Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.34

Christopher Stray, Classics in Britain: Scholarship, Education, and Publishing 1800-2000. Classical Presences.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xxvi, 385.  ISBN 9780199569373.  $124.95.  

Reviewed by Richard Jenkyns, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (

Over the past thirty years or so Christopher Stray has made himself uniquely expert in what might be called the sociology of British Classics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The present volume collects eighteen of his articles, two of them not previously published, the rest revised. The range is wide, the principal subjects being scholarship (especially the interactions between scholars); curricula in universities and schools; the purposes and fortunes of classical journals; the continuing debate from the early nineteenth century onwards about the content of classical study and research; and publishers, dictionaries and textbooks. Stray draws often on unpublished manuscript sources, such as the correspondence of dons or schoolboy reminiscences. Most of the pieces collected in this book are likely to be familiar already to those interested in classical reception, and it would not be useful, even if it were possible, to summarise or assess each chapter in turn. This review will consider some generalities and some particulars, with the aim of assessing the thrust of Stray’s body of work as a whole.

One side of him is the meticulous scholar, with some of the instincts of an antiquarian, concerned to get things just right. Another side, while still meticulous, is more like a novelist: he likes details, quirks, surfaces, anecdotes and sense impressions. The last chapter is called ‘The Smell of Latin Grammar’, the title justified by a Victorian schoolboy’s memory of Kennedy’s primer as smelling of bookseller’s paste, a smell which the child believed to be that of Latin and disliked accordingly (330). Stray himself remembers the distinctive smell and violet print produced by the duplicators used at the time of his own childhood (261). He notes the ‘olive green so fashionable in the 1880s’ and ‘discreet impressed bands’ in which R. C. Jebb’s commentaries on Sophocles were bound, and compares the layout of Jebb’s pages with those of his colleague H. A. J. Munro’s Lucretius (219-21). Stendhal said that the novelist should look for ‘le petit fait signicatif’. How significant are Stray’s details? Sometimes perhaps they are merely enjoyable, and sometimes he may claim too much for them. One may doubt, for example, whether the Wordsworth brothers really hoped that their grammar books would encourage religious uniformity (a claim to which no reference is attached) (309). How would that work? The plural of mensa is mensae whether you are Catholic or Methodist. But Stray’s purpose, one may suppose, is to seek out and experience the feel and texture of the past, to inhabit the period, in part through mundanities that are usually overlooked.

His antiquarian and anecdotal sides come together at the end of his chapter on Thomas Gaisford, where four pages are devoted to tracking down the origins and embellishments of ‘the Gaisford story’ (the tale that he ended a sermon by commending the study of Greek for leading to ‘positions of considerable emolument’) (76-80). Stray insists on the importance of context in the study of scholarship, which has tended, rather, to describe great figures in isolation, and he adds that ‘the contextual life of savants’ should mean not only their interaction with one another (a subject which he finely illustrates through their private letters) but also the changes in academic institutions and in wider society (28). When he looks at the groupings of scholarly schools or circles, he finds it useful to talk about ‘outside insiders’ and ‘inside outsiders’ (Dobree and Elmsley, respectively, in relation to the school of Porson) (95). This kind of terminology may perhaps be applied to Stray himself. Anthropologists look at their subjects from outside: they analyse in their own terms, not in those that the actual Dinka or Trobriand Islanders would use. Stray is an anthropologist of classical scholarship: he does not get inside works of learning but looks in from without, studying the structure of scholarly alliances and antagonisms. The theme of his chapter on Gaisford is how connected the man was: to church, to lexicographical scholarship, to reviewing, to curating the Bodleian Library, to the Oxford University Press. ‘Gaisford was legion, for he was many,’ is his beginning (53). The chapter on Jebb’s Sophocles describes its place in the history of commentary making (‘My concern in this chapter is to situate Jebb and his work in a number of contexts’, 210), but for an assessment of its scholarly quality one must turn to Easterling or Finglass, in books that Stray has edited.1 His chapter on ‘The Rise and Fall of Porsoniasm’ (a jocular term shared in correspondence between Elmsley and Samuel Butler of Shrewsbury) is not about Porson’s life and work but his later school or discipleship. Here two themes are entwined. There is the cult of Porson himself, and there is the argument over the content of classical education. One may perhaps doubt whether Porsonism (or Porsoniasm) endured a ‘fall’. Textual criticism will always be the pursuit of a few with the special talent for it, but it is a discipline that has been continuously practised thus far.

In his second chapter Stray gives a fine account of the development of Classics in nineteenth-century Oxford and Cambridge, handling the interplay between difference and similarity with deftness. While bringing out the divergences in course content and perhaps in intellectual character, he rightly warns his readers ‘not to reify the notion of institutional styles’ (49). Oxford supposedly turned out ‘smooth’ men, Cambridge ‘rough’, but even if there was a touch of truth in this (which may be doubted), the underlying reality is the remarkable likeness among British (let alone European) institutions of these two universities to each other. Stray also points out the connections and friendships between dons at the two places. He notes as well that some students may have found themselves at the place less suited to them, citing A. E. Housman as an instance. It is certainly true that the final examination at Oxford, consisting as it did of history and philosophy, did not favour those whose talents were primarily linguistic: Stray gives J. D. Denniston as an example of a scholar who gained only a second class degree after his first in Moderations (the half-way examination) (50).

One of the merits (and charms) of Stray’s work is his ability to find unusual ways of looking at things. Thus he draws attention to the ‘view from below’—that is, the child’s view—which he properly claims to be ‘an important element in the reception of Latin’ (255). Here he must turn largely to primers and textbooks for enlightenment, for as he observes, it is hard to get inside the classroom and to find enough evidence of how teaching was actually delivered and received (287). However, he has discovered a remarkable source in the account by boys at Winchester College of the schoolroom practice of the idiosyncratic Edmund Morshead, transcribed by them at the time (the 1890s). The surprise is the mistakes in his Latin. In the exercise of Latin verse composition he is recorded as producing a line in which the boys themselves spotted one error of gender and one of quantity (there is in fact a second error of quantity which passes unnoticed). There is ample evidence elsewhere of impressively high standards among classical teachers in leading schools (and their stronger pupils) at this period, and later, so that it seems odd to find such mistakes in an academic powerhouse like Winchester.2 The boys do not appear to be making it up.

Another of Stray’s interests is in the fortunes of classical journals. This subject provides the driest chapters in the book, but they are none the less illuminating, because they show that the journals of the earlier nineteenth century ceased publication not because they failed but because the colleagues who had founded them turned to other business (sometimes through ecclesiastical preferment). As far as I can judge, this is a very accurate book. One oddity is that Stray twice cites A. P. Herbert’s Misleading Cases to illustrate the follies of English law, apparently unaware that these are fictional fantasies: no actual Headmaster of Eton was found guilty of feeding obscenities to his pupils in the form of Greek mythology, nor did any real magistrate recommend a thorough survey of classical literature ‘in order that our schools and colleges may be made safe for aristocracy’ (205, cf 251). The statement that ‘Headlam’s planned edition of the Agamemnon was never published’ (26) needs qualification: a version was published two years after his premature death in 1908, put together from notes and fragments by A. C. Pearson. It is curious that a chapter on Smith’s dictionaries leaves out the most durable of them, the English-Latin dictionary; my own copy is a reprint done in the year 2000. J. W. Mackail was not writing ‘art deco’ prose in 1904; probably ‘art nouveau’ is meant (rather a good description, actually) (253). I have spotted few misprints; the only ones that might cause any difficulty are Microsmographia Academica for Microcosmographia… (122 and index) and some confusions in the quotation of one of Kennedy’s gender rhymes (338). But as Stray himself would be the first to notice, a list of small cavils belongs to a now somewhat old-fashioned style of academic review. What matters is that this is a book where the whole is greater than the parts: Stray sees both the wood and the trees, and offers a thickness of detail through which a larger idea of British classical studies is well conveyed.

[For a response to this review by Christopher Stray, please see BMCR 2019.10.23.]


1.   Pat Easterling, ‘The speaking page’: reading Sophocles with Jebb’, in The Owl of Minerva: the Cambridge Praelections of 1906, ed Christopher Stray (Cambridge, 2005), 25-46; P. J. Finglass, ‘Jebb’s Sophocles’, in Classical Commentaries, ed Christina S. Krauss and Christopher Stray (Oxford, 2016), 21-38.
2.   For different kinds of evidence for impressive standards see, for example, the command of tragic idiom shown in the dictionary Iambica, compiled by John Jackson, a master at St Paul’s School (London, 1909), and Serta Scissorum, ed. Michael Partridge and D. A. Russell (Northwood, 2012), a selection of Latin and Greek versions done by boys at Merchant Taylors’ School between 1879 and 1993 (Gilbert Murray is a contributor and perhaps not even the best).

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