In the news in Pompeii
I am still reeling from the reaction to my “Keeping Sex out of Scholarship” blog. More than a year ago, I reviewed a book in the TLS (a “Dictionary of British Classicists”), in which I pointed out how the reliable stories of what is euphemistically known as the “wandering hand” of Eduard Fraenkel, a professor Latin at Oxford had been ignored. I wrote that I had an ambivalent reaction to what Fraenkel was supposed to have done: on the one hand sisterly outrage at the abuse of male power; on the other, a wistful nostalgia (shared, I can assure you, by many of my age) for an earlier era of pedagogy, an age perhaps of greater innocence. What was the reaction? I received just a handful of letters from outraged pupils of Fraenkel, denouncing me for sullying the memory of their teacher.
A couple of weeks ago, I return to the issue briefly in a blog. This gets suddenly picked up by the media, from the Mail to the BBC. This time I am denounced for exactly the opposite crime. Now I am supposed to be the out of touch Cambridge don who “hankers after” an age when professor slept with students. Not what I said, and not true.
Let me say again (I’ve found myself saying this often over the last couple of days) I do not condone sexual harassment or “hanker after” a return to the old world. “Wistful nostalgia” is very different reaction – which doesn’t involve trying to put the clock back. We can, after all, have wistful nostalgia for the nicotine culture of half a century ago, and the swirls of smoke around Bogart’s head in Casablanca, without deciding to go out and buy a packet of Marlborough – and without being unaware that, if he went on like that, Rick would die a very unpleasant death from lung cancer.
By far the best encapsulation of the ambivalence I was trying to express is to be found in Mary Warnock’s memoirs. Warnock was one of Fraenkel’s "girls" and she very nicely gets across both the sense that she had benefited from the high-octane pedagogy that he offered some, and the sense that some people were terribly damaged by it.
For me the whole reaction to what I wrote feels even odder because I am not even in the country. I am at Pompeii, getting some work in for the next book I should be getting on with. Yesterday, as I was exploring the site with my husband and at Italian colleague, the mobile phone kept going and re-going (the reception is a bit wobbly at Pompeii) – wanting quotes or more articles. What I decided not to say is that I was actually in the middle of an exploration of Pompeian so-called “brothels”, wondering what the criteria should be for identifying them. That would have been throwing too much of a delicacy to the wolves.
So what have I learned from all this? Well, first be very careful what you say in the silly season of August. But, on the other hand, the reaction – silly and inaccurate as much of it is – shows that this a difficult subject that people do want to discuss.
I would also advise friends and colleagues not to give an interview to the Today programme on a mobile phone from the back of a bar in Pompeii station.