The sober landscape of classical studies was revolutionised at the turn of the last century by the hot new sciences of anthropology and archaeology. Classicists began re-interpreting the antiquity they knew about from texts, by relating it to rituals of newly described "primitive peoples", or newly discovered physical objects. Over a period of 30 years, antiquity got a whole new look, wilder and darker. It became exoticised, primitivised, ritualised.
In the vanguard of all that was Jane Harrison, born in 1850. In the first wave of women stud-ents at Cambridge, she did classics at Newn-ham and became a brilliant teacher there: a passionate lecturer who re-interpreted Greek myth "in the light" (quite literally, since she made dramatic use of magic lantern slides) of art and archaeology. She also maintained a glamorous London presence in the British Museum and Bloomsbury.
Another revolution in classics happened 75 years later, again inspired by hot new sciences, but far more self-reflexive ones: the techniques of interpretation stirred up by Freud, structuralism and feminism: psychoanalytic deconstruction, sociology, gender studies. These techniques put the subjective input of the observer - the counter-transference of the analyst, the passions of the field anthropologist, the sexism of male historians, the fantasies of the critic in his study - centre stage, and were a godsend for classicists, who have so much less evidence than anyone else. Poem- fragments scribbled on manky scraps of papyrus wadding in Egyptian cookware, potsherds, scraps of Roman gossip: these are pathetically skimpy straws to build the bricks of an ancient world. Classicists spotted that what they thought they knew about their subject had been fabricated by the prejudiced interpretations of previous scholars. From about 1975, they became expert at dismantling these "inventions" masquerading as knowledge, created by the vested interests and unexamined beliefs of earlier scholars.
In the van of that revolution was a young historian named Mary Beard. Like Harrison, she teaches at Newnham College, keeps a London presence (witty, forceful pieces in the London Review of Books, stewardship of classics for the TLS), and is an exhilarating teacher, alert to new disciplines. Like Harrison, she specialised early in myth and religion, but Roman, not Greek. She too was interested in art and archaeology, but also in the history of classical studies: how early 20th-century scholarship was shaped by factors in contemporary culture to interpret the past in particular ways.
Various factors in her own (even more contemporary) environment drove Beard into the arms of Jane Harrison - or at least her shade. Beard is married to an art historian at the
Courtauld and has for years taken energetic part in discussions of art criticism and gallery space: of how a museum re-interprets the past by juxtaposing objects. She also teaches in the Cambridge Classics Faculty, a building whose penthouse gallery, filled with light and supported by crimson girders, houses a collection of casts made around the time of Harrison; she teaches in Newnham, which holds the Harrison Archive.
Hence this biography, beautifully researched and written, a delight to read, which questions the whole concept of biography. Take so-called evidence: a blurry black-and-white snap labelled, "Olympia c1888" on the back (in whose hand? …