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Lee’s ‘A Phantom Lover’


I try to make good use of the many free e-books that Amazon has to offer via the Kindle iPhone app, given how convenient it is for reading on the tube/train/etc.

One of my latest finds is A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee, a short story (or novella?) that plays with some of my favourite themes: identity, heredity, and the creation of art-objects. I have not read a very great amount of Vernon Lee, but I have thoroughly enjoyed what I have read so far, so although it is only tangentially related to my PhD proposal planning, I couldn’t resist reading it this week.

In many ways, the story reads like a study or trial for themes or modes that the writer will use elsewhere. However, I think there is a structural neatness to the story’s doublings that merits closer thought. 

The first-person narrator has little engaging in him: in fact, he seems to deliberately seek to disengage us from him with his nonchalant and at times self-absorbed narration. He claims that the story he tells is a sad one for him because he was never able to finish the portrait of Mrs Oke that he so longed to finish, and yet there is something shallow in how we are told this; it is the mere excuse for the story. 

Mrs Alice Oke, the centre of the story whose death prevents the artist’s masterpiece from completion, is also deliberately isolated from us. She has the requisite features of an intriguing heroine (or anti-heroine); a troubled constitution, a far-away look in her eye, a lithe and slender figure, and great personal beauty and attraction. She and the narrator have much in common in that their engagement with the world is entirely on their own terms and subordinated to their own interests. Although fascinated by Mrs Oke, the artist’s fascination is also rather shallow; she is the excuse for interesting drawings and an attractive picture, but also for the narrator to engage in an acquaintanceship that he knows may one day make a good story (he is drawn to the idea of a “character study”).

Ironically, the narrator’s focus as an amateur psychologist is rather in the wrong direction. Whilst he is intrigued by Mrs Oke’s obsession with her doppelganger ancestor’s lover, it is Mr Oke whose character is undergoing the most dramatic turmoil. His obsession with Lovelock grows during the narrator’s presence at Okehurst. He disintegrates from a slightly nervous country squire to an anxious, hallucinating, ultimately murderous wreck. 

Despite the narrator’s claim to see clearly Mrs Oke’s mental weakness and ‘eccentricity’, and his avowed disinterest in her sexually, his acknowledged fascination with her is more akin to her obsession with the Lovelock story than he can admit. His grave disappointment at the unfinished portrait, the innumerable pencil sketches that he makes of Mrs Oke, and his pained yet apparently throwaway confession that these are “all that remain to [him] now!” are suggestive of Mrs Oke’s hoarding of Lovelock’s writings within her writing desk and perpetual return to the yellow drawing room and Lovelock’s works. The apparent automaticity of the sketches the narrator makes, and the suggested continuing act of returning to all that remains of one who evoked a deep attraction, mean that he reconstructs — unconsciously — the sort of eccentric obsession that he sees as poisoning the minds of both Mrs and Mr Oke. Lee’s character study, then, is far more knowing and nuanced than his own, which sits nested in her work. 

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