Following Henry James, literary-critical practices presume the autonomy and integrity of the literary text. The roman à clef meanwhile troubles this autonomy by presuming a transparent and concrete relation between text and world. By turning to the late nineteenth-century writer Vernon Lee, who elevates reference as a vital principle of all literary representation, this essay argues that the roman à clef challenges our assumptions about the value of reference. Lee’s novel Miss Brown (1884), a roman à clef about British aestheticism, is treated as a privileged case study for reading this alternative history of the novel. By focusing on the provisionality of literature, which Lee calls a “half-art,” this essay argues that literature’s reference to an external context provides a point of departure for thinking about women’s disempowerment and vulnerability in late nineteenth-century British culture. At the same time, it argues that provisionality offers a model for considering the broader consequences of limitation and determination in the history of the novel.

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