This 1946 edition of Vernon Lee includes not only "A Phantom Lover" under the title "Oke of Okehurst" but also "Dionea" "Pope Jacynth" "The Lady & Death" "St Eudaemon & His Orange-Tree" "Winthrop's Adventure" "& "Revenna & Her Ghosts," not a dud in the lot!
Vernon Lee's A Phantom Lover
commentary by Jim Rockhill
Of all the supernatural tales by Vernon Lee I have read, the only one I found initially disappointing was this short novel, originally published separately under the present title by Blackwood in 1886, then collected in Hauntings, Fantastic Stories (Heinemann, 1890) under the title Oke of Okehurst. Favoring Lee's tales set in an Italian or mythical background, I had estimated A Phan;tom Lover to be little more than a pale imitation of The Turn of the Screw by Lee's associate Henry James. When wiser heads prevailed upon me to give the work another chance, my second reading revealed a tale so rich & complex that I regret being able to focus on only a few of its remarkable features.
What had most dissatisfied me about the tale when I first read it was not the elusive nature of the plot, but the characters. If we take only the narrator's explicit word for it, we can dismiss Mr. & Mrs. Oke & their motivations in a few sentences, & neither of them will seem particularly worthy of our sympathy. Even in retrospect, after having exacerbated the situation by encouraging Mrs. Okes fancies, foolishly appealed to some of the same "moral & religious notions" the distraught Oke has ominously said must lead him to prevent his wife from dishonoring herself, & failed to avert the tragedy, the narrator does not hesitate to tell us he understands them both. However, the narration also contains implicit indications that these characters are more than they appear.
One of the most interesting of these, worthy of a study in & of itself, lies in Lee's insertion of curiously ambiguous gender references at key places in the narrative. When the narrator attempts to describe Mrs. Okes figure after first meeting her in Chapter 3, he seeks comparisons only among male animals:"(T)here was in it something of the peacock & something also of the stag: but above all, it was her own." E.F. Bleiler (ed.) Five Victorian Ghost Novels, p. 306.
When, in Chapter 6, Mrs. Oke takes him on a wild cart ride to visit the scene of a 17th Century murder, perpetrated, as legend has it, by ancestors common to both Okes, the narrator calls attention to"(t)his woman in her mannish little coat & hat" (p. 322)
who is so at odds with the semi-invalid he is accustomed to seeing. In Chapter 7, after seemingly leaving the company of her guests in disgust at their disrespectful donning of the Okehursts ancient wardrobe, Mrs. Oke is mistaken for "a boy, slight & tall" (p. 327) when she reappears in the disguise her namesake, Alice Oke, had supposedly worn to kill her lover. Shortly thereafter, when Oke begins seeing & hearing a figure who may be the same one who inhabits his wifes fantasies, the narrator writes,"He was growing perfectly unstrung like a hysterical woman." p. 332.
The roles & attributes of male & female blur along with the boundary between reality & fantasy, past & present.
Another motif related to character lies in their differing perceptions or acceptance of fantasy. The narrator is willing to accept the fantasies of Mrs. Oke, because he finds her fascinating & hopes this acceptance will aid in the completion of her portrait, but he is still capable of giving a lengthy psychological explanation of Mrs. Okes behavior to Mr. Oke when the latter has become distraught, does not share in the visual or auditory perceptions of either Mr. or Mrs. Oke that someone is among them, remarks upon his own olfactory sensations without apparent consciousness of their significance (see below), & fails to see that Okes growing derangement & Mrs. Okes fancy are related.
Mrs. Oke exists almost exclusively within her fantasy world. Lee devotes a separate paragraph during the narrators tour of Okehurst in Chapter 2 to the statement,"It seemed to me that I was being led through the palace of the Sleeping Beauty." p. 304.
That this follows shortly after Okes characteristically tortuous statement,"You must excuse my not introducing you at once to Mrs. Oke. My wife - in short, I believe my wife is asleep," p. 303.
seems not without significance. Are we to imagine Mrs. Oke asleep to the real world due to "the caprice, the mania, the pose . . to resemble Alice Oke of 1626" (p. 313) ? Or, what is equally likely, are we to see her awakening, with the narrators unwitting assistance, to a full awareness of the other world she has discovered, an awakening that paradoxically draws her ever further away from contact with this one? Even the narrators suggestion she read Dantes LA VITA NUOVA aids in this development. She embraces her fancy almost to the point of autism, emerging only in response to those stimuli from consensus reality most compatible with her " eternal daydream" (p. 319).
Mr. Oke, dull, stalwart, forgettable man that he is, with his forms, his political opinions, his estate, his feelings of duty toward the family name, his morals & his religious notions, resists Mrs. Okes fancies even as he begins to experience them himself. Mrs. Oke creates & frequents a shrine to the centuries-dead Lovelock in the yellow room her husband cannot abide. She relishes the legend of age-old illicit love, betrayal & murder that her husband wants silenced. There is a scene in Chapter 9, similar to scenes witnessed by the narrator in the company of Mrs. Oke, in which Mr. Oke laments the bad harvest they will have that fall, caught up in some baleful vision that cannot see the healthy plenitude around him nor even the presence of others. The fancy in which his wife delights has spread to him like an infection, souring everything, his notions of morality coming to center around jealousy & his religious notions degenerating into superstition.
And what is this fancy that so fascinates Mrs. Oke? Is it really the ghost of Christopher Lovelock, friend of Nicholas & lover to the first Alice Oke, possibly murdered by them both? Or is it merely the caprice of a "perverse child" (p. 239), bored, unable to bear children after her first loss & increasingly conscious of her husbands limitations? Like the questions raised in James masterpiece, these are questions that can never be definitively answered. Nonetheless, Lee has left certain clues that will support a supernatural explanation. The most remarkable of these is the recurrence of motifs related to fragrance, which reinforces a progression in the characters perception of Lovelock. Near the end of Chapter 2, the narrator, content to sit back after dinner & give himself over to the houses atmosphere, muses,"I resumed my place in the arm-chair, & resumed also my reverie, letting all those impressions of the past - which seemed faded like the figures in the arras, but still warm like the embers in the fireplace, still sweet & subtle like the perfume of the dead rose-leaves & broken spices in the china bowls - permeate me & go to my head." p. 305.
After Mrs. Oke introduces him to the yellow room in Chapter 5, a room with an evil reputation without the history to support it, the narrator writes,"The panes of the mullioned window were open, & yet the air seemed heavy with an indescribable heavy perfume, not that of any growing flower, but like that of old stuff that should have lain for years among spices." p. 317.
By the time this room is mentioned again in Chapter 8, Mr. Oke has begun to see & hear things. The narrator now describes it thus:"The yellow room, where the very air, with its scent of heady flowers & old perfumed stuffs, seemed redolent of ghosts." p. 331.
Oke accuses his wife of walking with someone along the pond, to which she replies,"I can only repeat that no living creature has been near me, it must have been Lovelock, for there was certainly no one else." p. 338
Shortly thereafter, during the same scene in which Oke hallucinates about the condition of his hops, the narrator cautions Oke about an approaching storm, describing the landscape in a passage that ends:"It was a warm, enervating autumn afternoon: the kind of weather that brings the perfume out of everything." p. 338.
This may be too subtle in itself to prove the gradual encroachment of the supernatural, but I find it chilling.
Any arguments against the presence of the supernatural in this tale face a similar paradox to that faced in the film Vertigo. Although local folklore supports what occurs, the whole drama related to Madeleine Elster being possessed by the ghost of her ancestor & forced to reenact her suicide is merely a ruse concocted by her husband in order to ensure the presence of witnesses who could be relied upon call her murder suicide. Yet, in the aftermath, Judy Barton, the woman Scotty Ferguson was duped into thinking was Madeleine, is forced to become the dead woman, as thoroughly absorbed by her as if she were the victim of supernatural possession, even sharing the same death. Whether you call it fate, hap or coincidence, some force driven by human emotion has produced the same inevitable outcome as the false ghost story that had been enacted in the first half of the film.
Shortly before his death in the seventeenth century, Nicholas Oke was said to have confessed to Lovelocks murder &"made a prophecy that when the head of his house & master of Okehurst should marry another Alice Oke, descended from himself & his wife, there would be an end of the Okes of Okehurst." p. 324.
Even if we decide that both William & the second Alice Oke are insane & everything that occurs is the result of human weakness & misunderstanding, the tales conclusion still fulfills the terms of the prophecy.
Mrs. Oke remains a mysterious figure, however we interpret her. Lee sets her apart, describing her beauty in these terms:"Something - & that the very essence - always escapes, perhaps because real beauty is as much a thing in time - a thing like music, a succession, a series - as in space." p. 306.
"Time," "music," "essence" - another reference to scent - these are all intangibles. Although the narrator refers to "the gradual reality of her as I gradually learned to see it" (p. 306), she remains, as Shakespeare says, "such stuff as dreams are made on." It is hard not to think of her as being or becoming a ghost, of gradually refining herself, as in this description of her near the end of the tale, rhapsodizing upon the concepts of abstract & enduring love she has gleaned from La Vita Nuova:"I had never, I think, seen her look so strange & so beautiful, the stiff white dress bringing out but the more the exquisiteness & incorporealness of her person." p. 338.
It might be tempting in this image to think of "Madeleine" walking through the hazy blue-green light of that hotel room in Vertigo as if back into life, but Mrs. Oke fades out of life like one essence merging into a surrounding fragrance.
copyright © 2000 by Jim Rockhill, all rights reserved
See also Jim Rockhill's commentary on
Vernon Lee's "Sister Benvenuta & the Christ Child"
& see Johnny "rbadac's" commentary on
Vernon Lee's "Dionea" & see Rockhill & rbadac's joint commentary on
Vernon Lee's "Amour Dure"
Classic & antiquarian supernatural tales,
including now & then editions of Vernon Lee's great works,
can be purchased from the
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