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Clara Collet (1860 – 1948)
‘Obviously a woman of brains.’ (George Gissing, 11 April 1892)

After decades of relative oblivion Clara Collet again seems to be attracting scholarly attention on a fairly regular basis. This new start for Collet first became palpable with the interesting chapters which her grandniece, Jane Miller, devoted to her ancestor in three of her works: Seduction (1990), The School for Women (1996) and Relations (2003). In the same period, Rosemary O'Day also wrote perceptively on Collet and her workfellow, Beatrice Potter, in her 1998 study of social work in Britain, Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain 1840–1914. But renewal of interest in Collet has been making itself even better felt since the publication of the Collected Letters of George Gissing (revealing Collet's crucial place in the novelist's life) and, in 2004, of Deborah McDonald's detailed biography of this exceptional woman, Clara Collet (1860 – 1948): An Educated Working Woman. With such a wealth of extra information being made available, new facets of Clara Collet are being pushed to the limelight. Thus, a fairly recent article on her by Clive E. Hill (who teaches historical political theory at Royal Holloway, UK) discusses the political ideas expressed in her later texts. Hill's ‘A Radical in Retirement: Clara Collet, 1920 – 1948’ comes as a timely reminder that she was not at all Queen Victoria's exact contemporary and that she lived well into the following century, dying in the post-World War II period. Recent focus on Clara Collet's old age also highlights the fact that previously, her name had mainly come up in discussions devoted to the great men she had known and worked with, notably Charles Booth and George Gissing. So it is the aim of this concise biographical survey to attract the reader's attention to Collet's multifaceted talents, many of which still await to be fully assessed.

Deborah McDonald rightly points out that Clara owed her independent spirit and her ability to fend for herself from an early age, to her broad-minded father and to the kind of intellectual environment he secured for her. Collet Dobson Collet was, among other things, Director of Music at a chapel for such radical thinkers as Annie Besant, William Morris and G.B. Shaw. He was a progressivist journalist, too, and the editor of the Diplomatic Review. It was through him that Clara was eventually befriended by Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor. Clara was educated at the North London Collegiate School. Her first independent position, when she was not yet eighteen, was a teaching post at Wyggeston Girls' School, Leicester, where she also obtained permission to study for a BA degree. From there she moved to London where she took an MA in political economy in 1885, being the first English woman succeeding in this career. Clara's first contacts with the East End of London had been decisive: she became actively involved in philanthropic work, joining the Charity Organisation Society–-and remaining connected with the C.O.S. for more than twenty years-–and contributing to the Charity Organization Review. In 1888 Charles Booth asked her to become one of the five women investigators assisting him in his monumental enquiry on East End poverty, Life and Labour of the People in London (then going into a second edition). Booth's other female collaborators were Beatrice Potter, Alice Green, Mary Tabor and Margaret Tillard. Clara Collet wrote notably on women's occupations for Booth and in 1890, she co-founded the Economic Club. This crucial period of Collet's life is best known today perhaps also on account of her daring decision to go and live on her own (indeed, she never married) in the East End for several months. But of equal significance, to the student of progressive women's history, deserves to be her appointment as a Labour Correspondent and Chief Investigator for Women's Industries in the Labour Department of the Board of Trade, which had just been instituted and where she was to work on until 1917. Such an appointment, in the early 1890s, made of her one of the first female sociologists (she saw herself, indeed, as primarily ‘a student of social conditions’) and statisticians, also the first woman to hold a position of some importance in the Civil service. It was in 1893 too that Clara Collet first met George Gissing, whose two children she devotedly undertook responsibility for, after his death. The Board of Trade changed names to become the Ministry of Labour, but Clara remained at her post until 1920, when she retired, still working actively for the cause of women. Records show that her progress in the Civil service was an exceptional one, her impressive salary in the last year of her career rising to £450. Also, the fact that she came to work with such men as Churchill, Ramsay MacDonald and William Beveridge, in itself speaks volumes. Clara's records and some of her personal papers are available today; they tell us much about this remarkable woman whose radicalism was confirmed during her old age, according to Clive Hill.

Although she would not have defined herself as a feminist, Clara Collet was instrumental in the advancement of women's interests and remained extremely active in their cause throughout her life. She deserves to be remembered as quite an authority on the issue of women's status and occupations. Of especial interest to the student of female work during the late Victorian era would be, for instance, a witty, devastatingly ironical essay of hers, entitled ‘Three Ideal C.O.S. Secretaries,’ which she read at the Denison Club in March 1894. In it, Collet typically sets up as her examples such figures as Antigone, Dorothea Brooke and Shakespeare's Portia. ‘Three Ideal C.O.S. Secretaries’ is the kind of Collet essay which, as Gissing puts it–- somewhat amusingly, to our modern ears–-contains ‘a great deal of brain to the square inch.’

The diary of George Gissing and his letters to Clara Collet help to complete this woman's impressive record with plenty more personal details of a charming kind, such as the fact that Clara was a splendid runner, for instance. Indeed, as a young teacher already, she had entered races, and won, against her own pupils. Or again, the following remarkable detail is well worth mentioning: the very first time Gissing called on her in Richmond, in July 1893, he found out that she was not only learned and clever, but also perfectly unconventional and independent, and that she was quite a champion in her own way. Instead of being invited into a respectable spinster's drawing-room, he followed her down to the river bank and they at once went out rowing, Gissing recalls in his diary, to Kingston and back!

The last words on this remarkable, wonderfully kind woman may as well again be those of Gissing, whose lifelong friend she remained and who immediately felt how exceptional this woman's qualities were: ‘very independent & clever woman’ (21 May 1894) … ‘A remarkable person; full of energy' (13 Sept. 1893).

Christine Huguet
Université Charles-de-Gaulle Lille 3, France


Englander, David, and Rosemary O'Day, eds. Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain 1840 – 1914. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998.
Gissing, George. The Collected Letters of George Gissing. Ed. Paul F. Mattheisen, Arthur C. Young, and Pierre Coustillas. 9 vols. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1990-1997.
Hill, Clive E. "A Radical in Retirement: Clara Collet, 1920 – 1948." Women's History Review. Nov. 2006. 681-700.
McDonald, Deborah. Clara Collet 1860 – 1948. An Educated Working Woman. London: Woburn Press, 2004.
Miller, Jane. Seductions. Studies in Reading and Culture. London: Virago, 1990.
---. School for Women. London: Virago, 1996.
---. Relations. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.

Portrait of VERNON LEE:
New Woman and Florentine Sibyl
By Sophie Geoffroy

For a more detailed presentation of Vernon Lee, please see The Sibyl webpage (

As Patricia Pulham observes in her recent book Art and the Transitional Object in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Tales, ‘although anyone would seek in vain for Lee’s name in most of the New Woman debates of the fin-de-siècle, she nevertheless fulfills the image of the independent, outspoken “mannish” figure, and in 1993 Elaine Showalter included her work amongst that of New Woman writers in the collection Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle.’1

Vernon Lee was indeed a formidable presence, recognized as a redoubtable priestess of high art, whom Irene Cooper Willis portrayed as a prophetess: ‘Vernon Lee should have lived in Olympian circles, discoursing. She would have made a perfect Sibyl.’ 2  Even Henry James was impressed by her ‘uncanny’ intelligence and wrote to his brother, William: ‘Her vigour and sweep are most rare and her talk superior altogether…. She is by far the most able mind in Florence.’ 3 Percy Lubbock’s portrait brings to mind the sibylla’s powers of evoking and conjuring up the genius loci in her visions of distant places and people, and of voicing the gods’ oracles for the mortals seeking her advice:4

VL, tall (sic) and angular Vestal in her stiff collar and drab coat, fixed in rumination, absorbed and unheeding, her rugged face working in the toil of her burrowing thought. […] While she talked on, with her pungent and guttural deliberation, a scene unrolled, brilliantly peopled and displayed-–a drama was evolved out of all the admonitions, curious and lovely, grand and grotesque, of the genius of this place and this hour. […] What a figure! Edith [Wharton] admired her, but scarce knew how to treat her. It was impossible to control, or to civilize Vernon Lee.5

On the other hand, Vernon Lee was equally intimidated by Wharton: ‘[S]he is one of those terrificly (sic) strong and self contained natures who reduce me to awed silence…’ 6

Irene Cooper Willis’s testimony is eloquent, too: ‘Her unique personality, those intensely inquisitive (though not penetrating) eyes, almond-shaped and set slightly aslant in the small but long Hapsburg type of face, her slow, foreign articulation of the syllables of words and the peculiar range of her voice, compelled attention. […] She was a magnificent improviser, an impressionist who straightaway spun her impressions into elaborate theories and then embroidered them.’ 7

Portrait of Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent (1881; now at the Tate Gallery, London).

Vernon Lee was perfectly aware of the awe-inspiring effect of her compelling presence and incisive mind. The true Victorian she knew herself to be acknowledged her relative coldness : ‘I am hard. I am cold,’ she told Irene Cooper-Willis. ‘Loving [people] in the way you speak of, the way of being willing to do anything for them is intolerable to me. I cannot like, or love, at the expense of having my skin rubbed off. I can do without people. I find it more comfortable to do without them.’ 8

Yet, however little inclined to ecstatically rhapsodizing over her emotions and feelings she may have been, Vernon Lee was to acknowledge, in later life, that ‘being human creatures, we require the contact of other human beings.’9

For the complete list of her circle and a more detailed vision of her personal relations with her friends (the Pearsall Smiths, Walter Pater, George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, Robert Browning, John Singer Sargent, Gustave Moreau, Synge, Romain Rolland, Conrad) and her foes (the Pre-Raphaelites, Rossetti, Maeterlinck…) please visit THE SIBYL.

A sphinx-like character endowed with oracular powers, Vernon Lee reminds one of a sibyl, or a medium, in that she was an artist, and as such mystically guided by the desire for Beauty and endowed with the god-like powers of revealing the invisible (the Past, the beautiful) to her fellow creatures. Looking for the genius loci, listening to pagan gods, one of the reasons that gained her the label ‘decadent’ she so strongly denied is that she looked back.

But on the other hand, considering art as a divinatory, initiatory and poetical experience (just like Plato), what she believed in was NOT in art ‘for art’s sake’, but in the sometimes uncontrollable effects and immense powers of art, especially music, as pharmakon, or toxic remedy. For her, the artist as pharmakos was endowed with the preternatural ability to transform and to heal but also to harm and to kill.

Vernon Lee was also sphinx-like  because of the way she kept blurring her own tracks, taking advantage of her liminal position and (borderline?) identity, her ‘in-betweenness’: the uprooted cosmopolitan born in France who was neither totally British nor Italian, nor indeed German; the sexually ambiguous Violet/Vernon.  She moved further and further away from her initial popular reading public and away from her all-too-accessible early interests (Italian folk-lore, popular culture and carnivalesque laughter in Tuscan Fairy Tales, The Prince of the Hundred Soups the authorship of which she denied) into more and more remote areas: the eighteenth century and its long forgotten and neglected musicians.

Once she had succeeded in hiding herself from everyone, very few could catch the receding figure of the deaf prophetess. The wall of her formidable erudition was yet another Athena’s shield: a means of hiding, gagging or curbing her feelings and affects, as much as the veil of secrecy and ambiguities she cast over her intimate beliefs.  She was, for example, loudly sceptical about the paranormal experiments of the Society for Psychical Research. On 10 July 1885, after attending an SPR meeting, she wrote to her mother: ‘The day before yesterday evening Alice & I went to a meeting of the Psychical Research for which Gurney sent me tickets. It was a very dull business, consisting mainly of avowals of failed experiments & fraudulent ghosts. Gurney looks weary & embittered. The rest singularly water on the brain.’10 Later on, in a letter dated 20 August 1893, she was sorry for Mr Sidgwick: ‘It is rather sad that one of the finest minds in England, a great writer on Political Economy & Ethics, shd. give any of his time to collecting spurious ghost stories. But I suppose I am prejudiced, & that even spurious ghost stories ought to be investigated in a critical & scientific mind.’11

All these reveal the self-denial of a decidedly unconventional New Woman and fin-de-siècle writer who professed to hate what she herself was (perhaps unconsciously) doing in pursuing her elaborate, hyper sophisticated, indeed baroque style of writing; who couldn’t help burning what she loved (Henry James in “Lady Tal”; her friends in Miss Brown); and an incredibly awkward spinster suspected of not particularly liking children, who nevertheless wrote touchingly accurate and sensitive vindications of the rights of children (see ‘Divinities of Tuscan Summer Fields’ or Sister Benvenuta and the Christ Child). Some of her stories (like ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’) expressly indict religious--especially Roman Catholic—establishments and dolorism, and yet most of her fantastic stories are mystical: Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales (1904),12 Sister Benvenuta and the Christ-Child:  an Eighteenth Century Legend (1906), ‘The Virgin of the Seven Daggers’. Or even ‘The Doll’, whose narrator expresses her love for bygone people and times: ‘[I was] quite happy, because I was wandering among the ghosts of dead people.’  Besides, didn’t she place her home under the protection of the Madonna?

In Lee’s work, especially her supernatural tales peopled with dangerous though often child-like seductresses and sexually ambiguous characters, ‘Athena and Medusa are permanently bonded’; her ‘portrait-women, those femmes fatales who also exhibit the independence, self-sufficiency, and the androgynous features of the New Woman, […] similarly display Medusan characteristics.’13For instance, ‘Dionea […] has much in common with those other femmes fatales Medea da Carpi [in “Amour Dure”] and Alice Oke [in Oke of Okehurst]. Like Medea, and her namesake, Medea of Colchis, Dionea [in the eponymous ‘Dionea’] is witch-like, privy to arcane knowledge that is specifically linked to the idea of cruel love. Like Alice, she projects an autoerotic plenitude that defies all interference, and, like both Medea and Alice, the desires she inspires lead to death and /or figurative castration.’14

A New Woman of her times

Sensitive to the predicament of workers and arguably shocked by the alienation caused by industrialization Vernon Lee showed her concern and her solidarity to women, whatever their origins, through such actions as going to evening schools during her trip to Scotland. She knowingly describes class divisions in England, and her letters home are full of expressions of her heart-felt interest in other people’s daily lives and growing involvement in Fabianism (see THE SIBYL 1).

There is undoubtedly a utopian dimension about Vernon Lee, who could see into the future like the leading European intellectual she was, voicing political views akin to those of G.B. Shaw. Definitely not an anarchist,15 ideologically she paved the way for Mikhail Bakhtin’s, René Girard’s, or even sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories.16 She attended numerous political meetings and her first-hand testimony about the lectures and meetings she went to is extremely precious. Her letters dated from summer 1887, for instance, are full of detailed accounts of socialist, nihilist, positivist, or Fabian conferences, after which she exclaimed contentedly: ‘I am really getting in England what I always hoped to get there, a thorough shaking about of all my ideas.’17

Tolerance and pacificism

More open-minded than most of her contemporaries as far as religions were concerned, she considered that ‘no slavery seems to me so bad as that to one’s own suspicions and panics,’18 and was a vocal Dreyfusard and a well-known pacifist.  George Bernard Shaw, who reviewed her book Satan the Waster in The Nation, said: ‘Vernon Lee has the whole European situation in the hollow of her hand […] knows history philosophically […] is a political psychologist.’ He also hailed her as ‘the English of the English. I take off my hat to the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism and salute her as the noblest Briton of them all.'19  ‘It was rare, in the pre-war period, to find a writer and an aesthete so in touch with European liberal opinion as she was, and so alive to the various national policies which led to the Great War. In that war she was an acknowledged pacifist, and in speech, writing and money supported propaganda for a just and reasonable peace. She was a generous subscriber to funds for the relief of victims of the war and of the miseries and injustices resulting from it.’20 Vernon Lee stormed against the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Italian war in Libya (1920-1932); the Great War shattered her.  ‘She was at home in England, France, Germany and Italy. She had lived, sometimes for years at a time, in all these countries, and her study of international politics began in the days of the Franco-Prussian war, at the outbreak of which she was a girl of fourteen, staying in Paris. […] she felt the war deeply, and was torn by it more than most people, because she had roots in Germany, as well as in England, Italy and France. Fortunately for her, she died at her Italian home before the outbreak of the Italo-Abyssinian war.’21

The Art of Writing as Apollonian Ritual

Hailed by David Lodge as ‘one of the unacknowledged prophets of modern criticism’,22  because of the professionalism and modernity of her criticism Vernon Lee devoted her entire life to developing the writing skills she had inherited from her first and ultimate mentor: her mother. She certainly owes to Matilda Adams her singular in-between posture, poised between past and present and forever marked by nostalgia. Writing and the art of fiction, which had been a most precious link uniting mother and daughter from infancy, gradually became a task ascribed to Vernon Lee, who came to endow literature, writing and all arts, including music and painting, with a vital, spiritual function.

This secret gift handed down from mother to daughter accounts for the emotion that often floods Lee’s text. A magic, a charm uniting the writer and his/her spellbound readers operates, in a sort of intangible, ephemeral, though potentially addictive, communion.

Are not we Writers the (however usurping!) successors of priests and wizards and medicine men, of prophets and sibyls? Like theirs […] our words are often taken seriously, and we nearly always, at the moment at least, take them seriously ourselves. We pontificate, consecrate, anathematize, we elaborately purify (as witness the late war!), and prophesy without a blush. We have been brought up to this solemn insistence on our particular ritual and liturgy, never venturing to wink, like the honest haruspex, nor put our tongue, for relief, in our cheek; indeed, never guessing we may be absurd and even odious. Meanwhile, being Writers, we are to that extent artists (and quick-change artists!); and art legitimately requires self-expression and self-exhibition. So the world, in the intervals of other business, takes us for its Sunday mornings and Saturday evenings; bowing before our gestures of consecration to God or the Infernal Deities, while the next moment it claps and cries encore to our vocalizations and chest notes.23

Vernon Lee, like Nietzsche, was aware of the potentially harmful consequences of such surrendering to the magic of some unknown wizard. Her texts on Wagnerism are full of indictments of the Master of Bayreuth. Indeed she shunned the Dionysiac in all the senses of the word. Instead she strove to polish her every word, so as to produce a form of art which she calls Apollonian: ‘An instrument of lucid truthful vision, of healing joy, and perchance even of such prophesy as makes itself come true.’24 Contemplation, understanding, lucid truthful vision, healing joy and prophesy… Lee was a Sibyl indeed!

Works Cited

BOURDIEU, Pierre. La distinction, critique sociale du jugement. Paris: Minuit, ‘Le sens commun’, 1979.
COOPER WILLIS, Irene. ‘Preface’ to Vernon Lee’s Letters, Privately printed, 1937.
GUNN, Peter. Vernon Lee, Violet Paget, 1856-1935, London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
LEE, Vernon.  Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales. London: Grant Richards, 1904. Rpt. London: Peter Owen, 1961.
- - -. The Handling of Words, ed. and introd. by David Seed.  Lewiston: Edward Mellen Press, 1992.
PULHAM, Patricia. Art and the Transitional Object in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Tales. Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2008.


1 Patricia Pulham, Art and the Transitional Object in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Tales (Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2008), 145.

2 Irene Cooper Willis, ‘Preface’ to Vernon Lee’s Letters, privately printed, 1937, xiii.

3 Henry James, letter to William James, London, 1893, quoted in Peter Gunn, Vernon Lee, Violet Paget, 1856-1935 (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 2.

4 ‘Sibyl n. One of the women who, in ancient times, acted in various places as reputed mouthpiece of a god, uttering oracles and prophecies; pagan prophetess; fortune-teller, witch.’ “Sibylline. Issuing from an ancient sibyl, oracular, mysteriously prophetic’ (The Concise Oxford Dictionary).

5 Percy Lubbock, quoted in Gunn, 182.

6 Ibid.

7 Cooper Willis, xiii.

8 Ibid., x.

9 Unpublished letter to Carlo Placci, 3 January 1893, Biblioteca Marucelliana (Florence), Carteggio Placci.

10 Vernon Lee, letter to her mother, 12 July 1893, in Cooper Willis, 176.

11 Lee, letter to her mother,Letter, dated Cambridge, 20 August 1893, in ibid., to ‘my dearest Mamma’, in COOPER WILLIS, Irene. Letters, op. cit., 360.

12 Lee, Pope Jacynth and More Supernatural Tales (London : Grant Richards, 1904; rpt. London : Peter Owen, 1961).  The volume contains ‘Pope Jacynth’, ‘The Lady and Death’, ‘St Eudaemon and his Orange-Tree’, and ‘Dionea’.

13 Pulham, 145.


15 See Lee, letter to her mother,  9 September 1893, in Cooper Willis, 367: ‘[With Ethel Smyth] --“that very original composer”-- we talk Ibsen and anarchy until we are black in the face.’

16 Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction, critique sociale du jugement (Paris : Minuit, ‘Le sens commun’, 1979).

17 Vernon Lee, letter to her mother, 7 July 1893, in Cooper Willis, 355-62.

18 Unpublished letter dated 22 October 1911, to Carlo Placci, Biblioteca Marucelliana (Florence), Carteggio Placci.

19 Quoted inCooper Willis, xiv.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 David Lodge, quoted in David Seed, ‘Introduction to Vernon Lee’, in Vernon Lee, The Handling of Words, ed. and introd. by David Seed (Lewiston: Edward Mellen Press, 1992), i.

23 Lee, The Handling of Words, 311-12.

24 Ibid., 15.