They Couldn’t Escape the Greeks

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Manchester Art Gallery/Bridgeman Art Library
John William Waterhouse: Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896

From the onset of the Dark Ages down to our own time, the fraught and variegated relationship between Greek or Roman civilization and those civilizations’ heirs has never been less than significant and fascinating. Initially there was an emphasis on the survival and influence of classical literature. More recently, the range of interest has broadened to encourage closer scrutiny of the subtle way in which the classical legacy has been used—not always consciously—to manipulate latter-day politics, social problems, and religion. In these works, now known as “reception studies,” the Victorian Age of nineteenth-century Britain has been perceived, rightly, as a particularly rewarding lode to mine: during this period the classical legacy was disseminated, and discussed, more widely than ever before.

The last half-century has seen several pioneering works in this field, which between them have largely dictated the way we now look at the Victorians’ attitude toward the classics. In 1969 David J. DeLaura published Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater, which studied in detail, as worked out through the relationship between aesthetics, religion, and the classical humanities from Arnold onward, “one of the great recurrent and unifying ‘myths’ of European history: the conflict of Apollo and Christ, Rome and Jerusalem, intelligence and belief, the secular and the sacred impulses in society.”

In 1980 came Richard Jenkyns’s The Victorians and Ancient Greece, an elegantly witty text that extended the inquiry into politics, education, and the arts, analyzing the special Victorian concept of Greece, and pursuing classical influences on morality and the visual arts through to the watershed of the Great War. This was followed in 1981 by the late Frank M. Turner’s brilliant monograph The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. Turner introduced—something hitherto lacking—a strong historical frame, using, for example, the running debate, pro and con, over the Athenian constitution to pinpoint conflicting Victorian opinions about democracy as such: for some, a shining civic ideal, for others, pernicious demagoguery.

Thus Simon Goldhill’s latest work, Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity, is following in, and expanding, a by now well-established tradition. He has come to reception studies comparatively late (his main area of interest is Greek drama). His new book, designed for the intelligent general reader, offers an informative introductory survey of pioneering scholarship in the field, followed by several speculative ventures of his own. While writing it he learned, ruefully, “how hard it is to do interdisciplinary work seriously, and what level of knowledge of both Classics and Victorian studies is necessary in order to make a respectable contribution.” The resultant text illustrates throughout—not always, I suspect, quite in the way he intended—the truth of that heartfelt reflection.

Whatever one feels about Goldhill’s varying success in so ambitious an undertaking, there is no denying his provocative liveliness on every page. He begins with a general …

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