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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

Reminiscences of a Student's Life

Jane Ellen Harrison

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To purchase Reminiscences of a Student's Life

Title: Reminiscences of a Student's Life
Author: Jane Ellen Harrison
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1925
Length: 94 pages
Availability: Reminiscences of a Student's Life - US
Reminiscences of a Student's Life - UK
Reminiscences of a Student's Life - Canada
Recuerdos de la vida de una estudiante - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: McNally Editions
  • With a Foreword by Daniel Mendelsohn

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Our Assessment:

XY : appealing reminiscences- (and opinions-) collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Kirkus Reviews . 1/12/2023 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "This charming memoir by classicist and educator Harrison (...) offers a graceful portrait of a spirited woman. At times curmudgeonly, at times irreverent, always shrewdly perceptive (.....) Captivating recollections." - Kirkus Reviews

  • "This extremely arch and witty collection of anecdotes is more pamphlet than book and is not restricted to her early life as the title indicates. Although virtually everything in it has been mined by later biographers, it is of limited and problematic value because Harrison chose not to mention any persons still living, thus excluding information about her relationships with Murray, Cornford, and Mirrlees, among others." - James Holoka, Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2003.06.14)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title Reminiscences of a Student's Life might suggest a university-years memoir, but Jane Ellen Harrison's reminiscences range far more widely -- as already suggested in the opening sentence:

     In view of my present cult for Russia and things Russian, I like to think that my first childish memory is of the word "Moscow".
       In her mid-seventies when she writes this slim memoir, she looks back across her entire life, from earliest childhood to the then present-day (and her 'cult' for things Russian); being a 'student' was not merely a stage in her life, as she remained eager to learn her entire life.
       Harrison became a classical scholar, but had few illusions about the education systems of her times -- "Victorian education was ingeniously useless" (especially for girls and women), she notes, and complains that: "Nowadays it seems you learn only what is reasonable and relevant".
       She argues for a rather different course than the traditional school-system:
Let children early speak at least three foreign languages, let them browse freely in a good library, see all they can of the first-rate in nature, art, and literature -- above all, give them a chance of knowing what science and scientific method means, and then leave them to sink or swim. Above all things, do not cultivate in them a taste for literature.
       She would go on to be a popular lecturer -- but writes:
I regret those lecturing years. I was voluble and had instant success, but it was mentally demoralising and very exhausting. Though I was almost fatally fluent, I could never face a big audience without a sinking in the pit of what is now called the solar plexus.
       Reminiscences of a Student's Life is loosely autobiographical -- a mix of recollections and reflection, and anecdotes and opinions rather than punctilious life-chronicle. Harrison writes from the vantage point of advanced age -- she looks towards death, too (and died only three years after this volume was published) --, and reflects from that position, of a long life, fully lived. Among her observations
By what miracle I escaped marriage I do not know, for all my life long I fell in love. But, on the whole, I am glad. I do not doubt that I lost much, but I am quite sure I gained more. Marriage, for a woman at least, hampers the two things that made life to me glorious -- friendship and learning. In man it was always the friend, not the husband, that I wanted. Family life has never attracted me. At its best it seems to me rather narrow and selfish; at its worst, a private hell.
       Admirably, too, and reflecting an openness to change and learning that is too rarely heard, she acknowledges:
     We old people must, however, steadily face the fact that the young are more likely to be right than the old, and this in literature as in morals and manners. If we old ones have behind us a larger personal experience, they, the young, have behind them the collective experience of a whole additional generation. Youth starts life from the vantage point of the shoulders of age, and his vista is likely to be wider and clearer.
       Tantalizing bits, of experience and opinion, are tossed in throughout the text, often making one wish she had written a full, traditional memoir, going into much greater detail -- not least about the well-known figures she met. Already bitten by the Russia-bug at Cambridge, she hoped to hear some Russian words from Turgenev when she shows him around -- but: "Alas ! he spoke fluent English; it was a grievous disapointment. Then Ruskin came". Such quick transitions -- 'Then Ruskin came' (Harrison continuing: "I showed him our small library") are typical for the packed work. Others she mentions include George Eliot, Tennyson, and Henry James -- all most equally casually ("At his house I often met Henry James"), though particularly enthusiastically in the case of George Eliot ("last, but oh, so utterly first"). Her summary-mentions -- "Browning was only to me a cheerful, amusing gossip" -- are good fun, but how much more she surely could have said !
       Reminiscences of a Student's Life is a slim but charming volume, offering a glimpse of a woman who clearly led a remarkable life. Though it has a casual, dashed-off feel, there's actually quite a good deal here -- it is substantial; she just gets to her many points quickly and succinctly -- and it's all stylishly presented; one can easily see why she was so successful on the lecture-circuit.
       A very nice little re-discovery.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 May 2024

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Reminiscences of a Student's Life: Reviews: Jane Ellen Harrison: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Classicist Jane Ellen Harrison lived 1850 to 1928.

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© 2024 the complete review

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