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They Couldn’t Escape the Greeks

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 introduction, entitled “Discipline and Revolution: Classics in Victorian Culture,” outlining the attitude of that culture toward the ancient world. This introduction is in large part, as Goldhill himself emphasizes more than once, a recapitulation of earlier groundbreaking scholarship (much of it by the authors discussed above: to Jenkyns and Turner he pays generous tribute); it is intended for the benefit of anyone coming to this complex and much-debated topic for the first time.

In many ways it is Goldhill’s best chapter. He brings to it a talent for crisp generalization (“Hellenism and homosexuality went together like a horse and carriage in the Victorian university”) and the ability—not always so obvious in subsequent chapters—to keep his narrative line succinct and clear. He discusses the contribution of Oxford classical studies, as manipulated by Benjamin Jowett of Balliol, to the training, and ethos, of future rulers in the power structures of empire. He considers the countertrend of Greek literature, via philhellenism, as a tool and inspiration for revolutionaries advancing democracy, and the transformed attitude toward the idea of democracy that this trend brought about. He comments on what some saw as the alarming interpenetration of classical art or literature and Victorian Christianity. Perhaps most influential of all, he explores the ways in which those dangerous sexual vistas hinted at by Plato held a peculiar allure for Victorians. Goldhill thus covers all the important bases. No one could say that he has failed to prepare the reader thoroughly for the chapters that follow.

Some of this preliminary matter is framed with respect to three “challenges” to what Goldhill sees as the conventional, unnuanced version of the classical tradition—the version that became a traditional perquisite of educated gentlemen, supporting them in their role as nationalist rulers, particularly over an ever-expanding empire. His first “challenge” concerns the revolutionary Hellenism connected with Byron, Shelley, and the Greek War of Independence. His second discusses the sexual breakthrough, and assault on Christian ethics, that was one of the consequences of this new Greek threat to the authoritarian reticence of the old Roman tradition. His third, similarly, concentrates on the change of attitude toward, and concept of, democracy when viewed from a Greek rather than a Roman perspective, and in particular on the importance of the fact that ancient Athenian history came to be used, most notably by George Grote in his best-selling History of Greece (1846–1856), as a tool with which to preach democracy to the contemporary world—a move predictably, and vigorously, challenged by old-style conservative historians such as William Mitford. In each case he is looking at “a political challenge to which the discipline [was] responding: political revolutionary idealism; sexual counter-culturalism; the authority of the past in service of a democratic political vision.”

The shock of these challenges to entrenched traditionalists was at least as great as the stimulus they offered to radical thinkers. Conventional wisdom, urged on by the church and the great landowners, had since the Renaissance shunned Athens’s democratic system as a pernicious threat to the established order. Now it was promoted, by Grote in particular, not only as the instrument par excellence for winning and maintaining freedom and communal stability, but also as a persuasive voice from the ancient world with which to attack a politicized Tory aristocracy and entrenched ecclesiastical conservatism.

Goldhill is well acquainted with this scene. The world he describes was one in agonizing transition, with age-old political, social, and religious certainties very much on the defensive. The Industrial Revolution was not only dirtying the landscape, but making serious inroads on hierarchical convictions. Scientific discoveries encouraged man’s belief in his ability to solve his own problems. Cheap printing, compulsory education, and the missionary urge to propagate knowledge brought literacy and independent thinking to an ever-widening segment of the population.

The debate was angry. Defensiveness encouraged dogmatic assertiveness on the part of Christians; faith was beset by honest doubt (as Matthew Arnold memorably recorded in his poem “Dover Beach”). Increasing self-knowledge led to nagging, if still no more than semiconscious, sexual fears (as Goldhill indicates in his examination of visual art). Symptoms included a running debate on the validity of miracles, between religious fundamentalists and the new historical critics such as David Strauss and Ernest Renan (who employed sophistic-style rationalism and scientific logic very effectively), and a nervous, and in the end scandalous, tiptoeing around Athenian aristocratic pederasty by Platonic idealists, the most notable being Walter Pater, working under the cover of carefully coded aesthetics.

Yet even so, much of the traditional classical legacy remained firmly set in the conservative Roman pattern. Virgil was always there to remind his countrymen, and through them the British Victorian upper classes, from an early age, that theirs were the responsibilities of colonial government: in a famous phrase, parcere subiectis et debellare superbos, “to spare the submissive and subdue the uppity.” Nor did anyone—yet—sneer at Horace for assuring the same audience that death in the pursuit of that ideal was dulce et decorum, sweet and fitting. These notions remained central to the Victorian ideal of beneficent, and profitable, empire.

Goldhill is very specific about what he is setting out to achieve. In his view, his “first contribution” is to have added to “our understanding both of the development of Classics as a subject in the nineteenth century, and of the integral and essential place of classical antiquity in Victorian culture.” Next, he is concerned with cultural myths: not only their traditions, but how much of those traditions needs to be, and is, silently forgotten in the social reconstruction of the past: what we might call revision by omission. This Goldhill sees as the essence of reception studies. He observes the way the meaning of a cultural event or artifact evolves and changes over time. “What place,” he asks, “for Classics, for narrative, for representation in a realist mode—today, in a modern aesthetics?” Thus, he concludes, “each chapter is designed to be exemplary of a version of how Classics and Victorian Studies can engage with each other.” How far, and how convincingly, is this ambitious program in fact carried out?

As a target for social research, it is clear, the Victorian Age’s involvement with antiquity offers a virtually inexhaustible mine to quarry. Goldhill “aims to explore desire, cultural politics, and religion, through art, opera, and fiction.” He does this in three major sections, comprising seven chapters in all. The first, “Art and Desire,” investigates the historical school of Victorian painting for its treatment of the sexual drive, expressed or repressed (one very useful feature of Goldhill’s book is the group of excellent color plates provided to illustrate this chapter). The second section, “Music and Cultural Politics,” examines the works, and changing reputations, of Christoph Gluck and Richard Wagner. The third, “Fiction: Victorian Novels of Ancient Rome,” seeks to explain the lasting attraction of such famous romances as Ben Hur and The Last Days of Pompeii, again through a close study of their readers’ social, and particularly their religious, assumptions. By thus concentrating throughout on phenomena that attracted large middle-class audiences, rather than on intellectually cutting-edge figures—no Manet or early Picasso here, no Stravinsky, no Henry James—Goldhill provides himself with socially widespread, and easily documentable, trends for the period that he has chosen to study.

Desire, as the sexual urge, suppressed, symbolized, and in conflict with patriarchal convention, is a fairly constant factor in Goldhill’s presentation. We are reminded that “from Freud to Foucault, Classics has been central to modern sexual revolutions.” Cultural politics Goldhill treats as a kind of holdall that lets him explore the nuances of the view “that Victorian classicists were racist, imperialist, and sexist.” As for religion, Goldhill declares himself particularly interested in what he sees as the progressive erosion of Christianity in Victorian Britain, described as “a much under-researched and under-appreciated topic” (DeLaura’s crucial work, surprisingly, is absent from Goldhill’s extensive bibliography). This interest, of course, lets him scrutinize the new critical rationalism in Victorian historical and biblical scholarship: what Mrs. Humphry Ward famously called “the education of the historic sense,” most closely connected for classicists with the name of B.G. Niebuhr, and regarded as a scientific tool even more dangerous to Christian faith than Darwinism.

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