- Persephone Rises, 1860-1927: Mythography, Gender, and the Creation of a New Spirituality
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's goddess gazes unsmilingly from the cover of Margot Louis's new book, Persephone Rises. She holds her glowing pomegranate open, showing the fatal seeds that promise pain and terrible joy, a fit icon for the Victorian and Modernist uses of the myth that this monograph examines. Louis argues for Demeter and Persephone as an "ideal nexus" for considering nineteenth-century reactions to rape, negotiations between Christianity and alternative spiritualities, and explorations of mother-daughter relationships. Persephone Rises joins a growing number of important books studying the conjunction of myth and gender in Victorian literature and culture that go back at least as far as Nina Auerbach's Woman and the Demon and include Adrienne Munich's Andromeda's Chains, Dinah Birch's Ruskin's Myths, and Nina daVinci Nichols's Ariadne's Lives. Citing Frank Turner, Robert Ackerman, and Catherine Gallagher, Louis responds to "the specific historical and cultural contingencies informing each mythopoeic text rather than asserting a universal and transcendental value reaffirmed in each appearance of the myth." Leaving behind what came to be derisively called the "myth-lit-crit" of the 1970s and 80s, Louis participates in "a new myth criticism—employing the methods of historicist and cultural studies" (xi).
The introduction outlines two trends in Victorian mythography that helped bring Persephone into prominence: a growing interest in Greek chthonic ritual as mediating death (in contrast to the Homeric Olympians as representing immortality) and a gradually increasing respect for ancient Greek religion as genuine faith rather than mere superstition. Chapter 1 usefully compares the myth's classical sources: the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, discovered in a Moscow stable in 1777 and a crucial influence on the Victorians; Ovid's Metamorphosis; and Claudian's De raptu Proserpinae. Louis moves on to Chaucer, Shakespeare (the first to focus on Persephone's experience rather than her mother's), and Milton. Each creates a paradigm that subsequent British and American authors have followed: a sardonic take on women's domination by patriarchal institutions, a story of growing feminine power that culminates in happy reunion, and a prophesy of Christian resurrection, a vision to which many Victorians clung while more radical ways of seeing the myth emerged. The chapter continues with a powerful reading of Mary Shelley's closet drama Proserpine, in which "we hear the mother's rage and rebellion against the male powers that have bereaved her of her child" (35). A glance at Hawthorne's tale "The Pomegranate Seeds," with its Pollyanna-like Persephone, brings in Margaret Fuller, whose "Conversations" shift Persephone from the helpless child of Ovid and Milton and from Wordsworthian affect to an emphasis on intellectual maturation. Far-reaching and erudite, both chapters 1 and 2 analyze the contributions of [End Page 247] Victorian mythographers such as Max Müller, Karl Otfried Müller, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and Jane Ellen Harrison.
Of greatest interest to Victorian Review readers are chapters 2, 3, and 4. Chapter 2 reads Jean Ingelow and Dora Greenwell's Persephone poems compellingly through the lens of J.J. Bachofen's theory that matriarchy preceded patriarchy and of McLennan's notion that patriarchal marriages were originally based on the brutal capture of wives. Both Ingelow and Greenwell depict marriage as a violent tragedy that severs the primary bond between mother and daughter. A well-known Swinburne scholar, Louis shines brilliantly in chapter 3, exploring at length his focus on Proserpine as the queen of the underworld and teasing out the tensions between oblivion and immortality, pessimism and the life force, raised not only in Swinburne but also in Mathilde Blind, Tennyson, Walter Pater, D.G. Rossetti, George Meredith, and Edith Wharton. While in many ways the book's most exciting chapter, replete with beautiful and persuasive readings, it also includes the book's most awkward moment, abruptly referring several times to a very brief appendix on the origins of fin de siècle pessimism that...