This week’s reading for the Deep Ones over at The Weird Tradition newsgroup on LibraryThing —
Review: “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”, Vernon Lee, 1896.
Vernon Lee was a name unknown to me as was the name behind the pseudonym, Violet Paget.
Based on this story, I think it’s a name I’ll keep in mind.
Lee wrote travel works and on art. About the latter, my favorite literary critic, Brian Stableford, said,
Vernon Lee never saw her supernatural stories as central elements of her literary endeavour–they were always diversions from more serious work–but they have lasted far better than her essays on art, most of which now seem relentlessly dull as well as maddeningly unfocused.
I’m not going to summarize this story. It’s 55 pages in its original form, and, as you might expect from a writer on art, it’s filled with long descriptions, but Lee makes them strongly evocative.
Here is one of the Castle of the Sparkling Waters where our hero, the young Alberic, is exiled:
The guard tower in which he had slept was still intact and chivalrous. It had battlements, a drawbridge, a great escutcheon with the arms of Luna, just like the castle in the tapestry. Some vines, quite loaded with grapes, rose on the strong cords of their fibrous wood from the ground to the very roof of the tower, exactly like those borders of leaves and fruit which Alberic had loved so much. And, between the vines, all along the masonry, were strung long narrow ropes of maize, like garlands of gold. A plantation of orange trees filled what had once been the moat; lemons were spalliered against the delicate pink brickwork. There were no lilies, but big carnations hung down from the tower windows, and a tall oleander, which Alberic mistook for a special sort of rose-tree, shed its blossoms on to the drawbridge. After the storm of the night, birds were singing all round; not indeed as they sang in spring, which Alberic, of course, did not know, but in a manner quite different from the canaries in the ducal aviaries at Luna. Moreover other birds, wonderful white and gold creatures, some of them with brilliant tails and scarlet crests, were pecking and strutting and making curious noises in the yard. And could it be true ? a little way further up the hill, for the castle walls climbed steeply from the seaboard, in the grass beneath the olive trees, white creatures were running in and out white creatures with pinkish lining to their ears, undoubtedly — as Alberic s nurse had taught him on the tapestry — undoubtedly rabbits.
The young Alberic is exiled to the castle by his grandfather, the vainglorious and spendthrift Duke Balthasar Maria. The reason? Young Alberic took a knife to a gift from his grandfather, a tapestry depicting Susanna and the Elders, a story from the Book of Daniel and the subject of many artworks.
Why does he take a knife to it? Because Duke Maria, being “a prince of enlightened mind and delicate taste”, is a man not fond of “the old and the Gothic” and that’s exactly what the tapestry of Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady is. So the Duke has that tapestry, which Alberic has long loved, removed from Alberic’s bedchamber.
Lee spends about four pages describing that tapestry. At its center is the enigmatic figure of a knight on horseback embracing, with one of his arms, a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman with, as the 11-year old Alberic discovers when he moves some furniture and sees some new details in the picture, a snake’s tail coming out of her skirt.
For cutting up the Duke’s new art, Alberic is exiled to the Castle of Sparking Waters, the one-time home of his ancestor and namesake, the knight from the tapestry.
At first, Alberic’s exile is pleasant for both. Duke Maria is tired of having his grandson and sole heir around. It makes the conceit that he is the youngest looking man in court hard to pull off. Alberic finds the Red Palace he shares with his grandfather not the thing of beauty its many visitors do. He’s terrified of its many statutes of beasts real and fantastic, all done in precious stones, and the busts of the Twelve Caesars all around the place are creepy.
At the Castle of Sparkling Waters, Alberic at last gets to discover the world of nature since he was never outside the Red Palace.
He even befriends a grass snake that shows up around a well from which he hears strange sounds. And there’s his kindly godmother who shows up around dusk each night to talk to him.
Alberic grows up to be a dashing figure — graceful, handsome, and learned.
The story is full of discursions, among them the intrigues of the Duke’s most trusted advisors: the Jester, the Dwarf, and the Jesuit.
The Duke hates them, and they hate the Duke.
So there is much comic intrigue as those three courtiers try to both ingratiate themselves to Alberic, cut the others out of court life, and try to figure out where to come down on the dispute between the Duke and his grandson. Their secret gifts to Alberic help him become the noble young man he is.
Eventually, we learn the story behind the tapestry, the story of a beautiful fairy woman cursed to be a snake and the fix for her curse. The relationship between the snake, the godmother, and Alberic becomes clear.
Alberic is summoned back to the Red Palace. The Duke’s credit has run around, and he needs a good marriage for Alberic so the Red Palace can be finished.
Alberic returns to the palace, his pet snake with him. But he adamantly refuses to marry until 28 or 30.
Is he really celibate? Is he keeping a lover in his apartment?
The Duke takes steps to bring Alberic to heel, and the story ends as we already know it will from the story’s first paragraph telling us we will hear why the Duchy of Luna was absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire in 1701 and why the family died out.
Uncanny wonders and events are not at the center of this story, so I wouldn’t call it weird fiction. The final events are expected. The legend of Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady is a rather run-of-the-mill bit of folklore. (Lee’s first work of fiction was Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, allegedly a collection of Tuscan fairy tales which Lee probably revised and polished.) The pleasures are in the sardonic humor and characters and Lee’s sensual evocations of a pagan world.
Lee even manages to get in an allusion to John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.