Tuesday 23rd of July 2024


“Seething in Oily Rage”: Greek Myth and the Woman Question in Emily Pfeiffer’s Studies from the Antique

Maria Luigia Di Nisio, Università “Gabriele D’Annunzio” Chieti-Pescara pdf_icon_30x30




Abstract: This paper aims at exploring an example of mythical revisionism by the Late-Victorian poet Emily Pfeiffer (1827-1890). Her sonnets Studies from the Antique (1880) deal with two famous heroines of Greek tragedy, Kassandra and Klytemnestra, very popular at the time, to throw into relief fraught issues of gender that were becoming increasingly prominent in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Pfeiffer was not alone in looking back to the past: contemporary women poets such as Amy Levy, Augusta Webster and Mary Elizabeth Coleridge also turned to antiquity to expose Late-Victorian sexual double standards while trying out alternative models of femininity, safely displaced in a remote setting. In so doing, they urged a comprehensive rethinking of womanhood in the light of a heated debate around “true” femininity, as well as suggesting the possibility of rewriting history and myth from a different perspective. The movement into classical tradition was particularly significant for women writers, since Classics was the emblem of male cultural hegemony and the ancient world – Greece in particular – was held as source of artistic, political, and cultural models illuminating the present. At the same time, Greek culture, above all V century BC tragedy, proved particularly interesting for female intellectuals, for it disclosed a fascinating dark side in its representation of extreme passions, violence and revenge. Furthermore, it staged complex strong-willed heroines torn by unfulfilled ambitions and destructive desires like Medea, Circe, Kassandra and Klytemnestra. The heroines dramatized in Pfeiffer’s sonnets both challenge and defer to current sexual stereotypes. If Kassandra is the helpless victim of Apollo, she also willingly yields to the lust of the god and relishes in her power of prophecy. Similarly, if Klytemnestra is indeed an adulterous wife and a murderer, she is an oppressed woman and a desperate mother as well. Theirs is a shared story of male violence and abuse, of transgression and punishment set in a mythical past which also disturbingly draws attention to the Late-Victorian Woman Question.


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