Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Germaine Greer in her home town

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.


Ampersand Duck said...

Fantastic summation of an intriguing and frustrating idea, and something I've been thinking about (but not so concretely) since I spent a month crying over Judy as a girl. I could never work out why it was so bad to be high-spirited.

Thanks! And I'm VERY sorry I missed your panel. I'm looking forward to the publication of the conference papers.

lucy tartan said...

Thank you. What Ms Duck said. I was too rattled to remember to bring anything to write on.

'signorina' said...

Wow, thanks for this! I look forward to seeing the conference papers, too - have read great things about yours too, PC...

I just finished re-reading Mansfield Park and, while reading it, was reminded of an undergrad professor's take on it. Very similar to Greer's, as it turns out - Fanny is not meek and mild, and neither are Henry and Mary Crawford simple villains. I have to go and read Persuasion now, too.

Your lists of heroines punished for their lack of appropriate socialisation reminds me of how much Jo's fate always irks me (and I hated Little Men and Jo's Boys for that reason, even as a child). She also has to lose her one socially-endorsed beauty, too. I'd completely forgotten about poor Katy, though, learning to be a good invalid with a clean and tidy sickroom, and a good attitude towards being crippled. (No one could forget Judy!)

I always felt the main characters from Sex and the City were eventually punished for a lack of socialisation too: one gets cancer, one gets an undesired child (and then husband), one gets back a distant and disconnected partner. The only one who gets what she wants (albeit with some difficulties) is the one who wanted what society wants for us, anyway.

Ambigulous said...

Pamela Bone may have written the odd, occasional good column; but I went off her when she raged against Muslim women's head wear. She knew better than they what they should wear in public. This was in "The Age" a few years ago. A very calm response was written by a young Muslim woman, whose name I don't recall (sorry). It was rational and fair, unlike Pamela's piece.

Pamela tried to campaign for the alleviation of poverty in Africa, through "The Age". I'm not sure why she is an ineffectual writer.


GS said...

What it a relief it is to read everyone else's blog accounts of the lecture to know what it was actually about. Even the next day my memory of it was patchy - except for her affection towards her young students, incredible intelligence, the Bone interrogation and a nagging desire to read Mansfield Park. (Oh and seeing Laura and Judith Lucy).

Kathleen, my take on the dissappointing end of SITC was more about how conventional they had become. Samantha not only got cancer but she stopped screwing around, Ms Bradshaw stakes her claim on a powerful man and Miranda not only gets what she never really wanted - the child, husband and house in the suburbs but also a demented mother-in-law to move in with her. Yes you are right - punishment!

Now if only we could get GG to apply her insight to the subject!

Anonymous said...

I really wished I'd gone to her lecture; I'll regret it even more after reading your blog entry.

I just want to counter your assertion that Jo was punished in LW by being married off to Herr Bhaer. Yes, she was punished most unfairly by missing out on the trip OS, but Aunt March was always unfair, and it is very clear that Jo's marriage and children are very happy experiences for her. Witness the saccharine decline of the sequels.
Amy is punished more, presumably for her many pretensions, by being away when Beth dies, and then by only having one child, and that one being ill.
Jo was the character loosely modelled on Louisa May Alcott herself, so i doubt she would have wanted subconsciously to punish her favourite character/herself by marrying her to a poor, older man. The author is very clear throughout the books that money and status don't matter nearly so much as kindness and contentedness with one's lot.

AND i also want to take gentle issue with Kathleen's take on SITC - Charlotte is the only one who did want the societal-approved model for womanhood - a big wedding and children - and she is punished by being infertile and then by being divorced. I think they all went through tough times -but that's real life for women, innit.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Couldn't agree more - however strongly or puzzledly (yes yes I know) I may disagree at times with her writings, I still think her a very importamt person in my intellectual life - whether its her lit crit writings or say The Obstacle Race.

Bugger missing it - roomfuls of discourse practitioners aren't quite the same thing....

kate said...

Not to mention the Taming of the Shrew... I always liked Kate more at the beginning.

Stegetronium said...

Much of the non-fiction writing on women & madness is based on this theme.

Examples where women's rebellion is rewarded? Pride and Prejudice?

'signorina' said...

Hi Clemency,

I agree with you that Charlotte is also punished (with infertility and divorce). At the same time, she's still the one who gets the closest to what we're supposed to want.

It will be interesting to see which way the "dream sequences" from the upcoming movie will tilt: the Carrie-Big wedding and Charlotte's pregnancy that we've seen on spoilers.

fifi said...

I am still reeling with envy that all you gals were involved in this conference: I did want to go, but couldn't justify it, sadly.

Love to hear about Germaine: wonderful in fact.
and now, as I do quite often after hanging around here for any length of time, i am scurrying off to read and think. And feel good that all these lovely women are in the world. and in my bit of it, even.

(oh, yes, and I HATED what happened to Jo. Sheesh, and a bunch of boys: I never bothered finishing it. yuk.)

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry I missed the whole thing. Something about your post brings out the cautious ambivalence one, well, I, have always felt for GG (not to be confused with the Governor-General).

audrey said...

Thanks for this Pavlov. I wish I'd been able to make it to the conference. Boo.

Did you read that article in the Age yesterday about how feminism is over, and it's women's fault? Why o why do they insist on printing that rubbish all the time, and why do women keep writing it?

Anonymous said...

>>Why o why do they insist on printing that rubbish all the time, and why do women keep writing it?

Could you elaborate on this a little, please?

Unenlightened male

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Gentle reader, let this be a warning to you: I just spent half an hour writing a very long comment about the Karen Murphy piece in the Age that Kathleen and Unenlightened Male are referring to BEFORE I went back and read it carefully for a second time, and much of what I said in said comment, now properly trashed, showed all too clearly that I hadn't read the piece properly the first time. My bad. My very bad. This is the kind of behaviour that annoys the bejesus out of me when other people do it.

I can see where Murphy is coming from. It bother me that she doesn't seem to know that debates are raging in feminist circles, at a very sophisticated level, about this kind of argument. But then, like women loudly denouncing female genital mutilation, most of it is happening on blogs, where many journalists still fear to tread.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Sorry, not Kathleen -- Audrey.

Clearly I am not currently fit to be saying anything about anything. Bring on the nanna naps.

Anonymous said...

I adore La Greer, and her lecture sounded fun and clever. What a pity Pamela Bone had to crash. I agree it was a totally inappropriate, indeed naff, interjection; though perhaps explicable given her health.

I do think the quality of Germs' scholarship suffered immensely from her decision to pursue celebrity; it's the lack of discipline, you see. Some of those warblings on eastern motherhood were more provocative barbs than treatises to be taken too seriously.

I adored the Mad Woman's Underclothes. She was quite the siren in her day, wasn't she? My favourite was "Lady love your cunt." I gave it to my grandmother to read, she said "oh really Johnny, what on earth do they need to teach you that at university for? You were more poetic playing under the house when your eight years old!"

One thing that interested me about the post-Bone/Bolt kerfuffle, was the non-mentioning that many of the Divine Ms. G's staunchest critics are other baby-boomer feminists. A few months ago, Professor Catharine Lumby sniggered when La Greer's name was mentioned on Difference of Opinion. Lumby also claims Greer's leaving the Big Brother House showed she was past it, and no longer relevant to young women.

Personally, I think Germs is a good old fashioned Aussie ratbag sheilah who dwarves all those bints who are just jealous of her. I wish we could clone her.

You Go Girl!

Anonymous said...