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Jane austen: closet classicist. (Miscellany).

Mary DeForest has a doctorate in classics and teaches Latin at the University of Colorado at Denver. Besides her work on classical authors, she has published on the classical tradition in modern literature, particularly in the novels of Jane Austen.


IN WRITINGS OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, words of Greek and Latin proclaimed the message NO GIRLS ALLOWED as emphatically as the sign on a boys' tree house (DeForest 1992). Books written for men confronted the reader with passages in Latin or Greek; books written for women did not.

While learned women were treated with hostility, unlearned women were mocked for not knowing what they had been forbidden to study. Consequently, women's feelings about the classics must have been complex. The admiration they were instructed to feel for ancient literature was charged with feelings of exclusion, of inferiority, of injustice. Women novelists who possessed a classical education faced a unique challenge. To ignore classical literature meant losing half the literary tradition; to emphasize classical literature meant losing female readers. If Jane Austen did learn Latin and Greek, neither she nor her family would have publicized this fact.

If she wanted to learn either language, she was born into the right family (DeForest 1988). In the eighteenth century, a woman's access to classical learning depended almost entirely on the presence of a sympathetic brother or father. Jane Austen's father and brothers were scholarly, literary, and--most important--her first readers. They assisted her in a far more adventurous enterprise than learning dead languages. Her father tried to find a publisher for her novel in 1797; fourteen years later, her brother Henry succeeded. If her father and brothers encouraged her to write and even to publish, they probably encouraged her intellectual development as well. This meant learning the classical languages. Certainly, they would have taught her as much as she wanted to learn. Her father, who had trained his sons for Oxford, supplemented his income by training other boys. Would he not have taught a gifted child what he taught the sons of other people? It is known that he prized Latin so highly that he almost prevented his son's adoption by a wealthy family: he feared the boy's Latin would suffer. Nevertheless, it would have hurt his career as a clergyman in a conservative community if he flouted convention and let it be known that he had given his daughter a classical education. Out of a similar discretion, he hid his daughter's identity when h e approached the publisher with her book. Classical education would be their secret.

That they did share a secret is implied that in a short play Austen dedicated to her father, "The Mystery" (Minor Works 55-57). This one-page play is composed of whispers and allusions, which the characters, inside the story, hear and understand, but which the reader, outside the story, misses. The classical names of two characters, Corydon and Daphne, may allude to the nature of the mystery. The gulf between the worlds inside and outside the text precisely mirrors the gulf separating men and women. Baffled and excluded, the reader of "The Mystery" learns how women feel when men thrust Greek and Latin into the conversation. If George Austen included his daughter among the classically educated, and if his prudence kept her from joining the men on center stage, she reassures him in allegorical language. In the preface, she offers him the "Comedy, which tho' an unfinished one, is I flatter myself, as complete a Mystery as any of its kind." Though her education may never be complete, it will be hidden from the world.

In the second volume of her juvenile pieces, she acknowledges his help more openly. She inscribed the first page with ex dono mei patris, "a gift of my father." These words mean more than the paper they are written on. Only one part of the gift was the physical notebook; the other was the ability to compose a Latin inscription. Her father gave her both the actual book of paper and the education itself--the physical and intellectual requisites for a writer.

Her youthful writings show a developing interest in creating classical subtext. In her novella "Love and Freindship," Austen addressed the issue of keeping girls ignorant. The heroine's confusion of Zephyr with the East Wind (MW 98) is consistent with her lack of a moral compass, so that she can praise her friends who "gracefully" or "majestically" steal money (MW 88, 96). She lacks moral foundation because she lacks an educational one. East and West, wrong and right--it is all a muddle to one guided entirely by feeling.

Not that a classical education guaranteed judgment in its possessor. Austen explicitly identified only one woman as classically educated. Lady Jane Grey, a character in Austen's mock "History England," was highly praised by Oliver Goldsmith, a friend women s education, who recounted two anecdotes about her learning in his History of England (228, 229). On one occasion, the scholar Ascham found Lady Jane reading Plato in Greek while the rest her household was out hunting. Her demeanor at death Goldsmith found equally impressive. On her way to the scaffold, she wrote down her sensations in two poems, one in Latin and one in Greek, languages justly famed for their exalted thoughts on death and fate. One might expect Austen to paint a favorable picture of Lady Jane but her portrait is a caricature of Goldsmith's honorific portrait:

Lady Jane Grey... was ... famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.... Whether she really understood that language or whether such a Study proceeded only from an excess of cockylorum [later revised to vanity] for which I beleive she was always rather remarkable, is uncertain. Whatever might be the cause, she preserved the same appearance of knowledge, & contempt of what was generally esteemed pleasure, during the whole of her Life, for she declared herself displeased with being appointed Queen, and while conducting to the Scaffold, she wrote a Sentence in Latin & another in Greek on seeing the dead Body of her Husband accidentally passing that way (MW, 141, 142-44)

Adopting the highly affected prose of scholar, Austen attacked Lady Jane's motives and abilities.

This portrait of Lady Jane illustrates how Austen worked on the material given her, transforming a historical character into a fictional one. The lofty musings of Goldsmith's character are reduced to school exercises, "a Sentence in Latin & another in Greek." Even death itself could not distract Lady Jane from her homework. Goldsmith's philosophical, studious young woman she transformed into a dull girl, an early study for Mary Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. Lady Jane's "contempt of what was generally esteemed pleasure" anticipates a similar sneer from Mary:

"Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures. They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charm for me. I should infinitely prefer a book." (PP 222-23)

Mary Bennet resembles Lady Jane in deriving neither pleasure nor profit from her studies. At sixteen Austen was beginning to explore the consequences of a classical education for a woman s character and reputation. In the cases of Lady Jane and Mary Bennet, their nastier qualities are only accentuated by education. As Mary Bennet evolved from Lady Jane, so Austen's own attack on Lady Jane developed into an attack against Elizabeth Bennet, who is accused by a jealous rival of being both a prude and a pedant. "'Miss Eliza Bennet despises cards. She is a great reader and has no pleasure in any thing else'" (PP 37). In her early study of Lady Jane Grey, Jane Austen anticipated both Mary Bennet's bookishness and the accusation of bookishness thrown at Elizabeth.

Lady Jane may well be a humorous portrait of Austen herself. Austen mentioned Sir Francis Drake to introduce her brother, another Francis, onto a larger stage (MW 146). In her portrait of Lady Jane, she holds up a distorted mirror of herself. She had the same name, and the same age. Austen was sixteen when she wrote this mock history, as was Lady Jane at her execution. The motive she attributes to Lady Jane for studying the classics is "cockylorum," a childish word crowing out in italics from the center of a sentence that parodies the formal tone of historical prose (Doody 1986, xviii). Years later, when Austen revised the manuscript, she replaced "cockylorum" with the more sedate word, "vanity," a flaw that she regularly found in herself. (1) The older Austen, looking back on her younger self, privately acknowledged Lady Jane as self-caricature by changing her childish frailty into her adult one.

"Cockylorum" well describes the young Austen's use of classical allusions. Their function is to point to their own existence or rather to the authoress's cleverness. In the first story of Volume I, where one might look for programmatic statements even from a very young author, Austen announced the presence of a secret channel between her world and the classical one. She invented an underground river connecting Crankhumdunberry, the ridiculously named village of her story, with the Vale of Tempe, proverbial in antiquity for beauty (MW5). In Greek mythology, the river Alpheus flows under the Ionian Sea between Western Greece and Sicily. Austen invented a similar river for her neo-classical village to show the classical influence nourishing the roots of her fiction.

In the same story, Damon and Corydon, two characters from the classical pastoral tradition, stand like marble statues, decorative rather than structural. They appear in songs sung by Rebecca at her first appearance and at her wedding.

That Damon was in love with me

I once thought & beleiv'd

But now that he is not I see,

I fear I was deceiv'd.

When Corydon went to the fair

He bought a red ribbon for Bess,

With which she encircled her hair

& made herself look very fess.

(MW 5, 10)

Taken together, the two songs trace a literary progression from classical pastoral to British. The first song could be sung by a maiden in any era; in the second, the name Bess brings Corydon from the world of Greek pastoral poetry to England, and with the slang word, "fess," to eighteenth-century England.

Yet another character with a pastoral name, Strephon, appears in one of Austen's scraps, as a young man affianced to two women (MW 172-74). The contemporary world is represented by Pistoletta daughter of Popgun; the classical world, by Chloe and her chorus of ploughboys. Strephon, whose name means "Twister," is caught between the two worlds, committed to choose Chloe and pastoral, but planning to live in town off a counterfeit coin. He is a two-dimensional figure, but the young man desired by two women appears in all of Austen's novels except Northanger Abbey.

The intellectual Elinor Tilney of Northanger Abbey could stand for the author herself, revealing a classical education without displaying one. Elinor defends history as a source of enjoyment, even when the historians make up the speeches.

"If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made--and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alexander the Great." (NA 109)

The speeches of Agricola and Caractacus are not to be found in the histories of England by David Hume or William Robertson, as Elinor implies, but in the works of the Roman historian Tacitus (Agricola; Annals 12.37). With the exquisite manners of an Austen heroine, Elinor does not spring upon her new friend the name of a Roman historian, even though Tacitus had been translated into English. Instead, she substitutes the names of familiar British historians, without actually attributing the speeches to them. Once we imagine Elinor reading Tacitus, however, it is an easy step to imagine her reading him in Latin, and this enhances our knowledge of her brother Henry. Every reader of the book knows Henry is exactly the kind of brother who would teach a sister Latin. The detail tells us nothing new, only a new way of showing it.

Jane Austen never published anything that would drive the non-classicist to a reference work. (2) Caractacus and Agricola, figures from British history, were not obscure to Austen's readers. Her allusions reveal nothing about the characters that are not made abundantly clear in the body of the novel. These allusions go shimmering across a character or situation, revealing hidden depths and shoals. Consequently, although Austen only rarely alluded to classical literature, her sparing usage is artistry, not ignorance. She used the classical allusions not to slam doors in the faces of non-classicists, but to open windows onto the landscape of the soul.


(1.) Letters, 77 (C) 80 (LF); 103 (C), 10p (LF); 120 (C), 132D (LF).

(2.) Margaret Ann Doody (1986, 355) has briefly but very perceptively studied the classical allusions found in her novels.


AUSTEN, JANE. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-1969.

_____. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. Deidre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1997.

_____. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: OUP, 1979.

DEFOREST, MARY. "Eighteenth-Century Women and the Languages of Power." Classical and Modern Literature 12(1992): 191-207.

_____. "Jane Austen and the Anti-Heroic Tradition." Persuasions 10 (1988): 11-21.

DOODY, MARGARET ANNE. "Jane Austen's Reading." The Jane Austen Companion, ed. David Grey. London: Macmillan, 1986. 347-63.

_____, (ed.). Catharine and Other Writings by Jane Austen. With Douglas Murray. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

GOLDSMITH, OLIVER. The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, with a Continuation to the Accession of George IV in the Year 1826 by William Jones. London, 1825.
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Author:Deforest, Mary
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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