonable but less romantic method. The word Plutarch used for the implement … is rare – an indication that it might be diction from an accurate version of the queen’s death – and has the connotation of something scratching. Dio’s word is …, a needle, to some extent confirms Plutarch’s account. Dio further noted that the only marks on her body were pricks, also suggesting a needle or pin. It is not difficult to see these marks evolving into asp bites. It was also recorded that no one ever found the asp, but that Octavian and others saw minuscule puncture wounds on her arm, smehting not incompatible with a pin or a needle. … The Egyptian cobra can be fatal, but nly if its venom is injected into a vital spot: otherwise the victim is more likely to make a full recovery. … Yet all evidence is that it would a complex method of death with little certainty of success.
The most supported versions are those involving suicide by poisoning with a needle and the commandment of her execution by Augustus. It must be noted that Cleopatra’s position on the painting reffered to by Spiridion is interesting. Indeed, she is “at the feet of Augustus … kneeling baring her breast for the victor to strike, but in reality to captivate him, and he turns away with an akward gesture of loathing”. The use of physical attributes echoes the construction of the myth of the femme fatale. Cleopatra is and was already considered the equivalent of what we call a femme fatale in her lifetime, because of her extreme beauty and relationship with men. In his Egyptian Nights (1837), Alexander Pushkin recalls an anecdote reported by fourth century A.D. historian Sextus Aurelius Victor about the Egyptian queen: “Cleopatra was so lustful that she often prostituted herself, and so beautiful that many men bought a night with her at the price of their lives.” Whether the anecdote is authentic or not, it supports the assertion whereby the concept of the femme fatale had been in the spirit of men for centuries. It must be noted that Cleopatra’s life inspired several literary adaptations, amongst which Shakespeare’s play, Cleopatra and Antony, which was considered one of the first Romantic incarnations of the Fatal Woman, as the feminine character was qualified “the very type of the Romantic femme fatale”. Indeed, in his play, Shakespeare emphasizes Cleopatra’s dangerosity towards powerful men. She is portrayed as a seductive traitor who is the reason of her weak husband’s suicide, as she uses her sexuality to control him, then betrays him in order to save her own life.
In ‘Amour Dure’, Spiridion compares Medea da Carpi to Bianca Capello when he expresses his desire to find a woman of Medea’s rank and the devotion he would be ready to show to such a woman:
What has become of the race of Faustinas, Marozias, Bianca Cappellos? Where discover nowadays (I confess she haunts me) another Medea da Carpi? Were it only possible to meet a woman of that extreme distinction of beauty; of that terribleness of nature, even if only potential, I do believe I could love her, even to the Day of Judgment.
Bianca Capello (1548-1587) was the mistress and second wife of Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Bianca was from a noble and rich Venetian family of Italy, and she was famous for her astounding beauty. It is reported that before meeting Francesco de’Medici, she eloped from her father’s house to flee to Florence with young Pietro Bonaventuri, who came from a impoverished family. A daughter was bnr out of this union. However, the Grand Duke of Toscany was advised about Bianca’s charms and fell in love with her. Although he was married to Joanna of Austria, he offerered Bianca sumptuous presents and disposed of Bonaventuri. The latter was stabbed to death in 1572, and Francesco I became a widower six years later. He married the beautiful Venetian woman shortly after, and she was crowned the Grand Duchess of Tuscany in in 1579. Two sons were born out of their marriage: Don Antonio de’Medici and Grand Prince Philip de’Medici. However, Bianca was disliked by her husband’s family, due to “l’abus qu ‘elle fit de son pouvoir, ainsi que la cupidité de son frère, Vittorio Capello” who became Francesco’s only minister. Bianca and Francesco died at the Medici Villa one day apart from each other in 1587, after visiting cardinal Ferdinando, Francesco’s brother. Ferdinando’s contempt for his sister-in-law, provided ground for speculation about poisoning, that turned out to be legitimate. Ferdinando succeeded to his brother as Grand Duke of Tuscany.As we can easily deduct, Medea and Bianca do not have much in common, apart from being assassinated by a man. We can deduct that the example of Bianca was merely used in order to try and portray Medea’s incredible beauty.
Along with Lucrezia Borgia, Medea da Carpi is compared to Vittoria Accoramboni by Spiridion, when he expresses his attachment to the Past and his will to be submissive to such women. Indeed, he declares that:
I am wedded to history, to the Past, to women like Lucrezia Borgia, Vittoria Accoramboni, or that Medea da Carpi, for the present; some day I shall perhaps find a grand passion, a woman to play the Don Quixote about, like the Pole that I am; a woman out oh whose slipper to drink, and for whose pleasure to die.
Vittoria Accoramboni (1557-1585) was an Italian noblewoman, daughter of Claudius and Tarquinia Paluzzi Albertoni, the last of ten children. As Medea, Vittoria was mainly famous for her beauty and was used by her father in the interests of her family. Despite the numerous marriage propositions made by noblemen, her father affianced her at the age of sixteen to a certain Francesco Peretti, because of his filial bond with an ecclesiastic leader. He was indeed the nephew of Cardinal Montalto, who had chances in becoming Pope. Thanks to this alliance, one of Vittoria’s brothers, Marcello Accombaroni became a representative figure serving for the Duke of Bracciano Paolo Giordano I Orsini, who was suspected of killing his first wife Isabella de’Medici, for having a love affair with his cousin. Marcello, whom planned on marrying his sister to the Duke, murdered her husband Peretti with the help of Orsini. As designed by her brother, Vittoria and the Duke married, but the union was declared null and Vittoria was imprisoned as a consequence of opposition to the uninon, as the marriage was contracted without papal license. In 1583, the couple renewed their sacred vows but as Cardinal Montalto took his papal functions as Pope Sixtus V, he decided to seek revenge on the couple for the murder f his nephew. Vittoria and Orsini had to flee to northern Italy, where the Duke died in 1585. The same year, Vittoria went back to Padua, where she tok possession of her late husband’s movables and where she was assassinated. Lodovico Orsini, cousin of deceased Duke of Bracciano, organised and participated in the murder, in the interests of Paolo Giordano, son of the Duke from his former marriage. The Republic of Venice later ordonned the execution of Lodovico Orisni and his henchmen. The tragic destiny of Vittoria Accombaroni inspired numerous adaptations, such as John Webster’s tragedy The White Devil (1612) and several novels such as Stendhal’s Vittoria Accombaroni, Duchesse de Bracciano (1837).As one can argue, the main similiraties between Vittoria Accombaroni and Medea da Carpi are they extreme beauty and the way they were treated by masculine figures. Moreover, the use of the family name Orsini must be noticed: as Vittoria Accombaroni was married for the second time to the Duke of Bracciano Paolo Giordano I Orsini, Medea was “wife first of Pierluigi Orsini, Duke of Stimigliano. One main difference is that Vittoria is historiographically presented as a completely innocent victim, as she neither chose her husband or was involved in any murderous event. It seems clear that Lee’s introduction of Vittoria Accoramboni in her story was due to her tragic destiny and her physical beauty. However, the last woman to whom Medea is compared, Lucretia Borgia, which appears simultaneously with the mention of Accombaroni, is much more significant.
Lucrezia Borgia, from the House of Borgia, is one of the most prominent Italian feminine figures dealing with the myth of the femme fatale. She is in two respects the most interesting feminine character to which Medea da Carpi is compared. First, because of the numerous similarities between her and Medea. Secondarily, because of the masculine literary treatment of her figure and reputation. Indeed, one must dissociate the historical story from the fictional. In the narrative of ‘Amour Dure’, the first parallel Trepka makes between the history of Medea da Carpi and the story of Lucrezia Borgia is at the very beginning of the ‘Part I’ of his journal, whn he introduces Medea and her several marriages, as he declares: “This woman’s history and character remind one of that Bianca Cappello, and at the same time of Lucrezia Borgia.” Let us first introduce the relevant events of her existence during the Renaissance Italy, before exploring the dark mythical side attributed to her and her family. Born in 1480 in the city of Subiaco, Lucrezia Borgio was the illegitimate daughter of Vannozza dei Cattanei and Rodrigo Borgia, later knwon as Pope Alexander VI. The Borgia family was an eminent one in Italy, due to Lucrezia’s father ecclesiastical and political status. Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrarra, was an educated woman, renowed for her incredible physical beauty but also for her family setbacks. Indeed, the Borgias were suspected of many crimes during the reign of Alexander VI. They were accused of commiting theft, aldutery, murder and incest. They were also considered a violent and evil family, as well as politically corrupt. According to the Biographie Universelle Classique, Lucrezia Borgia “s’est acquis une célébrité presque égale à celle de ces deux infâmes personages ses parents, dont elle partagera les désordres”. From the youngest age, Lucrezia was in fact used by her family, especially by her father, on political purposes. As it was customary at this time, she was the victim of several arranged marriages organised and in the best interest of her family, especially her father, as was Medea in ‘Amour Dure’. Indeed, like Lee’s Renaissance ghost, Lucrezia was married three times. In 1493, as she was just thirteen, she was first married to member of the Sforza House Giovanni Sforza, as newly Pope Alexander VI was willing to be in alliance to a notable family. But because of Lucrezia’s father political alliances, the marriage was annulled four years later under the guise of sexual impotence, after a supposed murder attempt on Giovanni Sforza ordered by the Pope himself. Giovanni Sforza, offensed, accused Lucrezia and her father of incest. However, even if this was the first official marriage of Lucrezia Borgia, it must be noted that her father had already arranged and annulled two arranged marriages, when she was only eleven. After this first marriage, Lucrezia supposedly gave birth to a child, whose father was never identified. He was first believed to be born from an affair between Lucrezia and a certain Pedro Caledron, who was later found dead. However, the paternity of the child was claimed by both her brother Cesare Borgia and her father Alexander VI. In 1498, Lucrezia was married to her second husband, Alfonso of Aragon. The latter was murdered two years later, at the behest of Lucrezia’s brother Cesare. A child was born from this marriage, but died in 1512. In 1502, Lucrezia’s was married to her last husband, Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia had extra-conjugal relationships during her last marriage: one with her brother-in-law Francesco II Gonzaga, and another one with poet Pietro Bembo. Lucrezia had eight more children before her death, in 1519. The tumultuous life of the Duchess, who ruled as governor of Spoleto and became patron of arts, attracted literary attention and treatment, and was subjected to fictional and cinematic adaptation, in which she was mainly portrayed as an evil femme fatale. Although Lucrezia Borgia was a victim of her family’s political alliances, she was portrayed as a femme fatale since the sixteenth century, but particularly in Victor Hugo’s well-known eponymous play, Lucrèce Borgia. The play was written in 1832 and performed for the first time in 1833. In the nineteenth-century fiction of Hugo, which was part of a common project with Le roi s’amuse, Lucrezia embodies the evil and bloodthirsty femme fatale. Indeed, Hugo portrays the noblewoman as an incestuous cruel murderer. The beginning of the play is set in Venice, and starts within a group of young people among whom young Genarro, main character of the play. While the latter falls asleep, his friends narrate of the killing of one of the Borgia brothers, Giovanni, by his own brother Cesare, for the love of Lucrezia. Indeed, the two of them were in love with their sister. It is also reported that from the incestuous love between the decased brother and Lucrezia was born a child, who remains missing. The group plan to go to Ferrarra, which is the city under control of Lucrezia’s husband. Lucrezia appears, and starts contemplating Genarro. One of the young people, Gubetta, secretly serves Lucrezia. However, he is not aware of who she really is: in his mind, Lucrezia is simply in love with the young captain. Lucrezia gives Genarro a kiss, which awakens Genarro. She flees away, but Genarro follows her. As he is not aware of whom he is talking to, Genarro confides in Lucrezia: he tells her about his willing to find his mother, whom he does not know and idealizes, and also declares his profound hatred towards a certain Lucrezia Borgia. His friends finally reveal Lucrezia’s identity and verbally abuse her. In the aftermath, Lucrezia instigates her revenge with Gubetta, whom does not understand Lucrezia’s behaviour towards Genarro. Each member of the group but Genarro is invited to a party at Princess Negroni’s place. Genarro and his friends debate over the Borgias, as they arrive in front of Lucrezia’s palace. Genarro is mocked on account of Lucrezia’s feelings for him, and in a fit of anger, removes the ‘B’ of ‘Borgia’ on the palace inscription with his dagger, transforming it into ‘orgia’. In the second act of the play, Lucrezia criticises her husband for not being lack of involvement in finding and punishing the perpetrator of the outrage. Her husband is has in fact found the culprit, so she has him swear he will take the life of the criminal. However, when Lucrezia realizes that the offender is no ther than Gennaro, she intends reversing the situation, in vain. Alphonsio, Lucrezia’s husband, attempts to kill Genarro by poisoning, as he suspects Genarro of being his wife’s lover. Alphonsio forces Lucrezia into poisoning Genarro, but she ends up saving him with an antidote. In the last part of the play, Lucrezia organises a general poisoning. Alphonsio plans on killing Genarro, but the latter’s friend, Maffio, convinces him to come to Princess Negroni’s place, which he accepts. But the celebration turns out to be a pitfall: Lucrezia appears and announces that as a vengeance, each person has been poisoned. When she realizes that Gennaro is part of the intoxicated, she tries to save him with an antidote. Furious, Genarro stabs Lucrezia in order to kill her. As they are both passing away, she confesses their true relationship: in addition to being her lover and son of her brother, he is also her own son. As one must notice, the similarities between Medea and Lucrezia are numerous and, above all, significant. The paternal control over the female/female character and her body is central to both stories. As this parental intrusion and disregard towards the young woman is the starting point of Medea’s criminal behaviour, it must be interpreted as Lee’s plea about female emancipation: throughout her gothic story, Lee incriminates male superiority exerted over females. It is indeed interesting to note that the authority of Lucrezia’s father on her, which led her being treated as merchandise, is not mentioned in Victor Hugo’s play. Yet, the focus is very much on her attraction to incestuous behaviour, which, let us remind, was never historically proven. This brings the question that Lee wants the reader to consider, in the historical period of the Victorian England, that is no other than the male writing in relation to the representation of women in order to format their mind and control them. Indeed, marriage is a meaningful symbol used by Lee in order to make her point. Lee succeeds in showing the the scope of marriage, and the strength of its underlying violence. In Hugo’s drama, it is rather motherhood that triggeres Lucrezia’s will to change and become a good person.
In ‘Amour Dure’, the historical version of the female character enables the voicing of women. The fact that Lee uses a male narrator is central to the plot: as the story unfolds, the hidden purpose of the Gothic story becomes evident. As Zorn puts it,
Spiridion Trepka’s version of Medea da Carpi’s story shows that historical circumstances, rather than her innate evilness, have created her image as femme fatale. Throughout history, – as Trepka research brings to light – Medea has only been visible through her fatal connections with men. The eager Polish historian, however, shows us Medea’s hidden text, her alternative identity as an autonomous, intelligent, and learned woman who can ‘read Petrarch and Plato,’ but who is forced to play a merely sexual role in men’s power games.
Using both Spiridion’s narration and Renaissance fatales figures such as Bianca Capello, Vittoria Accombaroni, and Lucrezia Borgia, Lee deconstructs the codes and creates her own, in order to serve her cause. By nuancing the natural and intuitive evil side attributed to women, Lee not only deconstructs the mythical femme fatale, but also the social one. Through the medium of Trepka, Lee dissociates women’s biased (hi)story to their identity, by showing the male fears that lie behind their invented narratives. Through the close link which exists between literature and society, Lee’s voicing of her female character invites to both a feminist reading of her short story, and a reconsideration of women of her nineteenth century as self-determining beings.
III – Commentary on the translation process and the difficulties encountered
I tried to stick as much as possible to the original text of Vernon Lee in order to avoid any loss due to the translation from English to French. Indeed, concerning the typography as well as the vocabulary, I made the choice to align my text with hers as far as possible, in order to facilitate the reading of the two texts and therefore to facilitate the comparison between the two. Indeed, as some sentences has to be changed, either concerning the simple placement of words or concerning the whole structure of the sentence, I found it important to try and keep my translation as close as the original text. Indeed, sentence structures being different in French and in English, it was sometimes possible for the translation to be either longer or shorter than the original text, which unbalances the presentation of the work. As a solution, I tried to find sentences that did not change the original structure when it was possible. Fortunately, due to the form chosen by the original author, which is the form of a journal, this task may have been easier than it would have been with a novel or any other literary form, in my opinion. Moreover, this form enabled me to easily note when the sentence structure of a segment I had chosen was too different from the original one. The method I decided to use in order to translate Lee’s text was a somewhat spontaneous one. I decided to read the short story in its entirety for the first reading, in order to experience the gothic atmosphere of ‘Amour Dure’ and understand the plot. Then, for the second reading, I decided to read the journal day by day, (or segment by segment as some entries concern several days) and to translate each day one after the other. With this process, I was more likely to choose the most appropriate words, contrary to an even more spontaneous translation process that would consist in translating sentences as a whole, ignoring therefore the ‘context’ of each day. Indeed, one of the difficulties encountered during the partial translation of Lee’s story was the change in tone. One major difficulty was to use the right tone for each circumstance, as the narrator, Spiridion Trepka, switched from two major types of narration. Indeed, the narration switched from concrete personal accounts of his days concerning his original mission as historian, including his discoveries dealing with the city of ‘Urbania’, or descriptions of the architecture of the city, and even his relationship with his landlord or the son of the Vice-Prefect’s son, to more philosophical questioning concerning his personal life (and especially his quest for love); to a more literate narration in order to narrate the fragmented story of Medea, concerning her forced marriages as well as her portraits. As the latter narration was also based on historical feminine figures, as we have shown in our previous analysis, it was a challenge not to lose the atmosphere conveyed by the story because of the numerous characters cited in the story. Finally, the supernatural elements also constituted a difficulty in the translation process.
The numerous cultural references made throughout the text constituted the major difficulty of the translation process. Indeed, Lee made cultural references such as foreign personalities, and foreign words and expressions. Indeed, some Italian and German words appear in the short story. Although most of the words or passages that belonged to languages other than English did not need to be translated, they needed to be understood. First, in order to keep both the ‘spirit’ and the originality of the text, but also in order to understand where Lee wanted to take the reader, and which references she wanted the reader to have in mind. Although keeping the foreign words in their original language was a choice that naturally came to me, the reading of a critical text comforted me in my decision. Indeed, as we have put it in our introduction, ‘Amour Dure’, which had been re-printed in Calvino’s collection Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, had suffered the translation of its title into ‘A lasting love’. This translation caused a loss of meaning regarding the whole French pun “Amour Dure, Dure Amour’. Let us now expose and analyze the several references made by Lee in ‘Amour Dure’.
Foreign words and expressions
The non-translation of the foreign words or sentences, which appear throughout the story in ‘Amour Dure’, participates to Lee’s personal print on her artwork. Indeed, one must take into account her nomadic lifestyle, which enabled her to live in several European countries, such as France, England and her beloved Italy: translating these foreign words would result in a loss of the originality of her text. To my mind, the solution was then to translate them for me, in order to figure out the meaning of the words and understand why Lee used them, but it was clear that they would remain unchanged in the translation. Amongst the foreign terms used alone, that is to say in an English sentence, were the words “falsetto” and “amori”, that happen to be in the same sentence. Thanks to the context, these two words are easily understandable to the French translator. However, although “falsetto” is a word from Italian origin, the same word is used in English: we can discern it as the word is not italicized, contrary to “amori”:
This person frequently entertains me with his amori, past, present, future; he evidently thinks me very odd for having none to entertain him in return; he points out to me the pretty (or ugly) servant-girls and dressmakers as we walk in the street, sighs deeply or sings in falsetto behind every tolerably young looking woman, and has finally taken me to the house of the lady of his heart, a great black-mustachioed countess with a voice like a fish-crier; here, he says, I shall meet all the best company in Urbania and some beautiful women – ah, too beautiful alas!
This is a strategy I used throughout the translation of the text: when the foreign words or expressions were italicized, I did not translate them. The desire of Lee not to translate the words in the language she uses to narrate the story appears to be latent in the italicizing. In this case, it can be noted that the use of the Italian word contributes to create a certain feeling of realism concerning, as it conveys the Italian cultural atmosphere. Moreover, we may suppose that this particular word, which refers to love, was put in Italian, Medea’s language, for its significance regarding the plot of ‘Amour Dure’.Concerning the Italian term “Italianissimi” (16), I decided to translate into French, as it was not italicized. Moreover, despite the fact that the French equivalent (“de veritable italiens”) does not correspond to a single word as it is the case in Italian, the French expression used does convey the idea of being “truly Italian”. However, two other situations came to my attention, and had to be treated differently. Indeed, Lee used a French expression in one of her sentences: “And these are the women my friend expects me to fall in love with! I vainly wait for tea or supper which does not come, and rush home, determined to leave alone the Urbanian beau monde” (21). As my translation of Lee’s text was to be done in French, I chose to keep it as it was, that is to say in French and italicized, for the French reader to understand that the word was written as such in the original text. On the same page, Lee used a German expression:
It is quite true that I have no amori, although although my friend does not believe it. When I came to Italy first, I looked out for romance; I sighed, like Goethe in Rome, for a window to open and a wondrous creature to appear, “welch mich versengend erquickt.” Perhaps it is because Goethe was a German, accustomed to German Fraus, and I am, after all, a Pole, accustomed to something very different from Fraus; but anyhow, for all my efforts, in Rome, Florence, and Siena, I never could find a woman to go mad about, either among the ladies, chattering bad French, or among the lower classes, as ‘cute and cold as money-lenders; so I steer clear of Italian womankind, its shrill voice and gaudy toilettes.
Here, the use of the foreign language is not evidenced by being italicized, but by being put into quotation marks. This is because although it has been slightly altered, this expression is in fact a quote from one of Goethe’s poem, Elegien 1.This is why, although the expression was not italicized, that I did not translate it into French. In the same paragraph, the word “Fraus” appears two times. Although I did not translate this word, as it was italicized and used in correlation with the German character of Goethe, this word caused me some trouble. Indeed, I did not understand its meaning at first, and it is thanks to a bilingual dictionary and the context brought by the sentence that I finally understood its meaning as a way to refer to German ladies.
One of the difficulties that I encountered during the translation of ‘Amour Dure’ was to find enough information about the personalities she cited throughout her short story. As we have put it in our analysis of the ghost story, one of the characteristics of ‘Amour Dure’ is the use of both real and fictional personalities. Indeed, Goethe, cited above, is not the only person cited in Lee’s story. In the Preface of ‘Amour Dure’, Lee alludes to a certain ‘Flora Priestley’, in relation with the nature of her ghosts:
My ghosts are what you call spurious ghosts (according to me the only genuine ones), of whom I can affirm only one thing, that they haunted certain brains, and have haunted, among others, my own and my friends’ yours, dear Arthur Lemon, along the dim twilit tracks, among the high growing bracken and the spectral pines, of the south country; and yours, amidst the mist of moonbeams and olive-branches, dear Flora Priestley, while the moonlit sea moaned and rattled against the mouldering walls of the house whence Shelley set sail for eternity.
Flora Priestley was a friend of Vernon Lee as well as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), famous Italian painter of the nineteenth and twentieth century. John Sargent made a portrait of Flora Priestley as well as a portrait of Lee, in 1881. In the same paragraph as the one where Flora Priestley is cited, appears the name of Arthur Lemon. Although I did not succeed in finding any reliable source on the latter, it is important to note that he was an acquaintance of Lee, as she dedicated ‘Amour Dure’ and ‘Dionea’, as well as the Preface of Hauntings to both Flora Priestley and Arthur Lemon.
Another famous personality who is cited in Lee’s work is ‘Dr Faustus’. Although it is a well-known fictional character of a German legend, whom made a pact with the devil in exchange for his soul, ‘Dr Faust’ was in fact inspired by alchemist and astrologer Johann Georg Faustus (1480-1541). His name is cited in the Preface of ‘Amour Dure’:
The supernatural can open the caves of Jamschid and scale the ladder of Jacob: what use has it got if it land us in Islington or Shepherd’s Bush? It is well known that Dr. Faustus, having been offered any ghost he chose, boldly selected, for Mephistopheles to convey, no less a person than Helena of Troy. Imagine if the familiar fiend had summoned up some Miss Jemima Jackson’s Aunt of Antiquity! (x)
His life inspired several fictional adaptations, including two plays. Indeed, he inspired the play by English poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) Doctor Faustus, as well as Goethe’s Faust.
Although I was able to find some pieces of information about the personalities, characters, and religious references cited above, some references made by Lee have remained a mystery to me. One example is “Miss Jemima Jackson’s aunt”, who is cited four times in the Preface of ‘Amour Dure’. First, she is cited as to show the dullness of her apparition as a ghost: ” but one is struck by the extreme uninterestingness of this lady’s appearance in the spirit, corresponding perhaps to her want of charm while in the flesh”(viii). The second time she is cited, she is opposed to non-existant ghosts: “They exist, these ghosts, only in our minds, in the minds of those dead folk; they have never stumbled and fumbled about, with Jemima Jackson’s maiden aunt, among the arm-chairs and rep sofas of reality” (ix). The third time she is mentioned, the aunt of Jemima Jackson is then presented as a false ghost:
The genuine ghost? And is not this he, or she, this one born of ourselves, of the weird places we have seen, the strange stories we have heard this one, and not the aunt of Miss Jemima Jackson? For what use, I entreat you to tell me, is that respectable spinster’s vision? (x)
Finally, this ghost is cited in comparison to “Helena of Troy” (x), in order to show how uninteresting she is as a ghost. Although she is not enhanced in Lee’s narrative and may have been completely made up by Lee, the origin of this ghost is intriguing, as she is cited such a number of times in the Preface only
Translating the supernatural
Some elements of the supernatural were also complicated to translate, and I have hesitated for some time on certain terms, due to the importance of the supernatural atmosphere, as regards the genre of the short story.
The first difficulty I encountered in regards to the supernatural atmosphere was in the very first sentence of the Preface of ‘Amour Dure’:
We were talking last evening – as the blue moonmist poured in through the old-fashioned grated window, and mingled with our yellow lamplight at table – we were talking of a certain castle whose heir is initiated (as fold tell) on his twenty-first birthday to the knowledge of a secret so terrible as to overshadow his subsequent life. (vii)
The first hesitation I had to face was concerning the placement of the adjective “blue” in French. I hesitated between either “la brume de lune bleue” or “la brume bleue de lune”. Indeed, in English, it seemed to me that the adjective blue refers to the mist, and not the moon. As a consequence, when reading the sentence, I had the image of a blue mist coming inside, being observable thanks to the light of the moon, as if something magical was happening. However, in French, if we transpose the words in order to qualify the mist of being blue, and not the moon (which corresponds to the second proposition), the link between the light of the moon and the colour of the mist is lost. Moreover, putting the adjective in the between the two nouns gives an impression of a break in the sentences, which is not desired effect, especially in the very beginning of a story. As a consequence, I decided to choose the first option, that is to say “la brume de lune bleue”, even though the reader may consider that the adjective applies to the moon. In the end, I preferred to take a special care regarding the rythm of the sentence, besides, it is not impossible for the moon to be bluish: the two options are possible, it is up to the reader to decide what he or she wants to see.In the same sentence, I also had a doubt concerning the translation of the verb “poured in”. Again, in English, ‘pouring’ conveys this idea that the “material” comes from upwards, and goes down. Moreover, the preposition ‘in’ implies that the “material” in coming inside. In French, several translations are possible, and I hesitated between either “entrait en se déversant”, or “se répandait à l’intérieur”. In the end, I chose the first proposition, because the verb “se répandre” implies that the mist would disperse through the room, which is not the case with the English verb “to pour”. Furthermore, the verb “se déverser” seemed more adequate in regards to the image I had of the way the mist came in.
The next passage which caused me to hesitate is linked to a change of subject and movement in the following passage:
That is the thing – the Past, the more or less remote Past, of which the prose is clean obliterated by distance – that is the place to get our ghosts from. Indeed we live ourselves, we educated folk of modern times, on the borderland of the Past, in houses looking down on its troubadours’ orchards and Greek folks’ pillared courtyards ; and a legion of ghosts, very vague and changeful, are perpetually to and fro, fetching and carrying for us between it and the Present. (x)
In English, in the passage “that is the place to get our ghosts from”, the subject is the narrator and the reader, as the adjective “our” is used. However, in French, I changed the subject to the ghosts as I translated this passage into: “c’est de là que doivent venir nos fantômes”. In addition to the change of the subject, the use of the verb “devoir” suggests that there is no better place from which our ghosts should come from.
Finally, the last choice of translation that I will explain is in relation with Medea da Carpi, which comes right after the detailed description of Medea’s face, which follows the depiction of Cleopatra (as Medea and Augustus). Medea is described as “a curious, at first rather conventional, artificial-looking sort of beauty, voluptuous yet cold, which, the more it is contemplated, the more it troubles and haunts the mind” (18). The focus must be on the last section of the sentence, as the changes in the first section are minimal. Indeed, in English, the passive form is used with “contemplated”. Moreover, the definite article “the” is neutral. However, In French, the sentence was translated into: “Un beauté curieuse, plutôt conventionelle au premier abord, qui semble artificelle, voluptueuse mais froide; plus vous la contemplez, plus elle vous trouble et hante votre esprit”. The use of the subject “vous” instead of a neutral subject must be noted, as it conveys a feeling of being involved in the action. Regarding the power of the femme fatale, Medea da Carpi, the use of this formulation seems the most appropriate.
Through this study of Vernon Lee’s ‘Amour Dure’, we have tried to question the feminist message which lied in her short story. Indeed, although concrete feminist engouement started after the publication of ‘Amour Dure’ in Hauntings in 1890, Lee’s avant-gardisme permitted a literary revolution of the myth of the femme fatale. By demonstrating the social and literary backgrounds of ‘Amour Dure’, we have elucidated the several literary influences that played a role in the conception of Lee’s ghost story. From Romanticism to Modernism, and going through Victorianism, the woman of both centuries has taken the best of each in order to create a unique fictional work which conveys a profound message. Through the analysis of the different characteristics of each movement, we have shown how Vernon Lee has succeeded in producing a work of art which conveys the Romantic spirit and the symbolism which is characteristic of that time. However, as we have highlighted, Lee’s work is characteristic of Victorianism in regards to its reform spirit. Indeed, Lee’s reformist spirit found a great ground for her fiction in Victorianism. However, this paradoxical period of both conservatism and scientific discoveries will not serve the feminine cause. Although Lee was born in the Victorian age, the modernism which is characteristic of her writing was able to bloom and deliver a social message through her fictional character. Through her ‘Amour Dure’, as well as her previous first novel Miss Brown, Lee broke the codes of the society she lived in and enabled a feminine voice to raise. Through the character of Medea in, Lee has demonstrated her ability in deconstructing the already established in order to build the new. As the figure of the “New Woman” emerged, Lee, for her part, created her own ‘New Femme Fatale’ through the character of mythic Medea da Carpi. Inspired by the very essence of the fatal woman, Medea is, contrary to the norm, given a voice, thanks to the character of Spiridion Trepka, male narrator of the story. Indeed, although Trepka first plays the role of the aestheticist gazer, his quest for Medea’s fragmented identity enables to discern the story that is told from her identity as individual. As well as he serves the cause of Medea in the novel, Trepka also serves the social cause behind the myth. Through the voicing of eminent femmes fatales such as Medea, Cleopatra, Bianca Capello, Vittoria Accoramboni and Lucrezia Borgia, Lee enables a new vision of the fatal woman, and therefore of woman. By taking control of her character’s story, Lee denounces both the institutionalized silencing of women, and the objectifying of women which was prevalent in male aestheticist manners.
However, by making a parallel between Medea and Pater’s Mona Lisa, Lee deconstructs the aestheticist and decadent vision of women. As the very first written texts have proved, females have always been endowed a negative side, socially as well as literary, attributed to their nature. As a consequence, they have always been at the heart of masculine fears, which granted them the social oppression they have suffered in the Victorian era, as we have demonstrated. Women were synonym of both fantasy and fear, which explains the flourishing of the femme fatale in the nineteenth century. However, by telling the story behind the myth, a new image is attributed to both fatal women and women. Medea becomes the feminist emblem than the Victorian era needs, thanks to male character Spiridion. Lee denounces both the institutionalized silencing of women, and the objectifying of women which was prevalent in male aestheticist manners. Lee’s tale ‘Amour Dure’ can therefore be considered feminist as she gives a voice to women.