Common Sense and the Classics

Dinah Birch

  • Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance by Richard Jenkyns
    HarperCollins, 363 pp, £20.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 00 223843 8

There used to be a notion that the 19th century abandoned the ancient world as a cultural model, and looked instead either to progressive scientific materialism or escapist Gothic Medievalism. Like most such generalisations, this hypothesis was full of holes. The story of 19th-century Classicism has now received much scholarly attention, and it has turned out to be odder and more complicated than anyone used to suppose. The peculiar prestige of the Greeks (Roman civilisation – for reasons worth investigating – never acquired quite the same glamour in Victorian eyes) has come to seem pervasive and deep-rooted, forming the dominant aspirations of the period in varied and contradictory ways. Its romantic historicism had a great deal in common with the fashion for the Medieval. But its influence on Victorian preoccupations was more widespread than the taste for Arthurian knights and damsels, and its consequences were more enduring.

The Greek ideal was irresistible to the beleaguered Victorian intellectual. It represented what was for ever out of reach. The Greeks had the charisma of an antiquity so remote that it was original. They were the beginning of things: the beginning of literature, the beginning of religion, the beginning of history. The Romantics had taught their inheritors to revere origin, and coming first gave the Greeks a special significance for the post-Romantic Victorians. This is a central reason for their overtaking Roman culture in popular regard. But ancientness didn’t make the Greeks aged. They seemed eternally youthful, unstained, like preternaturally wise children who would never have to grow up. In sombre contrast, Victorian sages were haunted by a sense of weary belatedness. Greek art and literature had an air of simple heroism that lay quite beyond the tawdry concerns of gaslit Britain. The Victorians constructed a beguiling image of Greek happiness that was at once spiritual and sexy, a vista of well-proportioned marble temples and untrousered limbs under endlessly blue skies. The fortunate Greeks could be both disciplined and at liberty. They were blamelessly devout. But they were untrammelled by the Christian religion, with its corroding doubts and its guilty moral responsibilities. Nor did they have to bother about the recalcitrant woman question. Despite one or two temporary spots of annoyance with females like Medusa or Clytemnestra, soon to meet with pleasingly sticky ends in any case, the Greeks apparently had little trouble keeping their women in order. The slaves and helots seemed not to have caused much anxiety either. As pictured by the Victorians, the Greek world was shapely, beautiful, and serenely unconfined.

It must have been a satisfying fantasy. And it had some telling pragmatic advantages, too. After all, to proclaim your allegiance to the Greek example you had to know something about it. The institutions that dispensed such knowledge were closed to anyone who was either low-born or female. There was no more efficient way of advertising your status than by asserting your devotion to Classical authority. Almost every hopeful Maggie Tulliver or Jude Fawley found the door barred fast. The Greeks were not only glamorous, they were socially exclusive. The changing bases of economic power in Victorian England were making the old hierarchies look unstable. One of the lingering seductions of Greek culture was the gratifying distinction it conferred on its students. It was perfectly possible to use your admiration for the Greeks to identify yourself as a rebel, and many did so: but you were at the same time proclaiming yourself inalienably a gentleman. This proved an especially providential paradox. Nothing makes a more comfortable basis for cultural criticism than a secure sense of cultural superiority.

It was typically those who were least certain of their social position who approached the ancient world with the warmest ardour, sometimes with a creative intelligence that a conventional scholastic training might have stifled. Keats was no Classical scholar, and his view of Greek myth was far from orthodox, but it was widely influential on the later development of 19th-century poetry. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had little formal schooling, but her privately-garnered learning enabled her to announce her credentials as a serious poet with a translation of Prometheus Bound. Even Ruskin, in general no admirer of Classical tradition in his early years, moved towards a thoughtful revaluation of Greek religion in the central writings of his maturity. These were figures who looked for and found very different qualities in the ancient world. What they have in common is a continuing faith that it represented something well worth having in their own benighted age.

Richard Jenkyns has been one of the liveliest and most persuasive interpreters of the Classical legacy in Victorian culture. The Victorians and Ancient Greece, published in 1980, was a book that mattered. Cogent and formidably well-informed, it examined an extraordinary range of Victorian literature and art in the light of its relation to Greek precedent. This new book, then, is something of an event. Here Jenkyns turns from his earlier emphasis on literature to an examination of the visual arts. A lengthy procession of Classically-influenced paintings, sculpture, buildings, advertisements and much else passes under his inquiring and irreverent eye. What he has to say about the evidence he presents is neither cautious nor dull. Jenkyns is not, as he cheerfully confesses, an art historian. The audacity that permits him nevertheless to write about such an ample range of artefacts, made in a period that is not his professional field, is engaging.

His ebullient certitudes do, however, involve both himself and his readers in areas of some difficulty. Intellectual complexities that ought to have given him pause are dismissed with a blithe insouciance that is frequently irritating. ‘How far then should we try to relate a society to its art? Probably there is no general rule: sometimes the two things are closely linked, sometimes not.’ True or untrue – and it is hard to conceive of an art that is not closely related to the society that produces it – this is not enlightening. And sometimes Jenkyns is just wrong. He is massively and breathtakingly mistaken to claim, as he in passing does, that the Great War was aesthetically insignificant, on the grounds that Modernism was well under way before the first shells exploded. ‘Politically, socially, economically the First World War is of huge importance; in the history of aesthetic culture it is of no great account’.

But the pleasures of this book are inseparable from the flaws, for its strengths and limitations arise from the same source. In 1853, Matthew Arnold pondered the reassuring significance of Classical authority in the preface to the first edition of his Poems: ‘I know not how it is, but their commerce with the ancients appears to me to produce, in those who constantly practise it, a steadying and composing effect upon their judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general. They are like persons who have had a very weighty and impressive experience; they are more truly than others under the empire of facts, and more independent of the language current among those with whom they live.’ Arnold is part of the phenomenon that Jenkyns wants to explore. He was a Victorian who assembled an image of the Classical culture to answer his own intellectual and emotional needs. But Jenkyns’s critical procedures suggest that in many ways he shares Arnold’s convictions.

Some of the results of this Olympian detachment are invigorating. Here is a book that is wholly free from fashionable cant, or reflex acts of homage to what is considered politically correct in arts faculties. But other aspects of Jenkyns’s self-assurance are more troubling. It comes as a shock to encounter the assumptions behind his generalising characterisations of national identity, as he speculates on whether ‘the British are by temper more empirical, less theoretical than the Germans.’ This kind of tribal essentialism has long since been discredited in academic discourse. But Jenkyns has not noticed: and he would not use the word ‘discourse’ anyway.

There is a kind of honesty in his approach. Many an academic who would be aghast at the thought of publishing a sentence like the one I have quoted is perfectly ready to voice equally indiscriminate generalisations in private conversation. Jenkyns is unusual only in that he is prepared to write as he speaks. But there is a price to be paid for his refusal to join in the intellectual games that everyone else is playing. It is too clear that he has not done any new thinking in the ten years since the publication of his last book on the Classics in Victorian England. This is not to say that this book exhibits no new research, though it is surprising to find that every illustration and many textual references from the 1980 book reappear in his new study. Jenkyns can be forgiven for that, for he has added dozens of unfamiliar examples and illustrations to his earlier body of work, and those he draws from architecture are consistently instructive and intriguing. What is more worrying is that his patterns of response have not developed, and in the decade since their last appearance they have begun to look distinctly naive.

Here is part of Jenkyns’s account of Pugin’s views on strength and grace in architecture.

And besides, was he not drawn himself to the charms of slenderness? There was something feminine in his sensibility. His spires aim for height at the cost of solidity; they are picturesque, certainly, but scarcely robust. Some of the plates in Contrasts reveal a liking for the very late Gothic buildings of France and Flanders, so curiously smudged and carious in their ornament, deliquescent like rotting fruit. On the title page the soft, spiky entwinements of a luxuriant, faintly sinister foliage ramp around the Gothic lettering, with oddly decadent effect. In his work on the Houses of Parliament, how he loves the gilding and colouring, the endless cusps and crockets and finials. Superb in its way, all this fuss and filigree seems far removed from the almost aggressive masculinity of Mid-Victorian Gothic.

This passage reveals more about its author than it does about Pugin. What it shows is that Jenkyns is still caught up in the paradigms that formed Victorian thought. The supposedly feminine element in Pugin’s sensibility is associated with a charm and slenderness that soon slithers into culpable frailty, smudged and carious ornament, sinister decay and trivial fuss. Jenkyns’s writing shows no trace of awareness that such antagonisms are anything other than the natural order of things, or that there might be something amiss in adopting them as a framework for argument. One of the broadest modifications of our understanding of the cultural structures of the past, arising from the work of feminism, has been a new perception of ways in which the hidden codes of gender have dictated suppositions about cultural power and value. This is a revolution that has passed Jenkyns by, and it shows.

Given his ignorance of the difference that feminist scholarship has made to our understanding of the treatment of the female nude in the history of Western painting, it is unlucky that Jenkyns has had so much to say on the subject. Studies such as Bram Dijkstra’s learned and tough-minded Idols of Perversity (1986) have shown how deeply fear and contempt for what women were thought to represent infused the visual culture of the later 19th century. Jenkyns is also interested in Fin-de-Siècle decadence, and he talks about some of the pictures included in Dijkstra’s survey. But here the tone of his analysis falters, for the brisk geniality which serves him well in his discussions of Gothic pillars and Classical columns is ill-adapted to deal with the undulating acres of female flesh which the ostensibly straitlaced Victorians displayed in the name of Classical tradition. Confronted with the remarkable prurience of Leighton’s Venus Disrobing, Jenkyns insists, a little uneasily, that ‘common sense must be our guide,’ and that the picture is simply evidence of Leighton’s dutiful wish to demonstrate his mastery of the academic conventions of the nude. In matters of sexuality, no more unreliable guide than common sense exists, as Jenkyns is quite old enough to know.

But the wish that common sense might serve as our guide is a tenacious one, and it is one of the strongest impulses behind the long 19th-century romance with the Classical world. Those Greek warriors and toga-clad Romans were not enmeshed in modern neurotic follies; they could think clearly. Or so it seemed. Because it was perceived as the home of cool rationality, Classicism became a vehicle for much of what was most emotional and most eccentric in the experience of the Victorians. Classical costume authorises its wearers to be unreservedly themselves. It is a strategy that has never quite lost its appeal.