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

Synopsis

This book brings together two lines of enquiry in recent criticism: the reception of ancient Greece and Rome, and women as writers and readers in the 19th century. A classical education has been characterized as almost an exclusively male prerogative, but women writers had a greater imaginative engagement with classical literature than has previously been acknowledged. To offer a more accurate impression of the influence of the classics in Victorian women's literary culture, women's difficulties in gaining access to classical learning are explored through biographical and fictional representations of the development of women's education from solitary study at home to compulsory classics at university. The restrictions which applied to women's classical learning liberated them from the repressive and sometimes alienating effects of a traditional classical education, enabling women writers to produce distinctive literary responses to the classical tradition. Women readers focused on image, plot, and character rather than grammar, leading to imaginative and often subversive reworkings of classical texts. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot have been granted an exceptional status as 19th-century female classicists. This book places them in a literary tradition in which revising classical narratives in forms such as the novel and the dramatic monologue offered women the opportunity to express controversial ideas. The reworking of classical texts serves a variety of purposes: to validate women's claims to authorship, to demand access to education, to highlight feminist issues through the heroines of ancient tragedy, and to repudiate the warrior ethos of ancient epic.

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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