WOMEN CLASSICAL SCHOLARS: Unsealing the Fountain from the Renaissance to Jacqueline de Romilly

Edited by Rosie Wyles and Edith Hall

OUP (2016) h/b 465pp £80 (ISBN 9780198725206)

The reviewer’s task is to review the book under notice, not to enter into gender or other politics concerning its genesis or general approach. The reviewer is, nevertheless, conscious of his ‘Y chromosome’, a term which occurs from time to time here. It is noteworthy that three British women scholars of great distinction are not included: Jane Harrison, who has been the subject of at least two biographies, and who ‘possessed a phenomenal talent for self-publicity’, Helen Waddell, who encountered severe male prejudice (biography by Felicitas Corrigan, 1986), and Hilda Lorimer (whose help to this reviewer is still recalled with gratitude). All three are included in the Dictionary of British Classicists (2004).

The Introduction by the two editors (but stylistic considerations argue that Hall’s contribution is substantial) explains that the editors’ task has been to excavate the history of women’s achievements in classics, in which there has been no ‘linear progression’; rather, it is disheartening to learn that the performance of women classicists has been subjected to especially intense scrutiny, which has meant that ‘they have had to be twice or three times as good at what they do as their male equivalents, just to win equal rewards’: there is ‘epistemic injustice against women’.

In this volume the editors seek to challenge the ‘construct’ that women could only understand fiction, and that only men could understand the classics. The reviewer adds that the volume under notice succeeds in this aim, while the biographies of the 17 women authors represented here seem to argue that a substantial measure of success has by now been achieved. When Rosie Wyles in her ‘Afterword’ says that the objective is to put women at the centre, not the periphery, of the scholarly radar, so that the study of women philologists should be assimilated into the mainstream history of scholarship, who can fail to support so manifestly worthy a cause?

The bulk of the book, which saw its origin from a conference held in London in 2013, consists of nineteen chapters, all but one by women scholars (the exception, Roland Mayer, is emeritus professor of classics at KCL, where the conference took place. He had a cat named Madame Dacier). It will be understood that only the briefest and necessarily selective accounts can be given here in a short review, whereas a longer ‘review article’ would be fully appropriate; it is also a given that in almost every case the scholars discussed were working in a male-dominated environment, with all the difficulties implicit in those circumstances.

In chapter 2, Carmel McCallum-Barry writes on ‘Learned Women of the Renaissance and Early Modern Period in Italy and England’. Noteworthy is Cassandra Fedele (1470-1558), praised by Poliziano, but unable to achieve the career at royal courts often opened to male humanists, despite her admission to learned circles in Florence. In England, the accomplishments of Thomas More’s daughters were praised by Erasmus, and Lady Jane Lumley (1537-78) translated—or adapted—Iphigenia at Aulis: since Lumley refers to the substitution of a deer (‘white hart’ in Lumley) by Artemis for Iphigenia, it is clear that she had the non-Euripidean ending: it is, in any case, the first version in English of a Greek tragedy.

Anne Dacier (1647-1720) features in two chapters, 4 and 5. Rosie Wyles joins her with Maria van Schurman (1607–1678), who had both been singled out by the scholar Gilles Ménage in his Historia Mulierum Philosopharum (1690) as being doctissima, though the two women had different ‘career trajectories’, well brought out here: Ménage was particularly supportive of ‘intellectually engaged women ‘throughout his career, and his aim was to free women from contemporary prejudice against certain categories of intellectual women in his own society. The account of him given here is of the greatest interest, as is the chapter as a whole.

Jacqueline Fabre-Serris concentrates on translations of Sappho by Anne Le Fevre (i.e. Anne Dacier) in 1681 and Renee Vivien in 1903, each of whom ‘demonstrated a sexual freedom which was quite remarkable for their time’. Anne Dacier is hampered by a Greek text which, as printed, offers σρεθοι for στρουθοι and which bowdlerises line 24, to eliminate the female nature of the person addressed: the reading adopted is that of Henri Estienne. In the case of the ode (Fragment 31) which is certainly addressed to a woman, Dacier’s translation needs no Bowdler (both translations, which are elegant rather than word-for-word accurate, are given here in French). Dacier also uses, whether she believed it or not, the ancient tradition that Sappho’s passion was for a youth called Phaon. The translations of Renee Vivien, who, like Dacier, had benefited from rigorous private tuition, start with an accurate prose version, but go on to give variations in French and English by contemporary poets, such as Swinburne, with the intention of rendering Sappho alive current, modern—indeed her other self: as an avowed Lesbian, she was not hampered as Dacier perhaps was, in her approach to Sappho.

Edith Hall, writing in chapter six about English women translators in the 17th  and 18th C foregrounds and praises Lucy Hutchinson’s (1620-81) translation—the first in English—of Lucretius, a poet whose Epicurean philosophy offered obvious problems in a Christian society. Hall believes that she ‘craved a challenge which would stretch her mentally and provide substantial food for mental sustenance’. (Lucretius, says Hall, had been put on the intellectual map of Europe by the ‘dazzling’ edition of Lambinus (1564). The epithet, not unjustified, would have been usefully amplified by a footnote citing Munro’s detailed eulogy of Lambinus in his own edition of the poet: vol. 2, pp. 10-12).

Jennifer Wallace shows in chapter 7 how in the 18th C Elizabeth Carter faced similar difficulties when translating Epictetus (having already produced versions from Anacreon and Horace). That was demanding enough, but Ada Sara Adler’s (1978-1946) even greater achievement, ably recounted by Catharine P. Roth in chapter 14, was to edit the Suda: her edition is still the one cited in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. As with an editor of (say) Macrobius, a particularly awkward problem arises when the editor is faced with a text that is simply wrong: accept it or correct it? Nor—understandably—did she recognize the diversity of the original sources.

Kathleen Freeman (1897-1961), who lectured at the predecessor College to the University of Cardiff from 1919 to 1946, retiring early, was especially noted for her work on Solon (still available at sky-high prices), but she also wrote widely on other Greek topics; as M. Eleanor Irwin points out in a lively chapter 16, she was ahead of her time in concentrating not on philology, but the ‘big picture’—which led to accusations of popularism. She was also a successful writer of mystery novels and children’s books.

Many scholars must still be grateful to A. M. Dale (1901-1967), of whom Laetitia Parker gives a sympathetic account in chapter 17, for her work on the lyric metres of Greek drama; but she also produced commentaries on Helen and Alcestis: Parker justifiably refers to the accusations of thinness that have been made, but in the context of the ‘Oxford Reds’, they were not out of line either in scope or approach, and her Collected Papers (1969) contain much that is still worth reading. Dale’s career, like the even more distinguished one of Jacqueline de Romilly (written about here in chapter 20 by Ruth Webb), seems happily not to have encountered masculine hostility. Indeed, she was unofficially tutored at Oxford by Gilbert Murray, whose influence was to be seen also on Florence Stawell (chapter 8, by Liz Gloyn), Grace Macurdy (‘the drunken Duchess of Vassar’, whose career was long hampered by another woman, her superior, Abby Leach: see chapter 10, by the late Barbara McManus), Edith Hamilton (chapter 11, by Judith Hallett), besides, famously, the ‘Cambridge Ritualist’ Jane Harrison.

Hallett on Hamilton (1867-1963) is, perhaps, especially notable for its intermittently severe tone: Hamilton’s ‘Anglicizing strategy’ comes under courteous but unmistakeable fire, her frankly false attribution of a hybridized quotation is identified, and loose translations are corrected. Hallett adds that she idolized Gilbert Murray, who however, seems himself not to have taken much, or any notice of her—an omission made up for by a ‘fulsome if sexist’ blurb by Maurice Bowra for The Greek Way (1929; blurb 1963). But, says Hallett, ‘Hamilton’s statements frequently lack documentation from ancient texts, rarely if ever cite modern scholarly authorities, and rely on highly selective selections of evidence’ (The chapter’s title includes ‘the routing of Edith Hamilton’s…’: ‘routing ‘ is deemed to come from ‘route’, but our ‘rout’ seems almost equally applicable).

The grievous difficulties encountered by African Americans (male and female) in achieving any education, classical or other, are well set out by Michele Valerie Ronnick in chapter 9, who tellingly observes that the women discussed did not broadly have ‘the luck of being part of a generation where women could get up on the podium for the first time’ (as de Romilly said). Four scholars who are perhaps less likely to be well known than some of those noticed above are: (a) the Russian Olga Freidenburg, cousin of Boris Pasternak (chapter 15, by Nina V. Braginskaya [1890-1955] with three translators), where we read about how she had to bend herself, her life, and her scholarship to fit into the ideological straitjacket of Soviet dictatorship, though she did achieve the Chair of Classical Philology at Leningrad;

(b) Simone Weil (1909-1943) (chapter 19 by Barbara K. Gold), ‘a discussion not of Homer’s Iliad, but of Weil’s interpretation or reception of Homer’, of which Oliver Taplin has written ‘(it) was not written for scholars and is not argued in the academic mode: it none the less conveys a fundamental understanding of the Iliad’;

(c) Margaret Alford (1868-1951), discussed by Roland Mayer in chapter 12. Alford produced commentaries on Livy, Tacitus (Histories) and Cicero (Letters to Atticus), and also served from 1942-45 as the only woman on the editorial staff of the Oxford Latin Dictionary. Hardly less noteworthy is the praise for her help that she won from such émigré scholars as Pfeiffer, Jacoby and Fraenkel; and

(d) Luisa Sigea of Portugal in chapter 3 by Sofia Frade, who shows that there are still many questions about her scholarship to be answered.

Few women classicists can have wielded so much influence as Betty Radice (1912-1985), who succeeded E.V. Rieu as editor of the Penguin Classics in 1964, and held the post for 21 years. Rowena Fowler (chapter 18) shows how Radice had to revise and modernise the series, and add such improvements as line references, bibliographies, explanatory notes and maps. She encountered controversy and opposition, first from M.I. Finley (too tolerant of bad work by ‘retired schoolmasters, barristers and journalists’), and then again in 1968 from Arion in the person of its editor D.S. Carne-Ross, who favoured ‘creative and original translations’. There were irreconcilable differences between Penguin and Arion in their relationship to the original text: ‘translation is more than a subjective impression’, wrote Radice. Radice managed to combine her demanding editorial work with translations of Pliny (Letters and Panegyricus), and generations of readers have ample cause to be grateful for her ‘Penguinification’ of classics—as well as for her concern for linguistic rather than sexual decorum.

The Afterword is followed by a substantial bibliography of some 49 pages and an index. The reviewer noticed a small number of typos (possibly including the item from Sappho mentioned above) of which only one—in note 56 on p.240—detained him for more than an instant; against that, footnoting is full and informative.

The subtitle of the book under review refers to a poem by Tennyson, ‘the ideology (of which) has been regarded as fundamentally sexist and reactionary by several feminist scholars’, we learn from a footnote on page 1.

Colin Leach

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