Why Germaine Greer’s life in letters is one for the archives

Germaine Greer’s acquired work is enough to fill 150 filing drawers. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Earlier this week, as you may have read, the University of Melbourne announced it had acquired the archives of a former student, feminist scholar and writer Germaine Greer. The total cost of the archive including transport, cataloguing, indexing and digitisation is A$3 million, much of which will be raised by alumni donations.

Is this money well spent? As the university archivist, I’m inclined to say yes. The Greer archive contains the complete works of the Australian academic and public intellectual over six decades. It’s an extraordinary record of the life and work of one of the most important Australian thinkers of the 20th century.

It’s also, quite simply, an enormous amount of material – enough to fill 150 filing cabinets. Although there are some audiovisual and digital components, it’s comprised mainly of paper.

Despite the efforts of archivists and digital scholars, most of the archival legacy of the 20th century remains untranslated into computer-readable language and accessible only to those with traditional archival research skills or specialist reference services.

In this way, the Germaine Greer archive raises important questions about the value of research archives in the digital age.

International perspective

When it comes to archives, there is increasingly a gap between the information that has been translated into computer-readable form and the much larger reserves not yet digitised. Much is at stake if universities, public institutions, corporations and individuals take an indifferent stance to the modern research archive.

Without the concerted efforts of translation to computer-readable form – analogous to the recovery of classical texts in the Renaissance – the modern age will be lost to us in a deluge of information unhinged from real events and human lives. Yet as the Greer archive reveals, there is much worth investigating.

Though she’s resided outside of Australia for most of her adult life – she moved to the UK to study at Cambridge in 1964 – the archive contains much material about Australia: from family history and religious school reunions, university education, the anti-war, women’s liberation and social protest movements – including an invitation from historian, activist and writer Denis Altman to speak at a Sexual Liberation seminar at the University of Sydney in 1972 – to research notes, manuscripts, and responses to Greer’s essays, journalism, and books.

The archive provides a glimpse of what Greer, writing in The Guardian in 2004, called “the Australian situation from an international perspective”. This is a perspective informed not just by the rarefied experience of the Cambridge postgraduate – captured in her 1964/5 diary as a round of lectures, poker, parties and evensong – but also by travel throughout Asia and Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s on journalistic assignments.

And so, even as she questioned Australian anti-apartheid protests against the 1971 Springbok tour in the context of Australian racial politics, the international importance of the Australian labour tradition and its influence on her own student generation via figures such as University of Melbourne economic historian and federal politician Jim Cairns was not lost on Greer.

Outposts of rebellion

The reverse and more important perspective in the archive is that of an Australian in the world. We see Greer performing what she claims to be a mode of native egalitarian and fearless inquiry – which produced one of the most influential books of the 20th century, The Female Eunuch, in 1970.

An international best-seller, The Female Eunuch was widely read and debated in the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1970s, and remains an iconic text.

The archive holds plenty to support study of the work and second-wave feminism, including a multicoloured handwritten outline for the book, two pages of autograph typescript for the work – “my book on women for which I have not yet devised a title” – and 70 pages of typescript (on pumpkin-coloured paper), as well as files of material on reception of the text in the media and the wild.

One librarian writes to Greer:

It is exciting to see things stirring, even in the small lumber and mining towns of the northern Ontario wilderness. As a librarian I’m going to make certain your book reaches those outposts of rebellion.

Feminist history

The University of Melbourne started collecting feminist archives in 1974. The Greer archive will add new rich sources for scholars trying to understand this complex social movement.

The archive offers much more than a literary account of the feminist movement.

Drawers full of unsolicited correspondence from members of the public on a multitude of topics bring academic and public debates into direct dialogue with private lives. No mere celebrity role-call (although there are letters from Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, activist Abbie Hoffman, film director and actor Warren Beatty, art critic John Berger, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, film director Federico Fellini, former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, writer and television personality Clive James, feminist writer Dale Spender and many more) protagonists and subjects are very present in Greer’s correspondence: a letter from serial killer Myra Hindley responds to Greer’s article about her.

In keeping with some of the promise of 1970s feminism, the archive includes many voices and diligently documents sources and influences.

Greer is an accomplished archival researcher, who in her own scholarly works on early modern English writing compares, edits and gives new readings of manuscripts and published editions. Material relating to this scholarship as well as research on women and art (including Greer’s 1979 book The Obstacle Race) comprises sections of the archive and there is correspondence with academics and librarians on specific questions of sources and interpretation.

Study of women artists in the past informs Greer’s own experiences as a sitter, including runs of correspondence with her British portraitists Paula Rego and Tacita Dean.

Not much for gossips – but plenty for biographers

Study of the media and women in the media over the period of Greer’s engagement with the fourth estate is a hefty topic. There are sketches and notes for Cambridge Footlights Theatre and Greer’s work on a translation of Lysistrata for the National Theatre commissioned by Kenneth Tynan, which was not produced. Greer’s many appearances on TV from the critical to the comedic are recorded on video.

Greer claims there is nothing for the gossips in her archive. She may not be the Percy Grainger (Australian musician and composer whose sado-masochist whips are on display in the Grainger Musuem at the University of Melbourne) of the literary world, but there is plenty of personal material for biographers to work with here.

Greer’s extraordinary archive is a biography of social and intellectual challenge and change.

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