Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: The Feminine of Homer

Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: The Feminine of Homer

Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: The Feminine of Homer

Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: The Feminine of Homer

Excerpt

Maggie found the Latin Grammar quite soothing after her mathematical mortification; for she delighted in new words, and quickly found that there was an English Key at the end, which would make her very wise about Latin, at slight expense. She presently made up her mind to skip the rules in the Syntax,—the examples became so absorbing. The mysterious sentences snatched from an unknown context,—like strange horns of beasts and leaves of unknown plants, brought from some far-off region, gave boundless scope to her imagination, and were all the more fascinating because they were in a peculiar tongue of their own, which she could learn to interpret.

In The Mill on the Floss (1860), Maggie Tulliver's imaginative response to the unfamiliarity of Latin vocabulary suggests that encountering the classics as a girl who is not confined by a school curriculum may be an exciting experience. Her brother Tom is engaged in an uncomprehending struggle with a series of dull tasks, with no idea of the reason he is forced to memorize Latin sentences and lacking any awareness of ancient civilization. His experience of classical education is plainly unenviable, yet he pours scorn on Maggie's sense of excitement at encountering the Latin language, her speculations about the lives of the Romans, and her pleasure in the exoticism of these new preoccupations. Tom aligns himself with his dull tutor and mistakenly tries to claim an intellectual superiority based on gender: 'Girls never learn such things. They're too silly' (127). His condescending attitude is a familiar example of the gendering of classical studies as masculine in the nineteenth century, used by men who 'wished to keep women out of the club, which was partly defined by precisely that exclusion; and women ambitious for

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860), ed. Gordon S. Haight (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1980), 129.

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