Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This interview is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.

in Conversation with Lisa Jardine Nicolas Tredell


Could you begin by telling us about your formation through home and school, the cultural and intellectual influences which you feel shaped you prior to going to university?

I had a really intellectual childhood - I think that's something that's probably dawned on me only since I've been teaching very underprivileged students. My father was an intellectual of some visibility and our house was full of extremely glamorous people. I was the eldest child, and my father made no secret of the fact that he would have liked one of his four girls to have been a boy, so I stood in from a very early age. I can remember I sat up for dinner with people like Aldous Huxley from when I was nine. Furthermore, my father told me that these were people I should remember having met, and I kept an autograph book. In other words, I was in no doubt as to the importance of this circle. It was a very Central European version of intellectual importance and the only other place that I've really seen it is in New York where now I find families who still continue that tradition. So it was very privileged really.

From a very early age it looked as if I was going to be a mathematician and unfortunately, it looked as if I was going to be a prodigy, so I was nurtured towards mathematics through my little state primary school. Then at the point at which I was to go to secondary school, with no reference to me, my parents panicked about the local girls' grammar school and put me in for the scholarship exam at Cheltenham Ladies College, which was the local school. That exam is one of my first most vivid memories. It was a complete nightmare. I sat in front of these maths papers in which the mathematics was of a kind I'd never ever encountered, of a sophistication that presumably young women being groomed in their prep schools could deal with. So all I did was about one question on each paper, and I had to work out the answers from first principles, and as a result they gave me a scholarship.

What was Cheltenham Ladies College like?

I got a fabulous education as a mathematician. The Principal was a mathematician and I was taught by young women who had recently finished at Oxford and Cambridge. It was an extraordinary situation for a girl. The environment was a total confusion for me because I was a day girl, so I lived at home in a left-liberal household with a mother who was a very bohemian sculptor and a father who was by that time a radio and TV figure, and at school I absorbed all the snobberies and class formations of the British upper classes. I think I turned into a most obnoxious girl. I cannot imagine how obnoxious I was at 14. I learnt all kinds of important things, like assertiveness. We got public speaking and assertiveness training. We were all supposed to become doyennes of the local community. It's terrifying to think of how beautifully it prepared me for a life in the public eye. So that's a period of my life that was very formative. And it was wholly intellectual in the classroom. The ambition of the school was to turn out very intellectual young women, and some of my closest friends are still women who went through that sort of formation.

So you then went on to Cambridge?

I have to backtrack slightly to say that the first stumble in my career in this golden childhood - it's comic in a way - was that I didn't get into Cambridge on the first try, I only got into Oxford - that was my father's version of it. Clearly I was under this terrific patriarchal influence because, again with no reference to me, it was decided that I therefore wouldn't go to Oxford but would take a second year and try Cambridge again. So I went out to work for the Consumers Association for the year, and then I retook Oxbridge Entrance and I did get into Cambridge. But I got in by a whisker and by that stage I was becoming very uncertain about my competence as a mathematician. I suppose I didn't let it show, and I arrived at Cambridge to read a subject I no longer really wanted to read and as a very outwardly confident young woman who had suddenly become extremely insecure about her academic ability. So my first year at Cambridge was very contradictory. On the one hand, I immediately went into the Labour Club and became very active in left politics, or as active as girls were allowed to be then. In other words, we made the tea and we typed the pamphlets and we supported the men and we wrote to prominent political figures to ask them to come and speak and we took them to dinner - I remember taking people like Dennis Healey and Shirley Williams to dinner. On the other hand the maths went very badly. So I was schizophrenic.

Did you resent or accept the subordination of women within the Labour Club at that time?

I think it was invisible to us. It was very unsettling because we got double messages constantly and we tried to negotiate the double messages. That's the thing that one now reads quite a lot about with women who grew up in the sixties.

Did you find this subordination of women in other areas of university life?

Only in the mathematics department. The first time anyone ever said to me that girls don't do as well as boys was in the first introductory supervision I had at Newnham. I remember phoning my father virtually in tears and saying I've just been told that girls won't do as well as boys. He was absolutely furious. But that wasn't the case elsewhere. For instance, I sang in several small chamber choirs, so you could sing and you could be very successful at that, and you could be in politics and you could be very outspoken - it's just that you never made major office. I was in a women-only college, and that's very important. At that time women at Newnham had a very strong sense of their own ability to achieve. But it was within the discipline that I'd chosen, unfortunately, that the signals were extremely strong that women would never succeed. But I don't think it ever crossed my mind that I wouldn't succeed in life, not once.

With the breakdown of mathematics for you, what happened then in terms of your intellectual course?

I behaved very badly, which is a kind of marker all down my career, I suppose. That's part of having been an obnoxious fourteen-year-old - I suppose I did learn that being obnoxious could sometimes be quite effective. At the end of the second year of mathematics, I was so unhappy, and my results were poor, so I went to my Director of Studies in maths to ask to change subjects. When I was told that I couldn't, I announced I was leaving. So Newnham was coerced into allowing me to shift subjects. They wanted me to shift to economics and again my father intervened-it's a very patriarchal story. My father came to Cambridge and we sat and talked for hours, and he said, why don't you read English for the last year? There's a long good tradition of doing English. He was a near-contemporary of Graves and Empson, and Empson in particular did mathematics very brilliantly and then did the English Tripos. So Newnham in a sense had no option - they could have let go of me, but they didn't. But Ruth Cohen, who was Principal, made it quite clear that it was under duress and they didn't approve, and indeed subsequently they didn't allow me back to Newnham to do research.

How did you adapt to the change of subject?

It was a delight. It was the life that I'd lived, it was like studying your life. Plus the enormous change of being taught in a context where your teachers wanted to relate to you. That was the most striking thing about the shift from sciences to arts. In two years doing mathematics, no teacher had ever known the first thing about me. You went in with the paper problems that you'd worked on, you went through the technical errors, you went through better solutions, you went away again, and you came back if you had problems with the lectures. In my first supervision with Jean Gooder at Newnham, she sat me down in her kitchen with a cup of tea and said: Now tell me all about yourself. I was actually fairly panicked by that, but as I eased into it, it became clear that his really was, as I say, a course in your life. So for instance, it's in dramatic contrast for me with Raymond Williams's idea that literature was where he first discovered inequality. Literature was where I discovered equality. I was absolutely centred in that culture, in spite of my father being an immigrant Jew.

How would you sum up the underlying assumptions and procedures of the Cambridge English course at that time?

I escaped the procedures. I literally can't tell you about the pressure of Part I English, which I think hasn't changed very much down to now. I took Part II, so I took the final year course. I never did any Anglo-Saxon, I never did any Middle English, I never did compulsory Shakespeare, I never did the compulsory period papers. I took the English Moralists, Plato to Marx, I took a paper in Jonathan Swift with Dennis Donoghue who was a Visiting Professor, I took the Tragedy paper as it had just been redesigned by Raymond Williams, and I took a Practical Criticism paper and was taught by Jeremy Prynne. It was a wonderful bouquet of the best that Cambridge had to offer at that time.

What happened after Cambridge?

I was refused permission to go on to research by Newnham, which I now discover was completely improper. They had no right and had I applied to the university I would have been accepted. The refusal was directly related to my political activity. The year before I left, I and some others had spearheaded a campaign to allow Newnham women not to pay full commons and eat all their meals in. The College had insisted on a referendum and had issued documents to show that the cost of food would go up by (say) twenty per cent if the reform went through. But we'd discovered by slightly illicit access to the College finances that the cost of food was to go up twenty per cent anyway. So we issued a flyer and we won the referendum and effected the change. I received a letter from the Principal which said that she had on reflection decided that my ability to distort the truth made me unsuitable to do research. So I went off to Essex, which was a brand new, volatile, experimental university, and I did the MA in Literary Translation with Donald Davie for a year.

How was that year at Essex?

It was another political year. Essex was incredibly political and it confirmed my growing belief that there was an intrinsic relation between literary studies and politics, not really based on theory but on the practice, the fact that this was where you found polemic and the struggling with class and culture. So it was a good, interesting year. I don't know how formative it was. I think it was a time of transition.

What was your view of the political troubles at Essex?

It was the year before the troubles, but it was clear that the troubles were coming and we were more highly politicised than any other context I've ever been in. One was immersed in the political troubles and I did go back and sit in and all that stuff. Any view I have is with hindsight, but with hindsight - because it happened again later with Bernard Williams at Kings, Cambridge - if you put liberal-left authority figures in, they are the most hurt and distraught when they discover that students still oppose them. Really the opposition to Sloman at Essex was about the fact that he felt that the students ought to understand that he knew best because he was basically a liberal, whereas of course the students just thought he lived in a big house surrounded by a lake and paid no attention to the political ferment in the world.

How would you have defined your own politics at that time?

I was conscientiously Labour Party. I joined the Labour Party from the Labour Club at Cambridge and I've belonged to it ever since. A lot of my friends were anarchists and various forms of extreme left. I fell in briefly with New Left Review and I did the same making tea and typing things there as I'd done at the Labour Club in Cambridge. I was completely captivated by Juliet Mitchell and Perry Anderson as a couple. I wanted to be in a couple like that, they were just everything that I wanted. At the same time I remained absolutely stolidly within the Labour Party.

You mention Juliet Mitchell. Was feminism entering into your consciousness at this point?

I didn't have the faintest inkling of feminism and I remember when Juliet Mitchell published 'Women: The Longest Revolution' in New Left Review, I fear I was on the side of Quintin Hoare, who attacked it, in the sense that I couldn't understand what she was trying to do. I wrote about that later in the book I and Julia Swindells produced, What's Left, in which there's much more autobiography than is visible. It's probably fairly obvious that my own formation took me far too hard against the male edge. What I always tell my own students is: make no mistake, I got where I am by being a pretend man. So I guess until after I got my job at Cambridge I was still achieving fairly systematically as a man.

Could we turn to your PhD at Cambridge and the book which emerged from that, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse, published in 1974. How did you become interested in Bacon?

I was accepted to do my PhD on literary translations of the Bible and I was allocated to Derek Brewer as supervisor. I was very interested in interdisciplinary work, and I already knew that I had a facility with languages, so I wanted a topic that used languages, and literary translations of the Bible was acceptable to the English Faculty. But six months into it there was a real Road to Damascus moment where Derek Brewer and I were sitting in the Varsity café opposite Emmanuel College. We were talking about my PhD very animatedly and suddenly somebody said 'Excuse me', and we looked up and there was a woman who looked exactly like Mary Poppins, with a navy hat fixed firmly on her head with hatpins. She said 'Did I'ear you talking about the Bible?', and she proceeded to launch into passionate Evangelism. Derek Brewer looked at me and I looked at him, and that was the moment when I knew that I was on the wrong topic. When Derek Brewer went on leave for a term I was allocated to Robert Bolgar. Within three weeks, he had identified that I'd done a lot of work on Francis Bacon, because he was part of the 1611 translation team for the KingJames Bible, and within half a term he had steered me towards a topic in intellectual history.

How far do you feel the work that you did on that has continued to underpin your researches?

It underpins one arm of my researches and it gave me a most incredible grounding. I often think of it as a sort of investment account, which means that every time someone says 'Lisa Jardine's sounding off', they have to say, 'but she's an awfully good scholar'. I fear that that also goes back to my childhood - that I knew that the people who sounded off most vehemently and were listened to all had impeccable credentials in some field so difficult that the hack reviewers couldn't shoot them down. That sounds as if it were done deliberately, but it wasn't. The thing is, I love scholarship. It probably gives me my stability. There is nothing more wonderful than sitting in an archive with a really difficult text doing the detective work that's needed to bring it alive.

Is Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse a book you would, not necessarily rewrite, but see differently today in the light of some of the changes that have come about in Renaissance studies

It's always a mistake to publish your PhD. That book smacks of PhDishness. You can tell it's a PhD because it keeps veering in the wrong direction. Just when it starts to be interesting, it gets buried in footnotes, and all its most interesting ideas are submerged. I think that you're right in suspecting that therefore some of those submerged ideas then form the basis for things that. I did later. I have actually been asked several times to rewrite that book. It's not in my nature ever to backtrack so I couldn't do it, but I think that I do now at this precise moment in my career believe there is a field waiting which is called the new intellectual history and which I probably will do my next piece of work in, which would be there grounding of intellectual history such that that book wouldn't be so broken-backed. It kept having to hover around literary text studies and the of so-called non-literary texts. It doesn't quite know where the literary is, but then nor did the discipline at that point.

You were a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Warburg Institute in London from 1971 to 1973. What exactly is the Warburg Institute?

The Warburg Institute is called an Institute in the Classical Tradition. Its brief is the study of any area of culture either in text studies or plastic arts which is grounded in some explicatable way in the classical heritage. Given its spread, this actually means ancient cultures which would include Islamic and Judaic cultures as well as those of Greece and Rome. It was founded by Aby Warburg, the youngest son of the banking family in Germany, who had a library which he had to remove from Germany under Nazism and which the University of London gave a home to. When I was there Ernst Gombrich was its head, Francis Yates had the next office to me and D.P. Walker helped me when I got into difficulties with my work. It was quite extraordinary.

After the Warburg, you taught at Essex, spent a year as a Research Fellow at Cornell, and then returned to Cambridge to research and teach. Could we explore your relationship with feminism during that time? You said earlier that you had no inkling of feminism in the1960s. In the1970s, feminism was a growing force, How did it impinge on you in those years?

I think if you were brought up as the son that your father never had and if you then succeeded in male fields - and I may not have been a prodigy but I know I have a most ludicrously classically logical mind - you were living feminism, in a sense. I was constantly aware of contradictions in the work I was doing in relation to myself, but I lived them rather than explicated them. Now that's not entirely true, because I first started being involved in women's groups at Essex, and by the time I was teaching at Cambridge I was helping to run groups of that kind. Like many women, I was involved with the activism side of feminism long before I actually confronted feminism in my work. I do have to say that I think that I wittingly waited till I had enough seniority for it to be difficult for people to resist those arguments when I made them. There was a little bit of care about that which some people might read as self-protective caution. I was also extremely deeply involved in Labour Party politics in Cambridge and in pressure groups, for instance on conservation issues. So I have to say rather sheepishly that, aside from my women's groups where I did keep attending, I didn't have time. I'm not a very good advertisement for a perfectly well formed feminist.

The 1970s was also the time when other new ideas in literary and cultural criticism and theory, particularly from France, started to cross the Channel, if slowly and tardily. What was your own sense of those when you were teaching in Cambridge then?

I'll start from the fact that because I was hired to teach what was crudely called Renaisssance background, this excluded me in some way from the English curriculum. I taught Shakespeare and I taught the Renaissance, and because of the Warburg, because of my training which was European - the other thing to say about the Warburg Institute was it was Central European - it is my firm belief that Renaissance studies had already to some considerable extent absorbed European currents of thought. So whilst my colleagues were struggling to get theory into the curriculum, we pottered on with the Renaissance, and those few students in those days who went on to do Part II papers in the Renaissance were so committed and so broadly read that it was where I certainly learned most strongly that if you're going to transmit high theory, it has to be absorbed into practice. That seemed to me to be already somewhat the case with Renaissance studies. However, we did line up very very strongly behind the theory faction, if you like. I spent one year at King's which had appointed me to a non-university teaching job, and as soon as I got my university job I moved to Jesus College which at that time had Howard Erskine-Hill, Raymond Williams and Stephen Heath, so that we really were a site of struggle. It was as fierce a site of struggle as the Faculty and I stood up to be counted on Stephen's side.

The Cambridge struggle comes across as a very macho contest. What role did feminism play in it?

Let me go to the centre of it, to Christopher Ricks's attack on Colin MacCabe. We all knew where we lined up. That is to say, there was the progressive wing of the English Faculty. There were Raymond Williams and Frank Kermode - and by that time of course, I'd worked with Frank Kermode at King's - who were the great touchstones. They were never there - in fact we made badges which said 'Has anybody seen Raymond?' at one point - but they were - the éminences grises would be the polite way of putting it. In every Faculty meeting we turned out in force and voted for Colin. We also became the bêtes noirs of Christopher Ricks who was emphatic in his dislikes. But the moment when it became clear where feminism stood was when I was sitting in the Buttery on the Sidgwick site at Cambridge with Suzanne Kappeler and with Stephen Heath. Over on the other side there was a gaggle of students who were being interviewed by a reporter from the Sunday Telegraph, and one of the students came over and said the Sunday Telegraph would like to speak to you. We said to him, go back and say to the Sunday Telegraph that if the Sunday Telegraph wants to speak to us, the Sunday Telegraph can come over here, which he didn't do. At that point Stephen said, you do realize that were you to introduce a feminism paper at this moment it would go through on the nod. So Su and I sat up all of that night, then we consulted Stephen and then we consulted Gillian Beer and Jill Mann, and we ran around Cambridge to find support, and we produced a document that was tabled on the following Thursday at the Faculty Board and went through on the nod. That was how the Literary Representation of Women paper entered Part II of the Tripos. It just beautifully reflects the state of feminism in Cambridge. Feminism was no part of the post-structuralism debate and therefore feminism entered Cambridge under cover of darkness.

So that, in a sense, was one consequence of the dispute. In other respects, what was the aftermath?

I think the aftermath for me at Cambridge was that it was part of the build-up of my understanding that you were not going to be able radically to alter the curriculum there. Ricks had very cannily identified the issue as being whether Oxbridge would be the permanent repository of a particular view of English studies, just as it is the permanent repository of a particular view of classics. I think we did see that this was what was happening and, for instance, that a paper like Literary Representation of Women would be allowed its six-year run and then it would go again and something else would replace it. So it was the beginning of that understanding for me. In larger terms, its just been tiresome because the press developed a taste for high theory but never educated itself. It was not an accident that it got into the national press. It got into the national press because Colin was so well-connected, and so the press never did try and figure out why they were interested and what it was all about. It meant that a whole generation of figures in the media who are now in positions of prominence know the buzzwords without any understanding of what the issues are. That's persisted here, and it's about to rear its head again over the PC debate which is rather tardily appearing in Britain. The editors know they want to run it, because it's a sexy topic and it's done well in America, but they're not taking the time to understand it.

Could we move on to your book Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, which first came out in 1983 and is now a standard text. How did that book come about?

The London Review of Books sent me, as a Cambridge Shakespearean, five feminist books to review. I took a lot of trouble over it and wrote a long review, and I sent it to the London Review of Books and it came back with a slip from the editor saying you must understand we could never publish this. I was completely taken aback. I could not for the life of me understand why. I was also very upset. One of the persistent features of my career is that I do obstreperous things and I'm incredibly upset by the consequences. I'm publicly very thick-skinned but I'm not privately. But I'd been doing some reviewing for Quarto and so I mentioned it to the editor of Quarto and he said we'll publish it. When it appeared in Quarto, Sue Roe of Harvester Press phoned me up and said I've just read your review, how long would it take you to write the book, and I said, I can do it in three months. And I did.

In the opening chapters of Still Harping on Daughters, you attack what you see as an over-sanguine view of women's increased freedom during the early modern period, as evidenced by new ideas of marriage or new ideas of secular humanistic education for women. For example, you say: 'I have been arguing that in spite of the wider range of opportunities which became available to (some) women during the Renaissance and Reformation, attitudes towards women did not perceptibly change - may in fact have become somewhat hardened as individual women challenged traditional roles' (P.58). This gives a sense rather like that produced by a certain Foucauldian approach - I'm not suggesting any direct influence here - in which what is claimed as liberation is revealed to be not only illusory but also to be a reinforcement of subjection. There's a kind of disparagement of those feminist critics who made claims for women's greater freedom in that period.

That disparagement was what I rued in my preface to the second edition. The new Preface was partly an apology, and in a way that's probably the most visible evidence you've got of my after-the-event realization that I'd been a man for a very long time, because I had offended a lot of women critics. I'd grown up in that male tradition of strenuous polemic. I hadn't grown up in an intellectual environment such as American feminists had of covering one another's backs, and they heard what I had to say as extremely high-handed. But intriguingly that disparagement did come from a position of high theory and after all might well have been written by Terry Eagleton. It says that feminist writing at this time about women in the early modern period had inadvertently reverted to intentionalism, to biological determinism, to all the things which we'd been taught by theory were no part of the critic's perspective. I found myself incredibly impatient reading these feminist books on Shakespeare, because, of course, I had missed the whole debate, internally to American feminists in particular, about where they would find women's voices. And of course it's persistently the case that, just as here we know absolutely nothing of American cultural history, so inevitably those who are writing about Shakespeare from North America know a great deal less about the cultural formation of the early modern period than we do. So it's tempting to be a little bit high-handed from time to time. As far as the early modern period goes, I am working on a book that will be finished at Christmas called Reading Shakespeare Historically, one of whose themes is how dangerous it is to imagine that our Whiggish versions of freedom emancipated groups or individuals in these repressive, authoritarian periods in which they lived. So I continue to want to point up the danger of romanticising freedom.

Your attack on over-sanguine estimates of women's increased emancipation in the early modern period in Still Harping on Daughters, sometimes invokes a distinction between the actual, and the apparent or theoretical. For example, you say: 'Justifications for subjugation altered towards sophisticated mutual consent theories but the actuality of the woman's role in the household remained, as far as one can discover, unchanged' (p. 43)· But perhaps a certain uneasiness is indicated by that concessive and one might ask how far a distinction between the actual and the apparent can be maintained in our current cultural situation, where there is a strong sense that all we have of the past are textual traces.

That's why the concessive is there. If I were more Williamsite in the language I use I would speak of the every day. It would be, as it were, either the visible cultural form or the textual residue which carries that down to us. That is the opposition. I told you this was a book that was written fast and also a book that was written on the way to arriving at the position that I'm now at. But I by no means mean 'what really happened'.

In chapter 5 of Still Harping on Daughters, which is about dress codes, sumptuary law and natural order, you discuss the boom in the publication of pamphlets and treatises on the woman question between the 1550S and the 1640S and you say: "'Controversy", however, is too strong a word for the stylised and rhetorical exchanges these publications contain. There is a solidity and a smugness about them (whichever camp the author attaches himself or herself to) which betrays a lack of real urgency in the debate. It has, as readers fresh from the "woman question" debates of the nineteenth century are likely to overlook, a strong traditional precedent in ''controversial'' themes admitting of rhetorical elaboration on either side of the question. And its rhetorical bias is betrayed by the ruthless borrowing by successive generations of pamphleteers from the major originals in the field' (p. 162). Aren't you yourself making an underlying assumption there - which itself might be seen as a rather nineteenth-century Romantic one - that stylized and rhetorical exchanges are incompatible with real urgency?

No, I think it's the absence of anything else in those pamphlets. That is, their reference is exclusively other pamphlets, and in a period which is dense with controversies in absolutely every realm, that's generally a danger signal. If what's referred·to is always the same ruff, and if it was first used by a bestselling pamphleteer, and if we never get another example, then one is suspicious that this is a textual exchange which has an eye more closely to the market than to the bone of contention. I do say elsewhere, however, that I think the women question is a displacement of social and economic debate and therefore I would want to say, and I hope that in a fuller working out of that argument I would say, that bestselling controversies have their finger on the pulse of an issue that is worrying the community. However, I don't believe that what's worrying them is women's dress.

Your point about displacement leads on to my next question, Immediately after the paragraph I've just quoted you say: 'In trying to find an answer for why this particular issue [that is, of women usurping or affecting male attire] should find so eager an audience in this particular period we must return, I think, to the highly symptomatic relations between women, their dress and behaviour, and their place in the social hierarchy. Women bore the brunt of a general social uneasiness, I believe, because the fear of the inversion of authority between men and women has a primitive force which is not to be found in the threat of the upstart courtier to usurp his 'rightful' lord. To point a finger at woman's affecting of the badges of male office - dress, arms, behaviour - was to pin down a potent symbol of the threat to order which was perceived dimly as present in the entire shift from feudal to mercantile society' (p. 162). Now there you offer two linked explanations for the prominence of this particular kind of woman question: one is this 'primitive force' and the other is the shift from feudal to mercantile society. It's the notion of that primitive force I'd like to address first of all because one can imagine it being criticized as rather loose and untheorized.

I think you may not quite have understood it. It's not two explanations. The unease is a symptom of the shift - I wouldn't unfortunately any longer describe it as from feudalism to mercantilism, but the shift into mercantilism. Actually I don't think it's shifting, I think it's more strongly in transition in this period than we had thought while we were still vulgar Marxists. And the ease with which you can use instability to trigger fear is something which perenially can be done by invoking woman or race. Look at the British National Party.

But why does that happen? Why does an anxiety about social and economic change become focused on race or on women?

It happens because what is not sufficiently structurally clear in the shift into a trading and merchant society is how you establish hierarchical order, and three of the clearest metaphors for the establishing of hierarchical order are those of man over woman, father over children, and king over state. They are three perennial ones that come up in controversies of this period. Remember this is a book about women, and therefore I'm drawing attention to the fact that this is one of the displacements. I fear that it's bound to appear in this book that it's the displacement, but this was a polemic in reply to people who had overly privileged this as being about the real. I would have equivalent things to say about my anxiety now about my first chapter about cross-dressing, the one that as it were disparages, in some sense, single-sex love, because after all the critics I was coming back at were absorbed with male/female relationships. I would write about it differently elsewhere. Your worry is that I don't sufficiently explain or account for why it should be this debate. The answer is that it isn't just this debate, it's this debate in this context. Even though my work, I hope, has got a bit more sophisticated, I continue to think that culture displaces its anxieties over order on to key relationships which have perennially figured in cultural production, and women versus men is one of them.

Do you think psychoanalysis offers a useful way of talking about that kind of displacement?

I have yet to be persuaded that a theoretical frame that comes out of late nineteenth-century Viennese culture can without a great deal of tucking and pinching be made to apply to a culture which suckled and reared its children differently. Of course I don't have to be persuaded that you can do very valuable things by using psychoanalytic theory as a frame, because with my mathematical training I know that all models which are systematically used can be turned to advantage on disparate material. But it isn't a model which yields for me the kinds of insight that I'm after, which still seem to me to be too materialist to be grasped by psychoanalysis.

In the Preface to the second edition of Still Harping on Daughters, you make a point about agency which I'd like to take up. Thu say that 'in my case, the move forwards towards a new fusion of methodologies and material from cultural history and text studies was made in order to retrieve agency for the female subject in history … Just as the social historian combs his or her archival material for the textual trace of those on the margins, so I have dredged the documents for textual evidence of the presence of women in the early modern community. Furthermore, insofar as I have been successful in giving back to her a place in contemporary events, this retrieval of agency has been achieved by my treating the individual female subject in the drama as a 'cultural artifact' … Like the anthropologist, I look for the subject in history at the intersection of systems of behaviour, customs, beliefs, out of which, I consider, personal identity is constructed' (pp. viii-ix). But does the retrieval of the textual traces of the past necessarily demonstrate anything about agency, particularly if you have a view of the subject as a construction produced in the intersection of systems of behaviour, customs and beliefs? With that model, agency is superadded, not explanatorily necessary: it may be morally uplifting and politically motivating but it doesn't emerge from the traces themselves.

But I mean agency very literally, in an almost vector form, as an account, as it were, which puts back the fact that even an obstructive objects acts. Of course I was led in that direction by the new social historians and by Lawrence Stone and Keith Wrightson and Eric Hobsbawm. I would openly acknowledge their influence on that thought, particularly that of Keith Wrightson, who was my colleague at Cambridge in my last years there while I was writing that Preface. What seemed to me tricky about the historical reconstructions of women in past time was that because history, apart from social history, always privileged the successful actor, it couldn't even articulate those who stood in the way and altered the course of history. In line with my general feeling that we ought not to attribute too much romantic effect to women in this period, it is the construction of a system of influences and presences such that when a woman is in the room you can't behave as if the outcome would have been the same if she'd not been there.

In a footnote to your new Preface to Still Harping on Daughters, you recall first hearing yourself described from a public platform in 1984 as a 'new historicist' (p. x). Is that a description you're happy to bear?

We've adopted a form of words this year of referring to certain sorts of writing as 'what used to be called the new historicism' - one of my graduate students taught me that. It's interesting that North America needs labels for movements affirmatively, whereas in this country labels are always used derogatorily. Nobody would call themselves a poststructuralist, it's used as a term of disapproval, and I think that goes for all the critical movements here. But in North America, because intellectuals in universities are actual money earners and because job descriptions stipulate intellectual movements as well as fields of study, the label was about academic prominence. I remain a great admirer - I am teased for remaining a great admirer - of Stephen Greenblatt. I think his Renaissance Self-Fashioning changed the tide of academic history for Renaisance studies. One day we had three students and the next day we had 300 students, and I'm not prepared to knock that. Brilliant students now want to do Renaissance studies rather than twentieth-century studies and that was due to Stephen Greenblatt. His book has all kinds of flaws, but it was written in 1980, and 1980 is a watershed. He coined the phrase new historicism. I'll accept it. I don't like cultural poetics, I'm not a cultural poeticist. I don't want to reject the new historicist label because I admire several of the practitioners, but I'm not sure that it is a coherent school and I don't think I really belong in it. I was flattered for a short time to be put there. Ultimately new historicism remains too literary for me. I think I'm just a hybrid text studies historian. I'm a Professor of English in England and a Professor of History in America. I like that.

Could we come on to your latest book, Erasmus, Man of Letters, which argues that Erasmus's charisma was a careful and complex construction by himself and a network of his contemporaries. In your introduction, you say the book 'has proved unexpected one, both in its conception and in the direction of its development' (p. 3). You talked earlier in our conversation about your love of sitting in the archive doing this kind of detective work. Could you explore how this book came about?

It's another phase in my own history. North America has provided me at regular intervals with an inspiringly supportive context for being able to be polemical, populist and scholarly. My life changed in 1974 when I went to the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University and discovered that working on the nitty-gritty of Renaissance logic could get you audiences of fifty students and the local radio station might want to talk to you about it. That somehow brought together all the facets of my personality. The struggle about whether I wanted to be Jerome in his study or Erasmus masterminding book circulation was resolved there. It was resolved more completely by Princeton, where I've been on several occasions, and in fact the Erasmus book was wholly written at Princeton. Some of the additional research was done in London and in Cambridge, but I couldn't have formed that book in my mind and I couldn't have kept my confidence that you could be iconoclastic and scholarly, outside that milieu. The fact that the Princeton History Department contained Natalie Davis, Robert Darnton, Lawrence Stone and Tony Grafton sums it up really. As to why I came to work on Erasmus, I said it was by accident, but it wasn't by accident really. It is of enormous importance to me at this moment to show how gendered the intellectual figure in Western Europe is. All the work on Erasmus is about how he isn't me, how I do everything as it were in that tradition, but how the whole elaborate way in which he constructed a presence of the secular intellectual constructs him as male. So I think that's why I became absorbed in the way in which this was a construction and therefore one couldn't say it had happened by accident. When I did my inaugural lecture at the University of London on Erasmus, I projected above myself the Metsys diptych - magnified images of Erasmus and his friend Peter Gilles - and as the lecture finished, one of the graduate students in the department was stopped by a senior member of another department who said to her: 'I'm surprised Professor Jardine didn't do a feminist lecture'. She said to him: 'It was a feminist lecture'.

Do you feel that gender concern comes across in the book?

I don't mind if it doesn't, because the great thing about having become, if you like, a visible figure in intellectual life is that you then have the luxury to have just that juxtaposition the graduate student noticed. I think it would have been self-indulgent and would have diminished this book to have made explicit why a woman who was known to be now a prominent feminist wrote a book exclusively about men. It had to some extent been true about the Bacon book but it is much more so and much more self-awarely so about the Erasmus book. In other words, I certainly knew what I was doing. I considered saying something in the Preface and discarded that, but I put my daughter prominently into the acknowledgements to make clear that daughters had played their part.

Your detective work on the way in which Erasmus's charisma was constructed is fascinating - at moments it feels as if one is reading a novel by a combination of Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon, experiencing a sense of paranoia and disorientation at the revelation of what might, or might not, be a complex and intricate plot. This leads me to ask what degree of consciousness we are supposed to be attributing to those who engaged in this construction?

If the book has anything of Eco and Pynchon in it, I'm more than happy. I think that the narrative strategy was supposed to alert the reader to the difficulty in locating the source of construction. Except in very few rather banal circumstances, I don't think I would want to venture a judgement on how consideredly or systematically Erasmus or anyone else was doing this.

At one point in the book you say: 'there is an Erasmian agenda, as it were, which sees to it that the life of the paradigm Christian textual editor and exegete conforms to the expectations of a sixteenth-century humanistic audience. In other words, it is the agenda, rather than any desire on Erasmus's own part to be seen as "like" Jerome, which draws Jerome's life away from hagiography and towards that cluster of exemplary sacred/secular activities best represented for Erasmus by the combination of Lorenzo Valla's annotations on the New Testament and his Elegantiae' (P.74). Could you say more about the nature of this agenda?

The agenda is to emulate the successful dissemination of a particular set of ideas of the kind that the early Church Fathers apparently effected vis-à-vis Christianity. That is a model that was available to Erasmus of the extraordinary international dissemination of secondary works on the Christian corpus where as it were almost tangible figures like Jerome and Augustine are present in the study of the student studying them. But I do think the agenda is in the process of being transformed into a secular one, and of course Erasmus would have been the last person to recognize that because he hadn't even appreciated that the Reformation had taken place, let alone his own place in it. And I would love to take on the issue of Christianity and humanism because I think that my work is beginning to show that you can't talk about the Reformation separately from all of this. This kind of work has been done in the past by wonderful scholars, many of whom I've drawn on doing this book. What they don't do is see where that work is inevitably leading. I think if I have any kind of gift, it's for seeing the implications of shifts in scholarly interest. That's what's novel about the book. I always cause annoyance when I suggest those implications but there's a curious way in which then the discipline seems to accommodate them. What I'm intrigued by so far, vigorously touching wood, is that people seem prepared to consider these implications seriously in this book of mine for the first time, as it comes off the press so to speak. I love the reviews I'm getting because they are by people who struggle with the book and are reluctant to accept its implications. It's very precious to me when someone like Anthony Levi, who is not of my party as it were theoretically or anywhere, is struggling because he feels, I have to take this on board, I just don't like what it's saying. He's worried about what this will do for the images of these hallowed figures (see Literary Review, June 1993). That's a new thing for me. It's both flattering and very heartwarming. Not surprisingly, the one real hack review I had in the Evening Standard just says, she has to be wrong, course she's wrong, which you would expect.

In your Introduction to the Erasmus book, you say: 'We twentieth-century advancers of learning have altogether lost any such confidence [of the kind projected by the Eramus charisma] in grand designs. We are painfully aware of an apparently flagging eminence, a diminished stature, a waning of a world in which men of letters made the agenda, and worldly men then strove to pursue it.' (p. 4). You continue in this rather eloquent vein, and then you partly retract it by saying that there never really was a golden age, that this is nostalgia. Perhaps there's some ambivalence there. You have, as you've said, a scholarly formation and a love of scholarship. In some ways, you're a scholar of quite a traditional kind, and one might thus see you as somehow sharing that sense that the humanities are not what they used to be. But in many of your public statements that I've read - for example about the future of literary studies - you come across as a very optimistic progressive. What then are your feelings about the position and the nature of the humanities today?

I think what I want to say about Erasmus and myself is that engagement in the contemporary is a vital part of scholarship. I want to retrieve that energy and that desire for change. When I talk about a flagging confidence on the part of scholars, I mean the retreat of scholars into minutiae, their plangency about how nobody understands them any more, how nobody wants to do the work. I recall Tom Greene at a dinner party saying that at Yale in the Fifties you had very clever students and that now nobody wants to put in the hard work. I said to him, don't you think maybe that comparative literature's got rather boring and that's why they don't want to do it? It isn't engaged with anything. I feel that my own persona is like that of Erasmus in a total engagement in the here and now, in its politics, in its controversy, and in its desire for change, coupled with the privilege of having the in-depth training which allows you to pursue that through in minute detail.

Could we take up one particular issue here? You're a Latinist possessed of a classic literacy which is increasingly marginal in modern education. There is an argument - posed eloquently by George Steiner - that if you lose that classic literacy, you also lose a whole range of resonance and allusion in English writing from Chaucer through to Derek Walcott. Do you regret the now virtual disappearance from curricula in schools and universities of that kind of classical training?

No, and I would give you a cogent account of why that is not a position to which I would ascribe. The sort of central European that George Steiner is - enormously admirable - is the displaced and transient member of an intellectual diaspora who is therefore quite explicitly not any longer politically engaged. He's engaged in the intellectual sphere in about that domain which is like the controversies about dress code and sumptuary law in the early modern period. It's conducted in an extraordinarily rarefied atmosphere. It doesn't ground itself in any particular place where you want change to happen in the here and now and in the politically actual. I know that any graduate student of mine who needs Latin can get it up in six months, that the pedagogic tools like Francis Cairnes's computer programme which will allow them to have access to it mean that it's irrelevant whether they've got it. To try and give it to a nine-year old child when they don't need it and don't know what it's for, is just boring and tedious and probably will turn them off it for life. So tradition as formative seems to me to be somewhat spurious. I believe in being grounded - this is a bit Habermasian - in the overlapping circles, the life-worlds which you inhabit. I'm always told I've invented Habermas and that I'm a Jardine Habermasist, but my Habermas I ascribe to, namely that you inhabit life worlds and if you're Indo-Caribbean, Afro-Caribbean, South-East Asian, you carry with you bits of your life world and then you engage with the life world in which you find yourself. Derek Walcott and Toni Morrison come out of those sorts of intersections. To have taught them something culturally specific at school seems to me not quite to the point.
Could we move on to the teaching of literature today? On Sunday you were interviewing Gore Vidal for Radio 3's Making Waves programme, and there's an interesting moment when he says: 'I have observed in my lifetime … that as we lost the Common Reader we lost the Common Critic and English departments have now pretty much got rid of literature itself and replaced it with literary theory. Well, I'm not going to be thrilled by that'. At this point, you interject strongly 'But we haven't', and the conversation then takes another turn. Nonetheless there is a widespread perception that literary texts have been displaced either by theory or by being dispersed into a whole range of other texts or discourses. When I interviewed Frank Kermode, he said that 'the abolition of literature is definitely on the agenda' (See PN Review 74, p. 17). Would you like to take up that point now?

Gore Vidal and Frank Kermode are not contemporaries but they're close in terms of attitude. The signal there is the death of the Common Reader. There isn't a Common Reader any more. There are readers from overlapping circles. The Common Reader was a wonderful security blanket presence, namely that of the nicely self-educated, maybe grammar school boy. The Common Reader is a grammar school boy, I think, and he's no longer the unique reader. You can't address your classroom studies to that unique reader any more, so the strategies used in academic departments of literature have much more to do with the diverse cultural backgrounds of their student population and with a lack of conviction on the part of many of us that we have any self-evident right to claim the priority of one tradition. All of that seems to me to be very liberating. Gore Vidal is terribly good on every other topic except classrooms. Unlike George Steiner, he is deeply engaged with the political at the everyday level, and that's why my response to that exchange was disappointment that he nevertheless has a weak spot for old literary studies. My riposte to Gore Vidal was that I doubt we read any fewer literary texts and I suspect we read rather more in depth. John Barrell once said to me what a terrible task students now have to master the range of kinds of writing, types of approach, and disciplinary frames that you need today to become competent in literature - what a contrast that was with the sixties. The students are better trained than they ever have been. It's now a discipline which ranks - I've said it before - with philosophy in the complexity of thought, the self-awareness and the intellectual rigour that it expects of its students. I see nothing to complain about. I would have to say that we now expect a student to read the whole of Clarissa whereas Cambridge expected us to read a bit. In other words I think the idea that English departments have got rid of literature is one of those convenient falsehoods and I'm not quite sure what it's supposed to serve. My optimism is enormous about the field that I'm in.

But haven't you yourself suggested one of the problems by pointing to this enormous extension of the field - that the range of possible texts and of theoretical and critical approaches means that the subject has lost its coherence? It may acquire a coherence at specific institutions like your own, Queen Mary and Westfield College, but it's lost it more generally and it has also in some sense become cut off - except perhaps as an entertaining spectacle, say in David Lodge's novels - from people who might otherwise be interested in reading and thinking about literature.

I don't feel that. It seems to me simply not to reflect my experience and I do after all move around departments of literature a lot. I think what is maybe misleading is that because of the range of possibilities for any student entering the discipline we now, like philosophy, tend to teach the fundamental skills and methods needed for going to any chosen area and accessing it. In other words we try to prepare students for whatever their chosen area of study is. Now that is what philosophy does and it's what sociology or anthropology do to some extent. Literary study is much more like an 'ology' now in that it's a professional training from which you will embark into whatever field you subsequently move into. Hence the misunderstanding, I think, about how much grounding is given, as opposed to reading your way systematically from Chaucer via Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Pope and whoever down to now.

lf you have courses centred on a body of skills and concepts rather than a body of texts, doesn't that mean that you don't necessarily have to read any of the old conventional literary texts at all?

No. To go right back to the beginning of our discussion, I said that the Renaissance studies I did had absorbed theory, and therefore students learnt the complexity of the theory through practice. Now that is the brilliant technique that's used in all good English departments. Of course you don't teach Foucault. You take eighteenth-century literature and you look at it through the prism of Foucault. You always set your students to read literary texts and then you engage with literary texts with a particular set of skills. Most progressive departments don't have an isolated theory course. Only conservative institutions have add-on theory. So Cambridge has add-on theory, but Queen Mary and Westfield College doesn't have a theory course anywhere. It only has the practice of reading informed by a particular theoretical frame which will be made explicit. I do think that's a profound misunderstanding and that you'll find that any literary critic over forty-five will have difficulty with that, while a literary critic under forty will find it easy to grasp.

You talked earlier about your belief in an intrinsic relation between literary studies and politics, about your political activities and commitments, and about What's Left, the book you wrote with Julia Swindells about some of the problems of socialism. In a recent Times Higher Education Supplement special on English teaching, you're quoted - I don't know how accurate this quote is - as describing yourself as 'a plain old-fashioned radical socialist' (11 June 1993, p. 17). But all those terms now beg questions: what do they mean today?

That was a joke in that when your back's against the wall, you revert, and I revert probably to a vulgar materialist. I still comfortably believe in socialism. I don't have any of the problems some socialists have about the demise of Russia. Because I'm an intellectual historian, it doesn't seem to me that, because the practice failed in one location, that means I have to discard it as an aspiration. I probably didn't say 'radical', that's been put in, but I think I did say 'plain old-fashioned socialist'. 'Old-fashioned' means that however many times I go into an election booth with an intellectual conviction that I ought to do something strategic, I always vote for the Labour candidate. I still believe in a party. I am not a freethinker politically. That shows that I' am a died-in-the-wool politician. I once was on the 'B' list for a parliamentary seat and decided after serious reflection, mostly with Julia Swindells, that I didn't think I could toe the party line enough day-to-day. But I still believe in the party as the only way that you can help the poor and the disadvantaged. I really do believe in group consciousness. I really do believe that individualism is a terrible stumbling block in effecting change on behalf of the disadvantaged. It's a luxury of the élite that we cling to as intellectuals, but I have no faith in it as guiding our future action, and I think that Conservatism has wickedly fragmented us into a collection of self-interested and self-absorbed individuals. So I'm old-fashioned in the sense that I can't be persuaded that anything other than group action will effect change. I'm modernizing within the Labour Party in that of course, in any of the discussion groups I'm involved in, the position of women is crucial, the position of British nationals who are not Anglo-Saxon, and so on. My relationship to the unions is difficult, although of course I belong to my own and wouldn't dream of not doing so. I'm nearly fifty, so I belong to the sixties generation that did believe that we wanted political change and that this could only be effected by groups, and the group that I subscribe to is still the Labour Party.

In the remarkable range of your activities - scholar, socialist, feminist, teacher, broadcaster - you might be seen as a modern Renaissance figure. Could I ask, in conclusion, how you yourself would define the links between all these Lisa Jardines?

First of all, I think it does matter to be a woman. I don't think a woman believes in disinterestedness. Her whole life has been lived under the pressure of gender. Even at the stage I'm at, I still can't walk into a room without having to establish that my gender does not exempt me from being taken seriously, and it'll happen for the whole of my life. Now that doesn't happen to men. So you live with this. I think it's crucial that one's network is probably more diverse than the corresponding networks that men belong to, for that same reason. There are somewhat fewer of us in my generation, though that won't last long, and we stick together and we protect each other's rear on public platforms. I'm now part of a network that I absolutely love of other successful women. Probably the women I admire most at the moment are Natalie Davis the historian, Helena Kennedy the QC, Michèle Roberts the novelist and Julia Swindells the political activist. All of them are part of my everyday life. I've left out there the lesbian separatists, Suzanne Kappeler who's one of my old friends. It's all always there, so your profession is inevitably tied in with that. I think again a woman doesn't separate her profession from her persona, and the separation of private and public has proved such a catastrophe historically for women that most prominent women will not observe it. I will not leave my children out of public debate. I drive the BBC crazy by referring to my entire life rather than pretending to be depersonalized. The bottom line is that I can never be universal man, so I don't actually want to be called a Renaissance figure because that's always universal man. What I am is an absolutely typical representative of intellectual curiosity in the late twentieth century and of a passionate commitment to change.

This interview is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to
Further Reading: - Nicolas Tredell More Interviews by... (20) Reports by... (15) Articles by... (33) Reviews by... (93)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image