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History of reading tutorial 3: Famous writers and their reading - Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Vernon Lee
History of reading tutorial 3: Famous writers and their reading - Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Vernon Lee

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3 Vernon Lee

The majority of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s responses to her reading are recorded in her correspondence to friends and family, most of which has since been published, but for the Anglo-Florentine writer Vernon Lee, responses to reading were overwhelmingly recorded in two unpublished sources: in her commonplace books (covering the period 1887-1900), and in the marginal comments of books in her own library. How might private, unpublished responses to reading function differently from the evidence in correspondence or published sources, designed to be read by others? We can examine this by looking at an example of each.

Activity 3

Perform an ‘Advanced Search [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ for Lee’s reading in Florence in the period up to 1900 by scrolling down, and selecting the following:

  • for ‘Century of Experience’, the half-century ‘1850-1899’
  • for ‘Name of Reader’, enter ‘Vernon Lee’
  • for ‘Gender’, select ‘female’
  • for ‘Places of Experience’, check ‘specific address’, select ‘Other Places’, and enter ‘Il Palmerino’
  • Now click on ‘Submit Query’.


Your search should return 31 entries (January 2011), and glancing at the summary of the ‘Evidence’ column, you can see that there are two broad sources of evidence: marginalia, and the list of books read from her commonplace books (UK RED: 20618 onwards). Let us know drill down a little further and closely examine commonplace book number VI, which covers the 11 month period from 25 February 1891 to 14 January 1892. During this period Vernon Lee read some 60 books, for which 58 authors and 55 titles can be precisely identified (Hazlitt, Kipling and Mary Wilkins are named as being read, without any information about which title was being read).

Figure 3
Colby College, Waterville, Maine, Special Collections, Vernon Lee Collection
Figure 3: Vernon Lee, Commonplace book VI, 25 February 1891 to 14 January 1892

Several of the books were clearly re-read, such as Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme and Alphonse Daudet’s Numa Roumestan (for the transcription of this list, see ID: 20618). We can analyse the field of literature here through the filters of language, genre, and recentness (or date of publication). Certain clear patterns emerge in Lee’s reading over this 11 month period.

First: the majority of her reading was in French (37 of 60 titles, or 62%); despite this, all the entries in the commonplace book are in English (an implicit act of translation takes place her between reading and first written response).

Second: both Russian and Norwegian literature –specifically Tolstoy and Ibsen – was read in French translation, and not in English, despite the availability of these works in English translations.

Third: half the titles read were fiction, more than all the other genres put together, while not a single volume of poetry seems to have been read or recorded over this 11 month period. Clearly this is anomalous; many members of Lee’s circle, including her half-brother Eugene Lee-Hamilton, were practising poets, so the evidence offered by the commonplace book in this instance is highly deviant.

Fourth: the overwhelming majority of Lee’s reading during this period was of contemporary books, with 30% of books having been published less than 2 years before, and 52% less than 10 years earlier; the back catalogue of out of copyright reprints, in other words, of classics, is surprisingly small.

What this snapshot of trends for 1891-2 indicates is that Vernon Lee was programmatic in her approach to reading contemporary European (largely French) fiction, an activity that found its outcome in a series of published articles in literary journals. The title list for Commonplace Book VI offers strong evidence of the professional reading of a literary critic and essayist.

Vernon Lee clearly used her commonplace books to structure a considered response to an act of reading, but more immediate (and perhaps less guarded) responses can be found in the marginalia in 299 of the 425 books in her private library that still survive.

Activity 4

Perform an ‘Advanced Search’ for Lee’s marginalia by scrolling down, and selecting the following:

  • in the ‘Keyword (in evidence)’ field, enter ‘marginalia’
  • for ‘Name of Reader’, enter ‘Vernon Lee’
  • Now click on ‘Submit Query’.


Your search will locate all of Lee’s books with marginalia entered into UK RED, some 40 items (January 2011). Marginalia works in a number of different ways – marginal notes can be used as aids to memory when re-reading a book, or they can be designed to assist quick reference, so that a particular passage or idea can be located quickly. As these are comments in privately owned books, marginalia is not explicitly intended for publication, and therefore the opinions expressed might be much more direct and unguarded than usual. Conversely, owned books with marginalia maybe be borrowed or circulated privately, amongst friends and family, thus making these comments in some sense, public. Occasionally, more than one reader may leave a mark, such as in Lee’s copy of Rudolf Goldscheid’s Höherentwicklung und Menschenökonomie: grundlegung der sozialbiologie (UK RED: 16970) which she lent to her friend, the Italian pragmatist philosopher Mario Calderoni.

Figure 4
Special Collections of the Harold Acton Library, The British Institute of Florence
Figure 4: Lee’s copy of Rudolf Goldscheid’s Höherentwicklung und Menschenökonomie: grundlegung der sozialbiologie

Calderoni returned the book with his own marginalia (some commenting on Lee’s first of notes), which prompted Lee to re-read the work, and leave some additional marginal marks, completing a literary conversation. The marginal marks from her second reading explicitly refer to Calderoni’s glosses; for example, on the title page of the book, she notes in ink the importance of Calderoni’s marginal comments on page 248 of the work (‘Calderoni pencil note p.248’). In this German text, Lee’s largely English marginal notes engage Calderoni’s German comments, reinforcing points made in their private correspondence, which was exclusively in Italian, and providing evidence of a multilingual, intratextual interpretive community reading the same book. Sometimes, marginalia can act as a barrier in the sequence between reading and published writing. For example, although Lee’s copy of Henry Ford’s My Life and Work (ID:16964) was heavily marked, at no point in her own publications does she refer to having read Ford’s autobiography. Conversely we should also not assume that just because a book is unmarked, it is unread. Reading is a process, and we need to be aware of the multiple ways and places in which readers might register their responses to the act of reading.