CLASSICS IN BRITAIN: Scholarship, Education, and Publishing 1800-2000

Christopher Stray

OUP 2018) h/p 385pp £90.00 (ISBN 9780199569373)

As classicists we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by a number of fixed points: CR and CQ; JHS and JRS (and other journals); the Classical Association; the British Schools at Athens and Rome; Oxbridge Professors of Latin and Greek; Liddell & Scott, the OLD and the Oxford Classical Dictionary; Smith’s 19th century Dictionaries and Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer; and familiar (if variable) syllabi for degree courses. The list could be added to: but these ‘fixed points’ were once anything but fixed, and Christopher Stray has spent his long career in demonstrating by what difficult, and often by now long-forgotten, steps, we have arrived at the present position. 

The book under notice comprises 18 chapters (preceded by an Introduction by Constanze Guethenke), in all but two cases reprinting (suitably modified as necessary) work which has appeared before. It may be relevant to note that this is not a history of classical scholarship, as generally understood: thus there is no technical assessment of the scholarship of (say) Elmsley or Dobree: S. comes nearest in his chapter on Dean Gaisford, but even there the reader will not find an evaluation of, for example, his edition of the Suda. Since the contents of some of the chapters overlap, there is inevitably a certain amount of repetition. Comments on a few incidental matters are deferred to the end of this review. 

Part 1 (‘Scholarship and Institutions’) contains five chapters, starting with ‘Purity in Danger’: was pure textual scholarship (exemplified here by Shilleto, the then renowned Cambridge coach) to be assailed by the imperfect understanding of Greek exemplified by Grote’s Thucydides? Or was it time for T. E. Page’s more generous conception of an education in Greek, compared to the ‘purity’ of Porsonianism, to be diluted by the study of archaeology or the work of Jane Harrison? There is much more in this ‘dense’ (in a good sense) chapter which calls for, and deserves close attention: much of it has resonance and relevance today. Chapter 2 (‘Curriculum and Style in the Collegiate University’) compares and contrasts the development in the 19th classical course of Oxford and Cambridge (A.E. Housman would surely have done better at Cambridge—indeed, if he had been at Shrewsbury rather than Bromsgrove, he would probably have gone to St. John’s, Cambridge, rather than to its Oxford namesake). What was decided in the 19th century has, to no small extent, influenced and lived on to the present day. In Chapter 3 (‘Thomas Gaisford: Legion, Legend, Lexicographer’, not previously published), S. gives us a much broader account than the reviewer has ever seen of a man whose activities displayed immense energy, whether with the Etymologicon Magnum (so-called), the Suda, Hephaestion (which gets short shrift), the Clarendon Press, the Bodleian Library, as dean of Christ Church, with Liddell & Scott, or as the author of a much-quoted legend. Another story, not told by S., concerns Gaisford’s showing some learned divines from elsewhere around the House’s library; seeing the massed 161 volumes of the Patrologia Graeca (presumably ed. Migne) on the shelves, Gaisford swept his arm around and said ‘Complete rubbish’. In chapter 4 (‘The Rise and Fall of Porsoniasm’)—a word coined by Elmsley—S. is concerned with the ‘phenomenon of informal collaboration and scholarly networks’, rather than on individuals or with the nature of Porson’s precise, textually-aimed scholarship (S. mentions Porson’s Law, without adding that it is not invariably followed: see L.P. E. Edwards on Alcestis 712): chief among the ‘Porsoniasts’ were Elmsley, Dobree, Monk, and Blomfield; the opponents—lesser men—included Samuel Parr, Edmund Barker, and Samuel Butler, whose variorum Aeschylus received harsh treatment. The ‘fall’, says S., was brought about not only by death and preferment, but by broader concepts of scholarship, in which Trinity College, Cambridge was less prominent. The importance of this long chapter, with its exemplary provision of detail, can hardly be overstated. Chapter 5 (‘Renegotiating Classics: The Politics of Curricular Reform in Late Victorian Cambridge’) can be summed up, in S.’s words, as showing ‘the emergence of a distinctive pattern of curricular organization which endures today’.

The second section (‘Scholarship and Publishing’) includes much detail on, especially, the multiplicity of Reviews—many of them short-lived, or even stillborn—which infested the 19th C. Chapter 6 (‘Politics, Culture, and Scholarship’) examines, inter alia, the role of classics in the public schools and the differences of belief between the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review. There was, too, a sharp difference of style between the two English universities and their five Scottish counterparts, just as there was between the two English universities themselves. Chapter 7 (‘From One Museum to Another’) goes into more detail on the journals, listing eleven which got off the ground, and one which did not—the Museum Academicum—despite backing by Jowett, Liddell, Scott, and Arthur Stanley. Here we note only that three of today’s journals came into being in the 19th C—JHS, CR, and CQ—and that the Journal of Philology lasted from 1868-1921 (or 1920: see p.  236), closing when Cambridge did not renew a bulk subscription—but the doubling of retail prices between 1914 and 1918 must have been a factor. Chapter 8 (‘The Classical review and its precursors’) follows naturally. The prime mover was John Mayor, younger brother of J.E.B (‘Juvenal’) Mayor. As S. points out, the relaxation of religious restrictions and celibacy rules meant that there were ‘powerful supports’ for the making of a community which might supply both contributors and readers (sc. to the Journal of Philology and the nascent Classical Review [1887]).

Two chapters on individuals follow: ‘Sir William Smith and his Dictionaries’ (chapter 9) and Sir Richard Jebb (‘Jebb’s Sophocles: an Edition and its Maker’) (chapter 10). Smith—a veritable one-man Dindorf brothers in his energy and assiduity—is still known for his encyclopaedic output: S. lists seven Dictionaries, which ‘reflected the broadening of the social and institutional basis of scholarship beyond the Anglican enclaves of Oxbridge to the dissenting and secular circles of London and the provinces’. (Curiously, S. does not mention the big Smith and Hall English-Latin Dictionary [1870], still, in the reviewer’s opinion, the best in its field, now available at On Jebb, S. sums up by writing that his Sophocles was a ‘grand late-Victorian project fuelled by the editor’s idealistic conception of classical Greece and Sophocles’ and his belief that such a concept remained valid in a modern age of transition. S. justly adverts to Pat Easterling’s masterly summary of Jebb’s qualities (for the reference, see p. 225, n. 44); the reviewer adds that there cannot be many commentaries more than a century old which are still of use and in use today.

Chapter 11 (‘Promoting and Defending’) takes us to when compulsory Greek came under threat (of course, fiercely resisted until its abolition in about 1920) at Oxbridge and in London, and when Hellenism was coming to replace Christian faith: the youthful Gilbert Murray said, in his inaugural lecture at Glasgow, ‘Greece, not Greek, is the real subject of our study’. This was the background to the founding of the Hellenic Society, and 20 years later to that of the Classical Association in the academic milieu of University College, London, with J.P. Postgate as the prime mover. Thus, by the time of the introduction of the Committee on Classics in Education (1919), the ‘full house’, as S. puts it, was in place—the two Societies, the Schools in Athens and Rome, the Classical Association, and CR and CQ. Chapter 12 (‘Scholars, Gentlemen, and Schoolboys’) is of more specialised interest, concentrating on Latin, ‘embedded in the curriculum of the grammar schools’—and, of course, often resented: but it was not until 1960 that Oxbridge abolished compulsory ‘O’ level Latin as a requirement for admission.

Part Three (‘Schools and Schoolbooks’) comprises six chapters, of which three are likely to be of especial, or wide, interest; the other three (‘Paper Wraps Stone: The Beginnings of Educational Lithography’; ‘John Taylor and “Locke’s Classical System”’; and ‘Edward Adolf Sonnenschein and the Politics of Linguistic Authority in England, 1880-1930’) are of more specialist content. 

Chapter 15, (‘Schoolboys and Gentlemen: Classical Pedagogy and Authority in the English Public School’) introduces us to a Winchester master of idiosyncratic speech mannerisms, which, says S., is ‘typical of a widespread contemporary trend, one which is intimately linked to nineteenth century English discourses of authority and freedom’: perhaps so, but the section headed Horae Mush(rianae) is in any case highly diverting, never mind whether it gives a ‘rare opportunity to look at the way pedagogic authority is negotiated’. In Chapter 17 (‘Primers, Publishing and Politics; the Classical Textbooks of Benjamin Hall Kennedy’), we learn by what means, and despite much opposition, Kennedy’s Public School Latin Primer came to assume the dominant (and profitable) position which it occupied for so many years—helped by the unaided work of Kennedy’s two daughters in producing the Revised Latin Primer. It was noteworthy that the original Primer was commissioned by the headmasters of the nine ‘Clarendon’ schools—of whom Kennedy himself, until 1866, was one. In the final chapter (18) we learn of the relevance of the aforementioned Primer in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, as ‘providing a symbol of conventional masculine school learning’. Of Valentine Cunningham’s ‘revealing’—via the Gender Rhymes—what the Latin bits in the opera really mean, the less said the better: inaccuracy is combined with gross indelicacy.

The reviewer here notes a few extraneous points: Maurice Bowra (p. 76) deserved to be referenced by more than L.J. Mitchell’s unsatisfactory biography of 2009; on J.S. Watson, biographer of Porson, described as ‘scholar, headmaster, and murderer’ more detail on that last item would not have come amiss (p. 105); on p. 133 we are introduced to Cambridge’s ‘Senior Wangler’; finally, on p. 246, S. tells us that, as a graduate, he had found the Professors of Greek to be more interesting than their Latin colleagues; he cannot have met Eduard Fraenkel! 

The book, which is well illustrated and attractively produced, fully illustrates S.’s encyclopaedic knowledge of what has gone on ‘behind the scenes’ into bringing about the current state of affairs of classics in Britain; it deserves to be widely read. There is a Bibliography and an Index.

Colin Leach

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