People have been producing things as not-themselves or more-themselves for centuries.
The phrase “it’s only human” is trite, but it does seem like humans are fairly adept at demarcating the self. We contain multitudes, and we’re not afraid to manipulate them – especially when the stakes are high or we feel pressured. We like playing pretend. We also like making money, making a point, or making waves.
Some pseudonyms even effectively eat the orthonyms they’re intended to obscure. (Prime suspect: Mark Twain.)
In a sense, choosing to produce under a new name does mean entering an ideological fracas. After all, a nom de guerre is generally used when necessary. The need can be motivated by any number of factors, some less demonstrably urgent than others. Ego, fear of failure, fear of prosecution, good marketing, privacy – the list is vast. They all galvanize us.
In Violet Paget’s case, she grappled with how she might become an writer and concluded a new identity would help. Born in France to educated, English parents who relocated the family to Italy, she was no stranger to boundless thinking. By the time she was nineteen, she was mentioning a pseudonym in her letters.
Victorian women were publishing under their legal names, of course. But it was 1875, and few were respected in the same way as men in their genres. Violet wrote, “[The name] has the advantage of leaving it undecided whether the writer be a man or a woman.”
In reality, she knew it would work in her favor if readers assumed she was a man. Vernon Lee went where Violet Paget could not. Today, she – Vernon – is remembered as an essayist and author of supernatural fiction. Her essays cover a variety of topics, from Italian history to aesthetics. In addition to prose, she also wrote at least one play. Her output was seductively protean.
Violet is almost always called Vernon, even though we know who she was. This isn’t entirely accidental. The arc of her life is shaped by queerness, including her penchant for dressing a la garçonne and her attraction to women.
After meeting Clementina "Kit” Anstruther-Thomson, a Scottish artist and theorist, Vernon said Kit was “very handsome, a sort of Venus of Milo-Margaret-Cantagalli creature [sic], clever & curiously interesting.” They ended up living together and collaborating for over a decade.
Vernon wrote all of that to her mother, by the way. Yes, it still connotes the thing it does now. In short, it’s Victorian gayness in the same manner that Dr. Watson was a bachelor.
Regardless of labels, and we could apply several here, she subverted what society said she should be. Or do. The interplays of her experimentation, her explorations, and the world in which she lived were complex. It’s less that her contributions were always extraordinary, and more that her audacity to make them ultimately paid off.
Like the Earth in Good Omens, Vernon was a Libra. She may not have done everything well, but everything she did was arguably stylish and easily aesthetique. Consider what she wrote while on a trip to London in 1881: “[…] Talking of literary fame, the only two creatures who seemed to have heard of me as a writer were Wm. Rossetti & Oscar Wilde!”
“Two creatures” who were very much about the aesthetic, themselves. Not that she particularly liked the Pre-Raphaelites – in her three-volume novel Miss Brown (1884), she caricatured them. Though incisive, she was vulnerable to self-doubt. Rather than a lack of talent, however, she linked her lack of popularity to her “determination to write only to please myself.”
In a letter to her brother, she declared:
I don’t think it is my obscurity which prevents my being popular, but my habit & determination to write only to please myself, irrespective of readers […] at thirty-seven I have no public, but […] I think it better to restrict my expenditure than to increase my income. […] I feel every day more & more that I don’t know enough of life to write a novel I should care to read. Life is too serious to be misrepresented as in Miss Brown. […] At sixty I will write a novel. So I am bound to be unpopular, & you must just put up with it.
One wonders, or at least I wonder, if she might have been less sardonic had there been a world in which Violet could do what Vernon did. If Violet could have lectured at Cambridge, written all the essays, or seen “enough of life” to write a novel that appealed to her. I think it’s nice to consider, even if there are no ideal conditions for perfecting self-expression and senses of self aren’t static.
I don’t find Vernon tragic. We shouldn’t. I find her ahead of her time and worthy of attention as a Renaissance man.
In parting, always remember: if one wishes to go wild with lesbian subtext, one can always turn to writing Gothic horror.
For updates and research tidbits, follow along on Instagram.