- Heretical Hellinism: Women Writers, Ancient Greece, and the Victorian Popular Imagination
In 1816, John Keats, upon reading George Chapman's illuminating translation of Homer, turned his admiration for the ancient Greek poet into a sonnet, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." Keats's not knowing Greek (though he knew Latin) disturbed Lord Byron, who would not have been stunned, however, that a contemporary woman author did not know the language. Indeed, "Charlotte Brontë did not know Greek" (p. 64), as Shanyn Fiske remarks in Heretical Hellinism. Greek language was an elite discourse, a rite of passage for intellectual nineteenth-century males. Akin to Keats, Charlotte Brontë and other Victorian women writers gleaned information about the Greek world in fragmentary ways or from translations in popular sources that fired their literary imaginations.
Heretical Hellenism draws the reader in from the start. We return to Cambridge on 7 December 1909 to witness the inaugural meeting of the Heretics Society, a nonconformist group of men and women that challenged religious authority. Fiske, in successive chapters, follows the lives of three Victorian women writers—Brontë, who learned her Greek in the family parsonage at Haworth from translations and adaptations for popular journals; George Eliot, self-taught but fluent in Greek and Latin, who was intimate with and influenced by leading Hellenists, yet attentive to her position as a woman working within a male-dominated field; and Eliot's self-proclaimed disciple Jane Harrison (b. 1850-d. 1928), who made the study of Greek essential to her academic life and who equally inspired and evoked hostility for her scholarship attacking traditional views. Building on the work of Yopie Prins, Isobel Hurst, and Lorna Hardwick, Fiske centers her exploration on women writers' involvement with "popular Greek" (p. 18), the only texts in the forbidden Greek world available to women. Reading previously unconsidered sources and theatre history, Fiske skillfully argues that from these three "representative case studies" (p. 21), we discern how the Greek world appealed to Victorian women writers, who perceived it as a means through which to challenge prevailing notions of knowledge, classical authority, and gender. [End Page 382]
Most compelling are the first and fourth chapters, which, respectively, explore the paradoxical popularity of the Medea figure—one that threatened traditional gender roles and domestic values and simultaneously riveted the Victorian imagination—and the academic life of Harrison, the most heretical of the Hellenists considered. In chapter one, Fiske demonstrates how Victorian adaptations of Euripedes's Medea transformed the classical "monster" who murdered her own children and her rival into a daring deviant, a mouthpiece for women's increasing autonomy silenced for her refusal to conform to restrictive ideologies. In chapter four, we learn how Harrison, hampered by coming to Greek late, fought against the male classical academy at Cambridge in 1874-79 as she pursued Greek myth, architecture, and art, domains far beyond traditionally sanctioned linguistic training. Noteworthy, too, is Fiske's focus in chapter two on Brontë's little analyzed essays on Hellenism's significance to modernity, written under the tutelage of Constantin Heger; Fiske's focus on Brontë's academic relationship with her Belgian tutor offers a welcome respite from scholarly preoccupation with Brontë's unrequited love for her married tutor.
If there is a shortcoming to this successful volume, it lies in Fiske's curtailing of her own compelling arguments. The siren-like lure of the actress Vashti for Lucy Snowe in Brontë's Villette (Ch. XXIII), the recurrent tempests and shipwrecks beginning with the "wreck" of Lucy's domestic arrangements at Bretton early in Volume One (Ch. IV), the nun's haunting Lucy while "at home" at Mme. Beck's pensionnat (exaggerating her persistent homelessness, Ch. XXII, XXXI, XXXIX), and the sea imagery through characterization (Mme. Bretton's calm seas versus Lucy's troubled ones, CH. XVII) would only deepen the Odyssean echoes in Villette. Centering the Eliot chapter on Romola excludes analysis of Eliot's best-known heroines who long for "masculine studies"—Maggie Tulliver of The Mill on...