Tuesday 11 August 2015

An 18th-century Detective Trail: Sarah Fielding's Xenophon

Success greeted my quest for the missing memorial to a Greek scholar who in 1762 published a fine translation of Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Apology of Socrates. Long hidden from intellectual history, Sarah Fielding really is right there, inside the North-West vestibule of Bath Abbey.

Part of the inscription reads ‘Athens’ Wisdom to her Sex she taught’; but it wasn’t only to her sex. Plenty of men used her translations; her Apology, chosen for the Everyman series, was reprinted until 1937.

Her Etonian brother Henry, playwright and novelist, was envious of her largely self-taught classical skills. His fame has overshadowed her completely. People also suspect that the classically educated but immoral and dissipated Molly in his novel Amelia is a covert attack on his clever sister.

Before: Sarah  Invisible
People inevitably alleged that even Sarah's bestelling novel David Simple was really Henry’s work. Elizabeth Carter, the translator of Epictetus, had no reason to talk up her reclusive friend, which might have taken the lustre off Elizabeth's own reputation as the best woman Hellenist around.

Sarah had loved Henry dearly, and when his wife died she moved in with him in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to help with the house and children. He responded by impregnating the scullery maid. Sarah moved out. Most men called her ‘poor Sarah’ because she never married; women called her ‘poor Sarah’ because she was an eccentric, couldn’t cook, and allegedly tippled.

After: Sarah Rediviva! photo: R. Poynder
She also wrote the first book specifically for girls, The Governess, or the Little Female Academy (1749),* and biographies of Cleopatra and Octavia. But when she died, she disappeared. There is no known likeness. This made finding the memorial stone important, partly because Dr Rosie Wyles and I need a picture to put in our forthcoming Unsealing the Fountain: Women Classical Scholars (OUP).

Athena with pet
Several antique guide books claimed it was in Bath Abbey, but nobody there knew what I was talking about. Other literary historians have been unable to find it. The reason is that it is low down, concealed by a heavy lectern, probably for decades.  Our sharp-eyed teenager spotted just the name SARAH peeking over its top; after moving it (fortunately the Abbey attendant nearby was not officious), teenager’s father photographed her. The snake encircling Sarah was the pet of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and (because it sheds its skins) an ancient symbol of immortality.

After that
Mission accomplished, we went to the pub and raised a toast to the scholar celebrated by her close friend Dr John Hoadly, who commissioned the memorial, for her ‘unaffected manners’, her candour and benevolence. An exciting afternoon’s work.

Text of the Memorial Stone
In this city lived and died Sarah, second daughter of General  Henry Fielding; by his first wife, daughter of Judge Gould. Whose writings will be known as incentives to virtue, and honour to her sex, when this marble shall be dust. She was born mdccxiv. and died April mdcclxvih. 

Her unaffected kindness, candid mind, 
Her heart benevolent, and soul resign'd, 
Were more her praise than all she knew, or thought. 
Though Athens' wisdom to her sex she taught. 

The Rev. Dr. John Hoadley, her Friend, for the honour of the Dead and emulation of the Living, inscribes this deficient Memorial of her virtues and accomplishments. 

*See Eirlys Penn's excellent study, at http://writingpenn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Georgian-JK-Rowling.pdf

1 comment:

  1. Edith, what a great post! And thanks for the mention, though I failed abysmally in my attempts to find Sarah's marker. Lost your email when my hard drive fried recently so am very glad I succeeded in finding you here! Let's meet when you're next in Bath. xx