Sandra J. Peacock Jane Ellen Harrison: The Mask and the Self.
Yale University Press, 283 pages, $27.50
Although the Victorian classicist Jane Ellen Harrison has now pretty much faded into that limbo populated by authors whose work is occasionally cited but not much discussed or read, it was not so long ago that she was a staple in any serious liberal arts diet. Indeed, until the 1950s Harrison was a vivid and controversial intellectual presence both in this country and in England, particularly among writers (Yeats and D. H. Lawrence are among those who acknowledged her influence) and literary critics of certain “advanced” tastes. And since almost any literary reputation—particularly that of a female writer—is a candidate for academic rehabilitation these days, it is hardly surprising that so substantial a figure as Jane Harrison should now be undergoing the first stages of reconstruction and reclamation.
In this new biography, Sandra J. Peacock, assistant dean of the graduate school at Emory University, serves up a psychoanalytic portrait of the classicist that manages to combine a heavy dose of Freudian analysis with all the current clichés about a woman struggling in a man’s world. Being naturally cautious about such matters, I won’t say that this is the very worst biography I have read in the last several years; but there can be no doubt that it belongs high on the short list for that prize.
Jane Harrison, the third of three daughters from her father’s first marriage, was born in Yorkshire in 1850 to a reasonably prosperous merchant family. Her mother died of puerperal fever a month after giving birth. Five years later, her father married Gemimi Meredith, the sternly evangelical Welsh governess whom he had engaged a short time before. Harrison showed a marked aptitude and passion for languages from an early age and was among the first women to be educated at Cambridge University. She matriculated at Newnham College in 1874, two years after the women’s college opened its doors, taking—to her lifelong regret—a second in the classical tripos in 1879.
After spending a term teaching Latin, Harrison went to London, where she devoted almost twenty years to studying, lecturing, and writing at the British Museum, and travelling abroad whenever she could. During this time she flirted with the aesthetic movement and met many leading figures of the day, from Henry James—whom she described as an “ingenious spider"—to that “vain old thing,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In 1898, Harrison returned to Newnham College after winning a fellowship, remaining at Cambridge until she retired in 1922. Immediately after retiring, she went to live in Paris. She returned to London in 1926. Though she suffered from an impressive battery of “nervous complaints” at least from adolescence—headaches, shortness of breath, fainting spells, even bouts of blindness—she lived on until 1928, dying of leukemia five months shy of her seventy-eighth birthday.
In addition to being among the first women to enjoy a Cambridge education, Harrison was also part of the first generation of classical scholars to draw upon the fledgling discipline of anthropology and the unplumbed archeological evidence of vase paintings, inscriptions, and funerary art in her search for the origin and significance of Greek religion. While her early works on Greek art and mythology were quite conventional, her best known books, formidably titled Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903)—at almost seven hundred pages, a weighty prolegomenon indeed— and Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (1912), were instrumental in overturning the received view of classical Greece as the serene citadel of lofty rationality and unruffled aesthetic perfection. As Harrison’s younger Oxford colleague and spiritual ally Gilbert Murray noted, “It would be hard to overestimate the effect on the whole study of Greek religion of the first chapters of the Prolegomena .... They showed once for all how the base of any sound study of Greek religion must no longer be the fictional, largely artificial figures of the Olympian gods but the actual rites in which religion expressed itself and, so far as we can divine them, the implications of those rites.” Looking behind the glittering pantheon of the Olympian deities to the dark, elemental rituals out of which they arose, Harrison helped to provide a new appreciation of the place of ritual and of the irrational in the formation of Greek religion and the classical Greek ethos.
Of course, Harrison was not alone in perceiving the importance of ritual and the irrational in the origins of Greek myth. As Professor Peacock points out, contemporary influences on her work include the Swiss scholar Johann Bachofen, who had published, in 1861, his famous speculations on matriliny and matriarchy in “organic” primitive societies, and Nietzsche, whose description of the Dionysian origins of Greek tragedy and critique of “Socratic” rationalism in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) were custom-made to appeal to Harrison. Then, too, many other scholars had been led by new archeological evidence to realize that often savage, orgiastic communal rituals stood at the origin of much Greek mythology—“myths cruel, puerile, obscene,” as one scholar put it, “like the fancies of the savage mythmakers from which they sprang.” In anthropology, perhaps the greatest figure popularizing such insights was James G. Frazer, whose multi-volume study The Golden Bough had begun to appear in 1890. This monumental exploration of the fertility cults in the Near East revolutionized scholarly understanding of mythology. And while Frazer himself remained skeptical of Harrison and her circle, his work in comparative mythology exerted an enormous influence on her and her colleagues (as well as on many others). Harrison recalled in her late autobiographical sketch, Reminiscences of a Student’s Life (published in 1925 by the Hogarth Press), that “at the mere sound of the magical words “Golden Bough” the scales fell—we heard and understood.”
Yet, among British scholars anyway, Harrison was unusual in that she not only recognized but championed the chthonic, ritualistic origins of Greek myth as a source of emotional richness and immediacy that she believed later, more rationalistic ages— Victorian Britain no less than fifth-century Athens—had neglected to their diminishment. For her, as Frank Turner observes in his encyclopedic overview, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (1981), “rationalism and propriety were incommensurable with the full expression and realization of the human spirit.” In her quest for the essence of the religious impulse, Harrison turned away from the idealized image of the Olympian gods embodied in the canon of Greek literature toward the cult of Orpheus and the ritual festivals commemorated in vase paintings, sculptures, and other ancient artifacts. Thus she announces near the end of the Prolegomena that “the religion of Orpheus is religious in the sense that it is the worship of the real mysteries of life; . . . [I]t is the worship of life itself in its supreme mysteries of ecstasy and love.” And in Themis, she disparagingly compares the gods of Olympus to “a bouquet of cut-flowers whose bloom is brief, because they have been severed from their roots.” It was in this context that Gilbert Murray observed that Harrison had made the word ” ‘Olympian’ almost a term of reproach.” Though late in life she regretted her “intemperate” antipathy to the Olympians, she never ceased to regard the Olympian gods and the rationalism they represented as highly artificial creations, out of touch with the deepest human concerns.
To some extent, it was novelty that formed the foundation of the appeal of Harrison’s work among her contemporaries. She wrote with a pathos and engagement rare among her academic peers, and her whole approach to the classics—for those susceptible to its spell—seemed to open up new worlds of thought and feeling. Today, when every junior professor sitting down to write an article taxes his readers with endless agonizing over his critical “methodology” (the more radical the better) and when any subject is deemed fit for academic scrutiny, it may be difficult to appreciate how fresh and original Harrison’s turn to anthropology and her brief for ritual seemed at the time. When in the opening pages of the Prolegomena she argued that “what a people does in relation to its gods must always be one clue, and perhaps the safest, to what it thinks,” she was not simply asking that her colleagues entertain an alternative perspective of the nature of Greek religion: she was challenging the entire basis of traditional classical studies, which until then had been firmly grounded in textual analysis.
Perhaps the most important effect of Harrison’s approach was a downgrading of the place of literature in the study of antiquity. “Literature as a starting-point for my investigation,” she wrote in her preface to the Prolegomena, “I am compelled to disallow; yet literature is really my goal.” How close she ever came to that goal is a matter of dispute. Especially in her later work, it often seems as if Harrison’s chief interest in Greek religion is as a source of corroborating evidence for her own ideas about social psychology and the way society should be structured. Her fascination with the specifically social origins of Greek religion—and of the religious impulse generally—became more pronounced in her later work as she came under the sway of Henri Bergson’s philosophy and Emile Durkheim’s sociological theories. Durkheim’s contention that religion had its origins in collective thought and feeling proved particularly attractive to her. In Themis, in which she propounds a sociological theory under the guise of analyzing the recently discovered Hymn of the Kouretes, Harrison develops the notion that religious group identity arose in ancient matrilineal societies that were dissolved with the later triumph of patrilineal (and patriarchal) society and its enshrinement in the pantheon of the Olympian gods. In this respect, at least, her work may be seen as a precursor to those contemporary academic theories that deliberately eschew the literary study of literature for the sake of sundry methods and insights drawn from the social sciences. Nevertheless, however controversial it was at the time, Harrison’s mature work breathed new life into classical studies and provided inspiration for scholars, critics, and writers for decades.
Along with inspiration came a fair measure of personal devotion and notoriety. Typical of the former are Gilbert Murray’s acknowledging his “great and obvious” debt to “Miss Harrison” in the preface to his classic study Five Stages of Greek Religion and the dedication that the philosopher Francis Cornford—another of Harrison’s younger colleagues and for many years her intimate friend at Cambridge—provided for his Thucydides Mythistoricus, a book, he wrote, that was “a dream which but for her help and understanding would have gone up in smoke.” After the Prolegomena appeared, Harrison became something of a figure in Oxbridge intellectual society, a position attested to as much by the often violent attacks on her work from conventional scholars as by the multitudinous testimonials from students and disciples.
A1909 portrait of Harrison by Augustus John depicts its subject in late middle age, lounging back on a long chair amid an abundance of pillows, a heavy red tome resting closed on her lap. Swathed in a lacy black dress and a kind of flowing robe in her favorite blue-green color, she is staring off into space with weary concentration, her right hand tensely gripping the arm of the chair. The portrait strikes one as a study in overwrought melancholy. Nothing we know of her character contradicts that impression, though it is worth noting that Harrison was also said to have been capable of infectious charm and ebullience. Bertrand Russell once wrote in his journal that she was “envied for her power of enduring excess in whiskey and cigarettes.” The latter was an especially daring habit for a proper Edwardian lady— though one might of course wonder if a Cambridge bluestocking could ever be accounted a proper Edwardian lady. In any case, Harrison was remembered by many as a gifted teacher and brilliant lecturer. In his article on Harrison for the Dictionary of National Biography, Cornford noted that she regarded her lectures as “dramatic event[s],” both for herself and her audience. “Once,” Cornford wrote, “she enlisted two friends to swing bull-roarers at the back of a darkened lecture room in order that the audience might learn from the ‘awe-inspiring and truly religious’ sound what Aeschylus [in the Edonoi] meant by ‘bull-voices roaring from somewhere out of the unseen.’”
Our knowledge of the details of Jane Harrison’s life is fragmentary and hampered by her discretion and that of most of her friends and acquaintances. There is also a relative paucity of material: Harrison burned the bulk of her correspondence in 1922 when she left Cambridge, thus erasing much firsthand evidence about her personal life. Though she suffered through several abortive romances—apparently none of them proceeded far enough to be described as love affairs—she never married and seems finally to have renounced any interest in sex: “I starved the physical side of my nature,” she wrote in a letter, “& as sometimes happens with ascetics grew into a certain distaste for it.”
Perhaps the greatest love of Harrison’s life came late, around 1900, when she met Francis Cornford, who at twenty-six was almost twenty-five years her junior. Their acquaintance deepened into an intimate intellectual friendship, but Cornford seems not to have reciprocated—if, indeed, he was aware of—his mentor’s warmer feelings. Harrison introduced him to Frances Darwin, the naturalist’s granddaughter, in 1907. Though she seems to have encouraged their friendship, she was devastated when they were married in 1909. Two of her most devoted students, Jessie Stewart and Hope Mirrlees (who was Harrison’s close companion from 1909 until her death) collected material for a biography, but only Stewart published anything. Her brief book, Jane Ellen Harrison: A Portrait From Letters, appeared in 1959 and (though littered with typographical errors) is still a trove of material on the classicist’s life. Consisting of scores of letters from Harrison to Gilbert Murray and others, interspersed with commentary by Stewart, it provides a discreet but reasonably full sketch of Harrison’s life, travels, and work, usefully supplementing her own recollections in Reminiscences of a Student’s Life.
Of course, the durably interesting thing about Jane Harrison is her work, in which she has claim to be a genuine pioneer. Despite her mild eccentricities (that whiskey, those cigarettes) and—as she grew old—her inveterate loneliness and hypochondria, after moving to Cambridge she led a scholar’s life: quiet, cloistered, externally uneventful, given over largely to reading, writing, and endless conversation. In her memoirs, she revealingly remarks that “until I met Aunt Glegg in the Mill on the Floss I never knew myself: I am Aunt Glegg”—though, one wants to add, Aunt Glegg with a twist, Aunt Glegg with a Cambridge education.
True, as one of the first female academics at Cambridge—as well as one of the first prominent female classicists—Harrison’s career also possesses a minor sociological interest. One might, for example, wish to ask to what extent her career was hindered—and to what extent it was aided—by her sex. Taken all in all, I suspect that in the end it was aided rather more than hindered, but that is one of those imponderables that can never really be settled. And in truth, given her achievements, it seems a trivial question. At least, so I would have assumed if Professor Peacock had not taken the trouble to write a book to disabuse the world of that assumption.
Jane Ellen Harrison: The Mask and the Self proceeds under the double burden of feminist ire and Freudian smugness. Though the tenets of Freudianism are deeply irreconcilable with feminism, Professor Peacock relies on both throughout her book to give her story a structure and larger purpose. The feminism declares itself every few pages as Professor Peacock assures us that Harrison’s “journey from the Yorkshire merchant class to the Cambridge intelligentsia” is a symbol of “the character of female experience in a male-dominated world, the influence of gender on scholarship, and the course of women’s intellectual history.”
Ah yes, that old workhorse, “female experience in a male-dominated world”: what would feminists do without it? How often does some such phrase appear in Professor Peacock’s pages? Every page? Or is it only every third page? Tabulating all the references might provide an apt punishment for some particularly obstreperous student. “How do women perceive the world?” Professor Peacock asks. “How do they create? Why is their work valued less highly than men’s? All these questions. . . might be asked with regard to Jane Harrison’s life. She might have mulled them over as she walked, ‘formidable yet humble,’ through Newnham’s garden at twilight.” She might have; but then again, she might not; and since nothing that we know about Harrison suggests that she was as obsessed by these questions as her biographer, it seems odd to impose them on her. But Professor Peacock’s thesis requires that Harrison star in the feminist melodrama she has created for her. The basic plot is that Jane Harrison (“Jane” to Professor Peacock, who, anachronistically, prefers to call her principal characters by their given names) confronted and finally rebelled against the prevailing Victorian (i.e., “repressive,” “male-dominated,” “bad”) ideas about women’s role, education, and work.
Indeed, “rebellion,” along with its cognates, is another word that occurs with great frequency in these pages. Professor Peacock seems to determine the level of virtue that her (female) characters achieve by how thoroughly they “rebel” against their oppressive Victorian society. “Unfortunately,” she comments in one particularly obtuse footnote, “not all women were able to break from their families and survive the alienation education caused. Jane broke successfully from her background, but many of her contemporaries stopped short of total rejection and settled for redefining their roles as women.” It is worth pausing for a moment to ponder this extraordinary observation and the view of education, women, and society that it presupposes. Clearly, breaking from one’s family is held up as an important accomplishment, almost a moral feat, with “total rejection” being accorded highest honors.
Still, Professor Peacock is no knee-jerk feminist; for example, she generously acknowledges that Harrison’s “talent . . . cannot be reduced to the mere fact of her sex ... . Jane’s need to create a self,” she informs us, “played an equally important role in her scholarship.” And early on in her book she complains that “feminist scholars” in particular, wishing to see in Harrison a model of a successful female intellectual, have failed to understand “how much her scholarly success cost her.” These scholars, Professor Peacock says, have taken Harrison too literally, believing her when she claimed to have lived “a happy, satisfying, fulfilled life.” If nothing else, Professor Peacock is out to show us that Jane Harrison did not, could not, have lived “a happy, satisfying, fulfilled life.” According to her, Harrison “lived a life too marginal and beset by conflict to be entirely carefree. Her periodic bouts with illness and depression and the complexity of her work attest to a fundamental sense of unhappiness about the world.” What—does living a fulfilled life require being “entirely carefree”? Who, then, would choose such a life? Are “periodic bouts” with illness or depression evidence of “a fundamental sense of unhappiness about the world”? Who, then, is not fundamentally unhappy? And what does the complexity of one’s work have to do with the emotional coloring of one’s world view, be it gloomy or otherwise? Hegel was by all accounts a reasonably cheerful chap; would Professor Peacock want to say that his work lacked “complexity”?
Yet, reading through this book, it soon becomes clear that, despite her “liberated” principles, Professor Peacock’s allegiance to Freudianism trumps even her feminism, and that, given a choice between a feminist and a Freudian interpretation, she can be counted on to opt for the latter. By her own account, her devotion to Freud is just that: devotion. Noting that Harrison had once told Gilbert Murray that she had always wanted to be a Buddhist and, when she discovered what Buddhism was, realized that she had been a Buddhist all along, Professor Peacock confesses that she herself had always wanted to be a disciple of Freud, only to discover when she read his work that she, like Harrison with the Buddha, had been a disciple all along.
One rarely encounters a work in which “psychohistory” is so crudely employed. It is not just that Professor Peacock indulges in the usual psychological babble—assuring her readers, for example, that Harrison “had an overwhelming psychological need for attention.” She even hauls out all the creaking old Freudian machinery: remember the Oedipus complex? Remember that marvelous sinkhole “the unconscious,” as vague as it is seductive? Remember “repression,” always useful for explaining away inconvenient facts? In her effort to explore “the complex psychological process that turned personal rage into both chronic illness and innovative scholarship,” Professor Peacock employs them all, often to comic effect.
Thus we learn that Harrison’s attitude toward sexuality “was overdetermined, of course.” Oh, that wonderful “of course”! What could be more knowing, more confident, more . . . vacuous? Well, Professor Peacock does provide herself with stiff competition. The death of Harrison’s mother and eventual remarriage of her father offer the perfect grist for her mill. Noting that Harrison later constructed an idealized image of the mother she never knew, Professor Peacock tells us that
Jane had good reason to construct such a loving memory of her mother. Her death had allowed her daughter to have her father to herself, and guilt over such an effortless Oedipal victory drove her to create an image of a mother good enough not to punish Jane for having won. Jane’s recognition of her role in her mother’s death represents far more than simple adjustment to a horrifying fact; it also represents a tenuous reconciliation of her culpability with her satisfaction in achieving an Oedipal victory.
Not surprisingly, the most amazing aspect of this “Oedipal victor)'” is that, in true Freudian fashion, Harrison herself never suspected a thing. What a pity that she is not around to be enlightened by Professor Peacock! She would have learned a number of extraordinary things. For example, Professor Peacock could have told her that the “real root” of her decision to be celibate and not marry “must have lay [sic] in her fury at her father and stepmother for creating a circle that she felt excluded her.” Forget about the fact that her family helped to frustrate an early love interest, that a man she almost married died suddenly from complications following an operation, that at least two other men she appears to have been in love with married other women—still, the “real root” must lie with her repressed fury and what Professor Peacock likes to call her “inner anger.”
Armed with Freud, Professor Peacock even has insight into Harrison’s chronic ill-health. Admitting that “a physiological root to these problems cannot be dismissed out of hand,” she nonetheless insists that “all of them could have been psychosomatically induced by stress, repressed anger, and unresolved conflict. The incidence of respiratory problems is particularly revealing. Difficulty in breathing may testify to the internalization of anger, and unresolved conflict.” Indeed, there’s very little Professor Peacock can’t explain. Reflecting on Harrison’s botched relationship with Francis Cornford, for example, she opines that Harrison “unconsciously drove him away by engineering his romance with Frances [Darwin].” But then Harrison would seem to have been unconscious of a good deal—as, for that matter, were the other characters in Professor Peacock’s fantasy. Thus Jessie Stewart and Hope Mirrlees, who “played siblings locked in a rivalry for their surrogate mother’s affections,” are said to have “unconsciously fought over Jane’s affections.”
In the introduction to her book, Professor Peacock criticizes the work to date on Harrison because of its “refusal to explore her personality and work in depth.” But what she offers us instead is a florid, psychologized portrait of Jane Harrison in which both work and personality are subordinated to two F’s: Freudianism and feminism. Only the penultimate chapter of the book deals at any length with Harrison’s work, and here it becomes obvious—if it were not so already—that Professor Peacock has very little to add to our knowledge of Harrison’s contribution to scholarship. What we get is a merely competent digest of some wellknown secondary literature on Harrison’s ideas, spiced up with some quotations from unpublished letters. Furthermore, if Professor Peacock has any acquaintance with the classics at all, she has kept it superbly concealed—rather a liability, one would have thought, for someone undertaking a critical biography of an eminent classicist. Similarly, her summaries of Nietzsche, Bergson, and Durkheim read like something out of Cliff Notes.
One cannot help remarking that this book had its origin as a doctoral dissertation. While it is more straightforwardly written than many products from the academy these days, it betrays the standard-issue academic thesis-mongering and ideological coloring—and this, remember, was the dissertation of a future assistant dean, someone presumably charged with helping to oversee the intellectual development of graduate students at a major American university. Above all, Jane Ellen Harrison: The Mask and the Self represents that hottest contemporary trend: the search for recyclable women. One has the uneasy sense that Professor Peacock had no special affinity for Harrison, that she could just as well have written about Virginia Woolf or George Eliot or Fanny Burney, if only those writers had not been “gone over” so exhaustively already.
But perhaps the most lamentable thing about Professor Peacock’s biography—and it is this that makes it emblematic of so much that passes for scholarship today—is that in the name of exalting its subject it winds up condescending to it. Transforming Harrison into a puppet in her psychological road show, Professor Peacock utterly trivializes her scholarly accomplishments. “The great contradiction of Jane’s life,” she tells us at one point, “was that she combined an intense desire to succeed in a male field with an insistence on using a distinctly female voice.” What about Harrison’s ideas, her insights into the origins of Greek religion, her dialogue with other scholars? One needn’t agree with Jane Harrison’s views about the origin of Greek religion (to say nothing of her views about human relations) to admire the passion and restless originality of her mind and the fructifying influence of her work on other writers. It is a pity that Professor Peacock felt compelled to subordinate all this to her Freudian-inspired passion play of feminist redemption.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 7, on page 72
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