Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity

October 27, 2011

In 1900, the highest-paid living writer, and the most notorious, was Marie Corelli. Her 1893 novel Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy went through 54 editions in her lifetime, sold more than 150,000 copies, and was translated into every European language and even Hindustani and Gujarati. Despite hostile reviews, she sold about 100,000 volumes a year (in contrast to H.G. Wells' modest 15,000) and was "the most successful novelist in Britain" from 1893 to the First World War, counting Queen Victoria among her fans. In 1956, Cyril Connolly dismissed her as "unbearable and unreadable", and just over half a century later she is unread, except by a few scholars including Simon Goldhill.

Overblown, overheated, sensationalist and the most purple of purple prose writers, Corelli has not worn well, but for Goldhill her work is essential to an understanding of national identity and religious crisis in 19th-century England: novels such as Barabbas are at the centre of "a striking dynamic...between theological debate, popular fiction, and political change". Nineteenth-century historical fiction played a central role in the development of the "imaginary of racism" - in particular anti-Semitism - and was at the heart of the challenge to orthodox religious belief. Here, Goldhill reveals how appropriations of the classical past are in "dynamic and creative tension" with such failures of cultural memory and places cultural history at the centre of studies of the reception of the Classics. This "backward glance" also challenges the traditional teleology of modernism.

For Mrs Humphry Ward, author of the highly influential 1888 novel Robert Elsmere, it was ancient history rather than evolution that proved the biggest threat to the religious self: not Darwin, then, but "the education of the historic sense"; and it is significant that Robert Elsmere's crisis, along with that of his creator, is initiated by the close study of history "in those centuries which lie near the birth of Christianity". In this immensely scholarly, highly entertaining and broad-ranging study, Goldhill addresses precisely this "education of the historic sense" through the Classical paintings of J.W. Waterhouse; the presentation and reception of Sappho in paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Charles-Auguste Mengin, Jacques-Louis David and Simeon Solomon; the revolutionary classicism of Gluck's operas and the anti-Semitic Hellenism of Wagner.

However, the bulk of Goldhill's study focuses on the reception and representation of the Classical and early Christian world in historicising theological works such as F.W. Farrar's Life of Christ and Eric, or Little by Little (which he claims as "the generic foundation of Harry Potter") and the profusion of Victorian novels set in the Greek and Roman worlds - in particular the Roman Empire of early Christianity. In the period between 1820 and the First World War, more than 200 novels on Roman themes were published in the UK. Some were by canonical writers such as Charles Kingsley, Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer Lytton and Walter Pater. Others such as Quo Vadis, Ben Hur and The Sign of the Cross, whose authors are largely forgotten, have survived thanks to the theatre and the film industry.

Goldhill analyses this remarkable genre in relation to four linked contexts: the religious battle for hearts and minds; the construction of a nationalist history and a national identity; education and the place of scholarship in understanding the past; and, finally, politics. Through the exploration of these "intricately enmeshed" areas of 19th-century regimes of knowledge and representation, Goldhill reveals the "grounding paradox" of his thesis on the prominence of Classics in the Victorian public arena: its role in bolstering British institutional and intellectual conservatism and, conversely, its challenge to the very structures it appears to serve. Classics was "a visionary, revolutionary subject" and central to the modern sexual revolution. Homosexuality was linked to Greek idealism and the figure of Sappho also provided a model for lesbian desire, although Goldhill is more reticent on this area of female sexual liberation. The study ends with a coda examining how Andy Warhol's set of four photographs, Male Nude (1982-87), references the Victorians' engagement with the past, to demonstrate the pervasive presence of classical antiquity within proclamations of modernity.

This book will appeal to Classicists and scholars of reception theory, popular culture, Victorian art and opera, 19th-century theological debate and the formation of national identity through the novel of Empire in the longest of "long" 19th centuries. Indeed, Goldhill's timescale offers a new and contentious definition of the term "Victorian", stretching from 1760 to the 1980s.

Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity

By Simon Goldhill. Princeton University Press. 368pp, £30.95. ISBN 9780691149844. Published 1 September 2011

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