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Jane Harrison Collection

Reference Code: GBR/2911/HAR

Scope and Contents

The Harrison Collection comprises the papers of and about Jane Harrison collected after her death principally by Hope Mirrlees and Jessie Stewart, former students of Harrison, for the writing of a biography. Most important is the collection of letters to Gilbert Murray and Lady Mary Murray that form the basis of Jessie Stewart's "Jane Ellen Harrison: A Portrait from Letters" (1959). There are also Mirrlees's and Stewart's own letters from Harrison, their manuscripts and drafts for potential biographies, and all the papers they collected by or about Harrison from friends, colleagues, and relations. There are other materials sent to the College by former students of Harrison's and of Newnham as well as contributions from current scholars. Jane Harrison destroyed her own papers and letters in 1922 when she and Hope Mirrlees left Cambridge to live in Paris. The papers have been divided into 6 series, with sub-series and files, each of which has a detailed description of its contents. All the letters from Harrison to Gilbert and Mary Murray, Hope Mirrlees, and Jessie Stewart, together with those to others that Mirrlees and Stewart collected, have been made into Series 1. Series 2 contains manuscript material of Harrison, proofs, and an annotated copy of "Mythology and Monuments". Printed items can also be found in Hope Mirrlees Papers and Jessie Stewart Papers. The few photographs of Harrison are in Series 3, together with the glass slide collection that she used in lectures. Hope Mirrlees Papers, Series 4, consist of the materials she obtained on Harrison and her own writings on her life, as do those of Jessie Stewart, Series 5, including correspondence with Mirrlees. Series 6, Additional Papers, are writings about Harrison donated by more recent scholars.


  • Creation: 1870-2000


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is available to researchers at Newnham College Archive

Biographical / Historical

Jane Harrison was born on 9 September 1850, at Cottingham, Yorkshire, the third daughter of Charles Harrison, timber merchant, and Elizabeth Nelson, who died of puerperal fever within a month of Jane's birth. Her aunt Harriet came to look after the children for her brother until a governess was hired, a young Welsh woman, Gemimi Meredith, who within months became the next Mrs Harrison, in 1855. This caused profound changes in the household: she was a strict disciplinarian and ardent evangelist. The children were no longer dressed in pretty clothes, were not allowed to play out with other children, nor even to visit their uncle on Sundays, as they had always done. And the family grew to twelve children.

Jane continued to be educated by a series of governesses at home, as did her sisters, in subjects deemed suitable for young Victorian women that would prepare them to become good wives. Despite this, Jane Harrison managed to acquire a knowledge of Latin, German, and Greek before being sent to Cheltenham Ladies' College at the age of 17 to finish her education. She flourished at Cheltenham and gained a First Class Certificate issued by the College in 1869. In her final year she took the London matriculation exam that had only been opened to women the year before; Jane was one of three Cheltenham students who passed. She then went back to her family to teach her young siblings.

At the age of 21 she came into an inheritance from her mother which provided a modest lifetime annuity, and immediately availed herself of the opportunity that financial independence afforded of travelling abroad, much to the disapproval of her stepmother. In 1874 she passed the Cambridge University Examination for Women and became a student at Newnham College, Cambridge, three years after it was founded. Fellow students and life-long friends included Margaret Merrifield (Verrall), Ellen Crofts (Darwin), and Mary Paley (Marshall).

Jane Harrison sat the Classical Tripos examinations in 1879 and to her everlasting disappointment was placed in the second class, albeit top of that class. As a result, she failed to get the College lectureship in classics, and thus had to leave Newnham. Teaching Latin and Greek was the obvious choice for her, but short stints at Oxford High School for Girls and then Notting Hill High School showed that this was not where her future lay. Instead, she studied archaeology under Sir Charles Newton at the British Museum, where her special interest was in Greek vase paintings, as well as at museums and universities in Germany. She supplemented her income by lecturing on Greek art and archaeology in London, where she was based for twenty years. "Myths of the Odyssey in Art and Literature" was published in1882, and "Introductory Studies in Greek Art" (1885) grew out of the lectures she gave at the British Museum. She also gave series of lectures at South Kensington Museum, with great success, that led to courses for the London Society for Extension of University Teaching.

During this time she became well acquainted with D.S. MacColl, art critic and later Keeper of the Tate Gallery, whom she met at the home of mutual friends, the Turnbulls, in Derbyshire in 1886. After a somewhat stormy start, when he criticised both her theories on art and her overdramatic lecturing style, their friendship flourished and in 1888 they toured Greece and Turkey together, exploring archaeological sites and classical ruins. On returning to England she began work on the commentary to Margaret Verrall's new translation of the first book of Pausanias, "On Attica", resulting in the publication of "Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens" in 1890. She also applied for the Yates Professorship of Classical Archaeology at University College London when Newton retired in 1888, and was bitterly disappointed in her failure to obtain it (likewise in 1896). In collaboration with MacColl, "Greek Vase Paintings" was her next major work, published in 1894. The following year, as her reputation as a classical scholar grew, Jane Harrison received an honorary LLD degree from the University of Aberdeen, and two years later an honorary D.Litt. degree from Durham.

Recognition also came from her own: she returned to Newnham College as a lecturer in 1898 and was elected to the College's first Associates' Research Fellowship in 1900; her position on the staff was renewed continuously until her retirement in 1922. She could now devote herself to research and writing, with a minumum of lecturing, in an environment she loved. Shortly after her return to Cambridge she met Francis Cornford, who attended her lectures on Delphi at the Archaeological Museum; he was still an undergraduate at Trinity College, and half her age, but they soon became firm friends and professional colleagues. His first major work "Thucydides Mythistoricus" (1907), dedicated to Jane Harrison, showed how Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian war may have had its origins in ritual and mythology. They travelled together both in England and abroad, and their deepening friendship and close intellectual collaboration lasted until his marriage to Frances Darwin in 1909, which dealt a severe blow to Jane Harrison, although he did contribute a chapter to "Themis", published in 1912.

Through her friendship with the Verralls (A.W.Verrall had been her Greek tutor as an undergraduate) Jane Harrison met Gilbert Murray. Already much impressed by his "A History of Ancient Greek Literature", she immediately launched into a passionate, playful, witty correspondence with him, seeking his opinion, expertise, and criticism on her researches into the study of ancient Greek religion -- not on the Olympian gods, but their predecessors, the older chthonic deities. While she was focusing on the worship of Dionysus and Orphism, he was translating the "Bacchae" of Euripides. "Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion", for which Murray wrote a 'Critical Appendix on the Orphic Tablets' was published in 1903, to great critical acclaim. They remained firm friends for the rest of her life, as the more than 800 letters to him and his wife Lady Mary Murray (nee Howard) in the Harrison Collection attest. (Nor was it all academic: illness, doctors, treatments, cures, and holidays featured largely, as well as the growth of the Murray family.)

Harrison, Cornford, and Murray continued to collaborate on their researches into the history of Greek Religion, as to a lesser extent did A.B. Cook. Harrison also acknowledged her debt to J.G. Frazer's epoch-making "The Golden Bough". After a period of severe depression and illness, Jane Harrison finished her next major book on the history of early Greek religion, "Themis", in 1912, much influenced by the theories of Durkheim and Bergson. This large, unwieldy tome did not receive the same warm reception as "Prolegomena", and many scholars were highly critical of it and of her.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 changed forever the scholarly lives and interests of Jane Harrison and her group. In 1915 she published a collection of pamphlets and lectures written between 1909 and 1914, "Alpha and Omega", covering a variety of subjects, many of which were autobiographical. She had suffered from heart disease for many years, and in 1915 went to see her specialist, who lived in Paris. Accompanied by a former student and close friend, Hope Mirrlees, she found to her delight that the Ecole des Langues Orientales was located near their hotel.They both immediately enrolled in a course in Russian. At the age of 65, she had no problems at all in embracing a new language; in fact, she loved it. From then on Russian language, culture, and refugees became the focus of her attention. She continued to study at the Ecole, taught Russian for three years at Newnham from 1919, and that year also published "Aspects, Aorists, and the Classical Tripos", in which she pointed out the similarities between Russian and Greek. Her last book on the history of religion was "Epilogomena to the Study of Greek Religion" (1921), which summarised her two major works; Gilbert Murray said it was the best thing she had ever written about religion.

In 1922 Jane Harrison retired from Newnham, burnt all her papers and letters, dispersed her library and, with Hope Mirrlees, her student from 1910, moved to Paris. She bade a final farewell to Cambridge. Her zest for life, new languages, new experiences never diminished; she embraced all that Paris could offer. It was here that she wrote her autobiographical sketch, "Reminiscences of a Student's Life" (1925). In the summers of 1923 and 1924 she attended, with great delight, the 'entretiens' at the abbaye de Pontigny under the auspices of Paul Desjardins; each 'decade' (10-day session) brought together a group of eminent personalities from the international community, whose discussions would focus on a specific aspect of religion, politics, or literature.

In 1923 she had met and befriended the Russian literary critic Prince Dimitri Mirsky; at his urging she and Hope Mirrlees translated from a 17th-century Russian manuscript "The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, Written by Himself ", whilst Mirsky wrote the preface (1924), and two years later, another book of translations from Russian: "The Book of the Bear", a collection of short stories. By 1925, as their future residency at the American University Club in Paris became doubtful, and as Harrison's health continued to deteriorate, they contemplated returning to London. First they travelled in the south of France before settling in a tiny house in Mecklenburg Street. Always a prolific linguist, Harrison was now learning Persian, and making revisions for a new edition of "Themis".

She was diagnosed with leukemia in 1927 and died at home on 15 April 1928.


36 archive box(es) (24 boxes of papers and 12 boxes of slides)

Language of Materials



Jane Harrison rarely dated her letters. In most case dates have been added either from internal evidence or personal knowledge by Jessie Stewart and/or Hope Mirrlees. Many still remain without dates, but are in the chronological order that Stewart and Mirrlees imposed. Harrison often took Newnham College stationery with her when travelling, or picked up stationery from her hosts' houses, so it should not be assumed that the address on the letters was where she actually was when writing.

Description rules
International Standard for Archival Description - General
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Newnham College Archives Repository

Sidgwick Avenue
Cambridge Cambridgeshire CB3 9DF United Kingdom
01223 335738