Last Sunday night I was reading a story called Oke of Okehurst by Vernon Lee in an old Penguin edition of The Supernatural Omnibus, Volume 1: Hauntings and Horror, a terrific collection of occult stories edited and introduced by the enigmatic Montague Summers. (Many of its stories are available online here.)
Lee’s tale is terrifically told, extravagantly descriptive yet precisely controlled, and with a mounting sense of inescapable doom. There is a wonderful passage wherein the narrator, a painter, describes the unconventional beauty of the central character, Mrs Alice Oke:
I don’t believe, you know, that even the greatest painter can show what is the real beauty of a very beautiful woman in the ordinary sense: Titian’s and Tintoretto’s women must have been miles handsomer than they have made them. Something – and that the very essence – always escapes, perhaps because real beauty is as much a thing in time – a thing like music, a succession, a series – as in space. Mind you, I am speaking of a woman beautiful in the conventional sense. Imagine, then, how much more so in the case of a woman like Alice Oke; and if the pencil and brush, imitating each line and tint, can’t succeed, how is it possible to give even the vaguest notion with mere wretched words – words possessing only a wretched abstract meaning, an impotent conventional association? To make a long story short, Mrs. Oke of Okehurst was, in my opinion, to the highest degree exquisite and strange, – an exotic creature, whose charm you can no more describe than you could bring home the perfume of some newly discovered tropical flower by comparing it with the scent of a cabbage-rose or a lily.
This excerpt can be found on pp. 122–124 here.
Further along is a line that remained with me for a less romantic reason: I wasn’t sure whether it was a mistake or an unusual usage:
It was Mrs Oke, her eyes prenaturally bright, and her whole face lit up with a bold, perverse smile.
Here is a photo:
It seemed to me that the word prenaturally ought to have been preternaturally. The word prenaturally was unknown to me, and seemed a strange formation, while preternaturally would make sense in the context. In other words it appeared to be a publishing error. (I have seen worse.) However, I was prepared to delay judgement until I could confirm the matter either way. For one thing, the story was written in the late 19th century, and many a word has changed its form since then; for another thing, I was tucked up in bed.
The next day I searched several dictionaries for prenatural(ly), all in vain, while various Google searches returned only a small number of obscure or anomalous usages. It didn’t take long to find several online copies of Oke of Okehurst, and sure enough they all contained the phrase “her eyes preternaturally bright”. Maybe I ought to have searched for that phrase in the first place, but I did want to give Penguin Books the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, in a book full of mysteries it was a pleasure to find a bonus one to solve by myself, even if it was less lurid and more mundane than the others.