24 September 2008

Against Clio: Vernon Lee on ‘The Muse of History’

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‘I know the Muse of History is a sycophantish partisan; a pretentious, often ignorant humbug. She dotes on Satan, cloaking in exemplary denunciations what psychiatry might call a sadistic taste for works of his which only dirty the memory and spread retaliative infection to the feelings…’ Vernon Lee, writing at the end of 1918.

Nobody should think for a moment that critical argument about ‘the national heritage’ in Britain only emerged in the 1980s. Vernon Lee – real name Violet Paget – was a Victorian aesthete, feminist and liberal cosmopolitan who found herself stranded in Britain by the outbreak of the First World War. She campaigned against the conflict, not least as a member of the Union of Democratic Control. In her writing, she also produced an erratic but strangely brilliant (and still scarcely read) analysis of the ways in which the warring State set about dominating the minds of its people.

Lee saw the war as a partly theatrical phenomenom. In an article written at the end of 1914 (and also available on this website) she took the ‘iron curtain’ from the theatre and used it to describe how the war interrupted all undistorted communication and exchange between its opposed peoples. In ‘The Muse of History’, dated Christmas 1918, she went on to consider the ways in which historical narratives had then been enlisted to justify, enhance and sustain the war as a patriotic crusade.

If the first paragraph of ‘The Muse of History’ reads oddly in extract, this is because Lee is commenting on her ‘philosophical’ anti-war drama, ‘The Ballet of the Nations’, which stands at the centre of Satan the Waster, and is the subject of the extensive commentary and ‘Notes’ from which ‘The Muse of History’ is here quoted. There is a lot more about Satan the Waster and Lee’s involvement in the anti-war movement of 1914-19 in my book Iron Curtain: from stage to Cold War (Oxford, 2007). I have also written about Lee’s ‘The Muse of History’ in ‘Heritage and the Place of Criticism’, the Introduction to a new edition of On Living in an Old Country (forthcoming from Oxford, 26 February 2009), and  will be addressing the same subject in a talk entitled ‘Vernon Lee and the Unclothing of Clio’ at a conference in honour of Stephen Bann, at the University of Bristol  on 20 June 2009.

Download ‘The Muse of History’ (PDF) here»

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 24th, 2008 at 12:00 pm and is filed under Articles General, Found Objects, Heritage & History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.