- The Ovidian Heroine as Author: Reading, Writing, and Community in the Heroides
Ovid's Heroides have traditionally received mixed reviews from readers and critics. John Dryden famously regarded them as Ovid's "most perfect piece" of poetry, but he too saw imperfections in the collection. In the preface to his [End Page 286] own English translation of the Heroides, he suggested that Ovid's heroines are not altogether plausible as abandoned women, observing that they "are not too miserable to make puns" and that they frequently "speak more eloquently than the violence of their passion would admit." Grant Showerman, similarly writing "in appreciation of the Heroides," offered the type of qualified praise that has now become commonplace in contemporary criticism of the letters, claiming that "The Heroides are not a work of the highest order of genius. Their language, nearly always artificial, frequently rhetorical, and often diffuse, is the same throughout—whether from the lips of barbarian Medea or Sappho the poetess." L. P. Wilkinson, whose project to rescue Ovid's literary reputation in Ovid Recalled heralded the dawn of a modern renaissance in Ovidian studies, likewise damned the Heroides with faint praise. He notoriously described the work as a stodgy "plum pudding," declaring that "the first slice is appetizing enough, but each further slice becomes colder and less digestible."
Cutting against this trend, Laurel Fulkerson's new book shows how tastes in the Ovidian world have changed. Building upon recent studies (specifically those by Efi Spentzou and Sara Lindheim) that have confirmed the status of the written women of Ovid's Heroides as reading and writing women, The Ovidian Heroine as Author offers a new approach to reading Ovid's heroines and their letters. Across seven chapters, with an appendix on "The authenticity (and "authenticity") of Heroides 15," bibliography, index, and index locorum, this slender volume sets out to reevaluate the Heroides as both an inter- and intratextual community of authors and readers.
The Heroides are configured unequivocally as love letters from Penelope to Ulysses, Briseis to Achilles, and so on. Yet the heroines' letters frequently appear to be directed to other Heroidean readers: Oenone's letter to Paris posits Helen as a potential (mis)reader, Hermione's letter to Orestes also speaks directly to her mother Helen, and Hypsipyle's letter to Jason seems also to be addressed to her rival Medea. What is more, the heroines repeatedly write of their fears that their letters will never reach their "intended" (male) readers, that they will be deliberately intercepted or fall into the hands of the wrong (female) readers, that they will be misread or—worse still—not read. A love letter's direct and intimate exchange between its writer and addressee is compromised in each of the Heroides, complicating issues of (mis)reading and (mis)interpretation. Fulkerson is convinced that the Heroides deliberately and self-reflexively provoke questions about their own textual and intertextual status. She sees the heroines as puellae doctae who "self-consciously fashion themselves as alluding authors influenced by what they read" (2), namely, the other epistles in Ovid's collection. Fulkerson argues, like Kauffman, that the "correspondences between the correspondents" are key both to understanding the poetics of the Heroides and to redeeming Ovid and his heroines from charges of repetition and reduplication in their writing.
Chapter 1 focuses on Heroides 2 and Phyllis' dangerous (mis)reading of the epistles of Dido, Ariadne, and Medea. Here, Fulkerson cleverly exploits Phyllis' own reading strategies (and her resultant self-positioning as an abandoned [End Page 287] heroine just like Dido et al.) to demonstrate the kind of external "misreading" that, Fulkerson claims, this epistle has traditionally invited. Readers who see Heroides 2 (and, indeed, the collection as a whole) as repetitive and imitative repeat Phyllis' reading mistakes: Phyllis erroneously reads her own situation as reduplicating that of Ovid's other hopeless heroines, blind to the subtle and positive differences among them. Phyllis, then, Fulkerson suggests, offers us "a model of how (not) to read the Heroides" (39).