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

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.

Jane Harrison was born in 1850, and brought up in Yorkshire by a fiercely evangelical stepmother. At 17 she was sent to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and in her twenties went on to read classics at Newnham. Beard focuses on the period from 1880, when Harrison was living in London and transforming herself into an expert on Greek art and artefacts, particularly seals, sculpture and red and black vases – she set herself to master their systems of representation as if learning a new language. In Charles Newton, Keeper of Classical Antiquities at the British Museum, she found an experienced archaeologist to work with, and she familiarised herself with the results of recent excavations (including those of Schliemann at Troy and Evans in Crete). She began to give public lectures illustrated with lantern slides, adopting a mannered, even histrionic style that transfixed her audience. She also took a number of private pupils, whom she encouraged to learn her methods.

Beard analyses her pedagogic technique, using teaching aids unearthed from the Newnham archive. Harrison trained her students in the iconography of the figured vases, asking them to identify recurrent motifs and designs, and their associations. One method she used was to give her student a series of photographs: in the instance described here, a) showed a vase painting, b) the fragments of an ancient limestone pediment and c) a projected restoration of that pediment derived from the figures on the vase. She would then ask the student to ‘Explain c) with the help of a)’ – that is, to reconstruct the method of that particular restoration. Harrison herself had recently seen the limestone fragments on the Acropolis, had read a German article proposing this restoration, and had tracked down a photograph of the vase on which that restoration was to be based. It was a method that allowed little room for disagreement – in a footnote Beard tells us that the limestone fragments have since been restored rather differently.

The forward-driving logic of this teaching technique is also characteristic of Harrison’s scholarly writing, where she wheels out a series of analogies, etymologies and taxonomies in support of her argument. Like her lecture-room audiences, Harrison’s readers were required to take her expertise on trust, rather than weigh the evidence for themselves. Mary Beard, by contrast, is committed to promoting readerly scepticism. Some years ago, she mounted a delightfully iconoclastic exhibition at the Ashmolean called simply ‘?’. By providing the various classical items on display with comic, spoof or even scurrilous captions, the exhibition required its visitors to ponder what, if anything, they expected to learn from traditional museum labels.

Harrison’s authoritative, even patriarchal voice is as much a product of her time as Beard’s interrogative mode is of our own. Her certainties belong to her society and her subject, though the confidence and conviction she displayed were still rare among women, and offended certain contemporaries and rivals. As a child Jane had discovered ‘the dear delight of learning for learning’s sake’: ‘Some half-century ago,’ she remembered, ‘a very happy little girl secretly possessed herself of a Greek grammar. A much-adored aunt swiftly stripped the gilt from the gingerbread with these chill, cutting words: “I do not see how Greek grammar is to help little Jane to keep house when she has a home of her own.”’ Yet Harrison eventually taught herself three Romance and three Scandinavian languages, German, three Oriental and five dead languages, and, towards the end of her life, Russian and Persian.

She recognised that for ‘a few laggard minds’ learning was ‘unwomanly’. As a Victorian woman, her own intellectual achievements were hard won. Beard is understandably impatient with the male classicists who saw her as having used her relationships with other scholars to further the study of ritual. But Sandra Peacock’s ostensibly more feminist account was unwittingly even more reductive, seeing her as the victim of society and her writing as the victim of her passions. Peacock dramatised Harrison’s relations with younger scholars – notably, D.S. MacColl, R.A. Neil and Francis Cornford – as painful scenarios in which she was always the loser. Yet Harrison, too, was inclined to see herself as repeatedly betrayed and heartbroken. Beard is uncomfortable with her claims to victim status, and hurries over these unedifying episodes, embarrassed by the tears and psychosomatic suffering they elicited. Yet strong women sometimes need to present themselves as victims, if only to reduce the gap between themselves and more accepted patterns of femininity – to deflect their own gorgon stare.

A century on, Harrison’s career still poses questions about the way we respond to women as thinkers and writers. What are we to make of the masculine quality in Harrison’s rhetoric? Should we explain it in terms of the prevailing discourse of the day, which she was obliged to adopt in order to be heard at all, or should we agree with Tina Passman that ‘Jane Harrison wrote like a dyke and lived like a dyke’? Beard steps carefully around the issues of desire and passion; she prefers to address the question of gender by drawing a comparison with Eugénie Sellers (a.k.a. Mrs Arthur Strong). Sellers plays a structural role in this book, her relative obscurity providing a contrast to Harrison’s posthumous fame. Initially, Sellers seems to have been less academically gifted than Harrison (she left Cambridge with a ‘third division’ Third), but she was beautiful, personable and ambitious, and quickly established herself in her turn as a student of archaeology, working at the British Museum. When her husband died, she inherited his post as Librarian at Chatsworth House, and from there moved on to become Assistant Director of the British School at Rome, where she made her name cataloguing Roman sculpture and exploring the connections between art and religion in Roman culture. During the 1920s, she quarrelled with the School’s director and both were edged out. She stayed on in Rome, taking tea if not with Mussolini, then with the archaeologists he patronised, until her death in 1943.

Beard asks why one has been remembered and the other forgotten: was it simply luck or was there more to it than that? Sellers’s tolerance of Fascism is obviously one factor. And Rome was a far-flung outpost of British cultural life, unlike the Cambridge-London circuit that brought Harrison into contact with the Maitlands, the Darwins, the Cornfords, Gilbert Murray and Roger Fry. But, as Beard admits, Harrison’s work was always better known beyond the community of classicists. Her concern with origins – whether of human feelings or their enactment in cults and religions – was part of the zeitgeist. In the introduction to Themis: A Study in the Social Origins of Greek Religion (1912), she acknowledged the influence of Bergson and Durkheim, while the preface to the second edition added Nietzsche and Freud. Several of the Modernists found suggestive cycles of death and rebirth, loss and restoration in Harrison’s reconstructions of ancient cults and incorporated them into their work: for H.D., her account of the Mother and the Maiden offered a crucial paradigm. D.H. Lawrence was similarly fascinated by her notion of a primal matriarchy (more properly, a matrilineal society), preceding the rule of Zeus and the Olympians. T.S. Eliot drew on her sense of the rituals underlying Greek drama, incorporating it into his own plays, where he integrated the modern primitive (desert islands and sex murders) into Sweeney Agonistes. In The Family Reunion he transformed the Erinyes from fearful spirits of the vengeful dead to ‘therapeutic’ powers (a development analysed in Harrison’s Prolegomena of 1903). Mrs Dalloway seems to draw on Harrison’s concern with the spirits of the dead, and the integration of the individual into the community. Her researches were deeply implicated in Modernist recoveries of the classics; and though it may be that they were substantially misread and misunderstood in the process, their richness and suggestiveness lent themselves to such creative (mis)appropriation (as the work of Mary Douglas did during the 1960s). And after the Second World War, when Harrison’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, her ideas were recycled for the next generation in E.R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational.

Sellers never looks like a serious rival, though her relationship with Harrison remains intriguing. It ended in a ‘bust-up’, but had begun with Sellers’s ‘GP’ (Grand Passion) for her teacher and sometime friend. What exactly did that acronym embrace? Is it to be distinguished from a Schwärmerei – a schoolgirl crush – which is how Hope Mirrlees described Sellers’s initial affection for Harrison? Beard reminds us how little we know of the unspoken rules and expectations that governed female friendship among the New Women of the 1890s. She adds in parenthesis ‘“Was Jane Harrison gay?” is a question that this book hopes to transcend.’ Yet suggestions of Sapphism lay all about her. Sellers was a close friend and even lived for a while with Vernon Lee, a well-known writer and 1890s’ aesthete whose love of women was no secret. And Harrison’s final years were spent in Paris with Mirrlees, whose first novel dramatises Sapphist circles, though it is set in the 17th century to disguise any resemblances to contemporaries. Virginia Woolf, gossiping extravagantly about her visit to Paris, reported seeing Hope and Jane ‘billing and cooing together’.

Mirrlees – Harrison’s pupil and later her companion – is the third woman in Beard’s story. She seems to have worked on her unfinished biography of Harrison all her life, unable to decide what was publishable, or to surrender its hoarded memories. Mirrlees and Harrison met at Newnham in 1910, and their friendship grew into a complicated nursery game, in which they figured as the elder and younger Walruses, or else as the wives of Herr Bear, the Old One – a furry toy given to Harrison by her pupils, but also her totem animal. She claimed to have felt an instinctive affinity with bears since childhood, and would end notes to Mirrlees with a drawing of the constellation of Ursa Major. Mirrlees signed off her poem Paris and her three novels using the same star sign as colophon, and together they translated a book of Russian bear folk tales. Mirrlees was quite as gifted as her mentor. Although she could seem vain, precious and affected, she was also unambitious, writing to express an inner vision, and each work is different from the others. Her outstanding achievement is Paris, a (pre)surreal tour through the postwar city on the eve of the Treaty of Versailles, a grotesque dance of the quick and the dead, featuring, among others, President Wilson, Freud, the Douanier Rousseau and Père Lachaise, father of the uncountable war dead. Published in an edition of 175 copies by the Hogarth Press (and handset by Virginia Woolf), its readership remained strictly limited; those, like T.S. Eliot, who did read it, never forgot it.

Paris is set in May and June 1919. That autumn Mirrlees’s first novel, Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists was published. The story of a provincial young woman who falls in love with the précieuse, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, it is evidently a roman à clef. The few interpretations of it that exist assume (with Virginia Woolf) that it is ‘all sapphism … Jane and herself’. But de Scudéry is certainly not a portrait of Jane, who appears much later in the book as the wise Mère Agnès Arnauld, the Jansenist Mother Superior of Port-Royal: ‘Her face, slightly tanned and covered with clear, fine wrinkles, seemed somehow to have been carved out of a very hard substance, and this … gave her the look of one of the Holy Women in a picture by Mantegna. Her hazel eyes were clear and liquid and child-like.’ Mère Agnès urges Madeleine to abandon her fantasies and accept things as they are, but fails to save her from madness. This leaves open the question of the identity of de Scudéry. I suspect she is a hostile portrait of Nathalie Barney, who, like de Scudéry, used to call herself Sappho; through Barney, Mirrlees would have come across Apollinaire and Cocteau, the dominant influences on Paris.

As the portrait of Mère Agnès suggests, Jane Harrison did not merely study myths, she generated them around herself. A few months after her death, Virginia Woolf conjured her up in A Room of One’s Own: a ‘bent figure, formidable yet humble, with her great forehead and her shabby dress’ stepping onto the terrace at Fernham like ‘the flash of some terrible reality leaping … out of the heart of the spring’. Beard’s biography brings Woolf to mind, not merely because she leaves us with only a fleeting vision of ‘J- H-’’ but because Woolf’s scepticism so often anticipates our own. Her essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’ employs cultural difference to overturn (male, institutional) assumptions of knowledge about the ancient Greeks: scholars can’t agree on how to pronounce their language, don’t know for sure where the jokes are, can’t imagine the climate – actual or psychic – in which they lived, or recover their ways of thinking. Like us, Woolf was impatient with the limits of biography, its tendency to straitjacket life into literary cliché, its failure to recognise that individuals are multiple and ultimately unknowable. Character, she argued, is not the sum of an individual’s circumstances or appearance but something more elusive. Yet a tension remains between her sense of the fluid self and her reluctance to abandon the traditional concept of character, for while human complexity must be acknowledged, we also need to identify difference, and character remains a convenient shorthand for doing so. While Beard’s suspicion of conventional character-drawing is justified, it also limits the scope of her enterprise. As the title indicates, The Invention of Jane Harrison tells us what we have made of Harrison, rather than who she actually was; it has more to say about the difficulties of writing biography than it has about Harrison herself. But this may be the more urgent issue.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences