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April 23, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Doubting Society’s Vision of the Past: Professor Mary Beard

I was reading The Guardian‘s ‘The Saturday Interview’ on well, Saturday, and noticed  Professor Mary Beard musing on a topic that this blog chews over frequently and in fact, chewed over on Friday: linear history, and our assumption that we are the most sophisticated product of it yet. When asked about the incongruity of a Cambridge Professor of Classics using Twitter, Prof. Beard gave an answer that stirred my heart:

What would Epictetus say? Shouldn’t Professor Beard be examining amphorae or poring over fragments of Cicero rather than making telly and strategising social media? “I’m actually in a tradition of classicists with a big public face who like sounding off,” she retorts.

She cites as an example suffragist classicist Jane Harrison (1850-1928), who taught at her all-woman Newnham College, and whom Beard describes in her biography as “in a way … [Britain’s] first female professional ‘career academic'”. “She would have been on Twitter all the time. She once gave a lecture on Greek tombstones in Glasgow in front of 2,000 people.” It’s unfair, Beard says, to think of her professional predecessors as decrepit life forms. “We think of their lives as terribly slow, but they probably weren’t. They had five postal deliveries a day – so you’d have a reply to a morning letter by lunchtime.”

This is Beard’s great theme: to confound the Whig notion of history whereby we’ve become faster, healthier, and have more sophisticated communication technologies than our loser forebears. “We think of our lives as natural, unconstructed, while Romans’ lives were unnatural and based in myths. Not true on either count.”

Full interview here

Wonderful stuff, grist to the mill of any neo-Victorian, for whom the thorny questions of what history is, how it is formed, and how it is transmitted are everyday irritations.  Beard is invoking not just Harrison, but the authority of history itself  in order to silence her critics. ‘History gives us plenty of figures who would do what I am doing’ is the implication, ‘and therefore I have justification; it is you, critic, who doesn’t know what they are talking about’. Self-promotion, Beard implies, is an action that resonates throughout the ages. One single puny human has no option but to take the path of mimicry. The weight of history makes for a powerfully blunt instrument.

Mind you, while I appreciate that she is merely employing a swift caricature in order to silence her critics, Prof. Beard’s stirring defence of the Victorians (and of herself) – that they were just like us! –  is as much of an artificial position as the alternative. After years of twentieth-century folk defining themselves as modern and freewheeling in comparison to Victorian prudery and restriction, the pendulum has started to swing in the opposite direction. Most recently, Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians (2001) stated repeatedly, insistently, that the Victorians were Just Like Us, while a number of academic papers suggest that the Victorian era may not have ended in 1901 after all.

My answer is, of course, that we are somewhere in the middle. It seems entirely self-evident that we are not Victorians – there isn’t a single Victorian alive in 2012. We can’t speak to them – even if we could, who knows what mistakes and miscommunications might occur? We may have a mountain of text left by them but that does not mean that we can know them. Equally, will we ever truly quantify what it is that we do know of the Victorians? Does a researcher know more than a member of the general public? If a million people believe that Queen Victoria refused to believe in lesbians, does that make that more or less a moment of ‘history’ than the truth (the tale is a myth)?

I foolishly started to address this in my doctoral thesis; a month later, my supervisor had to haul me out of a tangled web of words that was going nowhere and never would.

We are…well, who knows. Whatever it is that we are, we are not Victorian. Whatever it is we know of the Victorians, we will probably never know if it is true. It is enough, I think, to know that we want to know the Victorians so very badly – and that, like Professor Mary Beard, we will continue to use them as a definitive touchstone.



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