Greece in British Women's Literary Imagination, 1913–2013

by Eleni Papargyriou (Volume editor) Semele Assinder (Volume editor) David Holton (Volume editor)
©2017 Monographs VIII, 176 Pages
Series: Lang Classical Studies, Volume 19


Greece in British Women’s Literary Imagination, 1913–2013 offers a comprehensive overview of British female writing on Greece in the twentieth century and beyond. Contributors cover a vast array of authors: Rose Macaulay, Jane Ellen Harrison, Virginia Woolf, Ann Quin, Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Olivia Manning, Mary Stewart, Victoria Hislop, Loretta Proctor and Sofka Zinovieff formed special ties with Greece and made it the focus of their literary imagination. Moving from Bloomsbury to Mills & Boon, the book offers insight into the ways romantic literature has shaped readers’ perceptions about Greece. Why have female authors of such diverse backgrounds and literary orientations been attracted by a country burdened by its past and troubled by its present? What aspects of the country do they choose to highlight? Are female perceptions of Greece different from male ones? The book examines these and many more exciting questions. Given its focus and diversity, it is addressed to audiences in English and Greek studies, Classical reception, European modernism, cultural studies and popular fiction, as well as to non-academic English-speaking readers who have an interest in Greece.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: British Women Writing Greece (Semele Assinder / Eleni Papargyriou)
  • 1. Beginnings and Endings in Rose Macaulay’s The Empty Berth (Semele Assinder)
  • 2. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of Greek Form (Vassiliki Kolocotroni)
  • 3. “In a Different Light”: Imagining Greece in Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym (Rowena Fowler / Rose Little)
  • 4. Olivia Manning and the Longed-for City (Deirdre David)
  • 5. A Place “We All Dream About”: Greece in Mills & Boon Romances (Laura Vivanco)
  • 6. Mary Stewart’s Greek Novels: Hellenism, Orientalism and the Cultural Politics of Pulp Presentation (James Gifford)
  • 7. Fire and Futility: Contemporary Women Novelists and WWI in Greece (David Wills)
  • 8. Victoria Hislop’s The Island (2005): The Reception and Impact of a Publishing Phenomenon in Greece (Keli Daskala)
  • 9. “Perfidious Albion”: Axis Occupation and Civil War in Sofka Zinovieff’s The House on Paradise Street (Eleni Papargyriou)
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Introduction: British Women Writing Greece


While the Greek connections of British male authors, from Byron to the Durrells and from Patrick Leigh Fermor to Louis de Bernières, have been extensively documented and studied, the country’s presence in women’s literary imagination remains underinvestigated. With the exception of travel writing, which has long been associated with women writers (Kolocotroni and Mitsi 2008; Mahn 2012), the connection between British female authors of fiction and Greece has not yet been examined systematically (Bassnett 2002). Yet, the twentieth century alone produced an impressive number of British female authors who wrote about Greece. They range from highly esteemed representatives of the literary establishment, such as Virginia Woolf and Jane Ellen Harrison, to more underrated cases, such as Barbara Pym, and commercial players in the literary market, such as Mary Stewart and (in the last decade) Victoria Hislop. Their number and diversity give rise to a number of questions: Why are female authors of such diverse backgrounds and literary orientations attracted by Greece, a country burdened by its past and troubled by its present? What aspects of the country do they choose to highlight? Are female perceptions of Greece different from male ones?

Recent studies of women writing about Greece have focused either on the appropriation of its classical past or on the country’s appearance in a specific genre, particularly travel writing (Olverson 2009; Mahn 2012; Mitsi 2002). A survey approach such as that offered in Roessel’s (2002) book In Byron’s Shadow has updated the sourcebook for an overview of the literary landscape, although it fails to offer sufficient depth of analysis or a detailed ← 1 | 2 → examination of the material. Hellenism as a concept remains attractive, but the cult of the personality has continued to dominate: figures such as Virginia Woolf and Jane Ellen Harrison have received much critical attention in recent years (Beard 2000; Fowler 1983, 1999; Kolocotroni 2012a, 2012b; Koulouris 2011), while there is a significant pool of female authors whose work has not been discussed. These studies have done much to broaden the fields of travel writing and literary biography, yet these works contain only a vague sense of literary Hellenism, often implied only by the word “Greek” and not explored further.

This collection of essays offers an overview of Greece’s presence in British female writing from 1913 to 2013. It engages in a critical dialogue with female authors’ perceptions of Greece as a symbolic birthplace of Western culture, as a dramatic stage of modern historical conflict or as an imagined locale offering the opportunity of escape from the conundrums of Western life. The volume historicizes the allure of Greece in female authors in the period 1913–2013, the century stretching from just before the outbreak of World War I until well into times of economic recession and social upheaval. Such a historicization updates our understanding of literary Hellenism: while the tendency has been to focus on Modern Greece exclusively as a faint echo of the Classical past, the essays included in this volume show that a large number of female authors have been systematically investigating Greece’s contemporary reality too. Contributors display a shift in the paradigm: while earlier female authors are fascinated by Greece as a symbolic topos of classical ideals, more recent ones engage directly with contemporary aspects of the country. Virginia Woolf and Jane Ellen Harrison were attracted to ancient Greek material culture at the expense of Greece’s modern face. However, as the political entanglement of Greece and Britain intensified during and after World War II, women authors of fiction, such as Olivia Manning, saw Greece as a stage of political drama with inter­national implications, while Elizabeth Taylor refused to visit Greece during the years of military dictatorship (1967–1974), a stance which could be praised as a form of resistance. Following that thread, Victoria Hislop, and more recently Sofka Zinovieff, are contemporary authors who have been systematically raising awareness on little-known events in Greece’s recent history. Looking for the first time at popular genres of writing, the volume moves from Bloomsbury to Mills and Boon, underscoring the importance of the cultural influence romantic fiction has had in readers’ perceptions of the country. ← 2 | 3 →

From Hellas to Greece

In her account of her sessions with Freud in Vienna in 1933, Hilda Doolittle recalls her response to the ageing professor showing her a statue of Athena ornamenting his study: “He knew that I loved Greece. He knew that I loved Hellas” (Doolittle 1955: 104). This distinction between Hellas and Greece is telling, not least because it comes across as an empty vessel: it does not cease to mystify. Hellas amounts to a romanticized spectre of a lost civilization, it is formed on a continuum of lacunae, of gaps and absences, of faltering or even fallacious perceptions. Hellas is built on the desired relics of material culture and studied in dusty corners of libraries, but it is not experienced al fresco, or, when it is, it is through preconceived ideas. In this binary, Greece eventually takes the role of a geographical space that hosted the material remnants of Hellas but is deemed inferior to it.

Ottoman Greece was a dangerous place for women; only a handful have been recorded to have traveled there (Mitsi 2008). Things improved a little, but not significantly after 1830. The Dilessi murders in 1870 did nothing to alter this perception of Greece as a brutal and dangerous destination. At the turn of the century, though, the interest in brigands had started to shift to an intrigue rather more salacious than spine-chilling. A woman, Amy Yule, wrote the 1884 Murray handbook for travelers to Greece. Women published comprehensive accounts of their travels, recording not only their excursions, but also recommending hotels and the use of a dragoman, and thereby making journeys to Greece more achievable to those reading at home. The “mushroom crop of novels” about Greece (Mayo 1897: 98), romanticizing klefts fighting for independence and women taking arms, either published as short stories in women’s magazines or in fat novels, aimed to educate the audience about the Greek political situation. Women started to work on Greece in a systematic way; multiple translations of folk poetry and original texts on Greek themes, published in magazines and books, provided the British public with an outlook into Modern Greece, rather than its historic alter ego. In this period, women’s writing often focused on the explicit aim of raising public awareness of the continuing Greek fight for independence, sometimes with the hope of contributing financially direct to the Greek cause. The Greeks’ fight for liberty, as well as the popular image of Greece in Britain as “the slave Hellas” (Garnett 1885), offered women then campaigning for social and educational liberties a terrain of comparison between themselves and Ottoman-occupied Greece. Writers such as Elizabeth Edmonds, Lucy Garnett, and Isabella Mayo promulgated Greece’s plight through their writing, and were influential in the formation of Modern Greece in the British imagination. Being educated ← 3 | 4 → in Greek, which combined knowledge of the classical language and of ancient Greek cultural texts and tropes, has been linked to imperial power (Goldhill 2002; Vasunia 2003). This power was conceived of as the privilege of men. Travel to Greece offered women an education in its own right, and the proliferation of Modern Greek grammars and phrasebooks at the fin de siècle were vital tools for self-education. The interest women recorded in fading Greek customs and the signs of modernization creeping into Greece, such as the advent of railways and decline of traditional dress, can be read as a eulogy for a Greece no longer classical nor yet truly modern. This incipient Greek modernity, though, did offer an attractive prospect to women; the development of the relatively new Greek state allowed them to move more freely—both geographically and socially—than in Britain. The stifling layers of history present for them in Britain were notably absent from Greece; women’s lack of classical education proved more a help than a hindrance in this respect, removing any obstruction which might have been presented by the classical past from their engagement with the developing nation state of Greece. A distinctive female voice was then emerging in British magazines, one which presented women with the chance to produce more developed articles and extended writing than within newspaper journalism. Classics as a field may have been barred to these women, but Modern Greek and Greece were ripe for appropriation.

The emancipating effect of education and travel had found their full effect by the end of the century; by the time of the publication of Rose Macaulay’s “The Empty Berth” in 1913, women travelers to Greece were no longer unusual characters, but were still easy targets for literary jest. Somewhere between 1880 and 1913, the novelty of the woman traveler had begun to wane as travel became more socially acceptable. However, the connection between women’s fiction and Greece had been firmly established.

In the century examined in this volume (1913–2013) some of these tropes and trends seem to persist, while new ones are introduced. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the imperial allure of a classical education—a gendered affair—is still in full swing. “Not knowing Greek,” as Virginia Woolf famously declared in an essay, meant to be excluded from a club of people possessing the intellectual credentials to influence public life, decision making, and be cultural commentators of their times. Pound and Eliot employed ancient Greek as a code intended for the informed, initiated reader. In their assemblage of a canonical textbook of modernist literature, Greek played a major role as a language of exclusion in terms of class, education, and, as would be later proven, gender. As Vassiliki Kolocotroni has written, “Woolf’s writing abounds in women frustrated in their desire to enter the ← 4 | 5 → ‘temples of learning.’ ‘I’d give ten years of my life to know Greek,’ (44) says young Mrs. Dalloway in The Voyage Out” (Kolocotroni 2012: 9).

In this volume, Kolocotroni shows how this became true not only for Woolf, but also for Jane Ellen Harrison, whose contributions to the study of Greek were deemed insufficient and not scholarly enough. This lack of Greek is also evident in Rose Macaulay’s characters’ intellectual self-perception, and Greek works as a touchstone for scholarship throughout her fiction. For Olivia Manning traveling to Greece compensated for her lack of a classical education. And while Elizabeth Taylor had ancient Greek lessons at school, her knowledge of the language subsequently faded, as it was not consolidated in an academic context.

Thus, one element in the motivation of women to engage with Hellenism is still compensational; it revolves around the desire to penetrate the male world. But in this lacking, in this half-known Greek—half-known by male standards—there is a kind of discovery, a fruitful appropriation. Elizabeth Taylor writes: “The Classical Tradition, she [Cassandra] thought, taking the little book from a drawer. What in heaven’s name was it all about? She had never read it” (Taylor 1946: 154). It does not escape us that the encounters of women writers with Greece are primarily inquiring in nature: not only to discover and compare the ancient face to the country to its modern version, but also to come to terms with this exclusion, of not knowing enough Greek.

And yet, these women writers often follow a well-trodden path of viewing it through a classical, if not imperial lens. Hellenism as a cultural tool manning the British Empire, still meant that the country’s modern face was always found lacking. Infantilizing elements in their accounts still abound, such as those by Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, while Mary Stewart would be on close call. Their characters often express their annoyance at the country’s premodern infrastructure, its primitive transport system, its nauseatingly rich food, and the primitive character of its men.

Greece becoming a popular holiday destination in the second half of the twentieth century resulted in the development of a whole genre of romantic fiction, which has often been dubbed “escapist.” Landscape features, notably the Greek islands and sandy sun-kissed beaches, are blended with a popularized and even naïve knowledge of Greek history to offer an escapist outlet for readers in Western countries. Greek mythology in this genre was recast into a popular sensationalist toolkit intended to excite the imagination of female readers. The cultural mark left by these novels should not be underestimated. Despite their simplicity, or often because of it, they have been seminal in shaping readers’ perceptions of Greece, while, on the practical side, they have worked wonders in advertizing the country. Taking into account ← 5 | 6 → their commercial success, this volume equalizes these novels to the canonical works of Woolf, Manning, and Taylor in terms of the role they have played in shaping literary Hellenism.

Greece as a mass tourist destination has inspired women authors to investigate its recent history. Victoria Hislop traces the beginning of her relation to Greece as a revelatory moment in tourist experience:

My love for Greece started as a holiday romance almost 40 years ago. I was a teenager and landed in Athens one blisteringly hot day in August with my mother and sister. It was only my second time out of England.

In spite of the dust, chaos, traffic, and signs in a language and alphabet I didn’t understand, I was enchanted. Perhaps it was the brilliance of the blue sky and the dazzling pale stones of the Acropolis, or simply the sight of swallows dipping and diving in the all-embracing warmth of our first evening there. (Hislop 2015)

Hislop’s account teems with recognizable cultural tropes that define a tourist’s first travel to Athens: sun, heat, blue skies, and a landmark monument. There is chaos in the eyes of the Western traveler, but the charms of landscape are compensating. Hislop’s novels have been marketed as beach reads and she comes across as someone who addresses a reader contenting her/himself with superficial knowledge of the country. And yet, her preoccupation with the country’s recent wounds, a leper colony in The Island, the Greco-Turkish war of 1919–1922 in The Thread, familiarizes audiences with historical domains that fall outside the classical scope. In their commercial allure, Hislop’s novels popularize an understanding of the country that helps collapse the Hellas/Greece divide. Sofka Zinovieff probes deeper into Greece’s historical past, tracing wounds, and most importantly, offering a cultural translation of the political debate between Left and Right that dominates Greek public life. Zinovieff thematizes her own position as a British author writing on Greece. As Greece and Britain became intrinsically linked during WWII and after (Wills 2015), the role of British foreign affairs in the shaping of Greek politics becomes a fascinating, if not intricate and painful subject.

One welcome change in the last decades has been the shift in language learning. While Woolf, Harrison, and Stewart, or any of the Mills and Boon authors writing novels set in Greece, did not know Modern Greek, Victoria Hislop has taken great pains to learn the language. In a 2009 interview, she confessed that “all my money goes on Greek lessons. I have four hours of one-to-one tuition a week and I am addicted. It’s like a code that I am cracking, slowly but surely” (Hislop 2009). The process of using ancient Greek as a code for the lucky few who have had a privileged education has been reversed. Code making has been transformed into code breaking (at a cost of course). ← 6 | 7 → Zinovieff too displays her knowledge of Modern Greek in incorporating a vast array of Greek words and terms in her writing. Zinovieff showcases that her knowledge of twentieth-century Greek history has been based on Greek sources as well, listing them at the back of her novel The House on Paradise Street (2012).

If the binary Hellas/Greece was here employed to showcase the gradual shift of interest from an imaginary topos to a real space, this does not mean that Greece in these women’s literary perceptions is not invested with dreams and desires, a space used to confront fears, a pretext to discover the self or hide from it. Greece can be as imaginary as Hellas. And yet, British female fiction writers today are continuing in a tradition established in the nineteenth century: gaining access to a country through lived experience and language. Whether Victoria Hislop learning Greek through language lessons in the 2000s, or the writer Elizabeth Edmonds seeking to live in Athens for “the cultivation of the modern language” back in 1880 (Edmonds 1881), Greece exerts an attraction on women writers. This volume seeks to investigate what, precisely, this attraction might be.


VIII, 176
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. VIII, 176 pp.

Biographical notes

Eleni Papargyriou (Volume editor) Semele Assinder (Volume editor) David Holton (Volume editor)

Eleni Papargyriou teaches at the University of Vienna, having previously lectured at King’s College London (2009–13). She has held research and teaching positions at Oxford, Princeton and the University of Ioannina, Greece. She has published the monograph Reading Games in the Greek Novel (2011) and co-edited Camera Graeca: Photographs, Narratives Materialities (2015). She has published articles on intertextuality and the novel, the cultural implications of (self)translation, visual modernity and the rapport between literary text and photographic image. She is on the editorial board for the Journal of Greek Media and Culture. Semele Assinder studied Classics at Oxford before going to Cambridge to work on her doctoral dissertation, Greece in British Women’s Writing, 1866–1915. During her PhD, she worked in Athens while holding an Onassis Foreigner’s Fellowship; upon completion she took up the British School at Athens’ Macmillan Rodewald Studentship. David Holton is Emeritus Professor of Modern Greek at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Selwyn College. He is the author of many books and articles on Modern Greek language and literature from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. He edited Literature and Society in Renaissance Crete (1991) and co-edited Copyists, Collectors, Redactors and Editors: Manuscripts and Editors of Late Byzantine and Early Modern Greek Literature (2005). He has also edited twenty volumes of the journal Kambos: Cambridge Papers in Modern Greek (1993–2013). He was Chairman of the Society for Modern Greek Studies (2012–2016).


Title: Greece in British Women's Literary Imagination, 1913–2013