Vernon Lee’s “A Wicked Voice” is a nostalgic piece of horror fiction hearkening back to the Gothic style of horror. Readers are whisked away to Romantic era Venice where amidst its gloomy portrayal, an aspiring opera composer seeks his muse. From the story’s beginning its depiction of setting seems to contrast yet also have similar embellishments to other aesthetic literature found in the Late Victorian period. Venice is not depicted as a romantic destination where antiquity and class flourish on every corner, but is instead presented aesthetically in a darker and more bleak fashion. Venice is instead depicted similarly how Transylvania is within Bram Stoker’s Dracula, rife with darkness and mystery, yet heavily romanticized. Additionally, Lee juxtaposes the human voice and its usage, which is traditionally a thing of beauty as a “violin of flesh and blood.”
This metaphor brings an uncomfortable image to mind, yet this is done in a fairly artistic fashion, a sort of precursor to the themes Lee continues to use throughout her story. Lee instead presents the voice and singers as primitive and regressing in comparison to music wrought on human-made instruments which share in Victorian ideals of progress and innovation over meddlings of the past. Similarly to the setting of Venice, Lee channels things of aesthetic beauty into a more perverse form; revelling instead in their stark details and eschewing the sort of “floweriness” found amongst the late 1800s. “A Wicked Voice” is a ghost story with the narrator first stumbling upon the phantom as an engraving of a famous Venetian singer Balthasar Cesari, known also as “Zaffarino.” The Narrator is told of a tale in which the singer’s voice is so hypnotic that it can outright kill. The Narrator is then tormented and possessed by the voice of Zaffarino with its first manifestation as a recurring dream of Zaffarino’s first victim. The haunting continues to escalate until it leads to the Narrator losing his muse and composition skills, his metaphorical voice forever silenced. Upon further research it would appear that this seemingly random assailment is done by a vengeful spirit, specifically a revenant who continues to haunt the living. Patricia Pulham in her article, “The Castrato and The Cry in Vernon Lee’s Wicked Voices”, suggests that Zaffarino is a castrato. A castrato is a male singer who is emasculated before puberty in order to have a soprano range during adulthood, a higher vocal range typically held solely by women. Pulham states that Zaffarino possesses, “a man’s voice which had much of a woman’s, but more even of a chorister’s, but a chorister’s voice without its limpidity and innocence” (Pulham 430).
The voice’s effeminacy alludes to the deadly female voices of the Harpies in Homer’s Odyssey, where the Narrator akin to Odysseus is immobilized and entranced by these voices as they traverse open waters upon their respective vessels (Pulham 431). Pulham goes further into her analysis stating that the descriptions of Zaffarino’s voice evoke phallic imagery as the voice is described as “wrapped in a downy wrapper” and “swelling, swelling, rending asunder that downy veil which wrapped it” (Pulham 431). The practice of castration for musical merit was outlawed in Italy during the 1870s, meaning the Venice of the story is much older than the story’s release of 1890. Pulham implies that the Narrator is “emasculated” by Zaffarino’s haunting, in a musical sense forever losing his voice and ability to compose ( Pulham 431). The horrible origins of Zaffarino’s vocal prowess may be the catalyst for the theme that the human voice is a primitive discordant instrument akin to a “ violin of flesh and blood.” It is not clear who speaks this monologue found in the beginning and very end of “A Wicked Voice,” but it can be interpreted as being channeled by the spirit of Zaffarino. After all, a man who is forcibly castrated against his will solely for the sake of art would have much cause for hatred and discontempt of the art of singing.
Pulham, Patricia. “The Castrato and Cry in Vernon Lee’s Wicked Voice.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no. 2, 2002, pp. 421-437, JSTOR Journals, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25058598.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A18863b11cec42a1ea3e7a8ccbe642358.