Not having had time or other resources to blog about it till I got home from Melbourne yesterday afternoon, by which time I was too knackered to put one word in front of the other, I have almost missed the boat on the subject of Germaine Greer's opening address to the Jane Austen conference that was put on by Laura from Sills Bend and her La Trobe U colleagues at the end of last week. Balcony Helen, Another Outspoken Female and Laura herself have all Greerblogged in detail already. But I have the odd bit and piece to add.
I was very struck by the precision and detail with which Greer had prepared her argument, for argument it was: a proper literary lecture, with a characteristically contrarian bent. Greer chose the least popular and most maligned of Austen's novels, Mansfield Park, to make an argument about a particular genre, the Bildungsroman (or, as one of Elsewhere's students recently called it, the Blundingsroman). In this kind of novel, a young person proceeds with a certain amount of incident through her or his adolescence and young adulthood, acquiring formal and informal education, and learning by trial and error - mostly error -- how to be an adult and function properly in the world.
Greer then, in quite an audacious move, linked Mansfield Park to the Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson's The Getting of Wisdom. (Richardson, for those unfamiliar with her, was a woman writer who used a masculine nom de plume for the usual reason, writing as she was in an era when a woman's name on the cover of your manuscript or novel would automatically make it harder for you to get published or read.)
Both Mansfield Park and The Getting of Wisdom, argued Greer, are a kind of anti-Bildungsroman; in both, the process of growing up for the young heroines Fanny and Laura consists of learning to be less than themselves. Socialisation for young women of their eras (for these novels were written a century apart) consisted of bland obedience and conformity, keeping their mouths shut and their emotions in check. Fanny in particular, Greer argued, far from being the mouse that many dismiss her as, is actually a little ball of resistant, watchful muscle and a rumbling volcano of determined passion.
Young women's love in Austen's novels is in fact, argued Greer in an aside, 'implacable', and Austen herself was by no means uncritical of it as a force. Around this point Greer also pointed out that learning not to wear your heart on your sleeve is indeed an indicator of being grown up, or at the very least a survival tactic, so she wasn't running any kind of simple line.
This argument made me think of the way that young heroines in literature of a certain era who cannot or will not be properly socialised into womanhood are often savagely punished for it. Jo in Little Women misses out on world travel because of her awkward manners and loud mouth and is fobbed off at the end with a homely, threadbare, middle-aged husband. Katy of What Katy Did is punished for swinging too high and too enthusiastically by falling off the swing and crippling herself; Pollyanna gets the same punishment for tree-climbing.
And Judy in Seven Little Australians, of course, is punished for her passionate and courageous nature and its manifestation in saving her baby brother from being crushed by a falling tree when she is crushed and killed by the tree herself; Seven Little Australians, indeed, is the ultimate anti-Bildungsroman, wherein the heroine doesn't get to grow up at all. Professor Greer might have argued that, by comparison, Mansfield Park's Fanny and The Getting of Wisdom's Laura get off very lightly indeed.
(None of this seemed to mean anything to journalist Pamela Bone, who appeared to have sat through an entire lecture on literature simply so she could stand up at question time and demand to know why Greer wasn't in Darfur interviewing raped women. She seemed to be implying that the fact that she wasn't meant that she was a hypocrite, or that feminism was bullshit, or something. You all know the argument from articles, columns and blog posts by right-wing boys, I'm sure. It's hard to know quite how one is supposed to 'interview a raped woman', I must say; stick a microphone under her nose and ask her 'How did you feel?')
What struck me most about Greer's lecture, however, apart from the fact that at a few months short of seventy she is still straight-backed, energetic, lively and graceful [UPDATE: I've aged her before her time here; she is still only 68], was the way she talked about her students and about the profession of teaching. She illustrated various points she made, both during the lecture and in question time, with a number of anecdotes about her life as a university teacher and she spoke of her students with great affection, and of the profession of teaching with passion.
It wasn't that this came as a surprise, more as a reminder of something I had forgotten. Public representation of Greer is and has always been so distorted and so coloured by masculine fear and loathing that even people who have been following her work for many years tend to forget that she is, first and last, an educator: an explainer, a guide, a putter-together of new ways of thinking, an opener of eyes.