New Women and the New Hellenism

  • Ann Ardis


During the great age of English university reform, Hellenism, the systematic study of Greek history, literature, and philosophy, served as a crucial means of both liberalizing classical republican political discourse and establishing the basis for a ‘homosexual counterdiscourse able to justify male love in ideal or transcendental terms’.1 As Linda Dowling has noted, the revisionary Greek ideal lying at the centre of Oxford Hellenism was ‘the purest model of Victorian liberalism itself’, promising to ‘restore and reinvigorate a nation fractured by the effects of laissez-faire capitalism and enervated by the approach of mass democracy’ (Dowling, 79, 31). But Oxford Hellenism also ‘provide[d] the means of sweeping away the entire accumulation of negative associations with male love which had remained strong through the beginning of the nineteenth century’ (Dowling, 79). ‘[T]riumphantly proclaiming’ male love to be ‘the very fountain of civic health in a polity that [was] urged to take as its cultural model the ancient city-state of Athens’, key figures in the Oxford reform movement such as Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds sought to realize the Platonic doctrine of eros, whereby an older man, ‘moved to love by the visible beauty of a younger man, and desirous of winning immortality through that love, undertakes the younger man’s education in virtue and wisdom’ (Dowling, 79, 81). Arguing that Oscar Wilde’s passionate defence of male love as ‘pure’ and ‘perfect’ and ‘intellectual’ during the final moments of his first trial in 1895 can best be understood in the context of this larger history of Victorian Hellenism, Dowling charts the very complex genealogy of Wilde’s Platonic language regarding male love in a ‘crucial moment in the modern emergence of homosexuality as a positive social identity’ (Dowling, 4).


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2002

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  • Ann Ardis

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