Portrait of Jane Harrison (1909)

Jane Ellen Harrison

The ghost of Jane Harrison has a notorious walk-on part in Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic, A Room of One’s Own, flitting across the gardens of Fernham (a very thinly disguised Newnham) College.

For Woolf, Harrison was one of the first generation of British women to write non-fiction seriously. Pushy, self-dramatizing and self-promoting, she may have been (indeed had to be). Even her best friends admitted that there were plenty who could not stand her. Yet she more or less invented the role of professional female academic, as a researcher as well as a teacher. At the same time she revolutionized how we think about the culture of ancient Greece – in a way that remains influential today.

Harrison was one of Newnham’s first students, returning to college (after a couple of simultaneously hardworking and glamorous decades in London) in 1898 and remaining almost until her death in 1928. It was here that she began to dig beneath the surface of ancient Greece. Two major books, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion and Themis, were the result. For the classical establishment, they told an uncomfortable story. Harrison’s Greece was not the shining, calm, rational world of the familiar image. It was a seething hotbed of frenzy, irrationality and passion bubbling just under the surface. ‘Bloody Jane’ they said. But the ancient world never looked quite the same again.

Biography of Jane Harrison by Prof Mary Beard, 2004