Faint Sounds of Shovelling

John Kerrigan

  • Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of Tragedy by Yopie Prins
    Princeton, 297 pp, £24.00, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 691 14189 3
  • Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages by Tanya Pollard
    Oxford, 331 pp, £60.00, September 2017, ISBN 978 0 19 879311 3
  • Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy by Richard Halpern
    Chicago, 313 pp, £34.00, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 226 43365 3
  • Samson Agonistes: A Redramatisation after Milton by John Kinsella
    Arc, 109 pp, £10.99, October 2018, ISBN 978 1 911469 55 1

In the first book of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, the heroine remembers her childhood. Orphaned in Italy and educated by her aunt in an English country house, she was given pious tracts to read, learned some algebra and embroidered a shepherdess who was

        lovelorn with pink eyes
To match her shoes, when I mistook the silks;
Her head uncrushed by that round weight of hat
So strangely similar to the tortoise-shell
Which slew the tragic poet.

The hyper-pink shepherdess represents the dainty femininity wished on the child by her aunt. The hat, however, suggests to the adult Aurora, by now a poet with an interest in tragedy, the death of Aeschylus, who according to legend was killed when a circling eagle or vulture, mistaking his bald pate for a rock, dropped a tortoise on it from a great height in order to crack open its shell.

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