Myth-making behind the scholar of mythology

The Invention of Jane Harrison
February 22, 2002

Mary Beard's revisionist biography of the most famous female scholar in the history of classics, Jane Harrison (1850-1928), compares her with her contemporary Eugenie Sellers, also known as Mrs Arthur Strong (1860-1943), who was historian of Roman art and assistant director of the British School at Rome from 1909 to 1925. "Both Harrison and Strong have a good claim on our intellectual time - for the books they wrote and the impact they made within the (men's) classical profession. Yet, while Harrison continues to get her due share of attention, and more, Strong is passed by largely unnoticed." This is the starting point of Beard's inquiry into the making of academic reputations and posthumous fame.

The book concentrates on the formative years in Harrison's career, the "London period" (1880s and 1890s), which was followed by her return to Cambridge in 1898 and the establishment of her academic reputation with the publication of Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903). These were also the years of her friendship with Sellers, which came to an abrupt and mysterious end. An amateur production of The Tale of Troy in 1883, in which both women took part, serves as a prologue to Beard's lively narrative of the lives and careers of female academics in late Victorian England. It is her contention that in treating Harrison as the leading figure of so-called Cambridge ritualism, the "scholarly mythology" has caused her early career as a historian of Greek art to be generally overlooked. Such a teleological approach to Harrison's life left no room for her London period and Sellers's part in it.

Beard challenges the current view of the Cambridge ritualists (Harrison, Gilbert Murray, Francis Cornford and, to a certain degree, J. G. Frazer and A. B. Cook) as a homogenous and self-conscious "group" or "school". The 1879 reform in the Cambridge classical tripos resulted in the emergence (side by side with the philological part I), of the optional part II, which allowed the students to take papers in various subdisciplines of classics. In section D of the new tripos, classical archaeology was offered for the first time as a major component of the Cambridge degree. Yet it was not the kind of archaeology on offer today in British and American universities. Instead, religion, mythology, art and antiquities - that is to say, the same range of subjects that was the focus of the ritualists' attention - were subsumed under classical archaeol-ogy as its constituent parts. Significantly, it was the archaeological option in section D of the tripos that Harrison taught after she became research fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, and college lecturer in classical archaeology. Beard's brilliant analysis not only demonstrates conclusively that there was no substantial break between Harrison's early career as art historian and her later preoccupation with the history of religion, but also effectively contextualises Cambridge ritualism within the intellectual and institutional milieu of late 19th-century Britain.

There is less discussion of Harrison's major works, the Prolegomena and Themis (1912) than one might have expected, but perhaps this is not surprising. By rejecting the approach that makes ritualism the pivot of Harrison's career, Beard implicitly establishes an alternative teleology of her own, the one in which Harrison's London period is of greater importance than her Cambridge years. From this perspective, Sellers, whose academic interests remained largely within the limits of the shared London period, naturally deserves no less claim on our attention than Harrison. But it is one thing to maintain that Cambridge ritualism was historically conditioned by its intellectual and academic background, quite another matter to make it indistinguishable from that background. Whether or not the classicists who worked in Cambridge at the beginning of the 20th century, Harrison among them, thought of themselves as a "school", their impact on the subsequent history of classical scholarship is incontestable. After all, how many scholarly works written a century ago are, like Harrison's Prolegomena , available today in paperback? This is why I find it hard to accept Beard's contention that Harrison's reputation is largely a matter of chance. Ultimately it was created by clever manipulation of her career - first by Harrison herself, then posthumously by her friends and pupils.

However, The Invention of Jane Harrison is an enjoyable book that will be of interest to classicists and those interested in the history of scholarship, female education and the life and mores of academic and intellectual circles in late 19th-century England.

Margalit Finkelberg is professor of classics, Tel Aviv University, Israel.

The Invention of Jane Harrison

Author - Mary Beard
ISBN - 0 674 00212 1
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £25.50
Pages - 229

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