Heretical Hellenism is a lively and learned intervention in the expanding exploration of the landscape of the numerous manifestations of the culture of ancient Greece in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Shanyn Fiske sets out "to dismantle the prevalent notion that knowledge of and appreciation for Greek literature, history, and philosophy were restricted in the nineteenth century to upper-class men who were formally schooled in Greek and Latin, who "believed they were rightful inheritors of an ancient legacy," and who "regarded their classical knowledge as a basis of cultural authority" (4). In place of this standard view many years ago analyzed by this reviewer, she urges that "the patchwork classical education that women acquired outside of institutions and their tendency to by pass grammatical technicalities for 'the general sense' also engendered a way of knowing that differed productively from the classical inheritance of men, which was based on rigid grammatical training and extensive memorization, all aimed at preparing middle- and upper-class boys for enfranchisement into exclusive social and political discourses" (8). Fiske succeeds splendidly in this effort. What she clearly and forcefully establishes is the presence of alternative paths to knowledge and explication of ancient Greek culture than those taken by most university-educated Victorian men or perhaps more precisely imposed on Victorian men by the educational institutions of the day. She presents these various paths pursued by Victorian women as the result of their following "a highly individual passion — a heretical desire to push the boundaries of knowledge beyond what each perceived to be an alienating and exclusive classical authority" (9). These pursuits of personal classical passions "resulted in texts and ideas that evolved alternative approaches to the ancient world and developed applications of ancient literature and ideas of Victorian culture that subverted the traditional status of the classics as an elite, exclusively masculine field of knowledge" (9).
Authors have for some years made similar boasts as they have examined the roles of women scholars or critics in different areas of Victorian intellectual and cultural life. What distinguishes Fiske's study is its strong empirical rather than any extravagant theoretical base for such claims. She examines in very considerable detail Victorian performances of Medea, Charlotte Brontë's interest in matters Greeks, George Eliot's mediation on the renaissance humanistic approach to Greece in Romola, and the career of Jane Harrison, who more than any of her protagonists personified the heretical Hellenist. Each chapter validates the claims to the necessity and reality of distinctive approaches to ancient Greece on the part of independent-minded Victorian women.
There is no question that within Victorian culture the world of classical studies primarily pertained to the education of men first in public schools and then in universities. The demands of admission to the latter determined the curriculums of the former. Moreover, in contrast to the teaching of science, the teaching of the classics was relatively cheap and the supply of potential instructors ready. To be an educated man in Victorian Britain was to be educated in the classical languages and in ancient history. Writers with political outlooks as different and opposing as William Mitford, George Grote, and William Gladstone recognized this fact and produced self-conscious ideological studies of the ancient Greek world in the hope of influencing the political outlook of the political elites emerging from the universities. Later Benjamin Jowett, having been largely defeated in his effort to transform contemporary Anglican theology through higher criticism of the Bible, turned to the translation and idealist interpretation of Plato as a vehicle for inculcating his own idealist version of Christian morality and civic awareness in the late Victorian elite.
This system of education worked well in the sense that it did produce generation after generation of British university graduates who shared many of the same values and who could discuss and debate their differences in terms of reference to the classics. It should be noted that such debates conducted through classical discourse saved British public life from much of the bibliolatry and Christian discourse that so infused American political life during the same century and beyond. The impact of the classics did not make British public life secular but did prevent it from becoming only Christian. Nonconformists might infuse British politics with their morality, but the Anglican domination of elite political leadership assured the discourse of the classics. Even the fervently Christian four-time Prime Minister William Gladstone looked to the classics — most especially Homer — rather than the Bible for his political models and the touchstone of his political analysis.
The difficulty that Victorian women encountered in broaching the world of ancient Greece through its own language are best known from the passages in George Eliot's Middlemarch and Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own relating the yearning of women for instruction in Greek and their very real perception that the acquisition of this knowledge was difficult and virtually forbidden. Considering the institutional and cultural barriers to women's acquiring Greek and even the doubts of some men as to their aptitude for the language — doubts echoed occasionally in our own day about the aptitude of women for science — all efforts on the part of Victorian women to broach the bastions of Hellenic knowledge virtually had to be countercultural. They challenged a real, not an imagined, male hegemony and real not imagined cultural barriers. Consequently, the results of female approaches to Hellenism had almost by necessity to be cultural heretical. They were not turning their backs on the culture of the day, but demanding the right to participate in it on their own terms because the terms available to men where denied them.
In this respect, the most unexpected, but highly convincing example of Fiske's heretical Hellenism is her chapter on Charlotte Brontë who quite simply "did not know Greek" (64). George Eliot knew Greek and Elizabeth Barrett Browning even corresponded with Robert Browning in ancient Greek. But Greek was not a subject for study by the Brontë sisters in Haworth parsonage. Charlotte Brontë encountered the life, literature, and culture of ancient Greece through translations and largely through translations in the journals of the day. Her knowledge of ancient Greece thus necessarily arose through popular rather than elite culture. Another way of stating the situation was that hers was a knowledge and classical experience by indirection. Fiske sees this as cultivating "a discourse of fragmentation" (66).
Fiske quite convincingly demonstrates that Charlotte Brontë in large measure worked toward her understanding of the idea of literary genius through her reactions to and reworking of ideas about the much-debated unity of the Homeric poems. The Homeric question, which dominated the nineteenth-century study of the Homeric epics, descended from Wolf's late eighteenth-century Prolegomena ad Homerum (l795) where Wolf denied the unity of Homeric authorship. The debate of Homer and Wolf filled not only dry academic tombs but also filtered into the major Victorian journals. The question provided the foundation not only for discussions of Homer, but of different issues relating to poetry on the basis of which critics decide for or again the unity of the epics. Brontë even without the benefit of knowledge of ancient Greek could and did follow those critical considerations of the character of poetry and of literary authorship. Brontë carried out this personal engagement with the nature of poetic genius in reference to a Blackwood's article on the Homeric question by Thomas DeQuincey. Fiske also follows Brontë into her interpretation of the character of Greek tragedy through her engagement with critical articles in the journals of the day.
Similarly knowledge of things Greek informed Brontë's The Professor (l846, published, l857), Shirley (l849) (l853), and most important Villette (l853). In all of these the articles on Greek literature in journals not only of the years of composition but the previous decades educated Brontë and provided the grounds for her engagement with Greece. In Villette Brontë evokes a sense and longing for home that appeared in earlier journalistic analyses of the Odyssey. Fiske argues that the very contestation of knowledge of ancient Greek literature made "exposed the instability of Greek knowledge" and for writers such as Brontë lacking the Greek language "lent validity to their unique interpretations of Greek literature and myth." (111) Brontë and others possessed at best only a second-hand fragmentary knowledge of ancient Greece, but from that knowledge they a vision of the ancient Greek work alternative to that of the universities. Here as elsewhere in her volume Fiske argues for what might be termed a feminine vision of ancient Greece based on the structure discrepancies of ancient knowledge available to women denied university educations.
Surely the chapter that most readers will find most interesting and provocative is Fiske's analysis of late Victorian performances and translations of Euripides' Medea. It will come as a surprise to many, myself included, that ten versions of the play appeared on the London stage between l845 and l907 as well as numerous translations. As Fiske notes, the plotline with the protagonist's murder of her husband and children, which hardly served to support Victorian family values, clearly "challenges deeply rooted Victorian values of female, fidelity, passivity, and moral exemplarity" (24). Fiske argues that the play as both performed, translated, and presumably read, "both responded and contributed to the destabilization of gender assumptions and domestic values" (25). Here one sees what is so attractive in Fiske's mode of analysis. She repeated adopts a both/and approach to her subject rather than a reductionist mode of reading. Her general argument is that over the decades the evolution of Medea "in Victorian popular culture underscores the transformation of the aberrant woman from a sensational object to a dynamic representation of marginalized subjectivities" (25). Fiske carefully and convincingly traces the parallels between the mid-century emergence of Medea on the London stage to both press coverage of female murders of spouses and children and sensation novels. She then turns her attention to Augusta Webster's "Medea in Athens" (l870) and Amy Levy's Medea: A Play in Fragments (l884) to suggest a transformation of Medea "from sensational object to a voice for the nascent feminist movement of the century's second half." (26)
Augusta Webster had produced a well-regarded translation of Euripides play as well as her later dramatic monologue. Fiske convincing demonstrates that Webster's work does represent a voice of the nascent feminist movement. Fiske's treatment of Webster demonstrates how different the world of Victorian classics appears once one draws onto the landscape or more properly recognizes as present on the landscape a female presence previously generally unrecognized. Fiske urges that Webster as well as other women commentators and actresses served to challenge the staid classical vision of a Matthew Arnold or R. C. Jebb. This is true, but may underestimate the actual pluralism of visions of the ancient classical world. Arnold and Jebb were fully aware of the non-rational elements of ancient Greek life just as classicists knew of the polychromy of ancient sculpture. Fiske might well have taken her own arguments a bit more seriously to see the female performances, translations, and comments on Media as a real and influential presence and not as a kind of minority voice. These female presentations of ancient culture were on the Victorian landscape and must have raised enormous anxiety in the Jebbs and Arnolds.
It is also worth wondering whether the rise of Medea in her various manifestations was not also an extension of George Grote's radical, rationalist interpretation of Greek life and philosophy. Grote presented Socrates as a powerful critical rationalist voice suppressed by religious fervor in Athens. Grote's wife was a strong feminist as were other women and men, such as John Stuart Mill, associated with the philosophical radicals. In his Birth of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche famously savaged both Socrates and Euripides for their rationalism. What he was really doing was savaging George Grote's image of Socrates. Arnold and other late century Oxbridge male academics, such as Benjamin Jowett, did all in their power to smother Grote's critical rationalist reading of Greek politics and intellectual life. Fiske's protagonists for the cause of Medea stand on the other side of that cultural divide. Curiously until women were actually admitted to the universities, it may have been more difficult to suppress or ignore their voices. Once they were in the university gates, the champions of a staid classical Greece who resisted both ancient irrationality and modern critical rationality could seek to suppress women's voices and analysis through the standard vehicles of academic discourse.
No one so encountered the disdain of the male classical academy as Jane Ellen Harrison, who may be regarded as the real heroine of Fiske's admirable volume. Harrison has been the subject of numerous studies. She remains, however, an enigmatic figure who fits almost no presupposed category. She was an extremely bright person with enormous intellectual flair and a scholar not only willing but eager to challenge authority and most especially stuffy and what she regarded as unimaginative male academic authority and the staid world of Arnoldian Hellenism. In fact, Harrison would have in many respects embodied Arnold's worst nightmare of anarchy loosed in modern classicism. As Fiske explains, "Harrison initiated a crusade for spiritual renewal in Greek scholarship by deliberately undermining the ideological, religious, and institutional foundations of classical tradition and by sublimating her desire for scholarly legitimacy into a quest for the redemptive transformation of her field into a body of knowledge with crucial relevance for her own and future ages" (151). Harrison may not have actually achieved so bold a goal, but there is no question that she pioneered a new path into the classical world followed to greater and lesser degrees by more famous male scholars such as Francis Cornford, Gilbert Murray, and E. R. Dodds.
Harrison's was a very full life, but only in part an academically fulfilling life. As a young woman she had mastered much biblical Greek and later pursued the classics as one of the early students in Newnham College but received only a second on her Classical Tripos examination. She appears thereafter never to have been fully confident in her knowledge of Greek language and literature. After leaving Newnham, she spent two decades as an independent scholar of ancient Greek art in London. She actively published with her most famous work being Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens (1890). Having failed to achieve a permanent academic position in London, she returned to Newnham in l894 as a lecturer. Once back in Cambridge, she became associated with the group known as the Cambridge Ritualists, who saw ancient myth arising from explanations of ancient religious ritual. Her most famous publications were Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) and Themis (1912). In the latter she drew richly upon the theories of myth and religion associated with Durkheim, Bergson, Fraser, and Freud. These books stirred enormous controversy and among establishment classicists much contempt. To this day, many scholars pro and con did not quite know what to make of them as can been seen by Hugh Lloyd Jones entry on Harrison in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Harrison embodied both a romantic, almost mystical, love of the Greek language and a desire to explore ancient Greek culture beyond the boundaries of narrow linguistic training. She was drawn to both ancient art and archaeology and from thence to ancient religion, myth, and ritual. Today she would be seen as an advocate of interdisciplinary approaches to the ancient world. In her own day she was seen as lacking proper expertise wherever he interests and imagination led her. She was determined to champion "a science of not knowing Greek in reaction to institutionalized knowledge" (161). She would approach Greece not through the language which she never quite felt herself master, but through artistic images. Her vision of ancient religion as rooted 'in mystic cults antithetical to the well-known Olympian deities" (161) paralleled her own resistance to the university Olympians of classical scholarship and instruction.
The academic Olympians of her day generally dismissed Harrison's scholarship though they found it impossible to ignore. But Harrison had conceived her analysis of ancient Greek myth with a far grander mission that attacking the academic establishment. Her target was nothing less than Christianity itself faith in which she had lost as a late adolescent. During World War I she published a self-consciously provocative article in the Classical Review on "The Head of John the Baptist." It was an exercise in comparative mythology which reduced one of the great Christian biblical stories to the status of myth and more important associated it with Dionysus, that most problematical of Greek deities. The classical Olympians of the profession immediately attacked Harrison for her questioning of Christianity and especially for questioning it in the midst of the present conflict. But Gilbert Murray, with whom she had once been in love, appeared as Harrison's champion. The issue at hand was as much the role of imagination and intuition in the study of Greek subjects as that of linguistic expertise.
In her exceedingly thoughtful chapter on Harrison, which brings much new material to the fore, Fiske may actually be giving her critics a bit too much credit. As other recent studies have shown, Gillian Sutherland's Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind: The Cloughs and Their Circle l820-1960, there existed at Cambridge enormous hostility to the presence of women's colleges, women students, and women faculty. It certainly seems possible that Jane Harrison encountered levels of hostility to her scholarship that arose from her gender as well as from her novel and self-consciously controversial approach. Fiske, however, is very careful not to take any and every opportunity to make such judgments though they seem fairly clear to this reviewer.
In this and other respects Fiske's fascinating and important book has the great virtue of resisting what are often the temptations of scholarship. She does not overrate the influence of her protagonists nor their shortcomings. She explains carefully and thoughtfully their impact upon the thought and culture of their day from the margins of the intellectual life and institutions. Although her sympathy lies with her protagonists, she is fair to their opponents and more than fair to that staid humanistic Hellenism against which they rebelled. Indeed, she understands that the life and thought of her heretics would have been impossible without that other tradition present. Perhaps most attractive, Fiske understands that her heretical Hellenists were profoundly drawn to the power and even majesty of ancient Greek culture itself. Near the end of her volume, Fiske writes, "if there is one thing that the writers I have been considering have proved, it is that Greek survives because of its malleability and its capacity for reinvention in the shape of individual's passions and passionate conflicts." Fiske has contributed a notable, impressive, and penetrating study and analysis not only of Victorian intellectual life but also for the vibrancy of the humanities in both the nineteenth century and in our own day. All Victorian scholars stand in her debt.
Fiske, Shanyn. Heretical Hellenism: Women Writers, Ancient Greece, and the Victorian Popular Imagination. Athens. Ohio University Press, 2008. Pp. x + 262.
Last modified 29 July 2009