January Conference 1999
: ANCIENT & MODERN
of the Mind:
Greek Tragedy in Women's Writing in England in the Nineteenth
Hardwick, The Open University, U.K.
Pierce to the centre,
Art's fiery finger!
Catch up in thy divine face, not alone
East griefs but west, - and strike and shame the strong
By thunders of white silence, overthrown.
Browning Poems 1850)
This discussion examines
some examples of ways in which women writing in English in the
nineteenth century engaged with Greek tragedy. In particular,
it explores how work with translation stimulated other writings,
both creative and critical. The investigation is framed by interest
in migration, that is in tracing and tracking ways in which ancient
myths, texts and images are figured and refigured in receiving
literatures and how they appear to generate new extended 'families'
of their own.
Most of my recent
research has been in twentieth-century aspects of Reception. I
have been examining how Greek texts and images can transform and
be transformed in post-colonial literatures, for example.
In the course of this work I have been increasingly struck by
First, that twentieth-century
texts and performances have a shifting relationship with the past
not just with ancient Greece but with what has happened
in poetry and performance between ancient times and our own. The
nineteenth century is a vital part of this hinterland, both directly
and indirectly an intermediary between Greek and twentieth-century
Second, the patterns
of these relationships are not simply evolutionary. It may be
tempting to grasp at a model which suggests that eighteenth-century
'imitation'(Pope, for example) was followed by nineteenth-century
'appropriation' (Shelley, Arnold), and twentieth-century 'dialogue'
(Walcott, Heaney). Such a model would sound rather like a Whig
theory of Reception perhaps, some kind of 'great chain' or a teleological
process. Now, of course the historical moment has a crucial role,
but that role is, I think, in revealing and focussing on particular
strands in the web which maps the relationships between ancient
and modern. It is necessary also to look at those strands which
appear at any one time to be less brightly illuminated. That kind
of approach reveals something much more like a field of contest
a contest which is marked by struggle within and between
writings as well as between writing and the broader socio-political
context. This kind of mapping may suggest that the choice of particular
Greek plays for adaptation and/or translation at any one time
is conditioned not only by the overt subject matter, but also
by the contests and ambivalences within the source texts themselves.
My framework is also
conditioned by three assumptions, which I discussed in some detail
in previous articles. These are :
that for nineteenth-century
women writers, translation from classical languages was a means
of engaging with and even entering into a male dominated world
of scholarship, criticism and sometimes political influence
at a time when lack of classical knowledge was seen as effeminate.
that the process
of translation itself is also a springboard towards new writing in poetry, drama and criticism. This affects the reader/audience
as well as the writer. Once the translator is recognised as
autonomous, she can become a manipulator, even a creator. There
is evidence that nineteenth-century female translators were
aware of this issue and debated it.
occupies a spectrum which can range from a virtually interlinear
rendering to transplantation and transformation. The relationship
between the source text and the target text, or as I prefer
to call it, the new text, is two-way. Logically and aesthetically
the new work tells us about its own time and genre yet it also,
because of the process of its generation, turns our attention
to the dynamics of the Greek source. The dynamics operate within
the text and between the text and its context. Translation therefore
implies a formal, discursive and contextual relationship between
languages and between cultures.
Here I am more concerned
with tracing the dynamics of the migration than with typological
and categorisation issues.
It is a commonplace
in discussing English language translations of classical poetry
to say that the resulting works have a poetic and artistic status
of their own Chapman, Dryden, Pope, and Douglas for Scottish
literature too. It is difficult to make quite the same kind of
statement with regard to nineteenth-century translations of classical
poetry or of any translations of drama before the late twentieth-century.
Furthermore, the nature of the relationship between translating
tragedy and creating work of independent artistic status contrasts
quite sharply in nineteenth- and twentieth-century writing. The
writings examined here suggest the beginnings of a cultural shift
towards a freer adaptation of Greek dramatic and formal conventions.
This kind of adaptation has most recently given us Tony Harrison's
film version of Prometheus, for example. In his preface
to the screenplay, Harrison looks back to the impetus of Shelley,
who sent everything toppling into the 'dust of creeds outworn'
(Shelley, Prometheus Unbound 1.697). Harrison goes on to
defend his own appropriation of the myth by asserting that if
Aeschylus were writing now, he would have written a new play.
I have been looking
to see in what sense nineteenth-century women writers created
their 'new play', and which ancient stories and texts offered
the necessary cultural flexibility. There was a strand in nineteenth-century
thinking which saw drama as an important (or even the only) ideologically
liberating form. The role of drama
in this respect had implications also for the development of the
dramatic monologue (especially by the Brownings and their followers).
Prometheus Bound did
have special significance for nineteenth century women translators.
Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Anna Swanwick and Augusta Webster
all began with it. Translating the play seems almost to have been
a rite de passage. Elizabeth Barrett's first attempt was
lacerated by the critics and it took her many years to produce
a revised version (1851, produced at the same time as Sonnets
from the Portuguese). Swanwick and Webster were praised and
both were encouraged to continue with translation as well as other
literary work. Prometheus undoubtedly served as a liberating icon,
opening the way to reflection and further work on the themes of
confinement, imprisonment, oppression and also slavery, gender
and prostitution. There has been a corresponding interest in the
figure in the late twentieth century, especially in respect of
totalitarianism, resistance and change (for example in the work
of Tom Paulin as well as Tony Harrison).
Browning's development of Promethean themes can be seen in her
mature work, for instance Aurora Leigh, The Runaway
Slave at Pilgrim's Point and Hiram Power's Greek
Slave. Jennifer Wallace has explored the implications of the
way in which Barrett Browning regarded translation as a mirror
'held in different light by different hands and according to the
position of those hands will the light fall'.
Nevertheless, even if the mirror is operated with dexterity, Prometheus
Bound has limitations as a source text for feminist writers.
The female figures in the play were Io, the victim of Zeus and
Hera and the ancestor of Prometheus' deliverer, and the Chorus,
supportive onlookers. Female writers soon looked for a women protagonist
with more potential for the exploration of ambivalence and double
consciousness and thus more potential as an agent of enquiry into
the problems in women's situation, both in ancient Greece and
in their own time.
A prime example of
generation of this activity is Euripides' Medea, especially
its treatment by Augusta Webster and Amy Levy in the second half
of the nineteenth century. Like Prometheus Bound, but in
a different way, this play is a crucial example of a changing
classical icon. Not only did female writers turn their attention
from Prometheus to Medea, but the associations of the Medea icon
changed too, suggesting a multiplicity of interpretations. In
some respects the unperformed works of Webster and Levy provide
a challenge to the staged productions of Euripides' play in the
nineteenth-century. In such staging, adaptation tended to 'domesticate'
Medea within the 'wronged wife' stereotype (perhaps reflected
from the debates about matrimonial legislation in the 1850s) or
to anticipate in burlesque form the aspirations of the New Woman,
which emerged on stage at the end of the century. In Webster's
mirror, from being a suffering wife, Medea became an active subject
while in Levy she was unmasked as a construct of racism. In this
way, Medea became a catalyst for female writers' rejection of
the domination of the male voice and for awareness of the conjunction
of the oppressions of gender and race.
In examining these
aspects of the work of Webster and Levy, I also challenge the
claim of the editors of the Oxford Book of Classical Verse
in Translation that there was generally in the nineteenth
century ' a kind of accepted inequity in the relation between
that past [i.e. antiquity] and this present' and that 'far too
many nineteenth-century translations are written on their knees
as it were'. Webster and Levy
were not reverent; they critiqued the Greeks as well as their
own age. In this sense they were examples of the kind of writers
who were provoked by translating and began in their related writing
to 'question the authority of dominant cultural values and institutions'.
Augusta Webster, née
Davies, (1837-1894) is a pivotal figure in my investigation. Although
she studied Art and Modern Languages in Cambridge, Paris and Geneva,
her Greek was self-taught (initially to help a brother). Following
her marriage in 1863 to Thomas Webster, fellow of Trinity College
Cambridge, he became a solicitor in London. Her publications included
novels, poetry, plays essays and reviews (mainly in the Athenaeum
and the Examiner) as well as translations from the Greek.
The chronology of her career is interesting in its progression
towards independence and acknowledgement of her own voice. Her
first collection of poems (Blanche Lisle and other poems,
1863) and her first novel (Lilian Grey, 1864) were both
published under the pseudonym Cecil Home. Under her married name,
she published several more volumes, verse drama, collected essays
and translations. Her play In a Day (1882) was staged in
1890 with her daughter in the lead role. I have written elsewhere
about the links between her writing and her work for women's suffrage
of Aeschylus Prometheus Bound was published in 1866, the
first year in which she published in her own, or rather her husband's
name. The frontispiece announced that the play had been edited
by Thomas Webster. In contrast to the Prometheus Bound
of Elizabeth Barrett, the work was immediately well received.
The Westminster Review spoke of 'fidelity to the original
without losing its spirit'; it was 'done faithfully and conscientiously'
(Contemporary Review); 'a really marvellous performance
certain poetic majesty..discloses itself in the choral positions
and monologues' (Illustrated London News). The Nonconformist
was more gnomic 'we have been quite amazed at the extent to which
she has complied with the severe conditions imposed on herself'.
Her verse translation of Euripides' Medea followed in 1868,
this time with no indication that she relied on her husband's
editorship of the text. Again the critics were favourable. The
Westminster Review even adapted its earlier phrasing and
this time coupled' fidelity' with 'beauty'. The Athenaeum
patronised, 'It is surprising how closely and correctly she has
reproduced the original, expressing the full force and delicate
shades of meaning line for line, and almost word for word'. 
Some key aspects emerge
from the Reviews Webster's attention to close translation,
combined with the ability to render poetic equivalence, self discipline
and just a hint (before its time no doubt) of the performative
nature of her work. Her scholarship helped her to achieve status,
to get her views listened to in other contexts and to enlarge
the readership for her poetry. However, in addition, her acute
analysis of the Greek texts helped her both to focus on the ways
in which constraint, oppression and social struggle had been represented
in the drama of a very different historical context, and to consider
the extent to which the medium of Greek tragedy and its constituent
forms could communicate the inner life of the protagonists. From
the Greek she could contemplate the extent to which tragedy gave
a voice to the intelligent and the resourceful, especially if
they were at odds with the powerful. It is the strong and colourful
figures to which she returns, those who can withstand, struggle
and achieve some measure of control over their feelings and their
to the text meant that in her Prometheus Bound she was
not writing (to allude again to Harrison) the play Aeschylus would
have written had he been writing in the nineteenth century. She
distances the Greek play from her own society by using slightly
archaic language although some anachronisms creep in 'sin',
for example in the Chorus' comment at line 284 (Aeschylus line
268), and her treatment of lament is constrained by translating
the Greek as 'alas!' and 'woe is me' (line 73, Aeschylus line
66). But her imaginative sense combined with her scholarship enables
her to speculate about what was not made explicit in the ancient
texts of Prometheus Bound and Medea and to explore
the resulting implications in her original work. To these silences
she gave a voice in two ways. We can see this first in her treatment
of the sexually oppressed or 'fallen'in her own society, as in
her major work A Castaway, in which against the grain of
convention she gave a vigorous and independent voice to the prostitute.
She set prostitution alongside other occupations such as journalism
or marriage and thus exposed the ambiguities and hypocrisies of
nineteenth-century social values and conditions.
in the same volume, Portraits (1870), she exploited the
dramatic monologue form as a means of constructing imagined responses
by women from canonical Greek texts. Circe and Medea
in Athens remove the masks of literary history as well as
nineteenth-century convention, and use the experiences known from
the Greek as a springboard for exploration of situations
sexuality, revenge and the emotional and material realities of
loneliness which are not bounded or contained by epic or classical
dramatic form or by space, theatrical or historical. In Medea
in Athens, for example, the epithet 'ruined' is transposed
to the de-heroised Jason, converging the gazes of the nineteenth-century
and the fifth BCE. Webster's realisation of Medea and of Circe
leaves them in control of the narrative, the language and the
emotions it creates. Medea's final words in the monologue, after
she has heard of Jason's death, visualised it and faced her memories,
seal both her victory over Jason and her own control over her
emotions and her subsequent history :
'Go, go, thou mind'st
me of my sons
and then I hate thee worse; go to thy grave
by which none weeps. I have forgotten thee'.
In Circe, Webster's
technical skill initially creates an erotic island, romanticised
in post-Keatsian diction. She builds up the allure, then shatters
it by the enervating Tennysonian power of ' the sickly sweet monotony'
'I am too weary of the long bright calm' 'Give me
some change'. Circe's combination of contempt for the men who
come to her and her longing for a fulfilled relationship shift
the moral balance sheet in gender relations, revealing a double
standard inherited from Homer and reaffirmed in the nineteenth
century. The final sentence in Lilian Doherty's Siren Songs:
Gender, Audiences and Narrators in the Odyssey (1995)
could also serve as a testimony to the effects of Webster's portrait
'I would be a Circe with a difference; one who puts the
once and future reader on guard against the Siren Songs of the
Homeric Text itself'. This
effect is achieved by the nexus between Webster's interest in
exploring Greek thinking about the female personality and her
determination to unmask the hypocrisy of the assumptions of her
own age. In her poetry she could 'translate' figures and situations
between chronologically and socially distanced cultures, thus
creating a dynamic of mutual interrogation. The Greek texts and
the values encoded in them are raw material in which the gaps,
silences and prejudices are ruthlessly identified and pressed
into service as gadflies for her own creative work.
In her prose writings
Webster did comment both on her approach to translation and on
what modern scholarship would call 'the personal voice' in poetry.
Her prose criticism was published in journals such as the Examiner,
from which a collection was published in 1879 as A Housewife's
Opinions. These vigorous and apparently down-to-earth essays,
ranging over domestic and social subjects, appear to be cocking
a snook at the claim articulated by Sarah Sewell in Women and
the Times we live in (1865) that 'women who have stored their
minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of puddings
and pies'. Webster could write
about a leg of mutton with the best and use it as a mechanism
for discussing household divisions of labour and the virtues of
co-operative purchasing. This ability to link the unexpected with
the conventional has its counterpart in her poetry. There is a
delicate balance between the 'masked' Webster and the unmasking
of both contemporary and ancient society in her dramatic monologues.
It is her translations which mediate between the two.
Some of her essays
drop hints about the theatre of her own mind. In Imagination
she likens imagination to 'the wings of the mind' and then speaks
of the view of practical people that the mind is a bird whose
wings should be clipped. More
discursively, in 'Poets and Personal Pronouns' (p.150f. in the
same volume) she uses the phrase 'theatre of events' to describe
the highest powers of the creative imagination in the 'intensified
portrayal (sic) of the men and women and events of history, legends
and tales'. In her view, creative skills had to be at their greatest
when invention could not be entirely limitless. Her emphasis is
on the capacity of poetry to draw the reader into the inner life
of a figure. She ridicules the view that a poet might be thought
merely to be concerned with him or her self, and in her essay
'The Translation of Poetry' (pp. 61-65) she describes translation
as a process which must combine the 'letter' and the 'spirit'
of the source text and not choose between them (p. 61). Her view
was that ' in poetry the form of the thought is part of the thought,
not merely its containing body'. This, I suggest, is why she used
the dramatic monologue as an extension of her translation of Greek
texts. In so doing, she helped to shift the iconic status of Medea.
Medea ceased to be a Victorian object a wronged wife, an
alien, but became a thinking, speaking, feeling subject. Webster
unmasked both the ways in which Greek texts had been appropriated
and some aspects of the source texts, which had themselves energised
Amy Levy lived 1861-1889.
She published her first poem at the age of 13 in The Pelican,
a feminist journal. From 1876-9 she attended Brighton and Hove
High School for Girls where she studied classics.
In 1879 she entered Newnham College, where she was the first Jewish
student, but left after four terms. Her first volume of poems,
Xantippe and Other Poems was published in 1881.
The title work is a dramatic monologue spoken by the wife of Socrates.
It is important for its articulation of the imagined distress
and anger of Xantippe, because her desire for equality of esteem
and intellectual parity with her husband and his circle was not
Levy's next volume
of poems, A Minor Poet and other verse, was published in
1884 . This volume is crucial to the argument in this paper because
it also contains her dramatised version of Medea, in two
scenes, described on the fly leaf as 'after Euripides'.
At this time, Levy's
associates included Clementina Black, the suffragist who later
campaigned for equal pay for women and founded the Women's Trade
Union Association, the novelist and philosopher Violet Page (Vernon
Lee), Eleanor Marx and Olive Schreiner. She was also secretary
of the Beaumont Trust, which her father had set up to raise money
for education in the east end of London. Michael Field (i.e. Katherine
Bradley and Edith Cooper) noted in their diary that Levy was '
a delightful, silent smoking-companion', 'she was deaf and often
quiet'. Clementina Black wrote
that Levy was also subject to 'fits of extreme depression'.
In 1889 Levy completed a third volume of poetry (A London Plane-Tree
and other verse) and soon afterwards she committed suicide
at the age of twenty seven.
In addition to her
poetry, she published three novels. Of these, Reuben Sachs:
A Sketch (1888) is set in London's Jewish community and adopts
a sharply mocking tone to issues of wealth, race, culture and
class. Another, The Romance of a Shop (also 1888) is about
four orphaned sisters who establish a photography business, against
the then conventions. I mention these works both to show the intensity
of her literary activities in her last years, and to establish
her critical engagement with the society and traditions in which
she had grown up. A further work, A Ballad of Religion and
Marriage, of which an edition of twelve copies was printed
after her death, envisaged the abolition of religion and marriage
and the freedom of women to live as they wished.
In the dramatic monologue
Xantippe, Levy's choice of form superficially places her
in the tradition established by the Brownings and adapted by Webster
to the feminist cause. However, I think there are some important
features which anticipate her dramatisation of Medea. These
are, first, the careful placing of the work in relation to the
Platonic dialogue, and especially to the literary-historical context
of the Symposium and secondly, and arising from this, the
way in which the poem explicates and challenges the verdict of
history on Xantippe. In this sense, the poem functions as a kind
of prequel, analogous perhaps to Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea
(1966) with its creation of the early life of Bertha Mason, who
became the first Mrs. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's Jane
Eyre (1847). Xantippe was to become, if not the mad woman
in the attic, at least the shrew in the gunaikon.
Levy grounds the exploration
of feeling and aspiration in the historical context of ancient
Athens both in the poem's sub-heading 'A Fragment' and
in her ruthless exposure of how the young Xantippe was disposed
of in marriage and then excluded from male-centred intellectual
life. Even Socrates' apparent praise of Aspasia, Pericles' companion,
is shown turning into the denigration of women in general :
Her body rarely stands the test of soul;
She grows intoxicate with knowledge; throws
The laws of custom, order, 'neath her feet,
Feasting at life's great banquet with wide throat.'
dares to challenge but is silenced by the combined contempt of
Socrates, the young Alcibiades and Plato. The epithet is 'black-browed
The poem is permeated
by paradox, which culminates in Xantippe's retreat into the conventional
practices of Athenian women :
I spun until, methinks,
I spun away
The soul from out my body, the high thoughts
From out my spirit; till at last I grew
As ye have known me, - eye exact to mark
The texture of the spinning
...tongue to cut
With quick incision.
The poem is in one
way a prelude to Medea in that it examines the physical
and intellectual oppression of a confined woman who in this case
develops 'a sort of fierce acceptance of my fate'. Xantippe was
further confined by history's stereotype. Her single physical
act of resistance in the poem is to fling the wineskin and its
contents on the marble 'where it lay/spouting red rills and fountains
on the white'. Such violence is presented as the natural result
of her treatment. Equally, Jason's betrayal of Medea is anticipated
in Xantippe in the lines 'but he [sc. Socrates] kept his
love/ For this Athenian city and her sons; And, haply, for some
stranger woman' (an allusion perhaps to Diotima). In terms
of literary technique, Levy's Medea is also anticipated
by the inclusion in Xantippe of substantial dialogue within
the dramatic monologue form. These exchanges draw on the dramatic
structure of some of the early Platonic dialogues. The Symposium
in particular contains dialogue within a structure that frames
a series of encounters between (male) perspectives.
Levy also emphasises the agon between Xantippe and the
men and so puts in place some elements of the dramatic form developed
in the Medea.
Xantippe was collected
with Medea in 1884 and reprinted in a second edition in
1891. Medea was described in the author's parenthesis as
'A Fragment in drama form, after Euripides' and the text was preceded
by a quotation from Euripides. In terms of literary history and
allusion, the dramatic setting of the first scene in front of
Medea's house in Corinth roots the work in the Greek tragedy but,
in contrast to the dramatic monologue Xantippe, the sense
of prequel is handled differently. In her version, Levy does not
address the antecedents of Medea but rather makes changes in focus,
character, language and form which combine to anticipate later
interpretations of the play. In so doing, it seems to me that
she both translates the situation into a nineteenth-century social
context and also anticipates significant aspects of twentieth-century
critical discussion of Euripides' play.
Levy introduces a
new character, Nikias, and pares the action down to the minimum.
There is no Chorus. This means that direct social and 'moral'
commentary on the action is lacking and more emphasis is placed
on the reader hearing and remarking the language and perspectives
adopted by the characters. There is a strange sense in which the
new character Nikias, although his role is direct (and odious),
functions as a kind of social commentator, drawing out the sub-text
in Euripides and stating it in the idiom of the nineteenth century.
For example, when the text is close to the language and events
in Euripides, Nikias gives it a gloss, almost as the voice of
a contemporary audience. The
effect of his comments is seen on Aegeus, initially sympathetic
to Medea and then progressively hostile.
Medea's initial soliloquy
immediately directs our attention to her own feelings of frustration
and inexplicable apprehension. In a departure from Euripides,
she does not yet know of Jason's treachery so the emphasis is
on the dichotomy between her experience of the prosperous buoyant
trading city (described in terms of a mercantile Empire) and her
inner desolation and hunger. The language through which this is
expressed sets up the polarities which are to be exploited later
in the drama : fair/dark; proud/meek;marble-smooth/blood; plenty/hunger.
These contrasts are
developed by Nikias in his description of Medea :
I like not your
swart skin and purple hair
Give me gold hair, lithe limbs and gracious smiles
And spare the strangeness.
This overtly racist
language is found in other nineteenth-century literary texts (for
example, in the anti-semitic narrative voice descriptions of Trollope's
character Ferdinand Lopez in The Prime Minister, 1876).
It exemplifies Levy's determination both to unmask the sub-text
in Euripides and to demonstrate how the nineteenth century might
voice the sentiments. It serves to contextualise Jason's words
to Medea in their agon. He rejects her as wild, a sorceress.
Taken together, these are rather like verbal descriptions of the
emerging stereotypes in Pre-Raphaelite painting. 
When Jason explains
his reasons for rejecting Medea in order to marry Creon's daughter
(a sequence which follows Euripides closely), Nikias again provides
an oblique Chorus/ commentary by describing Jason in Aryan terms
how firm his lithe
How high his gold-curled head, crisped like a girls.
The homo-erotic language,
is reminiscent of that in which the philosophers' circle is described
Medea, in contrast,
is described as though she were a Fury :
O ye gods
She is a pregnant horror as she stands
At the end of the
first scene comes the dramatic turning point. Medea cries that
she 'was not born to serfdom' :
I have knelt
Too long before you. I have stood too long
Suppliant before this people.
The word suppliant
recalls both the Greek expectation that refuge sought should be
granted, and Aeschylus' exploration in the Suppliants of
the potential for violence when women are unjustly treated. Medea's
suffering is attributed to the whole people, not just to Jason,
but nevertheless her killing of the boys is presented by Nikias
as an act of individual hatred. She is 'unmothered' and Aegeus,
too, now adopts the language of racism describing Medea as 'dark,
festering plague in the fair city'. In an oblique
allusion to the Oresteia minus the Eumenides, Jason
draws back from incurring pollution and consigns Medea to the
Furies. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that in Levy's work
there is then no Eumenidean-type refuge in Athens for Medea. The
late nineteenth-century reader, aware of the contrasts with the
source text, could be jolted into an enhanced critical awareness
of the way in which, just as Greek tragedy overflowed into the
cultural context of the polis, so in nineteenth-century
refigurations, tragedy reverberated with contemporary implications.
Perhaps Levy hoped that her readers would experience an awful
sense of self-recognition at the impact of Nikias' attitudes.
At the end of the
drama, there is a further significant change from Euripides. Medea
is not triumphant, Jason is not degraded. Medea does not escape
with divine aid. Her final pathetic soliloquy is made as she leans
against a rock, alone, outside the city, prostrated by the city's
'hissing hate'. She sees herself not only as a victim but vanquished,
the antithesis in nineteenth-century terms of Tennyson's Ulysses
or Webster's Medea. Her striving has been fruitless. Her final
words 'Thus I go forth/ Into the deep dense heart of the night
alone', seem to prefigure the final despair of Levy's A
Cross Road Epitaph.
In Medea, Levy
adapted dramatic form and Euripides' tragedy to explore the causes
of female violence, to challenge both Greek and Christian gendered
ideologies. She also explored
the contemporary racist implications of the Greek/barbarian polarities
which Euripides set out in his tragedy. In so doing she anticipated
aesthetically (rather than theoretically) a good deal of recent
critical discussion about the orientalising appropriation of Greek
culture by the western intellectual and imperial traditions.
She also signalled a late nineteenth-century shift in the iconic
status of Medea, no longer represented only as the wronged wife
but as a wild woman, a violent outsider, in whose construction
gender and race stereotypes combine. In Xantippe we can
hear something of Levy's own voice. In Medea the monologue
is integrated into drama and in this social context both Greeks
and Victorians are unmasked.
Thus both Webster
and Levy used their irreverent stance towards Greek tragedy to
address issues common to both the fifth-century BCE and the nineteenth,
through developing new forms of 'translation'. These were not
written for staging but they were created in the theatres of the
mind of the authors and play in the theatres of the minds of their
readers. The 'story-line' supplies a thread of continuity between
ancient and modern, but the dramatic relationship between the
source text and its context (both civic and mythological) is re-examined
and refreshed in its transplantation into a new culture. This
reveals the role of classical texts as catalysts in nineteenth-century
literature. The imaginative refiguring of canonical texts and
their icons by these subversive women writers also adds a problematic
thread to the process of 're-remembering' of classical texts with
which the late twentieth century is so much engaged.
to contents page
L.Hardwick 'Women, translation and empowerment' in (edd) J.Bellamy,
A.Laurence and G.Perry Women, Scholarship and Criticism (Manchester
University Press, 2000 forthcoming).
Discussed in S. Stark 'Women and Translation in the Nineteenth
Century', New Comparison 15, (1993) 33-44, especially 40-41 where
Stark instances Sarah Austin's preface to her translation of Leopold
Ranke The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes of
Rome during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 3 vols, London,
John Murray, 1840, vol. 1, p. iv. See also Hardwick (2000).
L.Hardwick 'Convergence and divergence in reading Homer' in (eds)
C.Emlyn-Jones, L.Hardwick and J.Purkis, Homer: Readings and Images
(Duckworth , 1992) 226-248; 'A Daidolos in the late-modern age?
Transplanting Homer into Derek Walcott's The Odyssey: A stage
version' in (eds) L.Hardwick and S.Ireland Selected Proceedings
of the January Conference 1996 The Reception of Classical Texts
and Images, (Milton Keynes, 1996) 232-252 and on the world wide
web : http://www2.open.ac.uk/arts/cc96/ccfrontpage.htm; 'Reception
as Simile: The Poetics of Reversal in Homer and Derek Walcott',
International Journal of the Classical Tradition, vol. 3, no.
3, (Winter 1997) 326-338; 'Ancients versus moderns: the contest
for centre stage in Greek drama', Glasje 10, Boundaries, (in press);
'Classical texts in post-colonial literatures: consolation, redress
and new beginnings' in the work of Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney,
International Journal of the Classical Tradition (forthcoming);
Translating words, translating cultures, (Duckworth, 2000 ).
Tony Harrison Prometheus (Faber and Faber, 1998)
See I. Armstrong Poetry, Poetics and Politics, (Routledge, 1993)
147 and especially her discussion of the debates in the Monthly
This issue is also important for discussion of the relationship
between genre and gender, see for example Susan Stanford Freeman
'Genre and gender anxiety - Elizabeth Barrett Browning and HD
as Epic Poets', Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 5 (Fall,
1986) 203-228. It is perhaps possible to trace a parallel between
the feminising of epic convention and the feminising of tragic
J.Wallace 'Traduiture Feminine? Victorian Women and the Classics',
paper given at the fourth Meeting of the International Society
for the Classical Tradition (Tübingen, 1998). I am grateful
to Dr Wallace for allowing me to consult her paper in advance
For a study of the varied performance history of Medea, see E.Hall
'Medea and British Legislation before the First World War', Greece
and Rome, 2nd series, vol. XLVI no. 1, (April 1999) 42-77 and
F.Macintosh, 'Medea Transposed: burlesque and gender on the mid-
Victorian stage' in which she shows how the appearance of the
New Woman on the British stage at the end of the nineteenth century
was anticipated in the burlesques of the middle of the century.
Dr Macintosh has kindly allowed me to study a draft of her paper
in advance of publication. The implications for tradition and
gender of female performance of male roles on the nineteenth-century
stage are considered (mainly with respect to the Shakespearean
repertoire) in Anne Russell 'Tragedy, Gender, Performance : women
as Tragic Heroes on the Nineteenth-Century Stage', Comparative
Drama, vol. 30 2 (Summer, 1996) 135-157. (The reception of Ellen
Tree's Ion is discussed on p. 145)
A.Poole and J.Maule The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation,
(Oxford University Press, 1995) xlv.
L.Venuti The scandals of translation : towards an ethics of difference
(Routledge, 1998) 1.
The links between Webster's writing and her work for women's suffrage
and education are discussed in Hardwick (2000), see Fn.1 above.
Review quotations are from Works by the Same Author with Opinions
of the Press, an appendix to Augusta Webster The Sentence, Macmillan,
L. Doherty Siren Songs: Gender, Audiences and Narrators in the
Odyssey (University of Michigan Press, 1995) 193.
Quoted in P.Levine Victorian Feminism 1850 -1900, (Hutchinson
A.Webster A Housewife's Opinions, (Macmillan, 1879) 213-7.
In undated letters to her sister Kate, written while she was at
the school, Levy referred extensively to her study of Ovid and
to the translation work undertaken by a fellow pupil. I thank
Mrs Marion Leggett, the archivist at Brighton and Hove High School,
GDST, for drawing these letters to my attention.
Works by Amy Levy discussed in detail in this paper are Xantippe
and other Poems (T. Fisher Unwin, 1881); A Minor Poet and other
verse (T. Fisher Unwin, 1884). For consistencey, Levy's spelling
of Xanthippe is retained throughout.
BL Add.Ms 46779, fol.33b, quoted in A.Leighton and M.Reynolds
Victorian Women Poets (1995) 589.
Athenaeum, 5 October 1889 p. 457, quoted Leighton and Reynolds
1995 p. 589.
I thank Des O'Rawe for discussion on this point.
Dr Fiona Macintosh has suggested to me that in this respect Nikias'
role is analogous to Jason's confidant in the mid-nineteenth century
burlesques of Medea.
For example Frederick Sandys 'Medea' (1868), Birmingham Art Gallery;
John Waterhouse 'The Magic Circle' (1886), Tate Gallery; Valentine
Cameron Princep 'Medea the Sorceress' (1888), South London Art
The poem was published in the same volume and ends - When a worse
evil did befall/ Death, on thee only did I call.
For further discussion on the point, see Cynthia Scheinberg 'Canonizing
the Jews: Amy Levy's Challenge to Victorian Poetic Identity',
Victorian Studies (1996, Winter) 173-200. Levy's letters from
school (fn 16 above) show considerable awareness of anti-semitism,
'Conny told me that she was alluding to my race and religion;
filthy?' She was also sensitive to possible rejection by the Orthodox
tradition in Judaism ('learnt that the pious Mary and fam.(sic)
"did not like to visit - no orthodox persons did."').
For discussion of ways in which idealization of classical culture
generated polarization between notions of Greek and Hebrew, see
Tessa Rajak 'Jews and Greeks : the invention and exploitation
of polarities in the nineteenth century' in (edd) Maria Wyke and
Michael Biddiss The Uses and Abuses of Antiquity, (Peter Lang,
For general application of the model see E. Saïd Orientalism,
(Penguin, new edition, 1995) and, for particular discussion on
Greek tragedy and on Medea, E.Hall Inventing the Barbarian, (Clarendon,
I would like to acknowledge helpful comments, discussion and suggestions
from Marianne MacDonald, Fiona Macintosh, Des O'Rawe, Rush Rehm
and Martin Thorpe.