Ancient art and ritual – letters of Jane Ellen Harrison

Heading of Ms MacColl H186

Heading of Ms MacColl H186

One of our recent visitors to Special Collections was undertaking research on the classical scholar, Jane Ellen Harrison, (1850 – 1928) and this inspired me to delve into the interesting correspondence by Jane Harrison and her circle of friends which we have within our collections here.

Jane Ellen Harrison, distinguished classical scholar, linguist, pacifist, feminist, described by Mary Beard as “the first female career academic” was born in Cottingham in Yorkshire in 1850. Sadly, her mother died soon after her birth and Harrison was brought up and educated by a series of governesses. She was an extraordinarily gifted pupil with a particular aptitude for languages, becoming proficient in Latin, ancient Greek and German by the age of seventeen. She continued her education at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, before being admitted to Newnham College, Cambridge, the then recently established college for women, in 1874, where she continued her studies in Classics. Between 1880-1897 Harrison studied Greek art and archaeology at the British Museum under the tutelage of Sir Charles Newton, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, which subsequently enabled her to support herself financially as a freelance lecturer at the museum and elsewhere. Harrison was a “larger than life” character, with an extrovert and rather dramatic personality, and this, combined with her highly original and stylish dress-sense and infectious enthusiasm for her subject, made her an enormously popular and successful lecturer: indeed, she apparently claimed that around 1600 people attended a lecture she gave in Glasgow on the subject of ancient Athenian gravestones!

Harrison was also a keen traveller, and whilst touring in Europe, she met the archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld with whom she later visited Greece. Following this, she published her book “The Odyssey in Art and Literature” (1882). Other travels with Dörpfeld followed. She also befriended the scholar and art critic D.S. (Dugald Sutherland) MacColl (1859-1948). Their early association was inauspicious: after attending one of Harrison’s lectures, MacColl was extremely critical, attacking  her “second-hand”  and “wrong” ideas on art, as well as her melodramatic style of lecturing. Harrison was deeply wounded and gave up lecturing for about a year, but later wrote MacColl a heartfelt letter telling him of her distress ( now at MS MacColl H157), but admitting that she agreed with his evaluation of her work, that he had been right, and that she had now adopted a new approach and style of presentation.

Extract from Ms MacColl H157

Extract from Ms MacColl H157

The friendship grew, and MacColl became an important influence in her life, collaborating with her on her book “Greek Vase Paintings“, and apparently asking her to marry him, although she decided against it. During this period Harrison suffered a severe depression,  and immersed herself in studying primitive Greek art and mythology in the hope that the challenge of pioneering research would assist her recovery.

As well as being a close friend, MacColl remained an important “sounding board” in Harrison’s professional life as well, as is evidenced by the relatively small but significant collection of her letters held  within the MacColl Papers revealing  how much Harrison relied on MacColl’s advice and judgement. This collection also contains correspondence between MacColl and Hope Mirrlees and Jessie Stewart,  former students of Harrison with whom she had become friends, which show that MacColl was also a useful source of information for them whilst writing their biographies of Harrison (although Mirrlees never published her account of Harrison’s life).

Ms MacColl H155-192: letters in folder

Ms MacColl H155-192: letters in folder

Returning to Newnham College as a lecturer from 1908 until 1922, she became a central figure of the group known as the Cambridge Ritualists, along with Gilbert Murray ( Professor of Greek at University of Glasgow, 1889-1899, public intellectual and internationalist), F.M. Cornford, and A.B. Cook, and published the book for which she is perhaps best known, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion” in 1903, followed in 1912 byThemis: a study in the social origins of Greek religionand other works developing these themes.

Title page of "Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion"

Title page of “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion”

Following retirement in 1922, she lived for a time in Paris with her former student and companion, Hope Mirrlees, studying Russian language and culture and mixing with Russian refugees also living there, as well as writing her autobiographyReminiscences of a Student’s Life”. She returned to live in Bloomsbury, London, in 1925, where she remained until her death in 1928.

Harrison’s work has established her reputation as one of the founders of modern studies in Greek mythology. It was ground-breaking because she applied the results of archaeological discoveries, the analysis of ancient art,  and philological study to the interpretation of Greek religion, a standard practice today but in Harrison’s era still a relatively new and exhilarating idea. This new approach helped to explain some of the chthonic aspects of ritual practice and how these may have derived from the darker and more primitive cults from which the classical Olympian pantheon had evolved. Previously, Greek myth, as recounted in ancient literature, was considered to be the main, if not the only, source of information.



Drawing of Greek deities by Jessie Stewart from Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Sp Coll Laing 636

Drawing of Greek deities by Jessie Stewart from Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Sp Coll Laing 636

Arguably, Harrison may not have fully received the recognition she deserves, but her influence on Mirrlees is readily apparent in some of the themes of Mirrlees’ later creative output, and in recent times, the American humanities scholar Camille Paglia and British Classics don Mary Beard have both acknowledged how much Harrison has inspired their own work. Her work has also influenced research into other world mythologies, anthropology and art history. Interestingly, there are copies of several of Harrison’s works in the R.D. Laing Collection of books in Special Collections which previously belonged to the Glasgow psychiatrist and author, Ronald David Laing (1927-1989).
The above mentioned letters of Harrison and her associates are available for consultation in Special Collections on Level 12 of the University Library.

Harrison's signature from MS MacColl H157

Harrison’s signature from MS MacColl H157


Jessie Stewart’s drawing of Greek deities from “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion” is reproduced by kind permission of Miss Claire Pace.

Sources consulted:

Lloyd-Jones, Hugh: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online article on Jane Ellen Harrison [page accessed on 12/12/14]

Newnham College Archives: Jane Harrison Collection website [page accessed 21/1/15]

Beard, Mary: The Invention of Jane Harrison (Sp Coll MacColl Add. 2 and Classics A85. H33 BEA)

Robinson, Annabel: The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison (Classics A85.H33 ROB)

Stewart, J.G.: Jane Ellen Harrison: A Portrait from Letters (Classics A85.H33 STE)

Harrison, Jane Ellen: Reminiscences of A Student’s Life  (Store 32117)

Other items of interest:

Letters of Jane Ellen Harrison to D.S. MacColl (Ms MacColl H155-H192)

Letters of Hope Mirrlees to D.S. MacColl (Ms MacColl M617-624)

Letters of Jessie Stewart to D.S. MacColl (Ms MacColl S434-438)

Most of Jane Harrison’s extant papers and correspondence are held at the Archives of Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

Books by Jane Ellen Harrison in Special Collections:

Greek Vase Paintings (Sp Coll Mu3-x.1)

Mythology (Sp Coll Laing 1857)

Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion (3rd ed.)  (Sp Coll Laing 636)

Themis: a study of the social origins of Greek religion (Sp Coll Laing 1206)

Dörpfeld, Wilhelm: Die ausgrabungen zu Olympia (Sp Coll g1-a.1-5)

Categories: Library, Reflections, Special Collections

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