Isabella Fyvie Mayo’s “The Girls of Greece”

Isabella Fyvie Mayo’s “The Girls of Greece” 1211 755 REVICTO

Isabella Fyvie Mayo, born in London from Scottish parents, was a widely published poet and author; using the nom de plume “Edward Garrett” she published her stories in serialized form in popular periodicals, such as The Sunday MagazineGood WordsThe Quiver, and The Girl’s Own Paper, on both sides of the Atlantic. Mayo, a suffragist, and anti-racism, pacifism and animal welfare campaigner, travelled to Greece in 1896 (during the Olympic Games), which inspired her novel A Daughter of the Klephts, or, A Girl of Modern Greece, published in 1897. Besides this novel addressing young female readers, Mayo also published several articles on Greece, such as “The Last of The Klephts” in The Leisure Hour, “The Patriot Songs of Greece” in Good Words and “The Girls of Greece,” in The Girls’ Own Paper, all appearing in 1897, the year of the Greco-Turkish war which ended with the defeat of Greece.

The Girls’ Own Paper was a periodical issued by the Religious Tract Society at a price of one penny, which aimed to provide young female readers with both entertaining and educational stories. Mayo’s article begins in the train from Megara to Athens, when Mayo hears a middle-aged Englishwoman say “Greece seems to me a very poor country altogether” giving her the opportunity to criticize the British for being interested only in monuments instead of the people living in the places they visit: “One can understand the temptation. The Pyramids and the Parthenon are, so to speak, already the familiar friends of all educated people … But what can we know – or learn – of these crowds of strange faces passing panoramically before us, speaking tongues too, which but few of us understand?” Instead, Mayo desires to “render some service to the cause of human brotherhood” by telling her “friends of THE GIRLS OWN PAPER a little about the girls of Greece.”

Mayo is full of praise for the industriousness and politeness of Greek girls. For example, the little girls who listened to her reading St. Paul’s sermon in situ in a strange language despite “belong[ing] to the very poorest class,” “they were clean and neat, with nicely braided hair and sweet, delicate faces,” and seemed to already know the story of St Paul. The author also praises the young maidservant she meets in the house where she stayed in Athens,

a kind, dark-eyed hand-maiden, who was a Spartan (Just think of being a Spartan by birth!). She knew a good deal of English, and was always ready in a shy diffident way to speak it. She never met me without a ‘Good morning’ or a ‘Good evening,’ which had a home-like sound to my ears. She did her work in an obliging pleasant way… I saw her about her work at all hours –from five in the morning; but I never saw her otherwise than tidy, smiling, and soft-spoken.

While sketching in the streets and fields, Mayo met many other Greeks girls, who “took intelligent interest in what I was doing. If they made any remark to a companion, it was made in a gentle whisper. They were always ready … to render me any little service, such as holding my water-bottle or paint-box while I changed my position. They never crowded me not got in my way.” The author again emphasizes the Greek girls’ good manners despite their poverty and class: “In short they were thoroughly well bred. And these, remember, were the little girls running bareheaded in Athens streets.”

Mayo also points out that the young women of the upper classes are “generally well educated and highly accomplished,” and commends “the charming and gentle manners of the Greek ladies.” Yet, she argues that “there is fire and grit beneath the sweetness, for in the Greek War of Independence, in the early decades of this century, Greek women were among the foremost in struggling against the Turkish yoke,” mentioning women warriors like “Bobalina” [Bouboulina] and the anonymous “aged woman […] carried to her grave clad in the dress of a Pallikar (“soldier” or “lad”) which she had worn when fighting by her father’s side at Missolonghi and had secretly preserved to be used again on the solemn occasion of her burial.” In fact, there were numerous stories about Greek women from Missolonghi, such as Tasoula Gyftogianni, who had fought against the Turks donning a male attire and later asked to be buried in it, inspiring Greek poets like Dionysios Solomos and Kostis Palamas to write on the bravery of the crossdressing woman warrior.

Mayo had read Elizabeth Mayhew Edmonds’s anthology Greek Lays, Idylls, Legends &c., first published in 1885, which included Palamas’s poem «Tα νιάτα της γιαγιάς» [Ta niata tis giagias], translated as “Our Grandmother’s Girlhood”; this is evident as she ends her article with a “lovely little poem about a Greek girl, written by George Drosines and translated by E. M. Edmonds, “hinting a beautiful race’s philosophy of beauty.” At the same time, Palamas’s poem, “Our Grandmother’s Girlhood,” allegedly based on Gyftogianni’s legendary life, had also caught the attention of Oscar Wilde in his review of Edmonds’s anthology in The Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, who praised the “ballad” for having a “great deal of spirit”:

It is by Kostês Palamas and was suggested by an interesting incident which occurred some years ago in Athens. In the summer of 1881 there was borne through the streets the remains of an aged woman in the complete costume of a Pallikar, which dress she had worn at the siege of Missolonghi and in it had requested to be buried.  The life of this real Greek heroine should be studied by those who are investigating the question of wherein womanliness consists. (Wilde, 1885)

Mayo echoes this view more than a decade later, connecting the fight for women’s emancipation with the Greek struggle for freedom. She concludes by stating that the “Greek women of to-day have their share in every progress,” though she encourages them to engage in more outdoor exercises, abandoning “Turkish influences.” In this late Victorian moment when women’s roles and political involvement were subject to new and vigorous debates, Mayo’s article creates transnational affiliations between British and Greek womanhood, supporting their contribution to the nation and associating national independence and progress with women’s rights.


Assinder, Semele (2012). “To Say the Same Thing in Different Words’: Politics and Poetics in Late Victorian Translation from Modern Greek.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 13(6), 72-84.

Edmonds, Elizabeth Mayhew Waller (1885). Greek Lays, Idylls, Legends, &c: A Selection from Recent and Contemporary Poets, London: Trübner & Co.

Mayo, Isabella Fyvie (1897). “The Girls of Greece.” The Girls’ Own Paper XVIII (903), 452–454.

Wilde, Oscar (1885). “Modern Greek Poetry” (review). Pall Mall Gazette, May 27.

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