- The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, Volume 4: 1790–1880 ed. by Norman Vance and Jennifer Wallace
“A big book is a big evil,” wrote Callimachus in the third century BCE. The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, Volume 4: 1790–1880 is a very big book indeed at just over 750 pages. Yet the area it broaches—the reception of Greek and Latin antiquity in the long nineteenth century—is so huge and embracing that it still feels as though the subject is barely scratched. How the classical past informed the cultural practices of nineteenth-century Europe is fast becoming a central question for scholars of Victorian literature as well as art history, political thought, and intellectual history. That it is not already an established perspective in all literary departments is testimony to a strange deformation of the modern academy: the two topics that most insistently vexed the educated interactions of nineteenth-century society, filled the curricula of the schoolrooms, and populated the imagination of artists and writers—namely, classics and the Bible—are the two arenas where contemporary scholarship all too often appears to be undertrained. A working knowledge of Greek and Latin and familiarity with the masterpieces of antiquity are regrettably and indefensibly not part of the modern scholar’s usual arsenal. It is not just that what was once familiar now needs footnotes; rather, a whole horizon of cultural expectation remains unrecognized. This massive tome will, therefore, provide an excellent starting point for many students and scholars. By focusing on a single period and area of work it strikingly surpasses the inevitable superficiality of the more scattered approaches of the Blackwell and Brill companions to classical reception.
The book is simply and conventionally organized with two long sections: the first of eleven chapters covering general topics under the heading of “Contexts and Genres,” and, the second, of fifteen chapters, on specific authors. The general chapters are largely dedicated to unsurprising areas of inquiry: on “Education and Reading,” by Christopher Stray, the doyen of educational history, who is still eschewing politics, religion, and intellectual history in his focus on the classroom and its policy; on class (which inevitably informs Classics in this period) by Edmund Richardson, with his usual flair for the anecdote as evidence; on gender, by one of the volume’s editors, Jennifer Wallace, although antiquity’s role in the construction of imperial masculinity is sacrificed in this chapter’s focus on women and classical learning; on translation, by John Talbot—a subject that runs through the book, but perhaps not in as theorized a manner as some would wish. [End Page 534] Unfortunately, the two chapters on the very large and important topics of religion and the novel, both by the editor, Norman Vance, who has already contributed so much to our understanding of Victorian culture’s engagement with Rome and with Christianity and masculinity, are surprisingly short and unfulfilling.
The eighteen authors (sometimes in pairs) who are chosen for a chapter of their own include the expected George Eliot (though this chapter by Shanyn Fiske does not seriously engage with her notebooks, which might be thought the obvious starting point for Eliot’s classical learning); Robert Browning in an outstandingly good chapter from Yopie Prins, who is avidly attentive to the interplays between Greek and English semantics in Browning’s bizarre translations; on Lord Byron, neatly twisted by Timothy Webb to look at the poet’s Romanness rather than the expected Greek strand of his paraded philhellenism; Algernon Charles Swinburne (by Charlotte Ribeyrol)—whose passion for the beat was equally found in meter and flagellation, but whose publicly denounced perversion took shape from within the same educational world as Benjamin Jowett; and of course Matthew Arnold, whose construction of Hellenism informed the debate over cultural value for a generation (as Nicholas Shrimpton notes). The section also includes some less expected figures. It was particularly good to see Walter Savage...