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Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Jane Austen and the Ancient Classics

What did Jane Austen know of the ancient classics?
Even at a time when girls such as herself received practically no formal schooling, with a father and brothers such as hers, she probably picked up quite a lot. There is circumstantial evidence.

She uses three or four Latin tags; and makes occasional references to classical literature.

And there are teasing details that make one think she knew the story of Achilles (sometimes just a word - like the mention of myrmidons in her letters) - and then the dressing up of Mr. Chamberlayne of the militia in women's clothes (Pride and Prejudice) to make us think she knew a little bit about The Iliad. Also we are told that Pen was there (Penelope). Penelope is also the name of Mr. Shepherd's daughter.

In a letter she mentions Lucina - the goddess of childbirth who was present with her knees crossed at the birth of Herakles (in Ovid's Metamorphoses).

Her great-grandmother was given work at the school run by the poet Fenton who also translated four or five books of The Odyssey for Pope.

Persuasion is a book in 24 chapters - like The Odyssey and The Iliad. Jane went out of her way to make it so, changing the ending completely to give us what we have now and growing from 23 to 24 chapters in so doing.

Fanny and Edward are outside in the evening and she says, ‘I wish I could see Cassiopeia’.

Cassiopeia is a prototype of Lady Bertram, forever seated in her chair.

Wentworth and Anne may be compared with Odysseus and Penelope, the hero returning after a long war to the faithful woman who rejected other suitors.

Mr. Shepherd, trying to remember the name of the vicar, recapitulates the judgment of Paris; Sophy Croft is Athena, the goddess of wisdom; Wentworth's ship is the Laconia, i.e. Lacedemonia where Helen lived before being stolen by Paris.


But all this proves nothing!