The Wives of Herr Bear

Julia Briggs

  • The Invention of Jane Harrison by Mary Beard
    Harvard, 229 pp, £23.50, July 2000, ISBN 0 674 00212 1

In Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, a group of clever, fastidious preppies in a small liberal arts college on the East Coast reinvent the cult of Dionysus. They brew a concoction of ivy leaves, and embark on the ritual frenzy that culminates in the ‘omophagy’, a feast of raw flesh to be eaten by initiates. Their experiment is informed by Jane Harrison’s researches into the figure of Bacchus and the ‘thiasos’, his band of ecstatic worshippers. Harrison had read her Nietzsche and set off in pursuit of the ‘darker, older’ shapes to be glimpsed behind the clear forms of Greek drama and Platonic dialogue.

Harrison is known for having challenged the Victorian account of fifth-century Athens as a model of enlightened thinking by exploring its ‘subconscious’, its sources in a spirit world characterised by ideas of purity and danger, ancient matriarchal powers and the anger of the vengeful dead. Mary Beard is suspicious of such over-simplifications, however. Hers is an anti-biography, which confronts previous versions of Harrison’s life: Sandra Peacock’s hagiography of 1988, which read the work as determined by personal feeling, and the more scholarly accounts of Robert Ackerman and Hugh Lloyd-Jones which located her ‘at the heart’ of the (so-called) Cambridge Ritualists. Reluctant to offer an alternative myth, yet anxious to avoid already trampled ground, Beard instead explores Harrison’s formative years in London, and asks, rather than answers, a series of key questions. Patiently unwinding the literary and cultural grave clothes, she analyses the significance of the remains of a life, entombed in the Newnham archive and elsewhere.

The result is an amusing, engaging and opinionated book that looks behind the scenes to find out how biography is invented. Beard demonstrates that the selections and omissions in the primary source (in this case the archive at Newnham assembled by Jane’s companion Hope Mirrlees) determined all subsequent interpretations. Those who have used it have perpetuated a narrative of Harrison’s career as founded on ‘passionate friendship’, because the archive is itself the product of the passionate friendship of Mirrlees and Harrison. It requires an independent habit of mind to recognise that process and turn the story, as Beard does, in a different direction.

Harrison’s writing was subtle, eloquent and often elaborately ironic – she played down her feelings in public while luxuriating in them in private. At times, her correspondence and that of her friends can be impenetrably allusive. Here, for example, is the art historian D.S. MacColl writing to Jane’s fellow classicist and one-time protégée, Eugénie Sellers, in 1891: ‘It is clear you have written under a complete misconception, it being quite impossible that she should have meant to convey to you by anything she said what you have taken her to mean. Indeed I should hardly be writing now, if you had not indicated that you did not yourself believe in the insulting suggestion you make.’ And if letters can be baffling, photographs are not much more informative. If the camera cannot lie, it can certainly be economical with the truth: the poor definition of 19th-century snapshots often casts doubt on the identifications inscribed beneath them or on the back. (In E. Nesbit’s family album, for example, a firmly labelled ‘Laurence Housman’ looks to me like Sidney Webb – a mystery further complicated by the fact that the Webbs later refused to acknowledge their early friendship with the bohemian Nesbit.) Beard reproduces and explores a sequence of three snapshots supposedly of Eugénie Sellers in Greece in the late 1880s, pointing out that the woman on the mule (or mules) more closely resembles Harrison. To my eye, the faces look different in the different snapshots – on the other hand, the dress and the location seem to be the same. The lack of focus does not allow any conclusion: Beard reminds us that biography too often prefers confident attribution to proper enquiry; it is more inclined to suppress uncertainties than to share them with the reader.

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