Determining 'Fluctuating Opinions': Vernon Lee, Popular Fiction, and Theories of Reading

Towheed, Shafquat (2005). Determining 'Fluctuating Opinions': Vernon Lee, Popular Fiction, and Theories of Reading. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 60(2) pp. 199–236.



Acknowledged for the originality and scope of her critical writing and recognized as one of the leading intellectuals of her age, Vernon Lee (1856-1935) has rarely been viewed as a cedible novelist, and critics have rarely seen an engagement with fiction as central to her literary craft. In this essay I reexamine Vernon Lee's theory and practice of fiction and argue that she increasingly depended upon access to novel readers in order to disseminate her more complex theoretical ideas and thereby shape an ideal and perceptive readership. In the first section I demonstrate the influence of popular novelists - particularly the romance writer Henrietta Camilla Jackson Jenkin (1805-1885) - on Lee's literary training, and I also show Lee's desire to identify a potential readership for writing both fiction and nonfiction. In the second section I show both Lee's fidelity to the originality of her emerging literary voice and her commitment to the influence of fiction in determining ideas. I locate critical debates over the function of fiction and the formation of the reader in my discussion of her fictional writing ("Ottilie", 1883 and "Miss Brown", 1884) and her nonfictional dialogues ("Belcaro" 1881, "Baldwin, 1886 and "The Gospels of Anarchy", 1908). In the third section I explore Lee's delineation of a 'moral economy of reading' in a close reading of two short stories - 'Lady Tal' (1892) and 'A Worldly Woman' (1890) - that are explicitly concerned with the influence of the fictional work on the reader.

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