This is an early book by Mary Beard, from 2002. It costs a LOT for a slow print on demand order from an online bookshop which doesn’t begin with A, ultimately from Harvard University Press. But it’s worth it, I think, and here are the reasons.
If you’re interested in Jane Ellen Harrison, one of the leading British Classicists from the late 19th century and early 20th century, this is a biography and a critical study of her work rolled into one. It situates her work amongst that of her peers. It contextualises her as a scholar and as a celebrity public intellectual. It definitely places her in a lesbian context. No matter how scrupulous Beard is in saying that we don’t know anything as fact, and that cultural constructions of lesbianism have radically changed since the 1880s, we can surmise and infer quite a lot, with lifted eyebrows, from the extraordinary letters that have been preserved from Harrison’s close female friendships. It also presents Harrison as a feminist advocate and a thoroughly independent actor in the academic and cultural circles of her day. She was absolutely remarkable, and you should read this book for her alone.
Also, Beard uncovers the story of the life and career of Eugenie Sellers, later the celebrated (and widowed) Mrs Arthur Strong, also an archaeologist and Classicist, and assistant director of the British School at Rome (not a school, but the centre of British Classical research) for fifteen years. Sellers / Strong received her own biography (Dyson 2004) a couple of years after Beard’s book came out, but Beard was the first modern study of the life of this extraordinary scholar of Latin art and Roman archaeology, and Harrison’s close companion for several crucial years.
Yet another biography emerges in The Invention of Jane Harrison, that of the woman who consolidated the myth that Harrison herself perpetuated in her own life. Hope Mirrlees is best known now for her glorious fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) and for Paris. A Poem (1920), first published by the Woolfs at the Hogarth Press, rediscovered and republished by Sandeep Parmar in 2011, and most recently chattered about in the pages of the chattering classes’ literary weeklies. Mirrlees was also a close companion of Jane Harrison, after Harrison’s relationship with Sellers had ended so abruptly, and took it upon herself to protect Harrison’s reputation after death by restricting access to papers, setting herself up as the official arbiter of what could and could not be published, but not actually publishing anything about Harrison herself. Beard details this remarkable gate-keeping performance as a historiographer, focusing on the Harrison Archives at Newnham College in Cambridge, not only as a collection of documents, but as a constructed archive, with glaring omissions and unexpected inclusions. At times I felt that Beard was making the most of a limited collection of papers that didn’t say enough about what she was originally looking for, but she turns the thinness of the resource around by scrutinising the papers as she might an excavation: examining what was there, what wasn’t there, investigating provenance, comparative analysis with other collections, and so on.
It’s a very good book, absorbing, accessible and extremely well written. It’s the first modern assessment of Harrison’s life, and does far more than the more contemporary biographies by stepping away from the usual position of adulation, and applying a more critical assessment of Harrison’s academic career as well as of her slightly more populist life. Harrison, Sellers and Jessie Stewart, Harrison’s first biographer, come out very well from Beard’s scrutiny; Hope Mirrlees, rather less so.