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Rewriting Paterian Sympathy: Vernon Lee and Elitist Empathy

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Abstract

Renewed critical interest in the author and critic, Vernon Lee (pseud. Violet Paget, 1856–1935) has tended to focus on the way she rewrites the aesthetic and moral values of literary art in terms which account for a broad readership. This essay challenges the view that Lee’s aesthetic theory accommodates a non-specialist reader by reassessing her commitment to the concept of aesthetic empathy. It does so by arguing that Lee’s aesthetic empathy is a modified version of Walter Pater’s notion of aesthetic sympathy, which demands a specialist practitioner. Lee sought to articulate the terms of her aesthetic theory in a way which emphasized a sharper social conscience than that which we find in the works of Pater, but this does not mean that she ‘redirected her view toward the audience.’ Like Pater, for whom the literary artist must write specifically for ‘the scholar and the scholarly conscience,’‘those men of a finer thread,’ Lee demonstrates a concern for a reader with a specialist set of skills and proficiencies. Whilst Lee’s notion of aesthetic empathy originates from the German school of psychological aesthetics, her modification of Pater is apparent in the way both writers draw on contemporary British Associationist psychology. The fact that Pater and Lee share in the same kind of Associationist terminology is evidence of the similarity of their notions of sympathy and empathy. Overall, this essay shows how the concept of aesthetic empathy particularly appealed to Lee due to the way it accounted for the individuality of the perceiver with its emphasis on a muscular and sensuous responsiveness, but eliminated the selfish element of an individualism that threatened to remove the Paterian individual from public life.

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