Article published on March 24, 2016.
Over a decade ago I was finishing my undergraduate degree in English Literature and realising with creeping unease that I needed to emerge from the cosy nursery of university and into the big bad world. I had two plans: one go to Japan (this plan was based almost entirely on the fact that I liked sushi) or option two find a postgraduate course to delay making an entry into real life. Interestingly, option three ‘find a job’ never actually occurred to me. Then I read a book. Janet Todd’s biography of ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’. I hadn’t appreciated before that literary criticism could be as gripping as a well-honed thriller or life-writing as gut wrenching as the most emotive novel. I’d laboured through a good deal of the stuff while studying, reading and re-reading academic sentences trying to decipher their meaning like one puzzles over the Sunday crossword with a hangover, but this was different. This book was learned, fascinating and entertaining. I spent a damp December reading my way through Janet’s books on women writers: Aphra Behn the renaissance spy (a very poor spy it has to be said as she couldn’t resist telling people that she was a spy and blowing her own cover); Jan’s heartbreaking account of Shelley’s women and Wollstonecraft’s daughters, Mary Shelley and Fanny Imlay. All thoughts of Japan were abandoned. It seemed a long way to go for sushi and I wasn’t terribly keen on the boyfriend I was planning to go with. Besides, I now wanted to be an academic. I wanted to write brilliant, lucid and meticulously researched books about women, bejewelled with startlingly insightful footnotes.
A few weeks later, I took a train up to Glasgow and sat on the step outside Janet’s office in the granite cloisters of the university. It was Scotland and January so if it wasn’t drizzling then it ought to have been. Jan didn’t seem too surprised to have a random, star-struck student perched in the cold waiting for her. Later, she confessed that it had happened before. Over tea and biscuits I explained that I simply had to study with her and that I wanted to become an academic and unearth neglected and overlooked women writers. She introduced me to the women (and lone man from Texas) who were all working with her at various stages of their doctoral research, and she agreed to take me on. I was thrilled. I won a scholarship and the following year started to work on my thesis, inducted into Jan’s circle of gels over which she presided like Miss Jean Brodie.
The thing was, I didn’t have the flare for footnotes. My academic style was loose not lucid. I liked the quirky details and the treasure trail of research but I wanted to spin it into my own narrative and not recount the story the facts presented. When the facts weren’t interesting enough, I liked to nudge them a little towards adventure. The rate I submitted my chapters slowed. During our supervision sessions, cups of tea were replaced by large glasses of chardonnay as Jan tried to soften the blow as she struck through entire pages with the red pen. There was too much Natasha in my work and not quite enough Anna Laetitia Barbauld or Lady Mary Wortley Montague.
The nadir arrived with a long chapter on verse epistles. Bored, I decided to take a little break and attempt to write a page or two of fiction as an exercise to see if I could purge myself of the pesky need to embellish. A page became a chapter and then a novel. I hid from the polite email enquiries regarding the new draft of my scintillating research on the eighteenth-century verse epistle. I watched as my colleagues submitted theses and sent articles off to learned journals. Secretly I sent query letters off to agents.
Then I found an agent and the agent found a publisher. My novel was soon coming out and it was time to confess. Jan had moved to Cambridge to become president of Lucy Cavendish College. I came to visit and we went out for a walk and, fearing her wrath, I told her in a public place that my research was going to be handed in very late, quite possibly never, and I was dabbling in fiction instead. She frowned and said quietly that she hoped I wasn’t wasting my time, and my novel writing was good — better than my academic writing in any case, she left unspoken.
When the novel was published I waited with great trepidation for the reviews and for Jan’s pronouncement. The call came. She liked it very much indeed. Could she have an audio version for her father who was soon celebrating his hundredth birthday? The relief at her approbation was intense. I was a poor academic, but through aspiring to be a writer like Jan, I discovered through accident and failure and work avoidance, the writer I was supposed to be.
Professor Janet Todd O.B.E is an internationally-renowned scholar of early women writers and the author of many critical works. She has just retired from the Presidency of Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge. Her first novel A Man of Genius published this year.
Natasha Solomons is the author of the internationally bestselling Mr Rosenblum’s List, The Novel in the Viola, the Gallery of Vanished Husbands and her most recent, The Song Collector, out now in paperback.
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