0:09:07 Until I had young children I hadn't been very interested in fantasy, and how it can provoke and take us through to new ideas; watching children in the borderland between actuality and the imagined engaged me very strongly; bearing and rearing children did make me think a great deal about evolution; made me much more efficient in the use of time; post-structuralism raised so many interesting new questions; the book I did that really changed my life was 'Darwin's Plots' which came out in 1983; I was going to write a book on Victorian fantasy and rapidly realized how evolutionary ideas were troubling these fantasies; started reading more of Darwin and became engrossed with the problem of how we ever have new ideas; the children were part of this as was high theory; I did not know when I was writing it that it would have interest for people beyond literature; because I was writing it all the time in scraps and raptures between household chores, it was a very private composition.
5:51:02 I write in great bursts, I don't write every day; I baulk at writing for some time and things build up and I finally write fast; I have a study where we live but I used to write in my College room at Girton; we also have a cottage and when the children were young I would sometimes go there for a few days if I had a deadline; when writing the Darwin book there was one chapter that I was having difficulty with, I went to the cottage, took out my typewriter and started to write at once. I am left-handed and people have always had trouble with my writing, especially if done under pressure; my mother gave me a typewriter when I became a graduate student; I always wrote on that, and later on a word-processor and computer. On writing itself, when I look back I can't tell the difference between those pages I wrote with enormous freedom and brio and those that I struggled through; I sometimes think that I write for the bliss of the twenty minutes when I stop writing. With young academics now, people are forced onward into publication after publication without enough time for reverie; I do think that a kind of vagrancy of imagination is really crucial for work that will drive you beyond where you foresaw that you could get to; when I was doing the work on Darwin I came to realize quite fast that when an idea is first proposed it is at its most fictive because it doesn't fit, it is counter-intuitive; that is a very important phase for any writer and for the making of ideas.
12:19:04 'Darwin's Plots' considers the stories that Darwin had to think with and the stories that he generated for other people; about what be imbibed and how he turned or troubled some of those ideas; when he was growing up the idea of design was dominant and he was delighted by Paley; what he needed to find was a way of thinking in opposition to or angle from design, towards production. In the first part of the book I look at his language and argue that the language can't just be skimmed off leaving the ideas intact; he uses familiar metaphors but turns them away from the assumptions of the time; because he wrote in the 'Origin' in a discourse that would be readable by any intelligent, reasonably informed, person of his time it actually left a great superplus of meaning lying around. In the second half of the book I look at some of the ways in which other writers spun out from Darwin, either at the level of structure or allusion, to argue with his ideas; I have done another book 'Open Fields: science in cultural encounter' which is a set of essays on the exchanges between scientific writing and its cultural setting, including several on Darwin; I have been doing new work on Darwin because of the celebrations, thinking about ideas of consciousness across other organic life and the importance of the arts in Darwin’s thinking. Tennyson's line, 'nature, red in tooth and claw', was written before either Darwin or Chambers in ‘Vestiges of Creation’; and Darwin could hardly have lived through the 1850's without being aware of 'In Memoriam', so these chimes go both ways; the writers I write about in ‘Darwin’s Plots’ are Charles Kingsley, Mrs Gatty, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and a little bit about Dickens; you could write about almost anybody after Darwin and relate them to his work because it seeps into the culture, but I wanted to write about people who we could show had read and reacted to Darwin.
18:43:07 Recently I gave a book to one of our twin granddaughters who was under three and was then passionately attached to her toy rabbits and baby dolls etc.; it was a book by Mo Willems, about a little girl and her father who go to the launderette and her toy rabbit gets put in the machine; there is a scene of ecstasy where the rabbit is found and the little girl speaks words for the first time; I noticed that for the children, the finding was the important thing, for adults, the first words; my granddaughter fetched her toy rabbit and very tenderly put it against the page to greet the found rabbit; I could feel what she was feeling but couldn't quite articulate how she imagined these two worlds, within the book and outside the book; I find that so inspiriting to be alongside again; I think you can get these fragmentary moments where you recollect how something did come out of a book when you were a child.
23:09:03 'Arguing with the Past' is a set of essays about narrative, subtitled 'from Woolf to Sidney'; I was wanting to get away from the evolutionist metaphor that writing gets more and more complex; also wanting to watch how writers transform their predecessors by reading them; I was not attracted by Harold Bloom's idea of the anxiety of influence as though the past is oppressive and has to be fought with; I was much more interested in the collaborative process that takes place; there are several essays about Virginia Woolf and her reading of other writers; there is an essay about Samuel Richardson and Philip Sidney, about 'Arcadia' and 'Pamela'; each of the essays was a conversation between books; another way of thinking about how creativity works. I wrote a set of essays on Virginia Woolf - I really like working in essay length - called 'The Common Ground'; again I was very struck by Woolf's capacity to re-imagine the world, and how she reinvents between each book as they are all so different; by calling it 'The Common Ground' I really wanted to express how much Woolf writes for any of us; she knew herself how she was somewhat imprisoned by not being able to register working-class speech without it sounding faintly comic. I have had two especially happy experiences in teaching; I went to the United States and was teaching at a summer school in a small liberal arts college; the group I had were all local people, and 'The Waves' had been set; they hated it at first and then they became fascinated by it and felt they understood it, and that it was their lives; it was an extraordinary process, which I shared in because I had found 'The Waves' difficult at first, where we were all discovering things about ourselves; the other was at the end of a term where we had a seminar on speaking poetry; I said I had always wanted to do a complete reading through of 'The Waves'; six people volunteered, and we read it aloud from ten in the morning until nine at night; it was so revelatory, comic, very moving, and I remember two of the women saying that they now knew what it felt like to be middle-aged, or to be old.
29:58:19 [Reads an extract from 'Orlando']; was at Girton when we changed from being a women's college to a mixed one; it was striking that our life fellows tended to support the change for practical reasons, as we have always been out on the edge of Cambridge, but also because they thought the college had been set up to draw in people who didn't have the opportunities for higher education; thought we should try to encourage students from all backgrounds. When I first went there, Mary Cartwright was the Mistress, a shy mathematician; once she retired she changed totally, became very talkative and travelled the world; Muriel Bradbrook followed; I was Vice-Mistress when Mary Warnock was Mistress; I found Girton a bit difficult at first after St Anne's; the latter was very free and easy and Girton was crusted in gothic ornament and tradition; I became Edward VII Professor in 1994 in succession to Marilyn Butler; I had been the Grace One Professor before that from 1989; curiously enough the King Edward came just as I had been approached to become President of Clare Hall; when I was first made a professor there were so few women professors in Cambridge that inevitably one got enquiries about standing for head of house, and I had said no to everybody because I thought I would never write again if I took on such a post; when Clare Hall came along, partly because it is a graduate college and also it is so international with many visiting fellows, living on site, and no high table, I felt I could do it and learn from it; it is a seven year stint and I enjoyed it enormously.
36:22:01 Christopher Ricks preceded Marilyn Butler, and followed Frank Kermode; one of the happiest times that I recollect with Frank was that he had had a very creative seminar at UCL and started something similar here when he came; he asked me to do it with him; it was on narrative of all kinds; we did have a good time for a couple of years; people of all sorts came; I’ve always been rather sorry that we didn't go on collaborating; he also read one of my books before publication and gave me some encouragement. I was around during the problem with Colin McCabe's failure to be upgraded to a full lectureship; a lot of people, including me, felt this was not fair; there was a lot of acrimony, which was very sad; it did leave some scars for a number of years; this was some time ago in 1981; the department has always been eclectic and that is its strength. I think there has been a turn in academia in general, from undue modesty to undue boastfulness, under the pressure of the research assessment exercise; I think the new assertiveness has some good effects as it makes you more aware of what your colleagues are doing, and many are doing interesting things.
41:21:02 Our three sons have been a great expansion of the possibilities of life; we are quite close to each other and see a lot of them; one is married and has three children and a lovely wife, they live rather far away in Liverpool; Dan, our eldest son published a book on Foucault and is now a schoolmaster, teaching modern languages; Rufus, our next son, was a social worker for ten years then retrained as a primary school teacher, which he loves; Zach, the youngest, did an art degree and then a degree in molecular biology, and has now gone back to art. I have been on the Booker judges twice, have chaired the Poetry Book Society, and am now President of the British Comparative Literature Association and the British Literature and Science Society; have very much enjoyed involving myself in those ways
43:48:21 At the moment I am doing a number of different essays around the subject of consciousness, not just between humans and animals, but climbing plants, oysters; Darwin was so interested in questions of intent and will; that goes back to language because human language can't easily get outside the question of intent; I have a book on the Alice books which is about 90% written which I must finish; there is another book that I have been writing for years and have published bits of, called 'Experimental Islands'; it is about the idea of the island and island populations, how it has been studied in fiction and poetry, and also some of the sciences; I find it quite hard to finish things, so closing them down and putting them out I find very difficult to do; I think I feel they could be better if I wait a little, and probably I am rather timid.
46:11:22 Last thoughts on father and his family