BMCR 2007.08.22

Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: The Feminine of Homer. Classical Presences

Isobel Hurst, Victorian women writers and the classics : the feminine of Homer. Classical presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 253 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0199283516 $85.00.

Table of Contents

In Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: The Feminine of Homer, two familiar lines of enquiry converge to yield a fresh and fascinating contribution to the exciting field of classical reception studies: Victorian reception of ancient Greece and Rome and women as writers and readers in the nineteenth century. The volume is part of Oxford’s new Classical Presences series, edited by Lorna Hardwick and James L. Porter. This series is concerned with the ways in which the classical past has been appropriated in order both to authenticate and challenge the present. And it is committed to the belief that reception involves a continuous creative dialogue between the ancient world and the modern. Hurst’s study is an effective exposition of this wider remit. It demonstrates that, in spite of, and because of, their general exclusion from the archetypal male experience of classical education, nineteenth-century women writers were able to produce distinctive responses to the classical tradition. It further reveals how these imaginative reworkings of ancient texts played a part in the pursuit of political and educational reform. Hurst thus treats an important aspect of Victorian classicism that, in the seminal works of two distinguished predecessors in this area, Richard Jenkyns ( The Victorians and Ancient Greece, 1980) and Frank M. Turner ( The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain, 1981), is almost completely ignored.

The book opens with a quotation from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, in which is described heroine Maggie Tulliver’s enchantment at the exotic mysteries contained in her Latin Grammar. We are thereby introduced to one of the recurrent themes of Hurst’s investigation, that for many Victorian women writers knowledge of the classical languages was something arcane and aspirational. As Hurst illustrates, through biographical and fictional representations, initiation into this form of secret men’s business was hard-fought and often harshly perceived, yet it was also integral to women’s literary development.

The first two chapters provide illuminating insights into the highly gendered and class-bound world of nineteenth-century classical education. In particular, they detail the differences between male and female encounters with the classics, which account, in large measure, for the emergence of a distinctively female reception of the classics. While a school and university training in classics was, for much of the century, an exclusively male prerogative, not all men who underwent this privileged course of instruction were grateful for it. Byron’s Childe Harold recalled in horror the ‘daily drug’ of Horace he was forced to ingest, and Tennyson complained of being ‘over-dosed with Horace’ in his youth. As Hurst makes clear, the traditional masculine experience of classical education had definite shortcomings, founded as it was on the kind of pedagogic principles that compelled hapless pupils to construe and memorize a piece of verse with scant regard for its literary attributes or historical significance. Little wonder that a thorough public-school grounding in Latin could desensitize the nascent poetic soul to the beauty, wit, and pathos of a Horatian ode. The ‘damage’ done by deadening reinforcement of the classics was likely compounded by schoolmasterly chauvinism, the propensity to assimilate the ancient Greeks to the values and sensibilities of Victorian Englishmen.

Denied the educational opportunities conventionally afforded their brothers, girls who chose to study the classics were at least spared the myopia and drudgery of the masculine lesson. And what they might have lacked in the classroom drilling that ensured proficiency in Greek accents and Latin quantities, they compensated for in their receptiveness to the meaning and beauty of what they were endeavouring to translate. Hurst argues, ‘they did not experience the kind of alienation from classical literature described by Byron, but could “feel”, “relish”, and “love” poetry.’

Hurst makes the important point that class, as much as gender, was a determining factor in access to classical education, Latin and Greek being largely a patrician preserve. This was not, of course, confined to the nineteenth century. In 1936, Martin Clifford wrote a two-part story for the popular schoolboy weekly The Gem, in which an industrious boot boy, Tom Lynn, dreams of taking his place in the form room at St Jim’s and learning Latin. He is even caught eavesdropping on a disquisition by the fourth-form master on the ablative absolute. This display of aberrant ambition is met with kindly bewilderment at best and severe persecution at worst. In another story, Clifford humorously inverts the same theme. The Hon. Arthur Augustus D’Arcy, in a brief flirtation with socialism, decides to tutor the school page in Latin. But it is a privilege the young servant is quite content to forego.

In Chapter 2 Hurst outlines the various forms of classical training available to women writers in the nineteenth century, beginning with the solitary and sometimes sporadic home tuition facilitated by sympathetic male relatives or mentors outside the family. The establishment mid-century of girls’ public schools and the first College for Women provided more structured and communal environments for female learning. And by the end of the century the British Museum Reading Room had become a valuable intellectual interchange for literary women. Two stereotypes which attached themselves to women classicists were ‘Milton’s Daughters’ and the ‘Girton Girl’, the former an image of female subservience, the latter of blue-stockinged subversiveness. Both these images Hurst dissects with humour and aplomb. The chapter includes an appreciation of the pioneering woman classicist Jane Harrison, whose idiosyncratic approach to classical scholarship eschewed narrowly linguistic preoccupations and drew upon the fashionable methods of archaeology, anthropology, and psychology. Hurst also highlights women’s active part in the proliferation of university productions of Greek drama in the 1880s, and she recounts how rigid propriety robbed the students of Newnham College of the distinction of staging the first university Greek play in 1877. The chapter ends with a look at Oxford’s lethargic efforts to formalize women’s classical studies. The relevant examinations were opened to women in the 1890s, but no degrees were awarded until 1920.

The autodidact Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her eagerness to be the ‘feminine of Homer’ are deservedly the focus of Chapter 3. Hurst emphasizes that Barrett’s ambition was poetic rather than scholarly in nature, and she cites Barrett’s telling criticism of her own translation of Prometheus Bound as ‘unfaithful to the genius if servile to the letter of the great poet.’ She further emphasizes that, in Casa Guidi Windows and Aurora Leigh, Barrett does indeed present a feminine alternative both to the form and content of Homeric and Virgilian epic. Central to both poems, Hurst insists, is a vision of a future dependent on feminine, i.e. creative and co-operative, imperatives. What is missing from this discussion of Barrett’s radical classicism, I feel, is an evaluation of the importance of Greek tragedy to her poetic development, of her special (and, at that time, unfashionable) affinity with Euripides ‘the human / With his droppings of warm tears’, and of her contribution to the rehabilitation of this tragedian.

In Chapter 4, Hurst explores in greater detail the many and varied representations in Victorian fiction of female encounters with the classics, from Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Daisy Chain (1856) to Trollope’s the Last Chronicle of Barset and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis (1876). The most fascinating feature of this exploration is what it reveals about the effects of young women’s classical study on Victorian family dynamics and vice versa. The notion which emerges in this chapter, that women’s engagement in serious classical study represented a potential challenge to the reception of established texts and to the preservation of social customs, prefigures the central thesis of the final chapters.

Chapters 5 and 6 are the ones I found most interesting in terms of women’s imaginative and distinctive reworkings of classical literature and the impact of these on the history of ideas. In Chapter 5 Hurst examines the use of Greek tragic heroines, in particular Medea and Alcestis, to explore feminist issues in the work of George Eliot, Eliza Lynn Linton, Augusta Webster, and Amy Levy. The vengeful Medea and the self-sacrificing Alcestis were problematized and made to articulate questions about marriage and women’s position in a patriarchal society. Hurst also describes how George Eliot incorporated and modernized Greek tragedy within the genre of the novel, how she sought to instil in her readers an awareness of the tragedy operative in everyday life.

In Chapter 6, Hurst turns her attention to the early years of the twentieth century, and to women writers whose responses to the classics were mediated by Victorian women’s novels. She focuses especially on Vera Brittain and Dorothy L. Sayers, who adapted epic themes to modern forms, rendering them accessible to a wider audience and challenging preconceptions of what constituted ‘epic’. These writers, she maintains, ‘subvert literary hierarchies by pointing out that a modern detective story or personal narrative, and classical epic or tragedy deal with essentially the same emotions and actions.’ Hurst’s analysis of Brittain’s Testament of Youth, as a narrative of epic scale which subverts the epic tradition by questioning its fundamental ideals, is compelling. However, she fails properly to acknowledge that Brittain’s gradual rejection of the masculine heroic code was shared by many of her male contemporaries and, certainly, many of the War Poets. The latter’s relationship to, and appropriation of, classical epic evolved as the war progressed and a blithe sense of adventure and Achillean tradition surrendered to disillusionment and disgust. Moreover, these poets often exploited an ambivalence about war already present in Homer.

Hurst concludes with a brief discussion of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’. The ignorance to which Woolf refers, she explains, is not an unfamiliarity with grammar and accents, but rather a desirable attitude of mind, a readiness to be alive to an alien, unrecoverable beauty: ‘Not knowing the Greeks is not a gendered deprivation after all, but a limitation which can only be overcome by using the imagination.’ It is a lesson, Hurst indicates, which Woolf learnt from her Victorian predecessors, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sara Coleridge, and George Eliot.

Victorian Women Writers and the Classics is written in an elegant and engaging style, deftly interweaves historical narrative and fictional examples, and presents few impediments to the non-classicist. It combines diachronic awareness with synchronic depth and close textual analysis, the three essentials of good reception scholarship. Finally, it offers a new reading of a neglected aspect of Victorian literature, education, and classicism. For these reasons, Hurst’s examination is a most welcome addition to the Classical Presences series and to reception studies more generally.