Anyone walking down Western Avenue could hardly fail to see the new Women’s College Sibyl Centre adorned by its copper procession of women resembling the shape of a Greek pediment. The name of the centre is no coincidence: it refers to the University’s long tradition in Classics and Ancient History and is a tribute to the college’s first principal and student of Classics, Louisa MacDonald (1858–1949).
MacDonald began studying Latin when she was seven and Greek at 12. She graduated from the University of London with first-class honours in Classics in 1884, and an MA in Classics in 1886. In 1891, she became the first principal of the Women’s College within the University of Sydney. Establishing the first Australian women’s college was fraught with difficulty in a society where women’s education was seen as unnecessary.
Indeed, in 1892 soon after the college opened, a “well-known Sydney matron” remarked to MacDonald: “I would rather see my daughters in their coffins than have them study Latin and Greek!” MacDonald reportedly replied: “I expect you would feel differently if you saw the coffins beside you.”
In 1913, MacDonald celebrated the college’s 21st birthday and its growth from four students to 250 by commissioning a piece of theatre entitled A Mask. The play was written by John Le Gay Brereton (1871- 1933), an Elizabethan scholar and librarian at the University, and Christopher Brennan (1870- 1932), who studied Classics and Philosophy at the University.
Although written in the “style of an Elizabethan pageant”, the play strongly reflects both MacDonald and Brereton’s classical educations. The main character is a Sibyl, “whom the Romans claim/as mother of the world”. Throughout the play the Sibyl looks into the past to reveal a procession of famous women from throughout history: Penelope, Helen, Lucretia and Medea among some of the most significant.
The Sibyl is a familiar figure to any classicist: a prophetic, divinely inspired and sometimes insane woman who looked into the future rather than the past. The Sibyl figure held a unique role in antiquity as a woman who could enter into the traditionally male political sphere by revealing advice from the gods. She is one of the few female voices that makes it into written history.
In A Mask, the Sibyl claims she is from Cumae, clearly connecting her with the memorable Cumaean Sibyl from Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid. In the Aeneid, the Sibyl guides Aeneas into the Underworld, where he eventually meets his father, Anchises, who reveals to him the names and deeds of Roman heroes who are yet to come.
The female voice of the Sibyl in A Mask speaks of the deeds of women in the past, in contrast to Anchises recounting the future deeds of men.
Rather than ending as Anchises does with an imperial instruction to “rule the nations”, she ends by channelling her prophetic nature to look into the future of womanhood telling them to go “beyond the ermine hood/to the greater life that calls”.
The Sibyl of A Mask appropriates the imperialism and masculinity of the Aeneid to praise the power of education and reveal the achievements of women. Yet, the Sibyl in A Mask largely presents male perceptions of women, praising Helen only for her beauty and Penelope for her fidelity. However, at the end of the play, the Sybil encourages women to “write the next”, by accomplishing new deeds she can then recount.
The images on the front of the Sibyl Centre, then, are from a 1932 production of A Mask. Far from being a Sibylline cave, the centre memorialises the work of Louisa MacDonald in bringing education to other women. Moreover, the Sibyl on Western Avenue reveals the potential of Classics and Ancient History to reconstruct female voices, rather than erase them.
Mala Rigby is an Honours student in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. She is the recipient of a number of awards including the Leonie Hayne Ancient History Junior Prize, the June Hartnett Prize for Proficiency in Second Year Ancient History, the Ancient History Senior Essay Prize, and the University of Sydney Honours Scholarship. She has also placed on the Dean's List of Excellence in Academic Performance for three years in a row.