Living with Jane Harrison
I'm posting this from Oxford, where I have been lecturing, first to the Oxford University History Society, then at Wolfson College in a lecture series on "Lives and Works" (and I'm just about to motor to Bristol to talk about Pompeii at the Bristol Festival of Ideas . . . a little tour of one night stands, you might say).
The idea at Wolfson was to go back to the life of Jane Harrison -- the famous, charismatic and utterly infuriating Newnham don at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries -- about whom I'd written a book almost a decade ago now. To start with, I wasn't hugely looking forward to the prospect of this return to my own vomit. But it actually turned out to be rather interesting to reflect back on the whole process of "writing a life" (which I hadn't done before and don't honestly imagine that I will do again).
What struck me most, even at this distance, was the uncomfortable nature of the kind of archival research that underlies any such biography. A prurient, prying business -- which involves a good deal of reading someone else's private letters, certainly not meant for your eyes.
Professionals probably get used to it. But as an amateur life writer, looking into to the collected papers of Harrison and her friends, I felt BOTH hugely curious about what opening the next file box would reveal AND rather disgusted with my own nosiness -- eagerly devouring all those love letters, secrets and confidences that weren't meant for me.
And it wasn't just the big confidences either. One of the most memorable moments was when I was reading the papers in Girton of Harrison's one-time friend Eugenie Sellers (aka Mrs Arthur Strong). Inside one file box was a neatly bound up folder, and written on the outside in Sellers's own hand was "Letter from Important Italians". Precisely the kind of tawdry everyday snobbery that no-one should be made to reveal.
All in all, the whole experience shared quite a lot with clearing out one's parents' stuff after they had died, and not wanting to find what one inevitably did: the little stacks of dirty magazines, the evidence of those adulteries . . . All privacy is lost when you die, and you step from a world over fortified by data protection to one in which your every secret can become public property.
I also wanted to use the lecture to get one or two things off my chest, that I hadnt been quite brave enough to say ten years ago (getting older has its advantages!).
One was about Harrison's success as a female academic (in a way, she was the first female professional "career academic" in the country). The standard line is that she had to struggle against all kinds of discrimination to get where she did. Of course that is partly true, but only partly. But she also cleverly used her visibility, and rarity value, within the academy to gain a public voice -- and she pretty mercilessly exploited the less charismatic fellows of Newnham, passing of the boring drudge onto them while she took the glamorous path. (I dont mean that as a criticism entirely -- isnt it what every successful female academic has done, up to my own generation at least).
The other was a confession. Harrison's second major book was called Themis (divine justice) -- a strange confection of "ritualism", Durkheimian totemism and Frazerian "year spirits". I have at some time or another read every page of this book, but I have never managed to read it systematically, from cover to cover, despite several attempts. It would be a good idea, I thought, to get this little secret off my chest I thought.
Or it seemed a good idea until I saw a very senior and learned classicist sitting near the front. Did I catch him looking slightly shocked as I came clean?
(By the way, it was a good idea to celebrate the longlisting for Samuel Johnson, because I didnt get shortlisted. Congratulations to all those -- science books mainly -- that did.)