Questions by Victoria and Harriet
Throughout her long and illustrious academic career, Janet Todd has been a pioneer in women’s writing, recovering lost and neglected authors. She has written biographies of Aphra Behn and Mary Wollstonecraft and was recently General Editor of the new Cambridge nine-volume set of Jane Austen’s works. And now she has written her first novel, A Man of Genius (reviewed here). We were thrilled to get a chance to put a few questions to this inspiring woman.
1.What kind of a child were you? Were you always drawn towards reading literature or was there another path you could have taken that would have led to a very different sort of life?
I had a fairly solitary childhood. I was an only child and changed schools 13 times, so never had any continuity of friends. Also, since we lived mainly abroad I didn’t get to know any relatives well. My parents were loving but often away. They approved of education but were not educated themselves, so they didn’t direct me to particular classics. I came across what now seems a very strange group of books left in the houses provided in Bermuda, Sri Lanka and Scotland. That’s how I came to read in my formative years not Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf but Marguerite Steen, Henry De Vere Stacpoole and Nicholas Montsarrat. Their novels gripped me but some used words not inadmissible now! Probably the only approved writer I read much of was Robert Louis Stevenson. For O level in a boarding school I read Northanger Abbey, disliked it and didn’t come back to Jane Austen until many years later. My individual taste was for Russian excess and Gothic—for The Brothers Karamazov in particular. I read everything by Dostoevsky. I rather assumed that adult life was as he portrayed it in his books, excessive and turbulent. I would probably have lived very differently had I instead internalised Jane Austen in my early teens and seen that life would be more comfortable with restraint and compromise
I didn’t decide to study Literature. All that Russian reading—followed by Aldous Huxley – led me towards philosophy. But I had no grounding in it—any more than in science which, in the great British tradition of the 1950s, I had had to drop along with my best subject—Mathematics – at the age of 13, to take up Latin, supposedly necessary for university. So one way or another I fell into studying Literature. But I always thought it would be my business in life, though through composing not studying. Being much taken with Milton, I imagined myself for a while becoming an epic poet, but even I could soon see I lacked talent—and a Muse.
2. What was it like to be in America in the early 1970s at the cutting edge of the feminist movement? Was this an experience you were more than ready for, or was it an experience that surprised and formed you?
By the time I reached America in 1968 I was married and with a baby. The country itself was a profound shock. I had lived abroad much of my life and had just come from teaching for several years in Ghana. I had felt quite at home in the countries I earlier realised were or had recently been British colonies; the people I met and became close to, of whatever ethnic origin, had been educated in the same mode. I was totally unprepared for the States, the racial makeup of the South where I started out, the hostility between races, the different nuances of class, the social mores, everything. However I was soon excited by the glamour of the anti-war movement and I encountered feminism. That was a huge influence and very exciting. It made sense of so much I’d vaguely surmised but never articulated. I had a degree from Cambridge of a most traditional kind: reading Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics was an eye-opener. She got much wrong but at the time her way of looking at fiction excited me hugely. I was also moved by the wider social feminist movement in the US. In England I associated radicalism only with socialism and communism. In America feminism was more elastic, more middle class, fussing about getting women into men’s institutions, the academy, business, the law etc, as well as being concerned with changing the whole class structure.
3. You have always been a pioneer in women’s writing, working to recover supposedly ‘lost’ authors. For instance, you were among the first to want to write about Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn. How were you coming across these writers?
I stumbled across Mary Wollstonecraft and then read more and more of her and of the women around her, though texts were hard to come by (that’s why I started editing them or producing them in facsimile as well as encyclopedias to help them be more known). When I decided to do an advanced degree I wanted to work on Wollstonecraft—actually I wished initially to work on the African writers I’d met in Ghana, but found myself pretty well barred because of my colour. I didn’t get far with Wollstonecraft either. However I did instead start the cyclostyled Mary Wollstonecraft Newsletter and this morphed into the printed Woman & Literature, the first academic journal to deal with women’s writing. My own interest lay with men or women who tried to express the female predicament and psychology. One of my first books was Women’s Friendship in Literature written in the 1970s: it studied Richardson, Rousseau and De Sade as well as Wollstonecraft, Fanny Burney and Jane Austen. (The topic didn’t please Anita Brookner, who said in the TLS that women’s friendship was almost an improper subject.
4. I noticed in an interview with John Sutherland that you have suffered in the past from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. How did you manage to get past an illness that is recognised as being extremely tenacious?
That was long ago. I have always had ill health of one sort or another, chronic or life-threatening. I can’t remember a year without it. It is as familiar to me as the accompanying insomnia!
5. How has editing the nine-volume CUP edition of Jane Austen’s writing altered your relationship to this author?
I arrived late at Jane Austen. I now love her tart tone and her polished style and I find her books captivating and profound. From writing so many end notes I have come to realise how embedded she was in her times, both in attitudes and physical details—but how lightly she touches on the ephemeral. What I learnt from studying her manuscripts along with Linda Bree was how hard she must have worked to reach the perfection she achieved in, for example, Emma. She famously recorded that she lopped and cropped Pride and Prejudice. We don’t have full manuscripts for any of the published novels but the fragments of The Watsons and Sanditon suggest that she revised often and deeply. I now have immense admiration for her as an editor and reviser as well as an editor. From preparing her poetry for publication, I am far more aware than I used to be that she kept her sense of fun and absurdity (so clear in her teenage writing) until the very end of her life.
6. What do you feel about the current state of academic publishing? Are researchers still writing too much and too fast?
I am too far out of it to comment with any authority. In Britain the emphasis on scholarly publication as the way to obtain government funding through the ranking of university departments has meant, as everyone knows, that young scholars have to go into print far too quickly and are led, whatever their bent and skills, towards large statistical and editing projects that will obtain grants from funding bodies such as the British Academy and the AHRC. At the same time the stress on ‘impact’ has helped create the vogue for celebrity academics who spend more time in the media than in the classroom.
7. What are some of the most intriguing aspects of the mother-daughter relationship you’ve discovered while writing the biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn?
Aphra Behn is inscrutable and indeed the Restoration is such a period of masks and disguises that it is hard to gain any modern psychological conclusions from the writing in this era. I always feel rather clumsy discussing it from our own rather unsubtle times. Behn feels like a truly independent woman, free of family and parents. But who really knows?
Mary Wollstonecraft had a fractured relationship with her mother and her envy of the older brother whom she believed her mother favoured gave rise to the anger that fuelled her political books. She could write with fire about general social injustice because she had felt a primal injustice. She herself was a loving mother but, like most women trying to do a demanding job and look after small children, she had moments of protest when she felt a slave to her child. It is a measure of her capacity for suffering that she twice contemplated suicide, which, had she been successful, would have left her very young daughter with no protector.
8. After a lifetime of writing an impressive amount of non-fiction, what made you move to fiction? and how did the experience of writing compare?
I always wanted to write fiction but, as I’ve mentioned, I fell into academics and needed a day job. Over the years I started novels, some lost, some perhaps in a box carried through my many house moves. Since most of my past books have been commissioned it has been easier simply to keep writing where there was a demand and a market. And I do love the process of research.
But now retired and without any administration to do, I can turn to investigating in fiction many of the interests that have found some slight expression in my critical works, such as the uncontrollable power of memory and the strange nature of many domestic relationships.
9. A Man of Genius obviously draws from your knowledge of the period in which it’s set. Did you have any specific models in mind for the two central characters, Ann and Robert?
Not really. They rely on types made individual (I hope!). Ann is like the hack writer of Gothic fiction, producer for the Minerva Press. Reading many of the Gothic works of the period, I concluded that authors wrote swiftly, repeating across novels the tried and tested plot of danger, fear and pursuit. Robert too is typical of the period, one which brought to the fore the modern notion of genius as beyond skill, talent and ability. Byron and Shelley are of course the most known examples of the type but there are plenty more men who regarded themselves as supremely gifted and thus above demands of ordinary morality. My central character does not in the end have the immense talent and staying power of the Romantic poets but something of their troubled personalities may have crept into my portrait.
10. The novel seems to be a feminist text, both in the way that it shows a strong, intelligent woman making a career for herself in a world predominantly inhabited by men, and in that it demonstrates how easily even such a woman can lose her sense of self-worth and subjugate herself to an abusive man. I wondered what conclusions you wanted your readers to draw from this!
I don’t think fiction gives conclusions. Rather, it asks questions and investigates. I have supported and benefited from feminist slogans and inevitably simplified aims—you can’t get much subtlety on to a banner! But I know that in reality everything is complex. Addiction and obsession are irrational, not to be easily explained. We might point to damage in childhood and psychological neediness, but I wanted to avoid modern labels and instead imagine what the man and the relationship would feel like to a woman of the time, steeped in Regency culture and Thinking.
11. A large part of the novel is set in Venice, where, the blurb tells us, you spend much of your life. But this is a Venice that is shown as generally harsh and unromantic. Any comments on this?
I have found it a difficult place to live in. It is damp under foot, wet and cold in the winter and hot and humid in the summer, hugely crowded with tourists for part of the year. (In the last respect it isn’t so different from Cambridge where there are hordes of tourists and the natives sometimes grow a bit huffy and unfriendly under the impact!) Post-Napoleonic Venice has some resemblance to the modern city but I wanted also to stress it as a place of political intrigue and of spying and surveillance. My main characters bring their tormented relationship with them from London—but at times even they are enthralled by the beauty of the place. As I am.
12. And what are you reading currently? What books are on your bedside table?
Like the rest of the (female?) reading world I have just read the wonderful Elena Ferrante. I am now reading Elizabeth Harrower whom I hugely admire and a new book by an old pupil of mine Natasha Solomons. I have a stack of books still to be read by the bed: by Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Elizabeth Taylor, along with Martin Amis, Proust (again), the letters of Lady Mary Coke and the life of Isabelle de Charriere.
Each morning I worry that I won’t have time….
Read Harriet’s review of A Man of Genius here.
Janet Todd, A Man of Genius (Bitter Lemon Press, 2016) 978-1908524591, 352 pp. hardback.
BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)
[Ed’s note: See also Harriet’s 2017 review of Janet Todd’s biography of Aphra Benn – here]