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Monday, 17 December 2007

Germaine Greer on Austen was too tempting, so when the notice appeared on the Sarsaparilla blog, I put my details into their system immediately. Professor Greer's lecture, 'Jane Austen and the Getting of Wisdom', drew me not only to Melbourne (by car) but down Swanston Street among the crowds of home-bound workers, to the RMIT Capitol Theatre.

It's an original structure, designed by Walter Burley Griffin. An ideal setting for an original mind. I did not expect her to focus on Mansfield Park, which has always been my favourite Austen novel. But her ideas were not so very divergent from mine, especially when she compared Fanny to Mary Wollstonecroft, pointing to the scene where Fanny and Edmund are outside the drawing room looking up at the stars.

Percy Shelley was a "totally liberated personality" and Greer even agreed with me (after I took the mic to ask a question) that the study of 18th-century English poetry is a sadly neglected arena for the docentary profession. "I agree completely," she said when I suggested that such writers as Richardson, Cowper and Crabbe could profitably be studied in schools. Cowper, I said as I stood amid the rows of (mostly) secondary-school teachers listening rapt, with me, to the eminent academic, was the only 18th-century English poet Nabokov praised when preparing the notes for his 'authentic' translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

The next two days were wonderful and I met some very interesting people. I listened to a number of other smart women (few men participate in Austen scholarship, it seems, though her first boosters, in the 1920s, were mainly men). Standouts for me were Jocelyn Harris, Sarah Ailwood, Mary Spongberg and Penny Gay.

Most interesting was Harish Trivedi, a professor at the University of New Delhi. A man of uncommon parts and an extraordinary grasp of the source material, Harish infuriated me to such an extent that I had to leave the lecture hall, my pulse racing at over 120 beats per minute. The lies, half-truths and baseless accusations he levelled at Western societies was not in agreement with the astute mind I had already encountered outside another lecture theatre.

We became sort of friends, however, as I drove Harish to the terminal dinner and back to his lodgings at Ormond College, Melbourne University. My final recommendation to him was to read Other Colours, the recent collection of non-fiction by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk manages to do what most subaltern scholars and writers do not: explain the significance of Western culture to an Easterner. My source at La Trobe (which sponsored the event) tells me Harish is reading the book.

The conference's tagline ('"I dearly love a laugh": Jane Austen and comedy') was not always the point of reference for speakers. More often than not these women tried to focus on the way that Austen surpassed any novelist prior to her era (and most since).

What I'd like to see, if I had my druthers, is a good, long peek at Samuel Johnson's prose. In my book, the good doctor was a major influence on the young Jane. In fact, by my reckoning, few before him and few since have equalled the sinuous, lithe and elegant movement of his short prose pieces.

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