NewnhamWrites … Living with Aphra, Mary & Jane
‘I’d find her rather prickly,’ says Janet Todd, OBE, academic and Newnham alumna (NC1961). The ‘her’ she refers to is Jane Austen, a novelist she has studied in-depth, along with Restoration author, Aphra Behn as well as one of the first advocates of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft. Her work hasn’t stopped there. As President of Lucy Cavendish College, she founded the the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize which has since become a renowned award for first time fiction written by female authors. She was the first of her family to consider going to university. In fact, it was a surprise to her and her colleagues in the gentlemen’s underwear department at Marks & Spencer, when she was offered a place to read English Literature at Newnham.
Janet Todd is best known for her non-fiction feminist works on early women writers and for her books about Mary Wollstonecraft, Aphra Behn, and Jane Austen. She was born in Wales and has worked as an academic in Ghana, Puerto Rico, the US, Scotland. India and England. Until recently, she was President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, where she ran a festival of women writers, and established the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. She now lives in Cambridge and Venice.
Did you always want to be an academic?
No, I rather fell into it. There weren’t many jobs in the early 1960s. After graduating from Newnham I was about to start as something in a London tax and legal office when I saw a small advertisement in The Times for teachers for Ghana. Within a couple of weeks I was in Accra teaching French – with only an ‘O’ level in the subject as my qualification. I was already trying to write fiction but I hadn’t the confidence to seek publication. I then went to America where my Ghanaian experience didn’t qualify me for school-teaching, so I enrolled for a PhD and took a teaching assistantship to pay the fees and provide a living. Then came feminism and it had a huge impact on my understanding of literature and my desire to investigate the literary history of women.
What was it about the Restoration/18th century and the women from that period, that interests you?
While in many ways being a cruel and intolerant period, the Restoration gave opportunities to certain types of independent, creative and witty women, those unconstrained by the usual gender expectations for daughter, wife and mother. The period fascinates me, as does the 18th century when a different kind of empowering comes through women’s exploitation of the cult of sensibility. In each case, of course, women could be exploited as well as exploiting.
You’ve written about many female writers from that period – from Mary Wollstonecraft to Jane Austen and Mary Shelly. If you could go back in time, which of them would you most want to spend time with?
Much of my academic career has been spent with Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen – and their sister writers. Mary Wollstonecraft is a powerful and original thinker with whom, none the less, I feel I can identify with. But she was often impatient with less determined women and might not have been easy company. I am in awe of Jane Austen’s marvellous novels. I suspect, however, that, as a person, she would have been rather prickly and a little satirical; she might have made me feel like Mrs Elton from Emma: not quite the thing. I would definitely like to have spent time with Aphra Behn. As a much earlier woman she seems more unknowable to me, a woman of masks and secrecy. But she emerges from her works as a lover of good company and conversation, of good food and drink, talkative and frank in her opinions. In the past months I have been revising my biography of her, first published more than 20 years ago, and I have come out of the exercise with even greater admiration. An evening with Aphra, after an afternoon at the theatre seeing one of her comedies, would be a delight.
What was the impetus behind establishing the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize?
At the University of East Anglia (UAE) where I was Professor of English, I established an MA in life writing with Lorna Sage and W.G. Sebald, so became tangentially involved in the creative writing programme.
When I became President of Lucy Cavendish I thought that a fiction prize might bring creative writing to the attention of students in many disciplines and help advertise a wonderful college. I intended later to restrict the prize to students in alternate years and broaden it to include all the women’s colleges. But I’ve now left and the prize has thrived as it started: it’s given for a first fiction by a woman writer and is supported by a literary agency.
You’ve held teaching posts in a number of universities across the world. Which post have you enjoyed the most?
I enjoyed the time in Ghana very much – through a series of accidents I was transferred to a university – but part of the enjoyment derived from my youth: I was 21 when I arrived. The most inspiring time was in Glasgow when several of us from different ideological backgrounds were hired to work up an MA in Romanticism. We turned out to be congenial and had many good argument about scholarship and the value of universities.
What made you decide to write fiction? How have you found the transition (if you can call it that) from non-fiction to novel-writing?
I always wanted to write fiction, that is after I got over the desire of being an epic poet, which sustained me through childhood (I was very taken with Milton). When at the end of my degree at Newnham I asked my tutor for a reference for the tax office job, she said she’d rather be writing one for me as a novelist. I’m not sure this was meant as a compliment, but I’ve treasured it. In my literary work I have always been interested in lives and characters – hence the encyclopaedias and biographies, so the transition was not difficult.
What are the things you find most challenging?
When I wrote the biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn in particular, I had a large amount of cultural and historical information I felt urged to include. Happily I could put a lot of it in footnotes. Writing A Man of Genius, set in the 1810s, I had to stop myself from conveying every interesting detail I’d found especially about Venice, and so slowing down the narrative thrust that fiction needs. Even so, in the end I did cut a lot!
Now, when I want to go on with other novels, I find the main challenge is the contemporary world. It’s impossible for me to get into the minds of people who have grown up with social media and who live so much of their lives online and on camera. I didn’t even have television as a child.
What is your current work in progress?
As I mentioned above I have just finished revising the biography of Aphra Behn – a rather longer and more complicated process than I expected. It is due out in a handsome new edition in May.
I have another fiction book on the go, set primarily in the 1940s and ’50s. I am not satisfied yet that it is cheerful enough for publication – I like things dark, gothic and gloomy, but I am not sure that many readers share my liking!
If you could go back in time to when you were 18, what advice would you give yourself?
I guess I would advise resisting the demand (much stronger in the 1960s than now) to marry young and, yes, I would probably try to make it as a novelist and writer of non-fiction – something just possible without dependents, even before university creative writing positions were available to pay the bills. I don’t flatter myself that I would have amounted to a great deal but I’d like to have given it a whirl. I would probably advise my younger self to stay put and take fewer risks, but I doubt I would have listened to this advice.
What drew you to Newnham College?
No one in my family had been to university. I had heard of Oxford and Cambridge but had no idea of different colleges and, as an external candidate, I wasn’t advised about what college to choose, Girton or Newnham, the only Cambridge options. I actually put Girton on the application form, but a most congenial interview with Jean Gooder made me switch allegiance, and to my surprise – and the staff at Marks and Spencers where I had a temporary job on gentleman’s underwear – I was given a place.
What’s your most defining experience of the place?
I met some wonderful people at Newnham who are still great friends, Miriam Margolyes comes strongly to mind: she made the audio version of my novel A Man of Genius. I think I have a defining location rather than an experience: the library. This was the first real library I had been in and it attracted me not so much for the books it held as for existing as a place where books lived, a warm, comfortable and quiet space where one could read indeed but also think. I have given Newnham Library many of the books on the 18th century and second-wave feminism which I have collected over the years – a small thank you for what it gave me. (Now in old age I also love the gardens, but I wasn’t much interested in plants when I was 18!)