BMCR 2014.06.05

Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of Antiquity. Classics after antiquity

Edmund Richardson, Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of Antiquity. Classics after antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xvi, 227. ISBN 9781107026773 $90.00.


[Detailed supporting text for this review will be found on the BMCR blog.]

This is the first volume in a new Cambridge series devoted to classical reception. The book’s blurb announces that ‘Victorian Britain set out to make the ancient world its own. This is the story of how it failed.’ In an enthusiastic preface, the series editors declare that ‘Instead of the focus on canon and corpus which is so familiar from studies of the classical tradition, Richardson gives us the metaphor of classical antiquity as corpse—a deceased past which was resurrected by the living with unpredictable results. The master tropes here are fragility, uncertainty, instability and misdirection’ (xiii). They conclude that the book ‘offers an inspiring…model for how to approach classical reception studies in all their complexity’ (xv). In his introductory chapter, Richardson himself declares that ‘Victorian classicism is labyrinthine … This … is the story of those who forever seek the dead, yet rarely find peace’ (9-10); and at the end of the book, he asserts that for those he has been discussing, ‘Classicism was … scattered with moments of longing, moments of light, moments of despair—but never moments of peace; for them, the classical was history, interrupted—and that was its misbegotten beauty’ (181). The prose is rhapsodic, and so is the book, which is made up of a series of episodes woven into three chapters.

Chapter 2, ‘Old fashioned ambition: a Victorian seduction’ (11-71), looks at attempts at social advancement through classical learning. It includes episodes on Thomas Hardy’s (fictional) Jude the Obscure; the talented Theodore Buckley, whose classical learning led to his being taken up by gentlemanly patrons but who succumbed to drink and drugs and died aged 30; the ‘Greek play bishops’ who were identified as owing their preferment to classical scholarship, especially Charles Blomfield, editor of Aeschylus and Bishop of London; ‘hungry professors’, including the Scottish scholar John Stuart Blackie; and John Selby Watson, like Buckley a contributor of translations to Bohn’s Classical Library, a headmaster, who after being dismissed in 1869, murdered his wife and ended his days in prison. The account of Buckley benefits from an imaginative use of his fictional accounts of social climbing, including several engaging illustrations in the style of Punch, but fails to take into account the snobbish atmosphere of his Oxford college, Christ Church, whose head Thomas Gaisford was notorious for refusing access to fellowships for poor students. The ‘Greek Play Bishops’ constitute a problem for Richardson’s failure-based agenda, and so Charles Blomfield, scholar and bishop, is described, without evidence, as a ‘formidably ambitious and effective social climber’ who ‘carefully cultivated members of the aristocracy’. No mention is made of the fact that his patron Earl Spencer, who was previously unknown to him, first contacted him after reading and admiring his edition of the Prometheus Vinctus (1810). Richardson states that ‘the picture of the classical scholar plucked wide-eyed from obscurity and offered the bishopric of Chester on the basis of his academic merit is quite simply unsound’ (28: an embellishment of ‘plucked from obscurity’, 26); but whoever held such a view? The treatment of struggling schoolmasters (36-45) is similarly unsatisfactory. ’ ‘Britain’s schoolmasters …hoped that their classical knowledge would make them a living’ (37). This not only ignores women, but assumes that all schoolmasters taught Classics, something which is patently untrue. One case deals with James Shives, a schoolmaster who almost certainly lacked any classical knowledge; another with the complaints of John Stuart Blackie, a rambunctious campaigning Scottish classicist whose eccentricities are not taken into account.

A more substantial episode (46-57) concerns the trial and death of John Selby Watson (1804-84), the headmaster who killed his wife in 1872; his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he spent the rest of his life in jail. Before trying unsuccessfully to kill himself, Watson left a confession and other statements. Also found in the house was a piece of paper on which he had written, ‘Felix in omnibus fere rebus, praeter quam quod ad sexum attinet foemineum. Saepe olim amanti nocuit semper amare’. The second sentence provoked discussion in the letter columns of the Times on ‘Watson’s Latinity’. The juxtaposition of John Watson and murder in this period brings Sherlock Holmes to mind, but here the hapless Inspector Lestrade seems to be in charge of the case, since Richardson quotes the Latin from a mangled report of the first sentence which misreads ‘sexum’ as ‘saxum’ (‘…except as regards a woman hard as a stone’: 54 n.228). Another newspaper commented that only a madman would sit down calmly to write Latin after killing his wife; in the book’s blurb this becomes fact: ‘…the headmaster who bludgeoned his wife to death, then calmly sat down to his Latin’. Richardson’s peroration (181) refers to Watson ‘writing Latin with his wife’s corpse in the next room’, but in fact we cannot tell when or where he wrote the Latin, which was not, as Richardson claims, part of the ‘suicide note’. Watson died in 1884 after cutting his ear on a tin pot after falling from his hammock in Parkhurst Jail. Richardson concludes, ‘The archives maintain a diplomatic silence on exactly whose chamber-pot it was’ (46); one wonders just what archives, since none are cited, but at that time Parkhurst prisoners lived one to a cell, and the ‘tin pot’ was the regular term for a vessel used for food or drink. Watson was a classical scholar, but he too does not belong in this book: he was a failure as a human being, not as a classicist.

Chapter 3, In search of an empire of memory (72-130), includes a substantial discussion of the role of classical remains in the Crimean campaigns of the 1850s. This is one of the best things in the book, and relatively error-free, as is a section on the writer of classical burlesques Robert Brough.

Chapter 4, ‘The Children of Babel’ (131-81), includes a section on the notorious forger Simonides which opens, ‘Constantine Simonides packed in a hurry. His razor, his books, his shirts, and the lotus leaves which held the oldest known text of Homer all went into his trunk, upside down and jumbled up’ (142). Thus begins Richardson’s account of Simonides’ unsuccessful attempt to sell his ‘Homer’ to the King of Greece. Richardson dates this to 1836—hardly possible, since Simonides seems to have been born no earlier than 1820. His source is a paragraph in an article on forgers in a 1903 issue of a Philadelphia popular monthly, whose author gives Simonides’ forename as ‘Alcibiades’; but the text quoted above is not to be found there. The scene, we must presume, has been imagined by Richardson: but how is the reader to know that this is fiction, and that the account it introduces is based on a worthless source? The next section gives an interesting account of Samuel Butler, inventor of the ‘authoress of the Odyssey’. Butler’s management of his marginal identity is well presented, but the account of Butler’s eponymous grandfather’s marginality in 1820s Cambridge is rendered unintelligible by the lack of any picture of the local curricular politics of the time.

The chapter ends with an attack on two men whom Richardson takes to be proponents of ‘the unbroken line’ of classical tradition: the stability his book is challenging. First, Richard Jebb’s 1893 speech ‘In defence of classical study’ is taken as a text, but its location as a graduation speech at Mason College, Birmingham is not explained. Jebb has previously been referred to as ‘Professor Jebb … Knight of the Order of the Saviour’ (p.165, without explanation; only on p.171 are we referred to the title page of his Bentley (1882)). Richardson does not explain what is presumably intended as a dig at self-promoting pomposity; had he bothered to investigate, he would have found that the LLD was Jebb’s first honorary degree (Edinburgh 1878), and the ‘knighthood’ an honour bestowed by the King of Greece in the same year after Jebb’s visit to Athens to prepare for his campaign to found the British School at Athens. He was understandably proud of these unsought honours.

Worse than this passing sneer is to come, in the discussion of K. D. White (1908-98), the pioneering investigator of Roman agriculture, who spent most of his academic career in South Africa. (What is White doing in a book on Victorians?) Richardson quotes from a broadcast talks on ‘Our Classical Tradition’ which White gave for the South African Broadcasting Corporation in 1957: ‘those who are able to enter fully into the Greek tradition of thought have a powerful weapon ready to their hand against the violent influences of emotion undisciplined by reason, and against the dark forces’ (169). He concludes that ‘White and his white audience define themselves in opposition to the “dark forces” of black South Africa’. But it is clear that the quotation is incomplete, despite Richardson’s attempt to conceal this by omitting an ellipsis; in White’s original the sentence continues ‘… unleashed by those cults of the Will that have wrought such havoc in our time’. The obvious explicit referent is the Nazi regime, but White’s real target was probably the South African apartheid regime. This section is driven by an ideological agenda which encourages the construction of caricatures rather than the understanding of historically-situated texts.

Richardson has obvious talents: he is, as Schliemann was called by a contemporary, a ‘veritable truffle-hound’, and is able to tell a good story: but a good story is not the same as a true story. If the claim that Classicism brought to Richardson’s cast of characters ‘never moments of peace’ (181) is unprovable, his assertion that ‘The quiet assurance of the eternal has never clung to the classic’ (127) is demonstrably false. Macaulay opened his essay on Francis Bacon in the Edinburgh Review in 1837 by describing the great minds of former ages as ‘comforters in sorrow, nurses in sickness, companions in solitude’. Montagu Butler wrote in the preface to his Some leisure hours of a long life (1914) of ‘the old habit of making verses, begun … [in] 1846, …helping me …to keep in touch with the thoughts of the wise, the pious and the pure, and giving a kind of quiet unity to a life of some labours and many distractions’. As recently as 1966, Hugh Stubbs (1917-2014) wrote that ‘Antiquity has always been, to me, a radiant world, to be visited on a kind of time-machine … a world of brightness, vigour, wisdom, heroism’ (‘Troubles of a lexicographer’, Pegasus 5 (1966), 11).

Classical Victorians is intended as an ideological intervention in the study of classical reception, one which emphasises instability and failure. The agenda is advanced, in part, by overemphasising the themes of stability and success in previous work, though the critique of my own work and that of Charles Martindale in Richardson’s PhD thesis have been much toned down for publication. This fresh thinking is to be welcomed, but the book’s virtues are outweighed by its defects. Some of its subjects are not Victorians, some are Victorians whose failures are unrelated to their classical work, others not classicists at all. Richardson appears to be unfamiliar both with Victorian Britain, and with much of the secondary literature which could have enlightened him. He is often careless with his sources, misquoting, misinterpreting and (in the case of White) apparently suppressing evidence; the series editors’ reference to the trope of misdirection, and Richardson’s own invocations of labyrinths and halls of mirrors, apply all too well to his own text. It is a matter of regret that the flaws in this book should have survived examination during its progress from thesis to publication.