- Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of Tragedy by Yopie Prins
by Yopie Prins; pp. 312.
Princeton UP, 2017. $75.09 cloth.
How did “the delight of learning a dead language [become] a mark of womanly character” (xi)? Yopie Prins asks in the preface to Ladies’ Greek, winner of the 2018 NAVSA Book Prize. The question marks the distinct turn that classical reception studies has taken in the two decades since Prins’s Victorian Sappho (Princeton, 1999) helped to break ground for inquiries into the relationship between Victorian writers and ancient Greek literature. In the twenty years between Prins’s books, a number of scholars have drawn attention to the challenges facing Victorian women who wished to learn ancient languages and their exclusion from the educational and social institutions that provided and legitimized such knowledge. What has become increasingly clear from these explorations is the strength of women’s creativity and perseverance in acquiring and exercising such knowledge, despite—and perhaps because of—social and personal obstacles to classical learning. Ladies’ Greek directs itself to this phenomenon and argues not only that women were uniquely suited to the study of ancient Greek but that they were essential to the translation and transmission, in particular, of Greek tragedy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. “Why,” Prins asks, “did women in Victorian England and America desire to learn ancient Greek, and how did they turn it into a language of and for desire” (xi)? Her answers to these questions not only explore the history of women’s classical education and practice but, more broadly, offer important insight into the nature of desire itself.
One genius of Prins’s book is its organizational structure. While previous studies of Victorian women and the classical tradition have tended to arrange their chapters around individual authors, Prins devotes each of her five chapters to the study of a specific figure from Greek tragedy and the various translations and interpretations of that figure. One benefit of this ambitious framework is that it de-emphasizes the representative figuration of each author under scrutiny. Instead, Prins’s discussions preserve the individuality of each experience while simultaneously tracing the common threads that bound together the trans-Atlantic phenomenon of ladies’ Greek. Classical reception, Prins argues, “is better understood through converging and diverging enactments, demonstrating different possibilities for the performance of Ladies’ Greek, at different moments and in different places on both sides of the Atlantic” (34). While keenly aware that the attraction to and practice of ancient Greek was not only a prerogative of white women of privilege but a way of idealizing privileged white culture, Prins carefully draws attention to the diversity of women’s experiences within this collective endeavour. Thus, while she spends considerable time discussing the Greek practices of more canonical figures such as Elizabeth Barrett [End Page 285] Browning, Virginia Woolf, Janet Case, and Jane Harrison, she also notes Anna Julia Cooper’s efforts to improve classical education for African-American women and draws attention to lesser-known women writers such as Sara Coleridge, whose fascinating translation notebook suggests that the challenge of translation “produces a way of knowing Greek that did not make it simply the object of knowledge, but rather made it possible to think about the very question of knowability, what could be known and what would remain unknown” (11).
Virginia Woolf famously expounded upon the essential unknowability of ancient Greek in her oft-cited essay “On Not Knowing Greek,” and Prins is certainly not the only scholar to argue that it was this unknowability that attracted women to what she calls the “interlingual space” (37) created by and through translation. However, Prins fleshes out women’s efforts to both conquer and sustain this unknowability—and thus perpetuate desire itself—through her exploration of the different modes of translation that women found, not only stylistically through their verbal translations and adaptations but through theatre and dance: “Not only were women translating tragedy in miscellaneous notebooks, letters, journals, and other writing, for personal edification and for literary publication, but they were translating these texts into performance as...