The Invention of Jane Harrison

The Invention of Jane Harrison

by Mary Beard
     
 

Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) is the most famous female Classicist in history, the author of books that revolutionized our understanding of Greek culture and religion. A star in the British academic world, she became the quintessential Cambridge woman—as Virginia Woolf suggested when, in A Room of One's Own, she claims to have glimpsed Harrison's

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Overview

Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) is the most famous female Classicist in history, the author of books that revolutionized our understanding of Greek culture and religion. A star in the British academic world, she became the quintessential Cambridge woman—as Virginia Woolf suggested when, in A Room of One's Own, she claims to have glimpsed Harrison's ghost in the college gardens.

This lively and innovative portrayal of a fascinating woman raises the question of who wins (and how) in the competition for academic fame. Mary Beard captures Harrison's ability to create her own image. And she contrasts her story with that of Eugénie Sellers Strong, a younger contemporary and onetime intimate, the author of major work on Roman art and once a glittering figure at the British School in Rome—but who lost the race for renown. The setting for the story of Harrison's career is Classical scholarship in this period—its internal arguments and allegiances and especially the influence of the anthropological strain most strikingly exemplified by Sir James Frazer. Questioning the common criteria for identifying intellectual "influence" and "movements," Beard exposes the mythology that is embedded in the history of Classics. At the same time she provides a vivid picture of a sparkling intellectual scene. The Invention of Jane Harrison offers shrewd history and undiluted fun.

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Editorial Reviews

Classical Association News
This book is an intriguing read, giving fascinating insight into Harrison's early days and into the intellectual scene of Classics a century ago.
Economist
[A] provocative biography...Among the many questions which Mary Beard asks is why Harrison was singled out for celebrity...[Beard] has filled a gap, and in vivacious style.
Julia Briggs
Here is an anti-biography, which confronts previous versions of Harrison's life...Reluctant to offer an alternative myth, yet anxious to avoid already trampled ground, Beard instead explains Harrison's formative years in London, and asks, rather than answers, a series of key questions...The result is an amusing, engaging and opinionated book that looks behind the scenes to find out how biography is invented.
Lisa Jardine
Clever and beautiful...[Jane Harrison] earned the permanent admiration of the Classics faculty at Cambridge. Eugénie Sellers, Harrison's younger protegée and one-time close friend, was equally talented in the field of Roman antiquities...Yet her name is virtually forgotten...Beard's gripping little book is an attempt to set the record a little straighter on Harrison. It is also an attempt to put Sellers back...As Beard ably persuades us, their story is one that can be repeated wherever in history women, through their achievements, appear on the public stage. Whether the trace of that appearance endures for posterity has this far depended on how they fit into the stories male historians tell. From now on, though, chroniclers such as Beard are going to be far more vigilant.
Oliver Taplin
Anyone climbing aboard this careering mystery tour of a book should be prepared to be taken for a ride. It looks like a biography: faded snapshots, footnotes, gossip around the famous...But this is no biography to any orthodox sense. On the contrary, it is a cluster of didactic essays which amusingly but relentlessly insist that orthodox biography is a fraud, that its claims to uncover the truth are delusory.
Ruth Padel
This is not your traditional biography, though it gives a vivid, in-depth feel of the times: the intellectual impact of archaeology in the late 19th century, 'coded games of literary sapphism in the 1920s and 1930s', performances of Greek plays. It is essentially a detective story. Like Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone it turns on an absence: something deliberately mislaid from the legend of Jane Harrison. Persuasively as an archaeologist reconstructing gold earlobes in a Mycenean mask, Beard writes [Eugénie Sellers's] life back into Harrison's.
Thomas Jenkins
In her new, invigorating study of the pioneering Cambridge archaeologist Jane Harrison, biographer Mary Beard quarrels with those who believe they can reconstruct the private life of Harrison with any sort of certainty...The Invention of Jane Harrison shows its seams proudly. Indeed, it calls into question the whole idea of seamless biography, offering instead one more construction, one more invention of a Cambridge myth and idol. But in examining closely previously neglected period in the formation of Harrison and Sellers, Beard illuminates the hidden forces at play in the process of hagiography: how undercurrents of sexuality, passion, jealousy, even love, are suppressed in the re-writing (or even the non-writing or the de-writing of a life. Felicitously composed and exhaustively documented, this quirky biography demonstrates as well the verve and invention of Mary Beard.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) was in the vanguard of the staid British academic community in the early 20th century. As Beard (classics, Cambridge) notes, she wrote and lectured about ancient Greek art and archaeology with "grace and daring." This daring lay in her willingness to expose the "seething irrationality" of the ancient world, a departure from the highly ordered, Victorian approach of her largely male peers. Harrison had a distinguished career at Cambridge, but it was in Germany that her skills as an archaeologist began to flourish. She recognized the importance of myth and ritual to ancient cultures, a groundbreaking acknowledgment in her day. Beard writes a competent, well-researched biography (the 14th book in the "Revealing Antiquity" series), but the dry, thesis-like prose falls disappointingly short of its charismatic subject. A good part of the book discusses the academic/ political shenanigans of Harrison's colleagues, dull fodder for those not privy to Cambridge's arcane hierarchy. Recommended for larger collections.--Diane Gardner Premo, Rochester P.L., NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Julia Briggs
An amusing, engaging and opinionated book that looks behind the scenes to find out how biography is invented....
London Review of Books
The Economist
Its title is the only dull thing about this provocative biography...Beard has filled a gap, and in vivacious style.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674002128
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
06/28/2000
Series:
Revealing Antiquity Series
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
5.82(w) x 8.53(h) x 0.87(d)

Meet the Author

Mary Beard has a Chair of Classics at Cambridge and is a Fellow of Newnham College. She is classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement and author of the blog “A Don’s Life”. She is also a winner of the 2008 Wolfson History Prize.

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