HERETICAL HELLENISM: WOMEN WRITERS, ANCIENT GREECE, AND THE VICTORIAN POPULAR IMAGINATION by Shanyn Fiske, Reviewed by Noah Comet
 

HERETICAL HELLENISM: WOMEN WRITERS, ANCIENT GREECE, AND THE VICTORIAN POPULAR IMAGINATION
By Shanyn Fiske
(Ohio, 2009) ix + 262 pp.
Reviewed by Noah Comet on 2009-09-01.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Hellenism has long been reserved for men. Until recently, scholars of nineteenth-century English and British Hellenism have been chiefly occupied with linking a narrative of aesthetic influence and political idealism to canonical writers who are invariably male. More often than not, this narrative of Hellenism has shown that institutions of authority, such as the university, took responsibility for legitimating and administering Greek knowledge. Knowing Greek, as we have learned from studies by Timothy Webb, Richard Jenkyns, Frank Turner, Linda Dowling, and others, meant more than being able to conjugate verbs and decline nouns; it signified status and privilege, and in the main, it was a male entitlement.

These accounts of Greek classicism in England have taught us a great deal about how and why the idea of Greece eclipsed the Roman classicism of the eighteenth century and they have also enumerated diverse forms of nineteenth-century Hellenism in literature, art, architecture, political theory, pedagogy, debates on sexuality, and thought in general. However, with a few exceptions, their authors have ignored what women contributed to the reshaping of Greece in the English imagination. To redress this oversight, a more inclusive history of Hellenism is now emerging. It features not only women writers who knew Greek despite its near-total inaccessibility to their sex but also women who by lack of language training were provoked into-rather than prevented from-sharing a widespread fascination with Greece. We are only just beginning to comprehend how the ancient world looked through the eyes of nineteenth-century women.

         Shanyn Fiske's Heretical Hellenism is a welcome addition to this recalibrated discussion. Like many of us, Fiske is indebted to the work of Yopie Prins, whose Victorian Sappho (1999) broke new ground in exploring women's distinctive engagements with Greek myth and the gendered self-realizations that come through comprehending and imaginatively reassembling a fragmented ancient past. She is also building upon Isobel Hurst's landmark book, Victorian Women Writers and the Classics (2006), an encompassing survey of women's shaping influence on Victorian classicism. (This conversation will be further enhanced by two Palgrave studies, Stefano-Maria Evangelista's just-released British Aestheticism and Ancient Greece, which includes chapters on Violet Paget [known to her public as "Vernon Lee"], and Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper [known to their readers as "Michael Field"], and T. D. Olverson's forthcoming Women Writers and the Dark Side of Late Victorian Hellenism.) Within this innovative field of inquiry, Fiske has taken an important new approach: rather than focusing on exceptional women writers who had firsthand knowledge of the Greek language, she shows how popular culture and public debates about Greece in the latter half of the nineteenth century fostered a heavily mediated but nonetheless influential and creative Hellenism among women who either did not know the language or were uneasy about their proficiency in it. The story she tells is elegant, well informed, and convincing.

         As Fiske explains in her introduction, "Greek literature and mythology were deeply entrenched in Victorian popular culture and played a significant-if frequently overlooked-role in shaping the lives and minds of a population that had little or no formal classical training" (4). She is careful not to pit her authors against an improbably monolithic male Hellenism, and she is just as subtle in attending to the variances and complexities of "the patchwork classical education that women acquired outside of institutions" (8). Accordingly, this book does not offer a summary view of this dauntingly diverse "patchwork" classicism; instead it provides a few intensive case studies of subjects that must be seen as in some ways unique and in other ways representative. What binds her four case studies-one each on the figure of Medea, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Jane Harrison-is the argument that women's "deeply conflicted yet productive relationship" with the Greek past was formed through popular sources and often against the grain of prevailing authoritative (masculine) Hellenist doctrines (9). Through historicized close readings, she accounts for a "popular Greek" that was just as "malleable" (a favorite term for Fiske) in women's hands as it was in men's (18).

         Her first chapter sets the methodological pattern for the rest of the book, contextualizing her nuanced literary or paraliterary readings (in this chapter involving newspapers, stage history, dramatic texts and poems) with historical scholarship. The Medea of Euripides, she argues, evolved throughout the mid to late nineteenth century alongside changing public attitudes toward women criminals, especially in light of the heavily publicized trials of Maria Manning and Madeleine Smith. As the English people came to terms with a sometimes nefarious femininity that defied their conceptions of the docile "angel in the house," and as Sensation fiction came to prominence, so too did the perplexing figure of Medea develop in dramatic adaptation and performance from an exaggerated character-type to a bona fide character whose complicated interiority could both reflect and comment upon women's changing social concerns and expectations. Looking closely at adaptations of the Medea story-both dramatic and poetic-by Ernest Legouvé, Augusta Webster and Amy Levy, Fiske explores "the transformation of the aberrant woman from a sensational object to a dynamic representative of marginalized subjectivities" (25). To track the literary history of Medea is indeed to see an evolution in the representation of women: in Fiske's eloquent phrase, which shows a firm grasp of much that has been written on this topic, Medea can be seen as a "woman fragmented by self-defeating desires" (58).

         Fragmentation is a running theme in Fiske's discussion. Her next chapter explains how Charlotte Brontë, who did not know Greek, nevertheless used the fragmentary knowledge of Greek and Hellenist culture that she gleaned from periodicals to define her own creativity and her understanding of realist fiction. Fiske outlines two major topics of debate among classicists that were well-documented in the Victorian periodical press: the so-called "Homeric Question," which cast doubt on the historical existence of a single author for the Iliad and Odyssey, and the relevance of Greek tragedy to the still-developing aesthetic of realism. These debates, as well as the writings of Thomas De Quincey and the controversy surrounding the Elgin Marbles, influenced Brontë's early writings, particularly her scholarly back-and-forth with her Belgian mentor, M. Constantin Heger. Heger, a trained classicist, used rigid Aristotelian principles to oppose (among other things) Brontë's growing interest in an aesthetics of fragmentation, which she derived from her readings on Homer and which, Fiske writes, "defines a cooperative relationship between past and present in which each restores a lost or escaped meaning to the other" (99). By analyzing this aesthetic, Fiske gives us a fresh and compelling look at the influence of nineteenth-century Hellenism on the development of the Victorian novel. She concludes by considering Vilette as a rumination of sorts on Homer's Odyssey.

         In Chapter 3, on George Eliot and Romola, Eliot appears as a keenly self-aware Hellenist whose "intimacy with the governing theories and debates of her time" and whose friendships with leading classicists-especially the historian George Grote-gave her unique access to the "male-dominated field" of Greek study (116). Drawing on Grote's work, which "integrat[ed] psychological insight into historical theory," Eliot distinguished between a privileged, male, institutional emphasis on the Greek textual inheritance and another, more

ineffable inheritance to which women were best suited: "on the one hand the need for a sense of historical and personal continuity and on the other the imaginative and moral capacity to fulfill this need" (121, 117). In setting Romola, whose "mythopoeic consciousness" links her "to humanity at large," against Tito, who is aligned with a "Renaissance intellectual history" that "authorizes the destruction of the past as a condition of cultural progress," Eliot dramatizes this very distinction to great effect (140, 130). This chapter offers Fiske's most sustained reading of a single literary work and her clearest account of the link between women's creative works and their mediated access to ancient Greece (through popular Hellenist discourse like Grote's history).

         Fiske launches her final chapter, on Jane Harrison, by telling of Harrison's first encounter with Eliot at Newnham College. As the chapter develops, it becomes clear that Harrison (who was a trained Greek classicist) owed a good deal to Eliot, not least because Eliot showed her that "women could make unique contributions to social and intellectual progress not despite but because of their innate differences from men" (150). Like Eliot, Harrison resisted a stale, purely textual engagement with the classical past and favored instead a more imaginative project. Among other things, the chapter retraces Harrison's debate with another classical scholar, M. R. James, on the story of John the Baptist and its relation to the legacy of Dionysus. The stakes of the debate were greater than just Harrison's "subversive use of mythology as a framework for the Bible"; such comparative mythography was common enough in the nineteenth century. Indeed, through her analysis of the Harrison/James dispute, Fiske shows that Harrison stirred up classicist controversy in order to keep the classics alive and relevant. In Fiske's words, Harrison saw that "the only way to save [the discipline of the] classics from obsolescence was to harness it to the engine of individual passion and creativity" (168, 21). It is from Harrison's irreverent work and that of her many adherents that Fiske derives the "heresy" of her title.

         Ambitious in depth, Fiske's case studies inevitably leave some questions unanswered. Her reading of Romola is a bit isolated, its broadest implications unexplored: does Eliot make a case for a gendered Hellenism, and, if so, how might a "feminine" paradigm reshape the cultural and political legacies of classical Greece? The significance of male interlocutors and correspondents (Heger, James, et al) could have been addressed more systematically. And one wonders why Fiske did not devote more time to explaining how women's Hellenism fed back into the popular discourses on which it relied: what was its impact? But I suppose it is no harsh criticism of a work of scholarship to say that it made me want more. As it stands, full of insight and originality, this book will greatly interest not only those of us who specialize in women writers and the classical inheritance, but also anyone whose research involves reception studies, the integration of popular and literary cultures, women writers and institutional history, and, of course, any aspect of the lives and writings of Brontë, Eliot and Harrison.

 

Noah Comet is Assistant Professor of English at The Ohio State University.


Leave a comment on Noah Comet's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading