Labouring Classicists -- and New year Resolutions
Today, I’ve been writing a paper for a big Classics conference (“the APA”) in Chicago, where I’m going on Thursday. I promised a talk on “working-class engagement in Classics” in the nineteenth century. I’ve been fed up for a long time with the usual line that Classics has always been an exclusively elite subject, designed only to shore up such dubious notions as British imperialism and the un-contestable superiority of the British elite.
The idea in proposing this paper was to try to get some flesh on those doubts. It turns out that I only have to talk for 20 minutes, into which you can hardly squeeze much of an argument. But even so I’ve left it a bit to the last minute. Hence full steam ahead to today.
Actually – never mind the argument of the paper -- I’ve found some tremendous characters. My particular favourite is Alfred Williams (born 1877 and the man in the picture), and author of Life in a Railway Factory, who taught himself Greek and Latin, partly by chalking up his irregular verbs on the casing of his forge.
Needless to say, this was a little trick which (however innocent) didn’t appeal to the foreman. To stop Williams using the side of his forge as an aide memoire for the nastier parts of the “–mi verbs” (classicists will sympathise), he had it covered with oil. Even this didn’t stop Williams. As his first biographer explained, “With characteristic determination Alf. dared to clean off the oil thoroughly – in his own time of course, for he was always careful to avoid placing a weapon in the hand of his oppressor – and rewrote the Greek.”
There was a celebrity element in all this. The Daily Mirror in 1910 carried a picture of Alf composing a sonnet in his lunch-break, in front an audience which apparently included "Mr Swinburne" (not the Swinburne, who died in 1909 -- but it still makes me wonder how far the cultural establishment had taken over this autodidact).
A close second for me comes a women poet, whom I should have known before – as she’s a great symbol for all us female classicists. This is Ann Yearsley, a late eighteenth-century milkmaid, who penned a wonderful satire entitled: “Addressed to Ignorance: occasioned by a Gentleman’s desiring the Author never to assume a Knowledge of the Ancients”. In it, the great heroes of antiquity have been turned into animas or homely British labourers.(“Stout Ajax, the form of a butcher now takes . . .” and so on). Up yours is. I think, the message.
And there’s plenty more -- all good news for me, as I have a bigger project in mind on Classics and the “non-elite” in the nineteenth century: from autodidacts to Ben Hur.
Oh yes – those resolutions? None made this year. But for those regular readers wanting an update on progress from last year, let’s admit it: rather slow but not nothing.
ana Mary. ana min Cambridge. ana ingiliziyya.
I know, I know. A long way still to go. Festina lente, as Alf Williams would have said.