Returning to her aunt's villa in Florence in 1899, after an intense but short-lived affair with Axel Munthe, Ottoline Morrell was an ideal candidate to become one of the acolytes who received intellectual instruction and an occasional chaste kiss from the intelligent, abrasive and mannishly attired châtelaine of Il Palmerino in Fiesole. Vernon Lee, as Violet Paget was widely known, was then in her early forties. She had recently lost both her mother, from whom she had received scant affection, and the company of her most faithful woman friend, a tweedy, kind-hearted dog-lover called Kit Anstruther-Thomson. Ottoline's arrival was timely and her willingness to be taught seductive. Unfortunately, she had already decided to take a course in political economy and Roman history at Somerville. Wistfully, Paget put in a rival claim, offering a course in 'psychology, which is in great measure my study, and political economy, of which I know a little. I can teach you infinitely less than any person at Oxford,' she continued with uncharacteristic modesty, 'but I think we might think things out together, which is sometimes quite as fruitful.'
LRB 22 January 2004 | PDF Download