Keeping sex out of scholarship
Sometimes I feel that people read what I write in a surprisingly perverse way. To put that more kindly, there is an odd mismatch in journalism (even the most cerebral literary kind of journalism) between the attention given to the writing and the attention given to the reading. I slave for hours trying to capture exactly the right nuance – then someone takes the TLS on the train or to the loo, gives it five minutes and goes away with a very odd impression of what I was trying to say.
Not that I blame the reader. After all, I probably give much the same 5-minute treatment to what other people write. And you might argue that it is the writer’s job to make their point clear to all-comers. All the same, when someone completely misrepresents you, it is peculiarly irritating.
Last week (24 July), the Independent newspaper published a “question and answer” article with the excellent Mary Warnock. One question was:
“Professor Mary Beard has suggested that Eduard Fraenkel’s status as a classical scholar is diminished by his inappropriate conduct towards women in his Oxford classes . . . As a former student of Fraenkel’s do you agree?”
Warnock’s reply: “I think, alas, Professor Beard is talking nonsense.”
I would have been tempted to agree with Warnock myself, if that had been even remotely what I wrote.
What the questioner (whom I shall not name and shame) was referring to was a review I wrote in the TLS of a new Dictionary of British Classicists. In this I pointed out that it was very odd that the entry on Fraenkel (Professor of Latin in Oxford from 1935-1953) made no mention of his notorious “wandering hand” – clearly documented by (inter alias) Warnock herself in her autobiography.
I did not for a minute suggest that this diminished his status as a classicist. Classical scholars come equipped with all manner of sexual virtues and vices. And, by and large (there are, of course, some limitations), sex can be separated from scholarship. In fact I stuck my neck out to say that most women over their mid-forties (eg me) were likely to feel ambivalent about Fraenkel’s behaviour. One can’t help deploring the abuse of male power. But one also – honestly -- can’t help feeling a bit nostalgic for that, now outlawed, erotic dimension to (adult) pedagogy.
What I objected to was the bowdlerization of the biographical tradition. When it is relatively widely known how Fraenkel spent his evenings with his female students, why does that have to be blotted out from the authorized version of his life? Why bother with the pretence that he was devoted solely to his wife? Or why not, at least, be prepared to see that devotion as part of a more complicated set of relationships? Don’t we need to remember our intellectual giants warts and all?
That is not the same thing at all as questioning his scholarly status.
It could, of course, be worse. The status of Fraenkel is a decidedly minority interest. But a few years ago I wrote what I hoped was a similarly nuanced piece on reactions to 9/11. And ever after I’ve been that foolish/callous/dangerous don who thought that “the United States had it coming”. Being traduced on Fraenkel isn’t quite so bad.
But maybe I should have learnt my lesson.