Thursday 15 August 2013

Victorian Latin (and Love) Lessons

A couple of posts ago I spoke about how the study of classical subjects at Britain’s foremost universities in the nineteenth century provided an opportunity for male bonding (often with an eroticised edge). This alignment of the classical with all-male institutions and areas of discourse is also found in the fiction of the period, which often deals with women’s exclusion from the Classics either as a symptom of their inferior position in society at large or as a topic which has importance in itself.

Constantin Heger (a model for M. Paul?)
Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853) sees narrator Lucy Snowe responding to women’s exclusion from academia, in her reactions to the figure of M. Paul. Debate about the Classics forms an important part of this conflict between the pair. Lucy is a teacher – of female pupils. Her knowledge (and that of her pupils) is limited to those subjects which formed the core ingredients of middle-class femininity in England and on the continent. Yet, in relation to M. Paul, she is a pupil, and her ignorance of classical subjects helps maintain his superior position. M. Paul guards this knowledge jealously. Lucy writes:

‘[M.Paul’s] soul rankled a chronic suspicion that I knew both Greek and Latin. As monkeys are said to have the power of speech if they would but use it…so to me was ascribed a fund of knowledge which I was supposed criminally and craftily to conceal.’

Her caustic commentary reveals the multiplicity of M. Paul’s errors. He thinks Lucy may be able to read classical languages while she cannot. Yet neither is this because Lucy – and the rest of her sex – is possessed of only animal consciousness, as the comparison with monkeys attributed to him suggests. However, M. Paul’s suspicions are not as unfounded as the belief in monkeys’ powers of speech. Crafty, if not criminal, concealment comes naturally to Lucy – she does conceal her ability to speak (in front of other characters, and even by withholding information from her readers), like the imagined monkeys. What Lucy chooses to hide, throughout the novel, reveals that M. Paul is incorrect in believing classical knowledge, the marker of traditional male education, to be the only knowledge worthy of concealment. Lucy goes on:

‘The privileges of a "classical education," it was insinuated, had been mine; on flowers of Hymettus I had revelled; a golden store, hived in memory, now silently sustained my efforts, and privily nurtured my wits.’

There is much of interest here – not least the (potentially sexual?) suspicion which a woman having knowledge of Latin and Greek arouses and Lucy’s adoption of a metaphor (of bees) found in much classical verse at the very moment she is forswearing any knowledge of such literature. But the passage also leads us to consider what does sustain Lucy, what the ‘golden store’ is which nourishes her intelligence, if not the appreciation of the Classics imagined by M. Paul. What readers have access to, despite Lucy’s occasional silences and elisions, is an awareness of Lucy’s emotional and imaginative knowledge, garnered from her experiences. Importantly, when Lucy does wish for classical knowledge, it is not an end in itself, but as a means to an end in her ongoing emotional drama:

‘At moments I did wish that his suspicions had been better founded. There were times when I would have given my right hand to possess the treasures he ascribed to me. He deserved condign punishment for his testy crotchets. I could have gloried in bringing home to him his worst apprehensions astoundingly realised. I could have exulted to burst on his vision, confront and confound his ‘lunettes’, one blaze of acquirements. Oh! why did nobody undertake to make me clever while I was young enough to learn, that I might, by one grand, sudden, inhuman revelation—one cold, cruel, overwhelming triumph—have forever crushed the mocking spirit out of Paul Carl David Emanuel!’

Quoted out of context, Lucy’s desire to ‘possess the treasures’ of traditionally male areas of knowledge and spirited interjection (‘Oh! why did nobody undertake’) could be taken as an angry reaction to the limitation of Victorian female education, but Bronte’s tone is clearly humorous here. That Lucy would ‘give her right [and presumably writing] hand’ also suggests her reasons for doing so would not be academic. Rather, the prioritisation of the emotional and romantic which Lucy’s wish implies is in fact in keeping with the importance of her store of emotional knowledge noted above. It also fits neatly with wider patterns of female engagement with the Classics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, focussed as this often is on imaginative engagement with earlier literature, rather than detailed understanding of the languages it is written in.

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  1. Good stuff. This also reminds me of Middlemarch, which I'm reading at the moment: when Dorothea first marries Casaubon, the narrator knows--in a way that Dorothea doesn't, yet--what limitations there are to seeing "knowledge" only in terms of "classical knowledge", and at least that a merely antiquarian interest isn't helpful to becoming a fully realized person, or to learning how to love. Classical knowledge also signifies knowledge forbidden to women in The Mill on the Floss--where Maggie turns out to be the most humane character, I think, despite being denied access to the classical education that she could have benefited from far more than her brother did.

    1. Yes - very interesting. And Dorothea of course learns so much about human sympathy in the course of the novel. Another interesting case I think is Caroline Helstone in Shirley - her readings of Shakespeare prioritise emotion in the same way as just as we find women reading the Classics imaginatively/emotionally.