Gillian Beer interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 26th January 2009 

0:09:07 Born near Little Bookham, Surrey, in 1935; never met either of my  grandfathers; my parents divorced when I was very small so I had very  little knowledge of father's family; mother's father had died young at the end  of the First World War; he was a living presence in the household as both  grandmother and mother both felt him as loved and there; he had had quite an  unusual life; he left school aged twelve and taught himself Greek, and the  violin; he got to the position where he was lecturing at the St Bride's  Institute for journalists; he went off to the War and died of cancer at  thirty-seven, whether as a direct result is uncertain; devastating for my  grandmother, mother and her sister; left them extremely poor; he had been a  proof-reader at the Daily Telegraph but also ran evening classes in literature  at St Bride's Institute; he was clearly a man of great creativity; he was a  rather beautiful man; my parents did not live together after I was four and  actually divorced when I was seven; I was a small girl during the Second World  War so a great many fathers were away and not having a father around didn’t mark me out; my father went into the army and my mother went back to teaching;  she was a primary school teacher at Lollard Street in the East End of London;  she had to take the children out of London to be evacuated; we ended up in  Somerset when I was four so I consider myself as a Somerset girl; until I was  eleven we lodged with a family where the father was a bricklayer and there were  two boys about my age; we were a loose extended family; Fray Bryce, the father,  was a very important figure in my life; I lost touch entirely with my own  father and never saw him again after I was seven. 

5:35:00 My mother made everything possible; I had a very happy childhood;  looking back I can see how hard it must have been for her; a young divorced  woman, living in a small town on the Devon border; she was full of enjoyment  and life; we went for long walks in the country; she always gave me the sense  that anything was possible; she never seemed to feel constricted by the  constrained circumstances that we lived in; without her I don't think I would  have got to university because the school I went to did not send many people;  she was a very good singer so one of my memories was hearing her practice  chromatic scales; she was in the local operatic group; she married again when I  was fourteen; my stepfather was very musical and had a little madrigal group  and male voice choir; my mother went on singing right through her seventies;  she has been the most important person for me; I got on well with my  stepfather; sadly he died ten years after they were married; he was quite a lot  older than she was; when he died there was just my mother and me again; had no  siblings; she moved to Cambridge when she retired and had twenty years here;  while growing up I was always Mrs Thomas’s and then Mrs Bell's daughter; when she  came here she was for a month Mrs Beer's mother and then I became Mrs Bell's  daughter again; she enjoyed being a grandmother to our three sons 

 9:23:00 I only remember living in London from a memory my mother gave me; she  saw the Crystal Palace burn down because we lived in Sydenham; otherwise I can  only remember picking up worms in the garden; Somerset was a bit of a muddle at  first because the evacuees were taught in the afternoon and the local children  in the morning, which was a bit chaotic; I then went to a dame school and later  to the local infants' school; that was a bit fraught as my mother was teaching  there; we moved from Martock to Wiveliscombe where I was in primary school; I  remember one attractive male teacher who had been in the navy; I took 11+ and  did well; we were considered to be living in poor social conditions as lodgers,  so I was given a county place in a boarding school; it was then called Sunny  Hill school, now Bruton School for Girls; I did not enjoy it much; having gone  back as an adult I see that Bruton is a beautiful place, but I never noticed that at the  time; it was a terrible wrench as I had always lived with my mother and was  used to conversing with an adult; suddenly I was only among girls my own age and I  felt deprived of conversation; there was a meagre feeling; we were not well  fed; a great many people had boils and chilblains; it was not the fault of the  school as it was still a very bleak period after the war; I did have one big event which  changed many things; I had a bad accident at fourteen; the school was on a hill and  to get from the boarding house to classrooms one went down a very steep  staircase; leaping down this, I fell backward and struck my spine badly; I was  off for six months and wasn't well for a year after; that did completely change  my life; in some ways it was probably the moment of opportunity because I went  home and read whatever my mother could get from the library for me; I had no  critical appraising capacity at all; I read a bit of Ibsen, then read all of  Ibsen; same with Oscar Wilde; looking back I can't think how I came to choose  these particular authors; also read all of Shakespeare; I had not been a particularly  academic child but in these circumstances built up this enormous ballast of  reading; some still remains in my head, such as 'Ghosts', can still see my  mental pictures of that play; it was a curious time; as a child, I had always  had many friends, but possibly  after the accident had more leisure to read and think; I notice now with our three grandchildren that they are always together, and wonder whether  they ever have any solitude.

17:59:12 I do remember two teachers at Bruton very fondly; one was Miss Wilson,  the French teacher; she had been at Girton; she was very emotional and I can  remember her reading Lamartine with tears in her eyes; she was also quite brisk  and comic; she had a great friend, Miss Allen, who was the geography teacher -  a terrible teacher, who would set us work at the beginning of the class and  then sit looking out of the window, but she was a wonderful drama teacher; I  used to be in a lot of plays with her; I learnt a great deal from those two  women and they were the delight of the place; after my accident I could not  play games and that has been a regret for me; I learnt the piano and enjoyed  it; started to sing and have done a great deal of singing; I was in the school  choir, and when I got to Oxford I did a great deal of singing and acting; music  has been very important for me throughout my life, both listening and taking  part; I belonged to a small singing group here is Cambridge for a good many  years, called the Palestrina Singers; sang mainly Medieval and Renaissance  pieces; I made friends outside the University through it, which was one of the  pleasures; have sung a lot of Gregorian chant also; I have always bought pots,  starting as an undergraduate, so I have quite a large collection 

22:34:20 Nobody from my school had gone to Oxford or Cambridge for ten years;  one girl, Virginia Brown-Wilkinson, was the previous one, and I heard about her  all the time; it was my mother who encouraged me to try for Oxford or  Cambridge; I did not get in to either; I was probably very naive, in a cascade  of literature rather than being organised or being good at responding to  questions; this was in 1954; the great mercy was that St Anne's had a separate  examination about three months later than the others, and I got an exhibition;  I was fortunate that over the Christmas vacation it was clear that I had gone  numb in my brain; Robert Bolt and Len Smith were living near us (Bolt later a  well-known playwright); my mother arranged for me to have a couple of  supervisions with them and I suddenly woke up again; I was a third year entry  person so went to live in Austria for five months as I had never learnt German  at school and desperately wanted to; lived with a family in the hills outside  Innsbruck and learnt German, partly through conversation, but also some  lessons; I was blissfully happy there; sang a great deal within the family;  when family members came they always brought their instruments; after that  Oxford was an anticlimax at first; I had thought that I didn't care whether I  got in, but after an interview with Dorothy Bednarowska, later my tutor and  mentor, I desperately wanted to go there; I wanted to be alongside someone like  her; she was so full of wit, light and sharpness; I had had my first boyfriend  while in Austria and felt I was coming back to school at first; after that it  was wonderful.

27:44:16 I was very fortunate; Dorothy Bednarowska was a superb teacher; she  hardly wrote anything but taught like a demon; I went to Hugo Dyson because I  did the Charles Oldham Shakespeare prize and enjoyed those supervisions  enormously; he was very much part of the C.S. Lewis gang; he was not a great  writer but had a probing, playful, thought-provoking intelligence that was  wonderful; I heard Tolkien’s lectures; one on 'Gawain and the Green Knight' I  have never forgotten; he was odd and cantankerous; it was only much later when  I had children that we read 'The Hobbit'; I have never got on with the other books;  I have kept in touch with a number of my contemporaries; for instance, John Carey and his  wife, Gill, who was one of my good friends then; one person who influenced me a  lot was Del Kolve who became a Medievalist and a professor at UCLA; in terms  of studying and talking together, he and I did that the most among our contemporaries;  Christopher Ricks was also around.

32:08:13 My mother was notionally Church of England during my childhood; later  she became a Quaker and much happier there, and did quite a lot of national  work in later life; it came initially because we lived in Street in the latter  part of our time in Somerset; a very Quaker-dominated place. I think like so  many English people I have a joy in the music, without having any belief in the  afterlife or the idea of a personal God; I have respect for Jesus Christ as an  endlessly thought-provoking man, which has grown; I used to go with my mother  quite often to Quaker meetings and I like the Quaker set-up, but I didn't  continue going after her death. Clare Hall is a secular foundation, so as President  I was never expected to participate in religious ceremonies; Brian Pippard, the  first President, would have been appalled if we had had anything like that; at  Girton, where I was Vice-Mistress, we were much more Anglican;  Grace is not said at Clare Hall as it is such an international community. 

35:47:00 At the end of my undergraduate degree I hesitated and was quite drawn  to being a nursery school teacher; I find the extraordinary growth of potential  in early childhood so enchanting and challenging; in the end I fell into  assuming that I could go on with research; I was so lucky that I was in that generation where  you went to university free, and I got a state scholarship, and more for my  research work; I did the Oxford B.Litt. which was a two year course that almost  all of us did; towards the end of my second year I got my first university job, so didn't  make very much of that research period; our undergraduate course had ended with 1832 so I spent time reading all the nineteenth century figures in those two years of the BLitt and my  dissertation was on landscape in nineteenth century fiction; a chapter of it was  published in 'Victorian Studies'. My husband, John, works on Romanticism and is  internationally known as a Coleridge scholar, also Wordsworth and Blake; he  does also now cross over into the Victorian period; Lord David Cecil supervised  my B.Litt.; in one sense he was excellent, kind and encouraging, with sudden  insights like telling me to read Meredith, on whom I wrote my first book; as far as learning to do footnotes or any apparatus was concerned, there was a blank; I don't think it  even crossed his mind that I would need any instruction in the precisions of  scholarship. It really fell to Kathleen Tillotson, who was the Professor at  Bedford when I went there for my first job, to instruct me in that way; she did  this wonderfully and I have always been grateful; she was another great model  for me.

41:02:01 I did have the feeling at Oxford that the D.Phil. was rather frowned on;  Helen Gardner was one of the great forces in my life when I was an  undergraduate; went to a marvellous class that she ran on editing Shakespeare;  she was a wayward person and would encourage then reject people; for me, she  had been extremely supportive and suddenly became aloof and discouraging; it  happened to a number of people I knew, particularly young women; it is sad  because some of my happiest memories of Oxford are lectures of hers and her  class; fortunately it didn't matter to me as she didn't do anything desperate  to my career, but she did to one or two people; I went to Humphry House's  lectures in my very first term, on Aristotle, and they were very good, but he  died that year; John knew his family quite well. I got an assistant lectureship  at Bedford College, University of London, which was a women's college set in  Regent’s Park; the English department was in a lovely Septimus Burton villa with  gardens running down to the  pond; I was very happy there; Kathleen Tillotson  had a regime where she thought you should really teach everything; I didn't  teach any nineteenth century until my third year there; she had only recently  become Professor there and for me she was a very good presence; I was on a  terminable assistant lectureship although I was getting hints that they might  be able to find me a job at the end of the third year; by then, John and I had  met each other and wanted to marry, so I left London; John was teaching in  Manchester and I got a part-time job at Liverpool; I also had a research  fellowship in the second year; I loved the department, which was very lively;  Kenneth Muir was the Professor, also Miriam Allott etc. an array of people, and  very friendly; the Bedford department was a little subdued in comparison; I was  there from 1962-1964; the Beatles began to happen while I was there; it was a  desperate time for Liverpool with much unemployment and sadness; it was a  strange place because it was tragic in some ways but I remember my students getting  very excited about the Beatles and feeling quite chuffed about a new thing  coming out of Liverpool; I did teach quite a lot of nineteenth century and also  eighteenth century and Shakespeare; didn't teach any twentieth century at that  stage but did quite a lot of American literature. John and I had agreed that if  I were offered a proper full-time job at Liverpool we would move there; Kenneth  Muir offered me a permanent job and I returned to Manchester that afternoon to find that John  had received a mysterious letter from Cambridge; he had been interviewed for a  job there that he hadn't got but they decided later that they did want to  appoint him when another job was coming up; the letter actually came from a college that had heard that the university  had appointed him but this was before he was formally approached; it was  then terribly difficult to decide what to do; I had been interviewed for a  fellowship at Girton just as we were getting engaged and it was made clear to  me that I was very likely to get the job; I had to withdraw as John and I were  getting married and I wanted to live with him in Manchester. I was pretty  confident that I would get free-lance teaching in Cambridge if nothing more; we moved and came to  Cambridge, but without a job it was tough; at the end of my first year there, as  I was still young enough (there were age limits in those days), Girton offered me a research fellowship; so I started  right back at the beginning again; after a couple of years I got an assistant  lectureship in the University; in the end, after ten years when we were also  having children, I was established; I got my Girton research fellowship on the evidence of four chapters  of what became my first book, on Meredith’s novels.

51:27:23 I have very much enjoyed teaching, supervising and lecturing, and  still do a lot of lecturing and have always travelled a lot; there is always  the instant gratification at the end of the hour in teaching that something has happened  whereas when you are writing it is a very long haul; it hasn't really felt as if teaching were in opposition to research; in some instances it has provoked research;  certainly the work I have done on the twentieth century has come out of  teaching, as has some of what I have written on the eighteenth century;    I have never found a way of incorporating  into my undergraduate teaching the  work that emerged in my middle life, which was more to do with scientific  writing in its cultural setting, but that certainly fuelled a lot of my teaching with  PhD students. These students have been one of the great resources in my life;  so many of them now are long-standing good friends, and the stimulation of  their conversation has been invaluable to me; being able to engage with people  of different generations in that intimate sustained way over the whole course of a PhD means you really know each  other’s minds well, and you hope it flowers for both of you in different ways; I  have supervised many PhD's; when I started as an assistant lecturer I kept  being handed PhD students who other people were tired of, so I had ten while  still an assistant lecturer; this was very unusual in the faculty, but I have  usually had about six or seven; for PhD work I would expect to supervise in  nineteenth or twentieth century; in the past I did supervise eighteenth century  work on the novel; at that time I was working almost entirely on narrative so  could work in different periods.