Irene Cooper Willis (1882-1970) was a British barrister-at-law by profession and a member of both Inner Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, two of the four Inns of Court (barrister associations) in London. In addition, she was a literary scholar, publishing biographies of the Brontes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Montaigne, and Florence Nightingale as well as a study of the British liberal press during World War One.
She met Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) in 1911 and became closely associated with her in Lee’s later years. She was sole beneficiary and executrix of Lee’s will after Lee’s death in 1935. In the will, Willis was bequeathed the copyright to Lee’s writings and, presumably, those of her half-brother Eugene Lee-Hamilton. Willis privately published a selection of Lee’s “Letters Home” in 1937.
Willis also served as the executrix of Thomas Hardy’s estate after the death of his second wife, Florence, in 1937. Her association with Hardy was a primary reason for selecting Colby as the repository for Vernon Lee and Eugene Lee-Hamilton materials in her care.
Willis died in 1970.
IRENE COOPER WILLIS AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
Irene Cooper Willis’ first gift to Colby was an extensive collection of books and unpublished materials by or about Vernon Lee and Eugene Lee-Hamilton. Colby was selected by Willis due to high regard for Carl Weber and his Hardy scholarship as well as deep concern about the possibility of another war involving England, which would endanger the collection. It is noted that selected items of the Vernon Lee materials in Willis’ care were sent to Somerville College, Oxford at the express instructions of Lee herself.
The November 1952 issue of the Colby Library Quarterly describes this first gift and its terms, also providing details about Lee’s life and work. In the gift, Willis transferred her ownership of Lee’s copyright and, presumably, that of Lee-Hamilton.
In 1956, Willis donated ten volumes of fiction by Thomas Hardy translated into foreign languages and, in 1958, additional Vernon Lee materials.
Willis’ last testament added additional items to the Vernon Lee Collection, including Willis’ own impressions of both Lee and Hardy.
Additional work consulted:
Irene Cooper Willis donor file. Colby College Special Collections.
Vernon Lee – primary collection