BMCR 2003.06.14

The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison

, The life and work of Jane Ellen Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xvi, 332 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm. ISBN 019924233X. $70.00.

Annabel Robinson has written a compelling and detailed account of the life and career of a major figure in modern classical studies. Born in 1850, Jane Harrison was among the first students to attend the newly founded women’s college, Newnham, at Cambridge University. Disadvantaged, like all women of her era, by the lack of thorough training in Greek and Latin during her earlier schooling, she achieved only a high second (comparable to, say, a “B+”) in the Cambridge Tripos. After leaving Newnham, she worked and studied under Charles Newton in the Department of Antiquities at the British Museum. Within the next two decades, she gained considerable notoriety as a brilliant and dynamic lecturer on topics relating to classical art and archaeology, often traveling to collections and sites in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. She had contact with eminent German archaeologists, for example, Ernst Curtius, the excavator of Olympia.1 Her early publications augured a distinguished academic career. After being twice short-listed for the Yates Professorship of Classical Archaeology at the University of London,2 she was appointed to a fellowship at her alma mater, Newnham. Very favorable conditions of employment, requiring little lecturing or tutorial work, freed her for travel and research, and her tenure at Newnham (1898-1922) was in fact the apex of her scholarly career. She published two books that espoused novel theories of Greek religion — Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Cambridge 1903) and Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (Cambridge 1912, 2nd ed. 1927) — both still in print and influential despite the discrediting of their basic premises fairly early on (see negative reviews summarized in Robinson, 169-70, 230-32). Her stress on the importance of archaic over classical evidence and of ritual action over written myth in the understanding of Greek religion stimulated several other scholars — Gilbert Murray, F.M. Cornford, and A.B. Cook — with whom she collaborated and led to their identification as the Cambridge Ritualists (though Murray was an Oxford man most of his life); Harrison was in fact the moving spirit of the group. Possessing tremendous energy and a lifelong youthful enthusiasm for new ideas (she collected foreign languages like butterflies3), she continued her scholarly work, albeit with less rigor and originality, after retirement from Newnham, with a specific devotion to Russian language and literature, especially folklore. In failing health owing to cardiac and respiratory problems (exacerbated by addiction to cigarettes through most of her adult life), she died of leukemia in 1928.

Besides this record of specialized scholarly and academic accomplishments, dramatic social and intellectual changes make the background of Harrison’s lifetime most fascinating. The old Victorian gender values were gradually being discarded: in 1850, neither of the Cambridge women’s colleges — Girton and Newnham — had even been founded. By 1920, Oxford’s Somerville (founded 1879) was awarding degrees to women graduates (Cambridge did not follow suit till after World War II, though the granting of titular degrees by diploma won approval in 1921). Six months after Harrison’s death, her friend Virginia Woolf delivered lectures at Girton and Newnham, later published as A Room of One’s Own, in which she evoked the memory of “J—— H——” and affirmed the need for equal treatment and opportunity for women in their literary and intellectual endeavors. (“The book is a memorial to her dead friend” — Robinson, 305.)

In the same period, the science of archaeology was emerging, beginning with the sensational results of Schliemann’s excavations in the 1870s. Harrison was well-versed in the new discoveries through both wide reading and personal acquaintance with many of the major figures. She traveled to sites in Greece with Wilhelm Dörpfeld and visited Arthur Evans at the Knossos excavations in 1901. Important archaeological discoveries were subjects of her lectures and informed her writing. In anthropology, psychology, and philosophy, the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, W. Robertson Smith, James Frazer, Erwin Rohde, Émile Durkheim, William James, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Henri Bergson influenced Harrison’s ideas in her two magna opera. Toward the end of her life, she was reading French poetry of the utopian (and ephemeral) “Unanimist” school as well as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot.

On the personal side, it is possible to reconstruct much from letters and reminiscences of relatives, colleagues, friends, and students. These reveal a woman whose childhood was unhappy: her mother died in giving her birth, and her stepmother was a stern Evangelical Christian — “She was a Celt and her religion was of the fervent semi-revivalist type.”4 She left home relatively early, to attend first Cheltenham Ladies’ College and then Newnham. Her family ties were not strong. In her relations with men, she suffered several disappointments. Though there was a long succession of, in Hugh Lloyd-Jones’s phrase, “intellectual amitiés amoureuses with a younger male scholar,” the strongest male attachments of her life were with Gilbert Murray and Francis Cornford. Murray, sixteen years younger, was already married when they met, and her close working arrangements with him were a source of jealous anxiety for his wife. Cornford, twenty-four years her junior, was the object of strong feelings not entirely sublimated in their mutual scholarly interests. His marriage to Frances Darwin, the daughter of Harrison’s longtime friend Ellen (Crofts) Darwin, inflicted a disappointment that permanently clouded Harrison’s emotional life. She resigned herself to an unmarried state and nurtured close ties of friendship with colleagues, students, and former students. She lived most of the last decade of her life with Hope Mirrlees, who was thirty-seven years younger, quite beautiful, and pathologically possessive of Harrison.5

Despite this wealth of interesting material, there has been no definitive biography till the present work by Annabel Robinson. Her achievement may be better appreciated by considering the problems confronting all of Harrison’s biographers.

At age 75, Harrison wrote Reminiscences of a Student’s Life, published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press (London 1925). This extremely arch and witty collection of anecdotes is more pamphlet than book and is not restricted to her early life as the title indicates. Although virtually everything in it has been mined by later biographers, it is of limited and problematic value because Harrison chose not to mention any persons still living, thus excluding information about her relationships with Murray, Cornford, and Mirrlees, among others. Furthermore, “her Victorian demeanor allowed no reference to the most important episodes in her life, too intimate, too painful to share publicly” (Robinson, 300). Other bits of autobiographical detail have been gleaned from essays collected in Alpha and Omega (London 1915) and, particularly in Robinson’s book, from the major scholarly works themselves.

After her death in 1928, two of Harrison’s former students, Hope Mirrlees and Jessie (Crum) Stewart contemplated biographies of their venerated teacher. Stewart’s Jane Ellen Harrison: A Portrait from Letters (London 1959) is based principally on the some 800 items of Harrison’s correspondence with Gilbert Murray. Though in communication with Mirrlees and aware of her biographical project, Stewart got little cooperation from that quarter. Mirrlees, ever protective of her special relation to Harrison, was reluctant to share information, reserving it for use in her own biography of her friend and mentor.6 However, a sense of responsibility to the memory of Harrison and a reverential reticence to disclose intimate details of her subject’s relations with others (and likely an imperfect grasp of her scholarly work) so inhibited her that she never completed the biography. After her death in 1978, Mirrlees’ papers were deposited in the Harrison archive at Newnham and have been a source of both information and disinformation for subsequent biographers. Mirrlees was also likely responsible for the loss of a massive body of documents in 1922, when she apparently encouraged Harrison to burn her correspondence upon her departure from Cambridge for her new life in retirement in Paris and later London.7

Sandra Peacock, whose Jane Ellen Harrison: The Mask and the Self appeared in 1988, had full access to the Harrison Papers in the Newnham College Archive. Her biography8 is the first true attempt to write a full-dress life of Harrison based on available source material and the subject’s own published works. But it is also keenly committed to a psychoanalytic approach: for example, Harrison’s early loss of her mother and supposed competition with her stepmother for her (emotionally rather remote) father’s attentions are seen as the elements of a classic Oedipal situation. Though this method occasionally yields suggestive results, Peacock’s book has come in for a great deal of negative criticism.9 The broader intellectual roots and the evolution of the central ideas of the Cambridge Ritualists are neglected in favor of Freudian explanations of why Harrison acted and wrote as she did. These are rarely convincing and never the whole story.10

Two very recent works have provided Robinson with both valuable models and cautionary advice: Hugh Lloyd-Jones’s “Jane Ellen Harrison, 1850-1928” (note 2, below) and Mary Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison (Cambridge, MA, 2000). The former is an acute précis of Harrison’s work, predicated on the conviction that “the history of scholarship can be written effectively only by a real scholar” (63, n. 1). Lloyd-Jones, whom Robinson credits prominently in her “Acknowledgements,” also underscores the influence of Harrison’s writings on the thought of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and especially Walter Burkert.11 The lengthier discussion of Harrison’s work in Robinson is built on the armature of Lloyd-Jones’s incisive and evenhanded synopsis.

Mary Beard, University Lecturer in Classics at Cambridge (Newnham), offers an extended corrective to facile biographical assertion. In the process of reconstructing a kind of love-hate relationship between Harrison and Eugénie (Sellers) Strong, author of Apotheosis and After-Life: Three Lectures on Certain Phases of Art and Religion in the Roman Empire (London 1915), a relationship largely ignored in previous accounts of Harrison’s life, Beard demonstrates how biographers are often too confident in the image they have constructed of their subject. In fact, both the subject and those acquainted with her will inevitably have engaged in the invention of a particular persona. The paucity of evidence (in this instance, that supplied by the Harrison Archive) and its slanted character should instill caution: “It is precisely because the archival resource (the Harrison Papers) that dominates research on Harrison, the collection to which all must turn in (re)writing her life, is so much Mirrlees’ creation that it forces its readers into collusion with her vision of her subject” (157).

Robinson is well aware of these previous appraisals of Harrison’s life and work and brings needed qualifications to her task. She has examined all the documentary evidence for Harrison’s life, citing hundreds of letters, many not contained in the Newnham archive. A trained classicist (B.A. Oxon.), she knows the intellectual history of the relevant period, both narrowly in terms of classical studies (including literary, art historical, and archaeological components)12 and more broadly in terms of major trends in philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. She carefully assesses the testimony of witnesses and avoids going beyond what the evidence will support.13

Robinson’s first two chapters deal with Harrison’s upbringing in Yorkshire and her schooling at Cheltenham and at Newnham. Chapters 3 and 4 recount her early professional career working in the British Museum, delivering the dynamic public lectures that gained her great public notice, and writing her early books, which emphatically placed the value of artistic evidence on a par with the literary documents. Chapters 5-7 treat her early years at Newnham, including her collaborations with Gilbert Murray and culminating in the publication of Prolegomena in 1903. Chapters 8 and 9 deal mostly with travels in Greece and with emotional strains in Harrison’s life, as Murray accepted a fellowship at New College, Oxford, and an invitation to deliver visiting lectures at Harvard. At the same time, her relationship with Francis Cornford was irrevocably altered by his marriage: “there began the onset of an emotional nightmare from which she was never to recover” (200).14 Chapters 10-12 focus on the influences that led Harrison to write Themis, together with an astute summary of the premises and major themes of the book. At about this time, it was becoming clear that the other Cambridge Ritualists were beginning to follow new lines of inquiry. And, indeed, Harrison herself, somewhat disillusioned with the response to her work, now found time to participate in the “Heretics Society” and to be captivated by the utopian French poetic movement “Unanimism.” Chapter 13 recounts the activities of Harrison’s later years, when the flame of her fascination with Greek religion was dying down and, despite failing health, she was cultivating other, mainly Russian, interests.

Annabel Robinson’s grasp of the successes and shortcomings of previous studies of her subject’s life as well as her wide learning and good judgment make this thorough and well-written study the closest we are likely to come to an authoritative biography of Jane Ellen Harrison.15


1. Harrison’s familiarity with current German scholarship generally, as can be seen in her major works, may have surpassed that of both F.M. Cornford and Gilbert Murray.

2. The role of gender bias in Harrison’s failure to win the post is downplayed by both William M. Calder, “Jane Harrison’s Failed Candidacies for the Yates Professorship (1888, 1896): What Did Her Colleagues Think of Her?” in The Cambridge Ritualists Reconsidered, ed. W.M. Calder (Atlanta 1991), 37-59 and Hugh Lloyd-Jones, “Jane Ellen Harrison, 1850-1928,” in Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits, ed. E. Shils and C. Blacker (Cambridge 1996), 34, 38: “no injustice was done.” However, Robinson (104) notes that when it was proposed (in 1888) that Harrison be authorized “occasionally [to] give lectures for the appointed professor,” two members of the committee stated baldly in writing that “they think it undesirable that any teaching in University College be conducted by a woman.”

3. Robinson, 3: “she could, by the end of her life, read fluently not only Greek and Latin, French and German, but also to a lesser extent Spanish, Italian, and Russian, and had worked hard at acquiring a knowledge of Sanskrit, Cuneiform, Hebrew and Persian, Swedish and Icelandic”; Robert Ackerman, “Jane Ellen Harrison: The Early Work,” GRBS 13 (1972) 210, counts, besides Russian, “three Romance, three Scandinavian, German, three Oriental and five dead languages.”

4. “Reminiscences of a Student’s Life” [orig. 1925], Arion 4 (1965) 316.

5. See Robinson, 5, on the “darker side to this arrangement.” Robinson is surely right, in discussing the use of certain pet names in Harrison’s letters to Mirrlees, to conclude that although “some read this as an indication of a sexual relationship between the two women, … there is no indication that Harrison, for her part, had any lesbian tendencies” (242).

6. See Sandra J. Peacock, “Appendix: Reconstructing a Life: Hope Mirrlees, Jessie Stewart, and the Problem of Biography,” in Jane Ellen Harrison: The Mask and the Self (New Haven 1988), 245-49.

7. So Robinson 5, 129, 288. While admitting that “Gilbert Murray accused Hope of having ‘a good deal to do’ with Jane’s decision to destroy her letters,” Peacock (note 6, above), 247, thinks “it more likely that Jane chose that course herself” as an effort “to escape from a painful past. Scraps of paper with familiar handwriting, invoking bittersweet memories, probably seemed better consigned to the fire.”

8. Originally, diss. SUNY-Binghamton 1986 (Women’s History), directed by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.

9. For example, Lloyd-Jones (note 2, above), 64, n. 4.

10. Cf. Robinson, 110-11: “Peacock … claims … Harrison’s relationship with her father was always close. Similarly, Thomas Africa (“Aunt Clegg among the Dons, or Taking Jane Harrison at her Word” in Calder [note 2, above], 24) refers to Harrison as the ‘darling daughter of a doting widower.’ However, I can find no evidence for such a relationship after Charles Harrison’s remarriage when Jane was 5 years old. Peacock and Africa rest their case on Freudian theory alone.” Africa was a member of Peacock’s dissertation committee.

11. See further, in the same vein, Renate Schlesier, “Jane Ellen Harrison,” in Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia, ed. W.W. Briggs and W.M. Calder (New York 1990), 139: “Thanks to her life’s work, one cannot imagine Altertumswissenschaft ignoring the supreme importance of anthropology and vase-painting for the study of the history of religion.”

12. Cf. her article “A New Light our Elders had not Seen: Deconstructing the ‘Cambridge Ritualists,'” Echos du Monde Classique / Classical Views 42 (1988) 471-87.

13. For example: interpreting the significance of a Christmas card drawn by Frances (Darwin) Cornford in the style of a Greek vase-painting and showing four figures (representing Frances Cornford, her father, her husband, and Harrison) holding sacrificial piglets, Peacock, 160, contends that “All the members of the group would have been familiar with the Greek use of the pig as a symbol for female genitalia, and Frances’s drawing provides a wry commentary on each person’s [unspecified] attitude toward female sexuality — more specifically, toward her own sexuality.” Robinson, 221, n. 38, sensibly counters that this “ignores the parallel between the drawing and the vase painting in Prolegomena [126, fig. 10], together with Harrison’s commentary on the pig procession, while adducing an anachronistic Freudian reading that goes against the grain of the sensibilities of all players involved.”

14. Surprisingly, Robinson, 207, comes close to drawing a psychoanalytic conclusion in discussing Harrison’s mental state, but cites an unpublished paper by Harry Payne rather than Peacock’s (in this particular) far more germane psychobiography: “It is all too clear what had happened. As Harry Payne has observed, the Cornford marriage opened up [quasi-Oedipal?] wounds more than a half century old with the spite of a child and without an adult’s understanding. Her reaction to her father’s remarriage is understandable, but that she never got over it ‘marks the central emotional dynamic of her later life.'” Robinson later (238 and n. 69) credits Payne, without citing a publication, with an insight to be found passim in Peacock’s biography regarding the connection between Harrison’s emotional life and her scholarly work.

15. Besides the ten mistakes noted on the book’s included errata list, I detected another nine, including the following that could cause misunderstanding: on 184, n. 2, for “Greek” read “Greece”; on 221, line 28, for “Religion” read “Literature”; on 254, line 5, for “Theseus” read “Hippolytus”; on 249, line 15, for “Ainos” and “Saghalien,” read “Ainus” and “Sakhalin,” now the standard spellings in English.