Analysis of Vernon Lee’s Amour Dure

A supernatural tale first published in Murray’s Magazine and then included in Vernon Lee’s collection Hauntings in 1890. It is one of the best-known examples of the Victorian ghost story and has been reprinted in many anthologies.

The story spans the period of August to December 1885 and is written as a series of diary entries by Spiridion Trepka, a young Polish scholar employed by a German university, who has recently arrived in the fictional Italian town of Urbania to write a work of history. While working in the town archives, he becomes fascinated by the story of a mysterious 16th-century woman named Medea diCarpi, whose many suitors met with violent ends and who was murdered on the orders of her brother-in-law, Duke Robert. Spiridion becomes increasingly obsessed with Medea and neglects his scholarly work to seek out traces of her life. Spiridion is particularly fascinated by a portrait miniature he uncovers, in which Medea wears a necklace inscribed with the motto “Amour Dure—Dure Amour” (love endures—hard love).

After several months, Spiridion receives a letter in Medea’s handwriting asking him to meet her at a local church. He suspects a hoax, but he goes anyway and sees a woman in black who resembles Medea. Convinced he has finally come into the presence of the past, Spiridion returns to the church the next day only to find it shuttered and full of cobwebs. Spiridion then receives another letter from Medea, asking him to destroy a silver effigy that Duke Robert had placed inside a statue in order to prevent his soul from encountering Medea’s in the afterlife. Now maniacally devoted to Medea, Spiridion destroys the statue and the effigy on Christmas Eve. While writing his final diary entry, he hears a step on the staircase. The last words he writes are “Amour Dure — Dure Amour!” (122). The story concludes with an anonymous note stating that a local newspaper had reported the mutilation of the statue and the discovery of Spiridion Trepka dead of a stab wound.

“Amour Dure” draws upon a wide range of literary and artistic sources. Medea is named after a woman from Greek mythology who killed her own children to punish her unfaithful husband. Lee’s tale is most directly influenced by romantic writers such as E. T. A. Hoffmann and Th ophile Gautier, whose supernatural stories often concerned uncanny hauntings from the past. Lee also draws upon the fascination of many Victorian writers, such as Robert Browning and Walter Pater, with Renaissance Italy. Lee’s description of Medea’s portraits, finally, alludes to a 16th-century portrait of a woman named Lucrezia Panciatichi by the Italian painter Agnelo Bronzino.

Although it takes the form of a ghost story, “Amour Dure” is also about history. By writing in the voice of an obsessed male scholar, Lee underscores the problematic desires that motivate our relationship to the past. Spiridion begins as a scholarly student of history but ends up unable to distinguish between objective facts and subjective desires. Lee in this way suggests that the Victorian fascination with the past is often a disguised indulgence in personal fantasy. Lee also comments on the role of women in history. Medea seems to be a femme fatale (fatal woman), but over the course of the story Lee suggests that she is ruthless as a result of circumstances, not nature. Passed from one man to another, Medea can gain freedom only by using her beauty to control those in power. Medea’s ghostly seduction of Spiridion is one more attempt to turn the tables on the men who seek to define and control her.

Colby, Vineta. Vernon Lee: A Literary Biography. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2003.
Zorn, Christina. Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Mystery Fiction, Short Story

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