- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
This biography must be a read with great caution, for it is so full of biases, contradictions and very purposefully-left out facts that it can hardly be considered a biography at all. I caution all scholars of Harrison and Hope Mirrlees to not use this as a serious scholarly source. In fact I don't think, save for a handful of new details about Harrison's life (much of what had already been published), that it is worth reading at all. University libraries should consider taking this off of their shelves.
It was written by a former Classics professor who seems to have simply stopped teaching out of the blue around 2008 and is now a zealous religious convert. The irony is that Harrison railed against Christian and Catholic ideology all her life. Indeed, how does this information about Robinson change our reading of this "biography!" For Jane Harrison by no means led a heteronormative private life (it was known that she attracted and flirted with both sexes) and Robinson's vindictive, cruel portrayal of Harrison's partner, Hope Mirrlees, begins to only make sense when one considers Robinson's personal religious views. Deeply disturbed by the intimate details of their relationship that emerged in the other, more authoritative biographies (Peacock & Beard) on Harrison, Robinson seems to have set out to write a biography that effectively erases Mirrlees' importance in Harrison's life. Worst of all, she completely belittles her and condescends to her all throughout the biography.
As just one example, she writes, "I cannot help suspecting that her friendship with Harrison was fuelled for a craving for fame-by-association, as it were, since there is little else to explain their close relationship. Mirrlees, despite her poetic ability, had few of Harrison's intellectual gifts" and this following gem, "Mirrlees, who fancied herself as a novelist and a poet, writes in an effusive, cloying style, with little understanding of her subject matter" among others. Mirrlees only did ever write an avant-garde modernist poem that rivaled her friend T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," entitled "Paris: A Poem." Whose poem was published before? Mirrlees' was written in 1919 yet Eliot never acknowledged its influence on his own 1922 poem although he happily lived off of her family's generosity for some time. Her novel "Lud-in-the-Mist" is no mere fantasy novel, but full of philosophical Platonic ideology. Her later poetry, even when she herself converted to Catholicism, remained intensely learned, full of references to Greek and Italian art, architecture, poetry, language, religious rituals, etc. She was also in Harrison's own words, her best "gifted" student and openly admired Mirrlees ability to see things from a philosophical, universal distance.
Back to this book. When Mirrlees' name begrudgingly comes up, Robinson cannot help but insert some cutting remark that drips with disdain for the woman who gave Harrison a second chance at life when she was completely broken down. She paints Mirrlees as entirely brainless, vain and fame-seeking. Since she cannot see how such "different" women would want to be companions, she assumes that Harrison only chose Mirrlees because of her family's wealth and that Mirrlees chose Harrison because she wanted fame by association. In both scenarios, Robinson severely degrades the intellectual and emotional capacity of both women. At the end of the biography, instead of ending on Harrison's contributions to Greek studies, she leaves this cutting remark: "Her [Harrison] will, a final clue to her relationship with Mirrlees, left everything to her niece, Marion Harrison." This remark of course, assumes that two women who lived for years together until Harrison's death never spoke about her will, never came, as partners tend to do, to an agreement about it; it also (after insisting throughout that Mirrlees was spoiled by her family) assumes that the well-off Mirrlees would have wanted the very little money Harrison had left instead of believing it should be bequeathed to someone who actually needed it.
It thus becomes clear that Robinson wrote the biography almost entirely to refute the notion that Harrison and Mirrlees actually cared for each other (much less were romantically involved - Robinson declares that women in their 70s have no sexual needs). In this "biography," Mirrlees is reduced to a "psychologically unhealthy" greedy and selfish fame-seeker who barred Harrison from all her friends and selfishly kept her all to herself. This of course, would assume that the great JH had absolutely no personal conviction or self-respect and went along with this "forced" friendship for almost 20 years because of... money? It also ignores the fact that Mirrlees cared so deeply about Harrison's memory, she could never finish her autobiography of her because she knew Harrison would not have wanted to world to know about her private life.
In addition, Robinson only quotes from Virginia Woolf's letters that suggest negative views of Mirrlees and her writing but conveniently leaves out all the very positive remarks she made about Mirrlees, including her own letters to Mirrlees! Letters where Woolf asks with earnest to publish something of Mirrlees for the Hogarth Press. This act of missing information is repeated over and over. She calls JH and HM's complexly coded private world and language "puerile silliness" and "regression to nursery behavior." She chooses only very insignificant examples to quote from, forgetting all of their very suggestive "To Spanish Nights" dedications, to being each other's "wives," to their use of the Ursa Major constellation as a private "sign off" to each other in their letters and published works. And perhaps most of all, she forgets JH's poem dedicated to Mirrlees with lines like, "Her friend is Little-Sweet-Hole / Her lover is Huge Breast / With them she does indulge / In many a tedious jest," written as she watches her sleeping form.
Robinson commits a gross disservice to the very thing she sets out to prove: the significance of Harrison's "life and work" by consistently questioning her mental abilities. In fact, Robinson argues that Harrison only ever left Cambridge and burned her papers because Mirrlees forced her to even though there exists no such evidence. Harrison said over and over that she left Cambridge because she could not take it anymore (by the time she left in 1922 she had suffered unbearable heartbreak and disappointment there). Mary Beard gives an excellent account of this period. But Robinson says that the "old" Harrison cannot be trusted, that her mind had gone off. A few pages later, she says it was incredible that Harrison was translating Russian so quickly as such an old age! Yet another example of the many contradictions in this poorly conceived book.
We cannot really "know" Jane Harrison if her relationship to Mirrlees is completely marred, especially for biased reasons by the author. This is why it is absolutely important to note that this "biography" cannot be considered authoritative, not simply about JH and HM's relationship, but Harrison's life as a whole. Frankly I am disappointed and surprised that an Oxford University Press publication made it all the way to the printing process without these gross inaccuracies being addressed.