Hortus Vitae: Essays On The Gardening Of LifeHortus Vitae: Essays On The Gardening Of Life by Vernon Lee

(Read as part of the 2018 Read Harder challenge. Category: A book of essays.)

Vernon Lee, pseudonym of Violet Paget, was an essayist, story writer, and aesthete active in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. She’s not quite forgotten now – there’s a Vernon Lee society with its own journal – but her essays come quite low down the list of things people remember about her. She’s better known for her supernatural fiction, her feminism and pacifism, and her theories of psychology and aesthetics – she was one of the first people in English to use the word “empathy”.

Said theories centered on the idea that appreciation of art was a matter of unconscious bodily response. They were considered eccentric. Her opus, Beauty And Ugliness, co-written with her work, travel and romantic partner Clementina (“Kit”) Anstruther-Thomson, was met with bafflement and mockery: the two women ended their relationship soon after. Undoubtedly an odd work – it consists mainly of Kit’s minute observations of her physiological and posture changes when she encounters beautiful objects (chairs feature heavily), and Lee’s philosophical glosses on same – it feels more relevant in the era of neuroscience and embodied cognition than it probably did in 1897.

Set beside these grand theories, or the epic anti-war denunciations of her allegorical play Satan, The Waster, the essays in Hortus Vitae (the Garden of Life) are knowingly and endearingly slight. But the subject – how to enjoy life with minimal regret – seem just as important to me, particularly as I drift into my mid-40s as greedy for culture as ever and as lazy as ever about actually getting out and experiencing it.

Lee’s point of view has two elements I particularly sympathised with. The first is a sense of optimism – looking for the best in experiences, taking opportunities, and so on. She’s honest enough about the general difficulty of this that her efforts seem sincere. The second is a keen appreciation of context as a shaper of experience – the way the smell of a theatre changes the play; the way a bicycle changes the landscape. One of the best and most specific essays, “A Stage Jewel”, describes Lee’s disappointment when she realises some jewellery she’d bought was made for the stage – not because it’s fake, which she knew, but because the understanding of the specific fakery collapses any mystique the object had. Or at least I think that was the issue. By that essay I’d grown accustomed to Lee’s unhurried, slightly arch style, occasionally direct, more often ornate – appropriate in a book devoted to pleasing oneself, however clear-eyed it is about the problems involved.

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