Greek love and learning

A dig into the life of this scholar- heroine shatters all the rules of biography
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The Invention of Jane Harrison by Mary Beard (Cambridge University Press, £23.50, 223pp)

The Invention of Jane Harrison by Mary Beard (Cambridge University Press, £23.50, 223pp)

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 - Gladstone, the Beerbohm Trees, Virginia Woolf - and, of course, speculation about sex-lives. But this is no biography in 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.

Our image of the pioneer classicist Jane Harrison is "inevitably diffused and multiply diffracted through different contexts, observers and addressees"; the Harrison Papers in Newnham College, Cambridge "form an archive already tinged by postmodernism, irrevocably committed to the decentring of any unitary subject". Note the tutorially directive tone of that "inevitably" and "irrevocably".

One of the ways that Mary Beard subverts the standard blockbuster is by devoting a good share of this (agreeably short) book to a second demi-heroine, another product of the early days of women classicists at Cambridge: Eugenie Sellers, some 10 years younger than Harrison, who was born in 1850. Sellers married late, became Mrs Arthur Strong, was widowed, and lived in Rome from 1909 to her death in 1943.

The juxtaposition brings out how similar their lives were in some ways, and how Sellers made advances in Roman archaeology which parallel those made in Greek by Jane Harrison. But while one was a cult-figure in her own time, and has become the subject of accelerating studies, the other is virtually forgotten. Beard's main explanation, in keeping with her whole "construction-conspiracy" line, is that Harrison had pupils who became rival memorialists, while Sellers did not.

But why not admit that Harrison's scholarship was far more groundbreaking? She was a key figure in the application and dissemination of the ideas of Nietzsche and Durkheim, and in realising that anthropology could be applied to European "civilisation".

It is also true that their personal impact was very different. Sellers soon turned from a young beauty into a grande dame and hostess in Rome - the sort who drags you from a good conversation saying, "now I want you to meet..." She made life hell for the Director of the British School, and she developed Fascist sympathies. Beard does her best to rescue this unlovable dragon; and she is frankly unsentimental about Harrison who was a heavy-smoking, dressy drama queen, enraptured by her own wit, and too keen on teddy bears.

But she was also as passionate - proto-Lawrentian, almost - as Sellers seems to have been sexless. Jane lived out her own ideas about the seething cauldron of human nature beneath the surface froth of rationality and convention. One thing that clearly annoys Beard is that all this charisma belongs to the Hellenist, while the starchy, intimidating hostess was, like her, the Romanist.

In perhaps the most important part of the book, Beard effectively decentres the subject that has become known as The Cambridge Ritualists. This is partly a product of Harrison's own sense of her place at the centre of the web, and partly of faded memories from the aged Gilbert Murray (never at Cambridge). The invention of this group is, as Beard plausibly complains, "to turn the history of ideas into... a series of biographical puzzles".

But what about the sex? Beard's enjoyment of gossip and speculation is far too strong to omit the subject, so she tries to turn it into part of her sermon. Hope Mirlees was a Newnham student when Harrison was in her early sixties. After she graduated in 1913, she lived with Jane, and they travelled together. In 1922, they moved to Paris, before ending up on the fringe of Bloomsbury, geographically and culturally (Harrison died in 1928).

They refer to the intimacy of their cohabitation even in their mutual book-dedications ("In remembrance of Spanish nights and days", and so forth). Virginia Woolf took a 1919 novel by Mirlees to be "all Sapphism... Jane and herself". Yet Beard insists that "what they did behind the closed doors... we cannot hope to reconstruct"; her objection is "to those who think they know what went on in the bedrooms of the past". Well, we can't know - it might have been all teddy bears - but if that passionate couple did nothing tribadic, I'll eat The Well of Loneliness.

The 99 per cent likelihood of that erotic relationship is claimed by Beard to be no more definite than another liaison, which has a likelihood of about 1 per cent. In the 1880s, when Harrison and Sellers were both living in London, they described each other as "friends", but before long they irrevocably fell out. On the strength of one piece of questionable evidence, Beard argues that they shared a flat. But her prize reconstruction is of a brush in Olympia.

Harrison travelled through the Peloponnese with a friend (male) called MacColl, from 13 May 1888 to the 20th or 21st; they even spent a night together in the pouring rain. Sellers also visited the Peloponnese that year, some time after 11 May, when she was still in Florence. On the strength of two indistinct photos in the Sellers Archive of a woman rider, whom Beard claims resembles Harrison, she believes that the two women coincided. She even hints (or does she?) that they might have spent a hot night in the same sleeping-bag.

Quite apart from the difficulty of reconstructing any itinerary that works, Beard has the face to re-identify the woman in the photos, even though she concedes that the hand which labels them as "Olympia. E.S." is very probably E.S.'s own. "Never trust a photograph" is the moral she draws.

What, never? Surely this is only a rhetorical way of saying "do not always, and implicitly, trust a photograph". The same goes for this absorbing book. With that warning, I recommend the ride.

* Oliver Taplin teaches classics at Magdalen College, Oxford