I know I’ve been a bit quiet on here lately – this is mainly due to the end of term (which I should write about at some point) and the general pile-up of work that seems to hit everyone at the end of the spring teaching season. However, before I go on holiday next week (yes, a proper holiday!), I want to take time to comment on the conference I was at last weekend, which was titled Women as Classical Scholars. The honouree was Jacqueline de Romilly, who would have celebrated her hundredth birthday on 26th March; she was a well-respected Hellenist, the first woman nominated to the Collège de France, and the second woman to enter the Académie Français. However, the conference served as a springboard to think about women as classical scholars more broadly, starting with Carmel McCallum-Barry’s paper on Italian and English women in the early modern period and moving on from there. I should take this chance to give my thanks publicly to the conference convenors, Rosie Wyles, Edith Hall and Lottie Parkyn, for organising such an excellent and intellectually rewarding event. As I said at the time, it was just what I needed after a long term of teaching – a chance to get my brain back into research mode, and to be among people who were thinking of me primarily as a researcher rather than a colleague in teaching.
I went to the conference partly to see some friends and colleagues from the US who I knew would be presenting, but mainly because I was interested in context. One of the eternally on-the-boil projects I’m contemplating is something to do with classical reception in the work of Hope Mirrlees, who is known to history as the woman who was Jane Harrison’s companion in the last years of her life. I’ve written a little about this before in an article for the CA News, which is available here if you’re interested, but it’s an on-going process of research, and I thought the conference would be a good way to get some broader context into what academic women were doing around her period. Well, I got far more than I bargained for – thanks to Jacqueline Fabre-Serris, I also got Renée Vivien’s translation of Sappho (in comparison with Anne Dacier’s). Vivien was part of the Paris South Bank movement, with which Harrison and Mirrlees also had connections, and was apparently bought the Greek text by the notorious Natalie Barney.
There is a bit of an enigma here, as Vivien was not taught Greek as part of her normal education, and learned it in order to be able to translate the Sappho. The question is, who was her teacher? My initial curiosity was whether it could in fact have been Jane Harrison herself, who went over to Paris on a semi-frequent basis to visit her angina doctor; I had hoped that Mirrlees might have been with Harrison in France, but this is a chronological impossibility as she did not matriculate at Newnham and meet Harrison until 1910. (Even sadder, as Vivien died in 1909, she and Mirrlees would never have met.) I also suspect that Harrison wasn’t in the right place at the right time either – according to Annabel Robinson’s The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison, she spent the summer of 1902 in Switzerland, and the implication is that for the rest of the year she was in Cambridge working on her Prolegomena to Greek Religion, with the next time she left England being in March of 1903 to visit Sicily and the Berensons at I Tatti near Florence. Of course, I can’t account for Vivien’s movements, and there’s always the chance of a trip that Robinson doesn’t mention, but my initial hunch looks sadly unlikely. That said, one of the nice things about this line of work is seeing the possibilities, and the fact that Natalie Barney is buying people copies of Sappho makes a number of connections in Mirrlees’ novel Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists make a little more sense than they did when I first read the book – as, in fact, does the cultural location of Anne Dacier, a contemporary of Mademoiselle de Scudery although not moving in the same circles. There’s a whole complicated set of references here that I need to unpick, but I’m feeling as if I’ve got a better set of ideas about how the pieces fit together.
I also have a better sense about some of the unique environments in which women classicists began to flourish, and some of the common threads that spin through their lives. A supportive male figure was, perhaps, an unsurprising theme to note for our earlier women, but faded into the background as time went on; however, the issue of sexuality came to the fore instead, with questions about how our scholars viewed their own sexual identities and how much this mattered to their narratives of themselves as scholars (see Vivien’s Sappho, which was an obviously deliberate reflection, but far more overt than any other example). It was also interesting to see ways in which women dealt with the sorts of subjects they were allowed to write about – how did Margaret Alford, rediscovered by Roland Mayer, cope with the perception that women couldn’t ‘do’ Latin prose? (She certainly didn’t let it get in her way, and I rather like Professor Mayer’s idea of sporting a badge that says ‘Daughter of Margaret Alford’ next time I speak on Seneca.) What arguments did Anna Maria van Schurman make (as ably reported by Ineke Sluiter) in order to justify why women should be allowed to study the liberal arts?
Of course, I’m being very selective about which papers I’m picking out here, and they all contributed to the sense of how identity broadly defined plays into scholarship and vice versa. These general thoughts would also not have been possible without the conversation between all the participants, which helped ideas grow and themes develop. So once more I say thank you to the conference convenors for all the work they put into the organisational process – everyone I spoke to had a very rewarding and intellectually stimulating weekend, and I’m sure the conversations the conference has started will keep on going.