Article body

Shanyn Fiske’s monograph is the latest in a growing body of research that investigates how classical texts have influenced nineteenth-century writing and performance and how Greek material in particular has been refocused in ways that cut against the grain of expectations. Fiske’s approach is ambitious. She regards previous studies as overly concerned with female authors who worked closely with the original texts. She thinks that such studies carry the implication, however unintended, that the value of women’s relationship with the Greek sources is directly dependent on their ability to engage with them through cultivating a linguistic expertise that matched (or, in practice, often had to exceed) that of their male counterparts. Fiske’s intention is therefore to focus on other types of interactions between Greek texts and women’s writing, concentrating on writers who either did not know Greek or who were not confident in their own scholarship. Some preferred to use mediating translation or criticism to inform their interest in Hellenism. This focus is productive and potentially valuable in supplementing text-based concerns with a broader-based awareness of the varied ways in which Greek literature and scholarship permeated other fields of activity. Although the copy on the jacket of the book does Fiske no service in claiming that “The prevailing assumption regarding the Victorians’ relationship to ancient Greece is that Greek knowledge constituted an exclusive discourse within elite male domains,” it is clear from her much more nuanced discussions that she is fully engaged, not only with recent work in the field, but also with many of the research questions that are needed in order to extend it.

In its approach to ancient texts Fiske’s study is well-informed by, and sometimes in productive dialogue with, the work of Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh on burlesque and the history of theatre in Britain, with Isobel Hurst’s Victorian Women Writers and the Classics (2006) and with Yopie Prins’ studies of female poetics and nineteenth-century conceptions of Hellenism. Some attention to Nick Lowe’s The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) would have informed her discussion on narrative forms and themes. Fiske also draws on recent scholarship in women’s writing, cultural history, popular culture and social change. Her book does, however, lack a consistent rationale for how some key terms are used (notably “popular” and “imagination”) and might have benefited from the setting out a framework of investigation to enable closer comparisons between the case studies (cf. the agenda proposed by Edith Hall in “Putting the Class into Classical Reception,” a chapter in in Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray’s Companion to Classical Receptions (2008). The bibliography testifies to the breadth of Fiske’s scholarship and is a mine of useful pointers that will be of interest to anyone who is willing to work across disciplines to investigate the mutual relevance of fields as diverse as those of education, sexuality, history of the book, translation, and hermeneutics.

Fiske’s initial claim is that her book studies “the diffusion of Greek myth, literature, and history throughout Victorian popular culture” (17). This is a huge ambition. However, she goes on to explain carefully that her mapping and analysis of what might be called “popular Greek” is to be conducted through case studies, each of which focuses on one aspect of women’s relationship to Greek in popular culture. This does tighten the lens but also immediately involves a daunting range of primary sources, among which her use of periodicals and personal essays stand out. Her argument in two of the main chapters is based on the assumption that it was the novel that provided the imaginative forum for engagement between “popular” culture and the Greek myths and texts. This engagement, she suggests, allowed inputs from popular culture as well as into it and how that particular nexus operated is the meat of the four main chapters of the book, although the terms “popular” and “imagination” are conceived differently in each of them.

The first chapter takes its perspective on the Greek material from the figure of Medea, especially as presented in burlesque theater and in the work of Augusta Webster and Amy Levy. This material is laid alongside studies of crime, court proceedings, and newspaper reports of comparable situations in which female defendants were demonized. It raises important questions about the relationship between sensationalism, popular stereotypes and the writing subject.

The second chapter is devoted to Charlotte Brontë. Fiske presents the latter’s perspective on Hellenic material as a mosaic, derived from essays about the central Homeric questions that Brontë read in periodicals (especially Blackwood’s) as well as from familiarity with Chapman’s Homer and knowledge of discussions of the effects of tragic suffering in treatments of the theme by German thinkers. There is some revealing discussion of how Brontë accessed and used Greek material and on her documented interest in translation and in the construction of literary composites (such as the figure of Electra). Fiske’s elegantly phrased conclusion (110-111) sees the culmination of this “aesthetics of fragmentation” in Villette (1853), in which the trope of homecoming and Brontë’s own emotions are intertwined, thus pointing to an alternative imagining of the relationship between past and present. However, some critical issues slide away. In particular, Fiske does not engage with the issue of the conservative aspects of women’s relationship with classical learning (as does Hurst in her 2006 volume) nor with problems of how women readers might imagine Penelope (as does Vanda Zajko in her contribution to Hardwick and Stray among other recent pieces).

The third chapter looks at George Eliot’s novel Romola (published in the Cornhill Magazine, 1862-1863). This analysis is central to Fiske’s thesis about how the novel form “largely destabilises the institutional values upon which high-culture authority rests by recognising the affinity between the most exalted moments of the distant past and the common experiences of the present” (115). Fiske moves smoothly between different contexts — the history of publications, intellectual history, and Eliot’s life and work. The focus on Romola and the mythopoeic imagination adds a distinctive dimension to the scholarship on Eliot’s interactions with classical material, including reflection on how Eliot’s quest for knowledge sometimes, Casaubon-like, paralysed her literary creativity and on how recovery and transmission of material artefacts as well as texts informed her sensibility.

In the next chapter Fiske considers the scholar Jane Harrison and brings together analysis of the classical climate in Cambridge and Harrison’s own background and interests. Fiske aligns Harrison’s approach to discovering the “truth” about archaic Greek culture (in Prolegomena, 1903) with the agency of Eliot’s mythopoeic imagination. However, there is a sometimes uneasy relationship between the two prongs of Fiske’s approach to Harrison; she asserts both that Harrison’s focus on art and anthropology resulted from her exclusion from the charmed circle of (male) philologists, and that it was the result of the exercise of a distinctively female imagination. In neither aspect is the relationship with the “popular” imagination made explicit (indeed, the discussion of Harrison’s attitude to the audiences at her lectures actually serves to deny this thesis). Fiske’s discussion of Gilbert Murray here and in her Afterword is illuminating, especially in its tracing of the changes in Murray’s attitude to the First World War (a useful complement to the essays in C. Stray (ed.) Gilbert Murray Reassessed (2007)).

Overall Fiske does, however, sometimes stretch her terms further than the evidence will bear. George Eliot’s scholarship may not have been up to the standard of Anna Swanwick’s or even Augusta Webster’s but, as Hurst has shown (and Fiske tacitly concedes) Eliot read the texts in the original language and had a serious interest in criticism. Equally, Jane Harrison may have encountered the scorn of the male classical establishment but she was no dilettante and had a respectable classical education at Cambridge. What Fiske is dealing with in her fourth chapter are revisions in the nature of what constituted classical knowledge and in the kinds of imaginative activity associated with it. These questions are important, but the critical project of addressing them differs from the first chapter’s focus on interactions with popular culture; such differences need discussion. Fiske’s study of Harrison is a counterpart to the kind of shift that she perceptively notices in Gilbert Murray, a change in how knowledge of the ancient world and its cultural texts and artefacts is put to present use. An underlying question, not specifically raised by Fiske, is whether Brontë’s emotional and personal choice of Greek stories provides a life-experience counterpart to the way in which the more classically knowledgeable Harrison and Murray conducted their acculturations.

Fiske’s short Afterword contains some general conclusions about the contextual and cultural causes shaping Greek material and how the associated conceptions of “Hellenism” changed. In that connection Elizabeth Vandiver’s new book, with its revisionist reading of the relationship between classical authors, WWI, and the “popular” poetic imagination, should provoke further debate (E.Vandiver, Stand in the Trench Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War, 2010). Fiske sees the Great War as a watershed, marking the death of the “heretical” energy of Hellenism, partly because of educational changes and partly because heresy involves some kind of validation of what is being subverted. She ends with a nod in the direction of the malleability of Greek material and its energizing impact and so points to the possibility of new forms of “heretical Hellenism.”.

So even if Fiske’s argument does not entirely support all its initial claims, it actually does something rather more valuable in its specific focus on the entry and exit patterns of Greek receptions in different cultural forms. It opens up some further research questions, especially in its focus on “the story behind the text.” Fiske’s mapping of nineteenth-century aspects of extra-textual Hellenism demonstrates the potential for increasing the dialogues between classicists, cultural historians, comparative literature specialists, and the few invaluable cross-disciplinary hybrids who can work across all these fields.