In 1936 Dorothy Tarrant (1885-1973) became the first woman to be appointed to a Chair in Greek in Britain, at Bedford College, University of London, in Regent’s Park. She was one of the first women to develop an academic career equivalent to her male counterparts. She never married. Bedford College was the oldest women’s institution for Higher Education in the country, having opened in Bedford Square in 1849. Tarrant delivered an important lecture during World War II on how the college’s history underlined the internationalist and humanist values of the best traditions of scholarship.
A much-loved figure, Tarrant served as President of the Hellenic Society in 1953–1956. She was regarded as possessing unimpeachable integrity, but also a mischievous sense of humour. A lecture she delivered at Cambridge in 1941, on a document she claimed was a lost dialogue of Socrates, proposed that most of the original members of Plato’s Academy were women.
The daughter of a Unitarian minister, Tarrant was educated at girls’ schools in south London. She took the London University external degree in Classics and was placed in the First Class. Thereafter she achieved Firsts in both parts of the Tripos at Cambridge, a University of London M.A. (1909) and a London PhD (1930).
Her entire teaching career was spent at Bedford (and after her retirement in 1950 she was appointed professor emerita), although she was a pioneer in lecturing to the public, in venues from Unitarian churches to HM Prison Holloway and passengers on Mediterranean cruises. She began as Assistant Lecturer in Classics in 1909, then Acting Head of Latin in 1913-1914 before her promotion to Lecturer in Greek (1921). She became University Reader (1929) after the publication of her magnum opus, The Hippias Major Attributed to Plato (CUP 1928). This concluded that the Hippias Major was not by Plato himself. Some specialists still accept this today, while others rely on her findings to assume that it is, rather, a work by Plato but an early one.
More importantly, all Tarrant’s work on Plato, which included articles on his dramatic technique and imagery, pioneered a new way of thinking about Platonic texts in literary and stylistic terms. She anticipated much far more recent scholarship in her refusal to separate ‘literary’ from ‘philosophical’ questions. Her prescience was also demonstrated in her address as the President of the Classical Association, published in 1958 as ‘The long line of torch-bearers’, an exemplary essay on the ‘Reception’ of ancient literature, and especially of translations of the Odyssey from Alexander Pope to E.V. Rieu’s bestselling Penguin.