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Episode 37: A Wicked Voice by Vernon Lee
Episode 3729th February 2020 • Classic Ghost Stories • Tony Walker
00:00:00 01:15:49

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Vernon Lee

Despite sounding so masculine, Vernon Lee was actually a woman called Violet Paget, born in France in 1856 and died in Italy in 1935. Despite these location she identified as English. Her biographer Vineta Colby says that Lee was English by nationality, French by an accident of birth and Italian by choice.

As well as the ghost stories for which she is most famous, Vernon Lee, was an essayist who wrote about travel and art and especially aesthetics. 

Her parents were globe-trotting, or at least Europe-trotting intellectuals and in 1873, when Vernon or Violet was 17, they settled in Florence Italy. She stayed living in the vicinity of Florence until her death in 1935.

Violet published her first collection of essays when she was 24. These dealt with Italian writers and dramatists and she later wrote on William Shakespeare and Renaissance Italy. 

She made fun of English artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites in her 1884 novel Mrs Brown.

Politically, she was a convinced pacificst. She published under a masculine name because she feared that as a woman her writing would not be taken seriously. She was a feminist and mostly dressed as a man. Though she didn’t come out, she did have crushes on women and was probably Lesbian. She suffered from health anxiety.

She also fell out with other writers by making fun of them in her work; notably Henry James and Edith Wharton.

Henry James wrote to his equally talented brother William warning him about Vernon Lee: the most able mind in Florence, ‘as dangerous and uncanny as she is intelligent.’

A Wicked Voice

I had wanted an Italian based ghost story to continue the theme of stories set on the continent of Europe. There was not much choice! Of course there is Don’t Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier, which I read myself but which is in copyright still and so reading it out would count as a breach. As the Podcast goes on from strength to strength, I may look into whether I would be given permission to read out stories that are in copyright still, such as I did with Along the Old Track by Sam Hicks.

I read A Wicked Voice three times. By the end, I quite liked it. It’s obvious that Vernon Lee is interested in aesthetics as we have all that moonlight and blue mist and Venice languishing like a lily and the scent of the white flowers that remind the narrator of peaches. Not to mention the threshing at the farms in Mistra and the lights and music in the old cathedral at Padua!

Basically the story, with all that cut out, is quite simple. I’m not sure it needs the frame at the beginning and end either; first of the narrator looking back and beginning to tell and then at the end telling of his possibly recovery.

Zaffarino, to give him his nickname, has a ring with cabalistic signs. An allusion to Tartini doing a deal with the Devil to make powerful music is mentioned and so we must guess that Zaffarino has been given the power to make women love him in his music, and also the power to kill, by Old Nick himself.

Though Zaffarino is described as beautiful, he is often also referred to as effeminate. I am guessing he may be a castrato? What else did he give up for his art? 

So the story follows the narrator who is haunted by the scent of white flowers and Zaffarino’s ghostly voice. As promised, the voice makes him fall in love with it, and it almost kills him. But not quite. I’m not sure why not? Because he interrupted the final cadenza by bursting into the haunted room perhaps?

Ghost Stories in a Haunted Castle

Come along to Dalston Hall, Carlisle in March to hear me read ghost stories, get a tour of the ghosts, have dinner, and even stay overnight in a haunted room!

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