“I Had Painted Her Old and Vulgar”: Empathetic Aesthetic Contemplation and Female Agentive Haunting in Vernon Lee’s “Oke of Okehurst”

by Ka Yan Lam

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

Abstract: [page 9] This essay offers a gendered, psychoanalytical reading of the supernatural story “Oke of Okehurst; The Phantom Lover” by Vernon Lee, drawing on Lee’s insights into psychological aesthetics in terms of the empathic forces in art contemplation and her individualized, female voice. The haunted qualities of the portraits arouse the Freudian uncanny, and empathetic aesthetic contemplation involves aesthetic responses to the artwork in the narrative. The frame-tale structure is significant in that it creates a scenario for the painter’s contemplation of his own drawings and allows for comparison of his relationships with the four sitters. The possible psychological harm that resulted from the accusation of artistic ineptitude makes apparent the sexual charge inherent in the return of his repressed desire to revive his own reputation. His desire for vengeance is read in tandem with the sexual drive operating through a focalization of a male painter who has trouble drawing a female subject. A re-examination of the power struggles regarding gender and sexuality places Lee’s impressionistic approach to empathy within the larger framework of the sexual politics adopted by female writers on art and history who struggled for recognition among the male-dominated British aesthetic circle.

Keywords: aesthetics, art contemplation, empathy, “Oke of Okehurst,” psychological haunting, Vernon Lee

In the preface of Hauntings (1890), British author Vernon Lee (1856-1935) claimed that her supernatural tales were of “no genuine ghosts in the scientific sense” verifiable by the Society of Psychical Research (Lee, “Preface” 40). In her definition, the only genuine ghosts were what others deemed as “spurious ghosts” that haunted “certain brains” (40). She believed that the genuine ghosts came from things (and images) in our daily life and ordinary surroundings that provoked our fearful senses, haunting memories, and [page 10] inexplicable fancies, born out “of the weird places we have seen, [and] the strange stories we have heard” (39). In other words, she recognized that hauntings were the contemplation on the physical things that stimulated recollections of past experiences and impressions. In this sense, she located hauntings on the psychological level and regarded the ghosts or apparitions as a manifestation of the psychic states of the perceiving subject.

In one of the ghost stories, “Oke of Okehurst; The Phantom Lover,” originally published in 1886 as a complete novel with the title A Phantom Lover: A Fantastic Story,1 the elements of the supernatural that build up the horror, excitement, and uncanniness are central to the psychological haunting exerted on the characters. The story centers on a painter-narrator who has been invited to paint the portraits of a Kentish country squire and his wife, William Oke and Alice Oke. The couple claim to see the ghost of a poet named Christopher Lovelock, who was murdered by Mrs. Oke’s ancestress, her namesake, in 1626. That the phrase “Phantom Lover” was preserved in the revised title assumed certain significance to the apparition of Lovelock.2 Whereas critics in general have discussed that the spectral presences in the short story are the psychological projection of the Okes,3 this essay offers a close investigation into the male narrator’s experience of psychological haunting with regard to his role as a portrait painter in a story-within-a-story structure. As declared clearly in her brief note, addressed to her friend Count Peter Boutourline, that preceded the narrative, Lee originally shared the Okehurst tale with him verbally but hesitated to write it out immediately for the sake of preserving the fantastic effect that lingered in the mind of her audience (Lee, “Oke” 105). Anne Delong argues that the decision to adopt a male narrative voice to represent a female subject for the print version is “consciously stylistic” because the subversive discourse emphasized by the androgynous woman can be effectively contained by its narratorial unreliability and the narrative indeterminacy (32, 36). [page 11]

My reading is congruent with DeLong’s observation on Lee’s reframing the tale from a gendered perspective. My analysis first draws upon Lee’s insights into psychological aesthetics in terms of the empathic forces in the act of art contemplation, highlighting her individualized, female voice as subversive to the fin-de-siècle assumptions surrounding women’s engagement in aesthetic and historiographical writings. While identifying the haunted qualities of the portraits that evoke the Freudian uncanny, I observe that empathetic aesthetic contemplation involves aesthetic responses to these artworks in the narrative. Placing a particular focus on the frame-tale structure, I argue for its significance in creating a scenario for the painter’s contemplation of his own drawings, and I seek to compare his relationships with the four sitters, namely his current sitter, “the fat lady,” Mrs. Oke, and Mr. Oke. As I delve into the possible psychological harm resulted from his former female sitter’s accusation of his artistic ineptitude, it makes blatant the sexual charge inherent in the return of his repressed desire to revive his own reputation. His artistic drive with respect to a desire for vengeance is read in tandem with the sexual drive operating through a focalization of a male painter who has trouble drawing a female subject (implying a symbolic castration) who has imposed more profound haunting on him. To this end, I call upon a re-examination of the power struggles regarding gender and sexuality in the tale and place Lee’s impressionistic approach to empathy in art contemplation within the larger framework of the sexual politics adopted by female writers on art history who struggled for recognition among the male-dominated British aesthetic circle.

Lee’s Empathetic Aesthetic Contemplation

In Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics (1912), Lee and her lover Clementina (Kit) Anstruther-Thomson4 cooperated to develop their own [page 12] theory of empathy through examining bodily reactions and mental activities in the process of art contemplation. In describing her aesthetics as “those of the galley and the studio, not of the laboratory,” Lee meant that aesthetic principles were grounded on “observation” rather than “scientific certainty,” for they remained “conjectural and suggestive” (viii). The central tenet of these aesthetics about mentally identifying oneself with an object of contemplation, which is “‘putting ourselves inside’ the things to which we attribute modes of feeling and acting similar to ours,” originated from German psychologists Robert Vischer’s (1847-1933) and Theodor Lipps’s (1851-1914) theorization of empathy (Einfühlung) (18). Vischer first derived the notion of empathy when he cited from Karl Albert Scherner’s Das Leban des Traums (The Life of the Dream) an example of how a dreamer’s body, in response to some stimuli, “unconsciously projects its own bodily form–and with this also the soul–into the form of the object” (Vischer 92). From this, Vischer observed “a direct continuation of the external sensation into an internal one” (92), which, as elaborated by Carolyn Burdett, results in a dissolving boundary “between individual self and external world” (17). While developing Vischer’s idea, Lipps directed his interest towards the cognitive or perceptive workings in optical illusions. Referring to Lipps’s observation of how our bodies “create” a line by following it with our eyes when we look at one, Benjamin Morgan highlights the performative act of our body that “contributes to the existence of the line” and “a feeling of being identical with the line” (35). Lipps’s version of empathy inspired Lee in the way that she emphasized the role of our own perception and our experience of movement in producing aesthetic pleasure.

Lee scholars have shown that, apart from Vischer and Lipps, this widely read art critic and fiction writer likely formulated her theory of aesthetic experience from a variety of nineteenth-century studies in science, psychology, and aesthetics.5 In particular, Lee’s theory of empathy differentiated itself from John Ruskin’s (1819-1900) [page 13] viewpoint on the sentimentality in poetic descriptions. In Modern Painters, Ruskin denounced the attribution of human emotions to non-human entities, i.e., the “pathetic fallacy,” which he believed would produce in us “a falseness in all our impressions of external things” (165). Hilary Fraser rightly labels Ruskin’s account of the “pathetic fallacy” as “highly gendered,” as he opined that the “temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy” belongs to one whose mind and body are too weak to deal with what is perceived by the subject whose vision is overshadowed by emotions (94). In contrast with Ruskin, Lee and Anstruther-Thomson embraced an aesthetics of empathy that operated as a kind of figure of speech when we project “our inner experience into the forms which we see and realise” (17). Their understanding of aesthetic experience was made in corporeal terms coupled with “the aesthetic seeing, the ‘realisation,’ of form” (25). As Fraser has convincingly argued, Lee and Anstruther-Thomson’s insistence upon the personal perspective of the observer signified a female “visual agency” and “spectatorship” that was “a feminized imaginative strategy, designated to legitimate the specificity of the woman’s gaze” (94). Fraser therefore foregrounds Lee’s role as a professional observer with an awareness of the modern woman’s “radical insertion … into art historical discourse” against “the totalizing thrust of masculinist universal history” (81). As I shall illustrate later, it is significant to locate Lee’s recuperation of Ruskin’s critical view and her articulation of empathetic aesthetic experience in gendered terms.

As critics in general have assumed, Lee, a disciple of Walter Pater (1839-1894), a prominent figure in British Aestheticism, was indebted to his subjective, relativist approach to art. In the preface of his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Pater called for art critics’ attempts to define beauty in more concrete terms, i.e. seeing the object as what it really is (viii). He emphasized that the viewer has “to know [his] own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly,” and ultimately to realize “the power [page 14] of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects” (viii). Pater believed that to experience “art for art’s sake” is to fix upon the moments for “those moments’ sake” when “art comes to [us] professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to [our] moments as they pass” (213). By doing so, our perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories are reduced to the swarm of impressions of the individual mind that are “unstable, flickering, [and] inconsistent” and “are extinguished with our consciousness of them” (209). For him, great art is “devoted to the enlargement of our sympathies with each other” (“Style” 36). This view on art appreciation sets the tone for Paterian sympathy in aesthetic criticism.

Apart from expanding Pater’s impressionism to some aspects of her theory of empathy, Lee applied an impressionistic approach to a full range of her writings about art and history that preceded her formulation of psychological aesthetics. For instance, in exploring eighteenth-century Italian music and literature in Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), she wrote about historical events and places from the perspective of her own experiences of having visited or lived there. In other works such as Euphorion: Being Studies of the Antique and the Mediaeval in the Renaissance (1882) and Renaissance Fancies and Studies: Being a Sequel to Euphorion (1895), her account of European art, history, cultures, and ancient mythology was mingled with her individual feelings and impressions about the past. As Christa Zorn has elucidated, Lee’s historical writing was derived “from her own intuition” (42). Lee’s impressionistic approach to history subverted the gendered assumption surrounding women’s writings about serious matters like the classics, laws, politics, and history, while taking into consideration that fin-de-siècle historical scholarship, controlled by middle-class men and specialized professionals, clearly differentiated fact from fiction (35, 71). Whether it is for the aesthetic theories or the historical writings, Lee’s commitment certainly qualified her to be included in nineteenth-century intellectual history. [page 15]

Whereas Lee shared resonance with Pater in seeing the importance of the viewer’s inner experiences in art contemplation, she had reservations about the aesthetic doctrines of the mainstream aesthetes. In her novel Miss Brown (1888), Lee portrays a male artist called Hamlin, who tries to transform the young, ordinary woman Anne Brown into an educated lady. The character Hamlin was modelled on Pater as a satire of the preoccupations of the members in Victorian aesthetic society. Despite having offended Pater, Lee critiqued the gender ideology implicated in the way in which artists cast their masculinist gaze on their female subjects. Fraser aptly observes that Lee took issue with “Hamlin’s scopophilic obsession with the beautiful young nursemaid with the Pre-Raphaelite looks” and thus criticized through her fiction “the constitution of woman as spectacle in the contemporary visual economy” (88). Lee’s awareness of the sexual politics undergirding Pater’s notion of aesthetic sympathy influenced her in theorizing an embodied, agentive, and perspectival empathetic act that empowers women’s seeing.

As laid out in The Beautiful: An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics (1913), Lee and Anstruther-Thomson’s aesthetics of empathy was dependent upon an act of concomitant seeing and perceiving (i.e. the observer’s vision and perception).6 During their visits to galleries and museums, they paid conscious attention to their own physiological and psychological reactions, i.e. the bodily and mental conditions, in art contemplation made through an observer’s individual standpoint. In the chapter “Empathy,” Lee explained how people’s perception of the figurative expression “the mountain rises” involves the bodily and mental activities of exploring a shape and the constituent relations associated with that shape. When people look at a mountain, they likely lift their eyes along with their head. This process creates an awareness about the action of rising. When looking at the shape of a mountain, the observer continues to think about rising in reference to the mountain’s [page 16] shape. The awareness of rising thus coalesces with the shape, which obliges the observer to, for instance, extend his or her glance from the foot of the mountain to the top of it (61-63). To summarize Lee’s insights into psychological aesthetics: First, art appreciation concerns the active perception of the intrinsic qualities of the shape, in the form of “aesthetic seeing,” or the realization of the “empathic, attributed, movements of lines” (114). Second, empathy deals with the moods and emotions that are called forth by the contemplation of shapes enacted by the lines, curves, and angles of the contemplated object. Third, the observer experiences empathic forces in the tendency to merge his or her activities (in a subject position) with the qualities of the contemplated object. Last, contemplation occurs solely in the mind–in active remembering, imagining, feeling, and foreseeing.

In my analysis of “Oke of Okehurst,” I focus on the painter’s empathetic aesthetic contemplation on the portraits and sketches associated with the hauntings related to the Oke family. I examine the uncanny feeling produced by such artworks as occasioned by his contemplation on his own drawings at the beginning of the narrative in the aftermath of the tragedy as he recounts to his current sitter the inexplicable events after three years’ time. My approach takes a step further than merely illustrating how Lee’s psychological aesthetics developed in the 1910s took preliminary shapes in her supernatural fiction written earlier in the nineteenth century. As Nicole Fluhr has critically pointed out, an empathetic identification with another, or a union of two subjectivities, constitutes the psychological haunting in the way that one (i.e. the painter) is “invaded from within by the personality of another creature” (i.e. Mrs. Oke) (288). Fluhr identifies this invasion as a kind of “self-inflicted” imagination, meaning that the painter is haunted by the “internal ghosts” created in his mind (293). Another critic, Mary Patricia Kane, also examines the empathetic relations that the narrator has with his subjects. According [page 17] to Kane, Lee modeled the narrator in “Oke of Okehurst” on her childhood friend John Singer Sargent’s life experiences as a painter being outcast by Parisian society, and she explained that a painter had a propensity for representing his subjects by focusing on “rare and exotic beauty” and “overlooking what is commonplace or conventional” (33-37). Kane thus maintains that the painter in the short story holds similar presumptions on artists’ desire to produce a unique work and hence it results in his empathy for Mrs. Oke (25). To offer an additional critical perspective to the psychological dynamics at play, I propose the working of a repressed desire of the painter by considering that the story is focalized through a male artist who fails to complete the portrait of a transgressive woman and who has previously been defamed by his former sitter.

The Haunted Portraiture and the Uncanny

The first section of the short story begins with the painter’s response to the enquiry on a sketch of Mrs. Oke in “the boy’s cap” by his current customer, who the painter addresses as “you” and whose portrait he is working on (Lee, “Oke” 105). This incident prompts the painter to look at his old sketches and the unfinished portrait of Mrs. Oke. In other words, he contemplates his artworks again. The painter responds and comments, “A singular being, is she not? The most marvellous creature, quite, that I have ever met: a wonderful elegance, exotic, far-fetched, poignant; an artificial perverse sort of grace and research in every outline and movement and arrangement of head and neck, and hands and fingers” (105-6). Having his past memories aroused, the painter shares more pencil-sketches with his customer. These dynamic portrayals of Mrs. Oke (“leaning over the staircase,” “sitting in the swing,” and “walking quickly out of the room”) elicit more constituent sensations from him (106). Interestingly, these movements in the portrayals give “no idea of her,” meaning that she was a person hard to read, [page 18] except that he finds her smile “exquisite” and “uncanny” (106). When the painter finally removes the pictures behind which her unfinished portrait is hidden, he is immediately reminded of how he painted her leaning against “that particular wall,” the image of which remains in his “distant, vivid but unreal” memory, “like a thing of [his] own invention” (107). Here, on the one hand, the painter is exploring Mrs. Oke’s physical features, i.e. her posture and the curves and lines of her body. On the other hand, this contemplation calls forth his active perception and associated sensations stored in his memory about the events at Okehurst.

In the process of contemplation, he demonstrates empathetic feelings for that dead woman who both fascinated and haunted him. As he re-thinks the deaths of the couple, he comments that for her it was “an appropriate end” that she would have liked (107). He is highly convinced of his remark: “People could no more understand it than they could understand her. I doubt whether any one [sic] ever understood Alice Oke besides myself. You mustn’t think me unfeeling. She was a marvellous, weird, exquisite creature, but one couldn’t feel sorry for her” (107). He is certain about how she felt and what she perceived, and he thus experiences a moment of empathy with her, feeling into her as a strange, indifferent, but exquisite creature.

Contemplating his own artworks arouses in the painter a feeling of uncanniness in the nature of a recurrence of what has been familiar to him. As pervasively evident in the same way he reacted and described the subject of his artistic creation during his stay with the Okes, the contemplation enacts a remembering of those old, long-forgotten sensations regarding the elusive qualities observed in Mrs. Oke. For example, in reconstructing his earliest impressions of Mrs. Oke, he finds her completely unlike anything else because “she [is], beyond all comparison, the most graceful and exquisite woman” (113). He repeatedly deploys the terms “grace” and “exquisiteness,” as in “the highest degree exquisite and strange–an exotic opinion” (115) and “the most [page 19] marvelously rare and exquisite and baffling subject” (116). He confesses a difficulty in defining her “waywardness, a strangeness” (116) and “singular and enigmatic personality” (118). The smile he identifies again in the sketches in the narrative present is undoubtedly the same “faint smile [on] her thin cheeks” (119). Later, having learnt about the family rumor that involves Mrs. Oke’s ancestress who shares an oversameness with her, the painter could barely dispel from his mind “this bizarre creature of enigmatic, far-fetched exquisiteness” and, in particular, “her irrelevant and far-off smile” (122). It is “with that distant smile” of Mrs. Oke that the painter decides to paint her when they are reading Lovelock’s poems in the yellow drawing-room (127). It is also the “smile of contemptuous indifference” when she declines to deny the possibility of her husband’s seeing the ghost of Lovelock, at which moment “this exquisite woman seems to the painter “perverse and dangerous” (128).

In this situation of empathetic contemplation, the painter has the opportunity to see his own drawings again, resulting in a form of psychological haunting by something that ought to remain hidden but has been revealed. To put it differently, if it were not his sitter who spotted one of the old sketches, the haunting experiences at Okehurst might remain forgotten in his memories. When the pictures re-appear in front of him, he identifies so much familiarity in them. As Sigmund Freud explains in “The Uncanny,” the uncanny is “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (220). In elaborating on Schelling’s definition of the German origin (unheimlich) of the term “uncanny,” Freud emphasizes that the uncanny refers to everything “that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (225). And when what used to be familiar comes to light again, it arouses an uncanny and frightening feeling precisely because unheimlich is, in Freud’s words, “in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich” and heimlich “comes to have the meaning usually ascribed to” unheimlich (226). Contemplating Mrs. Oke again [page 20] in those frames, the painter is reminded of such familiar yet previously obscured feelings as intense interest, marvel, poignancy, and incredulity. He remembers that he was once engrossed in drawing the portraits of those “wretched creature[s]” at the Okes (Lee, “Oke” 107). Contemplating his own artworks has triggered an empathetic aesthetic experience and provoked a sense of uncanniness so powerful that he has to turn Alice’s portrait to the wall before he can relay the tragic story to his sitter.

While foregrounding the feeling of the uncanny in his art contemplation, I identify a trace of uncanniness provoked by the drawings of a woman (Mrs. Oke) whose physical appearance shares striking similarities with the Alice Oke of 1626 in a portrait hung on the wall of the Okehurst manor. The painter is awed by “the very singular resemblance that exist[s] between herself and the portrait of a lady” (118):

It hung in a rather dark corner, facing the portrait, evidently painted to be its companion, of a dark man, with a somewhat unpleasant expression of resolution and efficiency, in a black Vandyck dress. The two were evidently man and wife; and in the corner of the woman’s portrait were the words, “Alice Oke, daughter of Virgil Pomfret, Esq., and wife to Nicholas Oke of Okehurst,” and the date 1626–“Nicholas Oke” being the name painted in the corner of the small portrait. (118)

He proceeds to contemplate the shape of their likeness: “there [are] the same strange lines of figure and face, the same dimples in the thin cheeks, the same wide-opened eyes [and] the same vague eccentricity of expression” (118). It is worth noting that the painter contemplates his subject, the present Mrs. Oke, in a similar manner in terms of her lines and shapes since he never thinks of her “as a body–bones, flesh, that sort of thing; but … as a combination of lines, a system of movements, an outline, a gesture, which is new, unpre-cedented, and yet hits off exactly [his] desires for beauty and rareness” (114). Freud has aptly identified the theme of the page 21] ‘double’ (doppelgänger) as a cause of the uncanny effect when there are “characters who are to be considered identical because they look alike” (234). He elaborates that the phenomenon of the double concerns “the repetition of the same features or character-traits or vicissitudes, of the same crimes” (both Alice Okes are adulterous), “or even the same names through several consecutive generations” (234).

The uncanny effect of the narrative can be further ascribed to Mrs. Oke’s deliberate act to imitate her namesake by all means. She distinctly dresses herself up “in garments that ha[ve] a seventeenth-century look,” making herself an absolute copy of that portrait of her ancestress (Lee, “Oke” 119). At a family party, the guests put on old costumes inherited from the ancestors of the Okes. In this pantomime, Mrs. Oke wears “a riding-coat and jack-boots,” attire that imitates the ancient lady (138). She tells the audience that “[i]t is the dress in which an ancestress of [theirs], [her] namesake Alice Oke, used to go out riding with her husband in the days of Charles I” (138). Mrs. Oke takes pleasure in her ‘performance,’ and remarks that “[i]f [she is] like that Alice Oke, why [she is]; and [she is] very pleased any one [sic] should think so” (119). The painter chimes in with her thought as he regards her as “a reincarnation” of the old Alice (142). Mrs. Oke’s behavior coincides with Freud’s psychological interpretation of the double: “This relation is accentuated by mental processes leaping from one … [char-acter] to another … [T]he subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own. In other words, there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self” (234). This uncanny doubling associated with the seventeenth-century portrait reinforces the uncanniness of the portrait that the painter attempts to complete. The idea of the double thus complicates the psychological haunting exerted on the painter who has chanced to see his incomplete portrait again after three years’ time.

As a ghost story that involves the contemplation of [page 22] haunted portraiture, Lee’s “Oke of Okehurst” brings to the fore the empathetic responses to objects and things that activate memories and imagination and arouse dread and horror central to the making of psychological haunting. Such life-imbued, magic portraits that could reveal more than what they visually represent were a very popular trope in Victorian fiction. Deborah Maria Manion labels this literary mode as “ekphrasis,” meaning “the verbal description of an object of visual art” (2). She argues that many haunted portraits are “conduits of desire and fear - windows into passions and repressions that reveal not only the images’ external effects but their relation to the unconscious of their viewers” (v). For instance, the portrait of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s famous novel magically conceals Dorian’s desire for an eternal beauty while implicating a same-sex passion shared by the three male characters, Dorian, Henry, and Basil. In analyzing Mrs. Oke’s wayward behavior of imitating her ancestress and mocking her husband, who claims to see ghosts, the painter sums up “the psychological peculiarity” of Mrs. Oke “in an exorbitant and absorbing interest in herself–a Narcissus attitude–curiously complicated with a fantastic imagination … all turned inwards, and with … a perverse desire to surprise and shock … her husband” (Lee, “Oke” 116). As for the painter himself, the portrait he is working on, as to be explicated in the next section, serves to unveil his repressed desire for an unprecedented artistic creation with an aim to rescue his ruined career.

In some Victorian fiction, the haunted portraiture bears the history of the portrayed figures, whose secret pasts, when disclosed, could exercise transgressive powers on the living persons. For example, in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Lady Audley’s true identity as Helen Maldon, whose first marriage with George Talboys produced a son, has been unknown to her second husband Sir Michael Audley until the Pre-Raphaelite portrait of Lady Audley is seen by George in her private chamber. In a later example, Margaret Oliphant’s supernatural story [page 23] “The Portrait” (1885), the male protagonist Philip has been investigating the identity of the portrait of a young, beautiful woman, who happens to be his mother who died in childbirth. His father withholds the truth from him for the sake of covering up his discontent with the family of his deceased wife. Family history likewise lingers behind the ancestral portraits of the Oke couple of 1626 in “Oke of Okehurst”: the marriage between Alice Oke and Nicolas Oke has been despised as a disgrace because Alice, daughter of Virgil Pomfret, came from a lower-rank family from a neighboring country, as contrasted with Nicholas Oke’s noble lineage. The past Alice, as the present Alice tells the painter, was an adulteress and a murderess because she had an affair with the poet, Lovelock, and had murdered him. The transgressive femininity of the two Mrs. Okes is thus framed in their portraits in “a sealed-off feminine space,” to deploy DeLong’s words, whereby they managed to extend haunting onto mem-bers of the future generations (34). In the cases of George and Sir Michael, Philip, and the male characters in “Oke of Okehurst,” those portraits of the women characters, infused with supernatural qualities, have imposed various degrees of haunting on the male viewers, indicating a gendered dynamic at play between the female subjects in the artistic representations and the men who interact with them. To put my argument more clearly, I propose a gendered, psycho-analytical reading of “Oke of Okehurst” as structured within a story-within-a-story and focalized through a male narrator who fails to draw a portrait of a subversive woman.

Repressed Desire and the Fear of Castration

The frame narrative structure crucially creates a scenario for the painter to contemplate the pictures and the portrait he drew a few years before, enabling his empathetic aesthetic contemplation. This occasion calls upon his recollection of the events that culminated in his acceptance to paint the portraits for the Oke couple. In the second section of the story [page 24] that follows the painter’s response to his current sitter, he recalls the incident when his friend brought Mr. Oke to his studio. While reflecting upon the reason for not rejecting the job, even though he deemed the couple “totally uninter-esting,” he reveals an unpleasant and unfortunate experience with a former client (Lee, “Oke” 109). That sitter, “a fat lady,” complained that he had painted her as “old and vulgar” and wrongfully accused him of a lack of talent (108). As an influential member of society, the fat lady manipulated the newspaper into printing an untruthful account of the artist’s conduct and thus ruined his reputation. As Kane has convincingly argued, the narrator’s suffering from having failed to paint a portrait that satisfied his sitter is indicative of the “crises of representation” of many portrait painters in the late nineteenth century when they had to compromise their “own vision to [their sitters’] self-image” (33). Kane iden-tifies an overlooked exploration of this metanarrative representation of the ambiguous relationship between the portrait painter and the sitter by comparing the plot with the similar experience of Lee’s friend, John Singer Sargent. To add on her critical viewpoint, I would foreground the return of the painter’s repressed desire to produce an unprecedented art piece.

Frustrated by being vilified by the “fat lady,” the painter had his reputation seriously damaged. The psychological harm is evident in his immediate acceptance of the offer to paint the Okes; he views this job as a way to restore his fame. He desires acknowledgment, and his hidden anxieties have been repressed in his unconscious. The recounting of this former episode reveals the return of his not-yet-unveiled desire; that which was once repressed now returns to provoke an uncanny effect. In Freud’s terms, as he has illustrated thoroughly with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sand-Man,” what constitutes the uncanny is one “class of frightening things” that has been “repressed which recurs” (241). Thus, its secret nature, as reflected in how das Heimlich (homely) is linguistically extended into das Unheimlich (unhomely), [page 25] concerns what is “in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (241). In the course of retelling the Okehurst tragedy to his sitter, the painter’s repressed desire, that which is “secretly familiar,” returns even though it has previously undergone repression (245).

Identifying the repressed desire is instrumental to deconstructing the workings of psychological haunting from the painter’s perspective; yet this does not mean that his narration of the Okehurst tragedy is completely constructed out of his fancies. Indeed, some critics differ in their analysis of the subjectivity of the mystical occurrences surrounding the Oke family. For instance, Marion maintains that the present Mrs. Oke actively mobilizes the unfortunate end of the story. Marion highlights that Mrs. Oke intentionally “hand-picks” a portrait artist “of a particular type,” who “can appreciate and represent the ambiguities of her identity” (159-60). She cites the “fat lady” case as evidence that the painter has “neither innate nor artificial deference to social norms and standards” but is merely “interested in aesthetic truth” yet “uninterested in women” (160). Marion thus concludes that it is “a joint effort” between the painter and Mrs. Oke, “a key player of the narrative,” in representing her androgynous and subversive image (170). In a different vein, Kane expounds on how the painter has been motivated by his desire to capture the elusive and exotic beauty of Mrs. Oke, resulting in not only his presumptions made about Mrs. Oke’s personality and behavior but also his playing along with her self-identification with the ancestress and her deliberate teasing of her husband (36-40). At variance with Marion but siding with Kane, I assert that the painter assumes more than a passive role in the narrative, particularly when we consider the significance of the frame-tale structure.

Beyond these readings, I would take into account the gendered assumption underlying that the male narrator has been ‘ruined’ by a female customer (apparently of a higher [page 26] social status and authority). Literally, he has been defamed by the “fat lady” for his refusal to portray her according to her request, posing a threat to his artistic conduct. Metaphorically, that he has been rendered “artistically impotent” can be interpreted on sexual grounds (DeLong 39). In the symbolic sense, that class of frightening, when repressed, is transformed into an anxiety belonging to the castration complex. The fear of castration, as Freud would put it, constitutes a condition of the uncanny. In this trace of the artist’s repression, there likely exists a repressed desire to avenge himself against the “fat lady” even though he feels inept to do so. With this relationship with the “fat lady” being illuminated, we might evaluate the reason why the painter agrees to tell the story of Mrs. Oke to his sitter in the narrative present. The painter claims that he grants his client a special favor not only because it has become too dark to paint but also because he has never heard the story in detail and he is different from other people who are “so brutally stupid or sentimental” (Lee, “Oke” 107). Whereas his act of retelling is provoked by this sitter whose gender is unknown, the painter bears certain responsibility for eliciting his sitter into his plotting. His justifications, when read against the repressed desire and the anxiety associated with the humiliation he received in the “fat lady” case, appear to suggest his compulsive desire to share his knowledge and ‘haunting’ experience at the Okehurst with the present sitter, who might be haunted or disturbed by his story.

In the light of examining his relations with these two sitters, it offers another psychoanalytical perspective to explain the painter’s difficulty in representing Mrs. Oke’s idiosyncratic and unpredictable character on canvas and his lengthy narration of the contradictory feelings which she evoked in him. For him, it is all about creating a unique work of art. He would facilitate, if not encourage, Mrs. Oke (and other people) to act or behave in a way that fits his expectations of her being a singular, exquisite, and enigmatic creature. He constantly assumes an absolute certainty in his [page 27] speculation on the thoughts and behavior of the Okes. He asserts that Mrs. Oke imitates her ancestress because of her “caprice,” “mania,” and “pose” (122). He continues to play a role in causing more tensions in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Oke as he chimes into their psychological interplay, attempts a late and ineffective intervention, and imposes his assumptions on their acts and thoughts. In this sense, the narrator’s dramatization of the Okehurst tale, in particular, the wayward behavior of Mrs. Oke, might indicate his intention to undermine his own masculine inability and to shift his partial responsibility for inducing the tragic death of Mrs. Oke, who after all has been a victim of patriarchal violence, to her insanity. In its stead, what underlies this “extraordinary” woman’s haunting of a male painter who has been accused of misconduct by another woman concerns a psychology motivated by the recurrence of repression and the power struggles regarding gender and sexuality.

Unlike the enormous efforts he puts into preparing for Mrs. Oke’s portrait, the narrator expresses a diminishing interest in working on Mr. Oke’s. The painter begins with Mr. Oke’s portrait and tells Mrs. Oke that he “must have much longer to study her. Mr. Oke couldn’t understand why it should be necessary to make a hundred and one pencil-sketches of his wife before even determining in what attitude to paint her” (118). Comparing his male sitter with his wife, the painter deems Mr. Oke “not as interesting as Mrs. Oke; and it require[s] too great an effort to pump up sympathy for this normal, excellent, exemplary young squire, in the presence of so wonderful a creature as his wife. So [he] let[s him]self go to the habit of allowing Mrs. Oke daily to talk over her strange craze, or rather of drawing her out about it” (128). His infatuation with the female subject rather than the other one is indicated in his feeling pathetic for Mr. Oke. He assumes that it is hardly possible to get Mr. Oke, “this serious, conscientious, slow-brained representative of English simplicity and honesty and thoroughness, to under-stand the mixture of self-engrossed vanity, of shallowness, of [page 28] poetic vision, of love of morbid excitement, that walk[s] this earth under the name of Alice Oke” (140).

Lee’s re-focalization of the narrative through a male painter being traumatized by his female sitter and haunted by his female subject, as I have sought to argue, is an articulation of a female agency of psychological haunting. For Lee, a genuine ghost story is conditioned by the imaginative capacities of the subjects who contemplate common things and objects. The supernatural occurrences in her “spurious” ghost stories potentially disclose the pasts, secrets, passion, and desires of the characters. In “Oke of Okehurst,” the painter is disturbed by hauntings related to the portraiture of his host family. The painter’s empathetic contemplation of his own artworks considerably intensifies the uncanniness of his haunting experiences connected with those haunted portraits. In deploying these Victorian literary tropes–haunted pictures and aesthetic activities–Lee strategically celebrates feminine transgression and authority through a male narrator whose subdued emotional impulses have been revealed in psychoanalytic lights. The sexual motive in Lee’s placing women’s subversive voices within a male one in her supernatural tale is not radically different from her intention behind the feminized, embodied subjectivity which she reconfigured in her theory of empathy. In this regard, Lee countered patriarchal dominance, pointing to the sexual politics of authorship in aesthetics, psychology, and art history. If it is arguable to locate the narrative elements in her ghost story as anticipated in Lee’s psychological aesthetics, it is equally justifiable to observe a female agency in her literary imaginations that took a more mature shape later in her impressionistic aestheticism.


1. The short story was initially published by William Blackwood and later collected with other supernatural tales in Hauntings in 1890.

2. It is also possible to interpret that dropping “Fantastic [page 29] Story” from the new title as undermining the explicitness of its fantastic mode (i.e., the fictionality) of the super-natural story and thus leave some space for the readers to decode the spectral presences.

3. For instance, Liz Delf suggests that the specter of Christopher Lovelock is “born of [Mrs. Oke’s self],” indicating her obsession with her ancestress and her family history (39-42). Diana Basham shares the view that the specter Mr. Oke claims to see is a projection of his own fears and jealousy because his wife identifies herself with “a seventeenth century namesake with a reputation for murder” (174).

4. Clementina (Kit) Anstruther-Thomson (1857–1921) was a Scottish art theorist. Lee developed a “romantic friend-ship” with her during the 1870s but eventually broke off their relationship in 1898.

5. For instance, as noted by Morgan, Edmund Burke developed aesthetics as a science of perception in his Philosophical Enquiry (1757); George Field, Alexander Bain, and David Ramsay regarded bodily response to “form, color, and sound” as the source of aesthetic pleasure (Morgan 36). Lee also showed admiration for Grant Allen’s Physiological Aesthetics (1877), in which he studied “the evolutionary origins of the attractiveness of particular” entities (Burdett 7-8).

6. Over the following decades, Lee continued to develop her psychological theories by applying them to literary criticism and the study of music. She examined the fiction writer’s craft of manipulating the contents of the reader’s mind in The Handling of Words, and Other Studies in Literary Psychology (1923), and she explored the inter-action of emotion, language, and music in Music and its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses to Music (1933).

Works Cited

Basham, Diana. The Trial of Woman: Feminism and the Occult Sciences in Victorian Literature and Society. Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.

Burdett, Carolyn. “‘The Subjective Inside Us Can Turn into the Objective Outside’: Vernon Lee’s Psychological Aesthetics.” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, vol. 12, 2011, pp. 1-31.

Delf, Liz. ‘Born of Ourselves’: Gendered Doubling and the Femme Fatale in Vernon Lee’s Ghost Stories. 2011. Oregon State University, Master’s thesis.

DeLong, Anne. “Framing the Fin-de-Siècle Female Narrative: Ghostly Portraits of the Emerging New Woman.” The Female Fantastic: Gendering the Supernatural in the 1890s and 1920s, edited by Lizzie Harris McCormick, Jennifer Mitchell, and Rebecca Soares, Routledge, 2019, pp. 32-42.

Fluhr, Nicole. “Empathy and Identity in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings.” Victorian Studies, vol. 48, no. 2, 2006, pp. 287-294.

Fraser, Hilary. “Women and the Ends of Art History: Vision and Corporeality in Nineteenth-Century Critical Discourse.” Victorian Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 1999, pp. 77-100.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey. 1919. The Hogarth Press, 1955, pp. 219-52.

Kane, Mary Patricia. Spurious Ghosts: The Fantastic Tales of Vernon Lee. Carocci editore, 2004.

Lee, Vernon “Oke of Okehurst.” Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, edited by Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham. 1890. Broadview, 2006, pp. 105-153.

———. “Preface.” Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, edited by Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham. 1890. Broadview, 2006, pp. 37-40.

———. The Beautiful: An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics. John Lane, 1913. [page 31]

Lee, Vernon and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson. Beauty and Ugliness and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics. Cambridge UP, 1912.

Manion, Deborah Maria. The Ekphrastic Fantastic: Gazing at Magic Portraits in Victorian Fiction. 2010. University of Iowa, PhD dissertation.

Morgan, Benjamin. “Critical Empathy: Vernon Lee’s Aesthetics and the Origins of Close Reading.” Victorian Studies, vol. 55, no. 1, 2012, pp. 31-56.

Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Macmillan and Co., 1873.

———. “Style.” Appreciations. Macmillan and Co., 1889, pp. 1-36.

Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Vol. 3. George Allen, 1906.

Vischer, Robert. “On the Optical Sense of Form.” Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, edited and translated by Henry Francis Malgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou. 1873. Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994, pp. 89-123.

Zorn, Christa. Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual. Ohio University Press, 2003.

Ka Yan Lam is Lecturer in English at the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. She received her Ph.D. in English from City University of Hong Kong. Her doctoral dissertation was a comparative study on haunting and female agency in supernatural fiction by Enchi Fumiko, Ōba Minako, Florence Marryat, and Vernon Lee. Her current research interests include contemporary fantasy literature, fairy-tale retellings, and fantasy writing pedagogy.

MLA citation (print):

Lam, Ka Yan. "I Had Painted Her Old and Vulgar”: Empathetic Aesthetic Contemplation and Female Agentive Haunting in Vernon Lee’s “Oke of Okehurst." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, 2021, pp. 9-32.