Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.03.11


Jane McIntosh Snyder, The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989 (hb), 1991 (pb). Pp. xii, 199. ISBN 0-8093-1455-X. $24.95 (hb). $11.95 (pb).


Reviewed by Judith de Luce, Miami University.

Judging by most surveys of Greek and Latin literature, virtually no women in antiquity wrote. Granted, an editor could hardly omit Sappho from a collection of Greek lyric poets, and we might occasionally encounter a passing reference to the speech of Hortensia, but the innocent reader would have to conclude that women played no part in the literary arts. In the Face of this silence, Jane McIntosh Snyder gives us The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Put quite simply, this is a unique book of enormous utility which every Classicist needs to read. The general reader, however, will find The Woman and the Lyre every bit as useful and illuminating. The usefulness of this volume applies to the classroom as well where it would fit nicely into a syllabus for a course on women in antiquity as easily as into a survey of Greek and Latin literature.

Maintaining a delicate balance between what is appropriate for the specialist and what is appropriate for the general reader, Snyder has accomplished three things. In the first place, she has reclaimed women writers by correcting the impression that women did not produce literature in Greek and Latin. In this sense she follows those feminist scholars working in other languages and with other world literatures who have participated in similar reclamations. She has also challenged us to reconsider our scholarly prejudices and assumptions. Here, too, her work is informed by contemporary feminist discussions of voice and authority in women's experiences and women's writing and the critical reception of that writing. Finally, she has provoked the reader to further study.

Snyder examines twenty-one authors from an initial analysis of Sappho to a concluding discussion of Egeria which suggests the transition from classical antiquity to the middle ages. Even without the analysis, this book would be invaluable for the lucid translations which Snyder provides in lieu of the texts in Greek and Latin. When no text has survived, she resorts to translations of references to the writers. In addition to background information and analyses of the passages, Snyder reflects on relevant scholarly opinions of these writers and nicely exposes some of the more regrettable pronouncements, including some of Willamowitz and Kirby Flower Smith.

If the book has any flaws, they are relatively minor and certainly do not undercut the significance of what Snyder has accomplished. This reader would have traded some of the lengthy text of Egeria for something from Eudocia, for example; a fuller discussion of the difference between Classical and Hellenistic visual art as an introduction to the literary art might have been more persuasive; at times one might wish for a more obvious connection between contemporary scholarship on women's writing and this analysis of ancient writers. I do regret the absence of three references in an otherwise exemplary bibliography: DeJean, Fictions of Sappho (University of Chicago Press, 1989), Kaufman, Discourse of Desire (Praeger, 1980), McConnell-Ginet, et al., Women and Language in Literature and Society (Praeger, 1980). These particular works are not necessarily the best or most convincing, but they belong with Snyder's references.

At the same time that The Women and the Lyre helps complete our picture of literary art in Greek and Latin, Snyder provokes the reader to engage in even more focused study of these authors. Above all, she challenges us to explore in greater depth the issues which she raises; what conditions prevailed such that relatively few women found the opportunity or means to write? Why do more Greek women than Roman women write? What other women writers may have existed about whom we have yet to hear anything? Is there any significant difference in how men and women write? How have critics reacted to these women writers? What can we learn about ourselves as scholars, when our interpretations are far more revealing of our own assumptions about the proper roles of women than of our reading of a Greek or Latin text? I find most provocative the implied associations between women writing letters and diaries in classical antiquity with Postclassical women writing the early novels. This is perhaps the most valuable aspect of The Woman and the Lyre, that the reader not only comes to understand better the role women writers played, but discovers continuities with what women would write well after classical antiquity.

Finally, I left this book wishing that someone would follow Snyder's example and compile in a single volume all the literary remains of these women, in the original languages, full texts as well as fragments. The translations are fine for the general reader, but the specialist needs to see the actual text. Perhaps such a volume would also persuade the creators of literature surveys to include more women writers than simply Sappho and Hortensia. Meanwhile, The Woman and the Lyre belongs next to Duff and Lesky.