Jane Harrison’s Russian.

From Susannah Clapp’s LRB review (archived) of Square Haunting, by Francesca Wade:

[Jane] Harrison’s father had resisted the idea of education for women and her stepmother insisted on trying to make her more feminine: she sewed a fringe on her mackintosh. Yet in 1874 she got a scholarship to Cambridge to study Classics (three years earlier Newnham had made accommodation available to women attending its new ‘Lectures for Ladies’). Her insistence on an alternative history – punching against the Olympian pantheon, revealing evidence for matriarchal husband-free goddesses – is central to Square Haunting and a direct influence on Woolf and HD. Central, too, are the obstacles she encountered (along with some coterie idolatry): in 1888 London academics pronounced it ‘undesirable’ that ‘any teaching in University College should be conducted by a woman’. She left Cambridge saying that ‘much of our ingenuity & energy goes in cringing’.

Something else makes Harrison all-pervasive. Fascinated by Henri Bergson’s idea of time as a series of changes melting into one another and finding this represented in the imperfective aspect of the Russian language, with its implication of collective memory, she evolved a theory, simply expressed, of merging boundaries between past and present, between one person and another: ‘Each of us is a snowball growing bigger every moment, and in which all our past, and also the past out of which we sprang, all the generations behind us, is rolled up, involved.’ Square Haunting reverberates with this notion. The connections Wade finds between her subjects’ work and lives are in the main echoes and overlaps – a kind of confluence – rather than direct inheritance, debts or tussles for supremacy.

Harrison knew 16 languages (11 living and five dead), and in a nifty footnote Wade comments that she ‘began teaching Russian almost as soon as she began learning it’.

Yes, of course the idea of the imperfective aspect of Russian implying collective memory is silly; so what? Many fine things spring from imaginary roots.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The perfective aspect implies collective forgetting.

  2. In Soviet Union, past forgets you!

  3. I like “coterie idolatry” very much.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s an interesting essay.

    I was disappointed not to be told which “five dead languages” Harrison knew, though. I mean, Latin and Greek, obviously, but then …?

    [Hebrew according to WP, which would have been my next guess. But then?]

  5. From Annabel Robinson, The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison:

    Her only regret, it would seem, was that she had not devoted more time to learning languages (never mind that she could, by the end of her life, read fluently not only Greek and Latin, French and German, but also to a lesser extent Italian, Spanish, Russian, and had worked hard at acquiring a knowledge of Sanskrit, Cuneiform, Hebrew and Persian, Swedish and Icelandic).

    (One shakes one’s head at “Cuneiform”…)

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks! OK, that’s five … (at least.)

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