Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.08.05

Suzanne C. Hagedorn, Abandoned Women. Rewriting the Classics in Dante, Boccaccio, & Chaucer.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 2004.  Pp. ix, 220.  ISBN 0-472-11349-6.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Mathilde Skoie, University of Oslo (
Word count: 2082 words

The advertisement from the publisher on the dustjacket of this work by Suzanne Hagedorn (hereafter H.) claims that her work "will be of interest to medievalists and non-medievalists alike, with an interest in the areas of text-reception, poetic tradition, comparative literature, and gender studies". The first question a reviewer for BMCR should answer is whether this work is of interest to classicists. This reviewer would answer in the affirmative, with a couple of minor reservations.

H. opens her book with an epigraph from Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose on the way books speak of books and the library as a "place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another". Therefore it is not unsurprising that H.'s book does not simply offer a reading of the rewriting of the classics in Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer (as her subtitle indicates), but tunes in on a proper dialogue between the texts. Her reading of medieval and classical texts through the lens of the abandoned woman brings forward insights which have bearings for scholarship within both realms, although as a medievalist she has a natural bent towards dialogue with medieval scholars.

There are a number of texts involved in the dialogue in this work. On the medieval side, H. focuses primarily on Dante's Divina Commedia (esp. Inf. 26); Boccaccio's Teseida, Amorosa Visione, and Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta; Chaucer's The Knight's Tale and The Legend of Good Women, also touching upon The House of Fame. On the classical side, H. pays attention to Ovid's Heroides; Statius' Thebaid and Achilleid; and, to a lesser extent, Virgil's Aeneid (esp. bk 4). She lets these texts have a lot to say through the use of extensive quotation, offering helpful translations to the reader without Latin or Italian. There is no index locorum, but the general index is broken down into the passages dealt with.

In the introduction H. describes her project and her theoretical framework but first introduces the topic through a reading of Augustine's weeping for Dido (Conf. 1.13). This is not just an attractive way to catch the audience but indicative of H.'s own work: she is first and foremost a sensitive reader. The starting point of her investigation is Lawrence Lipking's wide-ranging study, Abandoned Women and Poetic Tradition (Chicago 1989), and his definition of the abandoned woman as a woman who is "physically deserted by a lover and spiritually outside the law" (p. 17). Lipking, as described by H., argues that "victimization and powerlessness paradoxically become the key to poetic power. By their very nature, abandoned women are subversive figures, for they call into question not only the integrity of individual heroes, but the necessity for heroic action -- and even -- action itself" (p. 9). However, Lipking has, according to H., comparatively little to say about this figure in the Middle Ages, a period crucial to the understanding of the abandoned woman in the European literary tradition, and this lacuna is what H. sets out to fill. Anyone studying representations of the abandoned woman would naturally start with the figure of Dido, but according to H., this is a path so well followed in medieval scholarship that she chooses rather to focus on the other abandoned women of classical myth, especially those recounted in the Heroides. Yet, as will be clear, perhaps surprisingly, the texts of Statius prove to be almost as important intertexts.

H.'s readings are "inspired by the general feminist goal of studying the ways in which women have been represented in the literary art of the past" (p. 12), but they are not grounded in the work of any single feminist theorist. She is sceptical of the Derridean and Lacanian approaches followed in similar projects by Yopie Prins and Lynn Enterline or drawn upon in recent work on the Heroides by Efrossini Spenzou and Sarah M. Lindheim.1 Rather, her readings are inspired by semioticians like Umberto Eco and reader-response critics and reception theorists like Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss. Key words in her interpretations are intertext and allusion, but also "dialogue" as promoted by Mikhail Bahktin.

Chapter 1 is a useful survey of the Heroides, focussing first on recent classical scholarship, then on medieval commentaries which mostly focus on the Heroides as examples of stultus amor. Finally, she offers a survey of poetic appropriations and a reading of a particular appropriation, the anonymous "Deidamia Achilli" (she gives Stohlmann's Latin text of this in her appendix). For a medievalist who does not thank a single classicist in her acknowledgements, the survey of recent classical scholarship is impressive, though it does lack some titles which might have enriched the thesis. (I am not thinking of the works by Spentzou and Lindheim which obviously appeared too late to be taken into account, but the works of, e.g., Barchiesi -- perhaps a particularly sad omission given H.'s emphasis on the art of allusion.2) While H.'s survey mostly provides useful and sometimes intriguing context, the reading of Deidamia's letter to Achilles is a nice appetizer for what is to come. This is an interesting case, where the anonymous author draws upon Statius' Achilleid to fill a gap left by Ovid (and the recent Troy-movie), offering a letter also from Achilles' first "relicta", Deidamia. H. regards this text as a playful conflation of Ovidian tone and Statian plot challenging Heroides 3 (the Briseis epistle) in the same way as Ovid challenges previous authors. At the same time, this epistle provides a neat parallel to the medieval commentary tradition through its emphasis on wedded bliss.

Chapters 2 and 3 are a let-down. Chapter 2 is a tour de force reading of Dante's canto of Ulysses (26) and its intertexts -- it is amazing how much H. gets out of the three lines 61-3 -- but a reading where the figure of the abandoned woman, in this case Deidamia (following nicely on from the previous chapter), plays a minor role in the greater intertextual project at stake. After having pointed out how the allusive presence of Deidamia brings out the duplicity of Achilles, H. seems to lose sight of her. It is therefore no surprise to realise that this chapter has been previously printed as an article with the title "A Statian model for Dante's Ulysses". Furthermore, as the title of the article shows, this chapter is more about Statius' Achilleid than the Heroides, and the reader would have benefitted from a survey of Statius similar to that for the Heroides in chapter 1.3 Likewise in chapter 3, a reading of the treatments of Theseus in Boccaccio's Teseida and Chaucer's The Knight's Tale and allusions to Theseus' past adventures as a womanizer bring out another side of the hero. More than that, it is a way into the intertextual play with Statius (this time the Thebaid).

In the remaining three chapters H. moves the figure of the abandoned woman into the foreground. Chapter 4 deals with Boccaccio's Amorosa Visione and Fiammetta. This chapter deals explicitly with issues of reader response and subtlely refers to the survey of commentaries in chapter 1. H. sees a conflict in the texts between rational moralism and the seductive pull which invites the sympathy of the reader. Through a clever play on implied readers, unreliable narrators, and ecphrasis, this conflict is also played out in the reader's own reading experience.

Chapter 5 deals with Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, where it turns out that the role of the abandoned woman can be filled by a man (Troilus). Like the Heroides, Troilus and Criseyde places the war of Troy in the background of a disastrous love-affair. In H.'s reading, the role of the abandoned woman is filled by both characters but at different times and on different levels. While Criseyde is genealogically linked to Briseis, it is Troilus whose speeches are punctuated with allusions to Heroides 3. However, this reviewer wonders whether the elegiac ego and the servitium amoris here might be an even more appropriate model for Troilus (especially on p.148).

Chapter six deals with Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, which H. simply calls "Chaucer's Heroides". This text, like most of the texts H. deals with, both medieval and classical, has elicited a wide spectrum of critical opinion. Like the discussion on the Heroides, much of this chapter is focussed on the relationship between pathos and wit (H. gives an overview of the Ovidian scholarship on this in ch.1). This work, in which, e.g., Cleopatra is promoted as a good woman, is a bit of a riddle to modern critics. How can these women, so clearly displaying stultus amor, be models of good women? How can Chaucer bestow on them both pathos and the exact opposite (like Ariadne and Phaedra overhearing Theseus' complaint about imprisonment through a latrine shaft)? Here H. uses Bahktin's concept of dialogism as a framework for the reading of the different discourses she identifies on several levels in both Ovid and Chaucer. This is particularly useful in reading irony and parody, where, following Bahktin, she distinguishes between parodying the form and parodying the content. What might be parodied is the heroism, not necessarily the hero. Thus in H.'s reading the target of Chaucer's parody is not necessarily women, but forms of literary representations of women and "the courtly ideology that makes the idealization of women into an end in itself" (p. 165).

In a short afterword H. elegantly revisits Augustine's reading of Dido, where she stresses the relevance of her readings and the power of literary representation. She concludes by summing up her project as an endeavour "to seek out abandoned women, to focus on these allusive and marginal figures whose significance has often been ignored, and to listen to the female voices constructed through the verses of male poets" (p. 191). A recurring issue within scholarship on the Heroides is whether a male author can authentically assume a female voice. As this quotation and the summary of H.'s book should indicate, H. in general sees the abandoned women as figments of the male imagination (see e.g. p.8 and 11). Yet these voices are correctives and alternative versions to the standard (male) discourse. And her casting of Troilus in the role of abandoned woman emphasises that this is not necessarily linked to real female experience. Here, I think, H. could contribute to and benefit from the scholarly debate on the Heroides initiated by Spentzou and Lindheim -- which so far due to the timing of their work has been rather monologic.

It has been beyond the scope of this review to show all the subtle close readings that make up this volume. Although the veil of some of what H. calls "veiled references" might be a bit too thick for this reviewer (e.g. p. 108 and 150), this is in general a masterful juggling of a web of texts. And although some references to classical scholarship seem to be lacking (see note 2), she has presented much medieval scholarship which might add to the bibliography of classicists (e.g. the Bahktinian reading of the Heroides in M.S. Brownlee, Ovid's Heroides and the Novela Sentimental, was new to this reader). Given the abundance of Statian intertexts, one could wish for an expanded version of this book with a chapter on the medieval reception of Statius. It might also have been useful to have compared the medieval readings of the abandoned woman with the contemporary readings of Ovidian heroines. The latter are explored in a recent book by Kathryn McKinley which rather surprisingly does not appear in H.'s otherwise very rich bibliography.4

One of McKinley's main theses in her work on the reception of the Ovidian heroine is that the female voice is "good to think with" (xviii) (a term she borrows from Zeitlin, Playing the Other, 1996). As the female voices in the Metamorphoses are sites for the display of emotional dilemmas and Ovid's rhetorical skills, so they are in McKinley's view sites where medieval and renaissance commentators can deliberate issues of emotion as well as teach rhetoric on a general basis. One might, after having read H., similarly argue that the abandoned women of the Heroides and Statius give medieval poets an opportunity to play with another perspective and offer a corrective to the standard discourse. When H. reads Ovid, Statius, Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer, the concept of abandoned women is clearly good to think with -- even when some of the thinking in chapters 2 and 3 makes the abandoned women seem rather, well, abandoned.


1.   Prins, Y., Victorian Sappho. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999; Enterline, L., The Rhetoric of the Body from Ovid to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000; E. Spentzou, Readers and Writers in Ovid's Heroides. Transgressions of Gender and Genre. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003, BMCR 2004.05.05 ); Lindheim, S.H., Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid's Heroides. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003 (BMCR 2004.06.57).
2.   E.g. the articles now reprinted in Speaking Volumes. Narrative and Intertext in Ovid and Other Latin Poets, Duckworth 2001. I also suspect some recent work on Statius might have been interesting to H.; none of the relevant titles by Dominik, Feeney, Hardie, Henderson, Herschkowitz, or McGuire is in her bibliography.
3.   Statius Achilleid gets a two-page introduction with interesting parallels between this text and the Heroides (pp. 39-41), also noted by G. Rosati ("Momenti e forme della fortuna antica di Ovidio: l'Achilleide di Stazio" in Picone and Zimmerman (eds.) Ovidius redivivus: Von Ovid zu Dante. Stuttgart 1994), as acknowledged by H.
4.   K. L. McKinley, Reading the Ovidian Heroine. Metamorphoses' Commentaries 1100-1618, Mnem. Suppl., Leiden: Brill, 2001.

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