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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stawell, Florence Melian (1869–1936)

by K. J. McKay

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Melian Stawell, c.1892

Melian Stawell, c.1892

Florence Melian Stawell (1869-1936), classical scholar and author, was born on 2 May 1869 at Kew, Melbourne, youngest daughter of Sir William Stawell, chief justice of Victoria, and his wife Mary Frances Elizabeth, née Greene. (Sir) Richard was her brother. Her mother recalled her youthful, passionate plea: 'I would rather read Homer in the original than anything else in the world'. Melian spent two distinguished years at the University of Melbourne as an early student at Trinity College Hostel (later Janet Clarke Hall), gaining first place in classics. In 1889 she went to England, entering Newnham College, University of Cambridge, in the May term. Placed in class 1, division 1, in the classical tripos of 1892 she stayed up a fourth year, but did not take part II of the tripos. In 1894-95 she was a classics tutor at Newnham, but ill health—which was to dog her all her life—forced her resignation. She then embarked on a literary career, generally being based in London.

Her most significant contribution to classical studies was Homer and the Iliad (1909) which attacked the conclusions of the scholar Walter Leaf and was pronounced by Gilbert Murray 'full of fine observation and poetical understanding'. From 1922 the search of the 'analysts' for the 'original Iliad' was superseded by new directions of research, but her work within her own generation was impressive. In later years she courageously directed her classical research toward the decipherment of Minoan/Mycenaean scripts which in A Clue to the Cretan Scripts (1931) she identified as Greek. Her book coincided with another finding the solution in Basque, upon which discrepancy reviewers eagerly seized. Later scholarship has confirmed an early form of Greek, although her methodology was unacceptable.

A scholar with wide literary interests, Melian Stawell published on Aeschylus, Plato, Thucydides and Aristotle, and on Conrad, Shelley and Meredith. Her abilities in translation are evident in works jointly undertaken with G. Lowes Dickinson (Goethe and Faust: An Interpretation, 1928) and N. Purtscher Wydenbruck (The Practical Wisdom of Goethe, 1933), and in her rendering of Euripides' Iphigeneia in Aulis into English verse (1929) for which Murray wrote a preface.

Ardent and idealistic, she held intense convictions which, according to a friend, lit her blue eyes and 'transfigured' her aquiline features. She worked actively for the League of Nations Union, of which Murray was chairman in 1922-38. These interests were reflected in many papers relating to patriotism, democracy, justice and progress, starting with The Price of Freedom (1917). She collaborated with F. S. Marvin in an influential monograph, The Making of the Western Mind (1923), and a small treatise, The Growth of International Thought (1929), was applauded.

Melian Stawell died unmarried at Headington, Oxford, on 9 June 1936. The Times pronounced her 'perhaps the most remarkable member of a remarkable family'. Had her physical endurance kept pace with her intellectual vigour and passionate commitment to social issues, she may have been assured of great academic eminence.

Select Bibliography

  • M. F. E. Stawell, My Recollections (Lond, 1911)
  • A. Gardner, A Short History of Newnham College (Cambridge, UK, 1921)
  • J. A. Grant (ed), Perspective of a Century (Melb, 1972)
  • L. Gardiner, Janet Clarke Hall 1886-1986 (Melb, 1986)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Sept 1893
  • Times (London), 11, 16 June 1936.

Additional Resources

Citation details

K. J. McKay, 'Stawell, Florence Melian (1869–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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