Lisa Jardine: In the 20th Article in His Quarterly Series about Today's Historians, Daniel Snowman Meets the Renaissance and Shakespeare Scholar, Historian of Science and Biographer of Erasmus, Bacon, Wren and Hooke

By Snowman, Daniel | History Today, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Lisa Jardine: In the 20th Article in His Quarterly Series about Today's Historians, Daniel Snowman Meets the Renaissance and Shakespeare Scholar, Historian of Science and Biographer of Erasmus, Bacon, Wren and Hooke


Snowman, Daniel, History Today


'I HAVE NEVER understood the difference between the arts and the sciences, or felt the need to choose between them.' The sentence could have come from Dr Jacob Bronowski, the Polish-born mathematician, scientist, television Brains Truster, presenter of TV's Ascent of Man and expert on the poetry of Blake. In fact, it comes from his daughter, Lisa Jardine, whose writings are peppered with statements to the effect that intellectual boundaries are for crossing.

As you read Jardine's work or spend time in her company, you get a firm impression of someone--like Erasmus or Bacon--unconfinable within conventional borders. In an early, feminist study of Shakespeare, she identifies herself with those scholars 'who struggle to position ourselves between the disciplines of history, cultural studies, and text criticism'. Various universities have made her professor of History or of English. But London University's Queen Mary probably have it right, pinning her down as their Professor of Renaissance Studies.

Except that I doubt whether this energetic, intellectually omnivorous Renaissance woman is ever fully pinned down. Jardine's conversation bubbles with exhibitions she's just reviewed, novels she's just read (she was Chair of last year's Man Booker Prize jury), radio and TV programmes she's been asked to present or appear on, conferences she's shortly to address, committees she sits on, grants she is applying for, new books she'd like to write, trips she's about to make. The day we met for lunch, she'd just been to Dallas for the weekend to visit one of her sons and his family. She also talks with infections glee about students, friends and colleagues. This is clearly someone who loves to work collaboratively, as so many of her joint-authored books demonstrate. One of Jardine's latest innovations is the annual 'Masterclass' she has set up at Queen Mary (under the aegis of the new AHRB-funded 'Research Centre for Editing Lives and Letters' that she heads) where postgraduate students, in full view of an audience, spend a day honing their textual research skills under the critical eye of a major historian.

The eldest child in a household where dinner guests in the 1950s and early 60s included people like Aldous Huxley and C.P. Snow, Lisa was a clever little girl with a well-developed ego who sailed effortlessly through Cheltenham Ladies' College ('I was probably an obnoxious, opinionated little swot!') and thence to Cambridge. Here, doubtless to her father's delight but without his prompting, she registered to do maths. Was there any sign yet of the budding historian? Lisa remembers borrowing history books from the Boots Library as an adolescent, but points out that, in the Bronowski home, everything was fair game: history, literature, languages, politics, the sciences and the arts. All these came together when, having stumbled slightly in maths, she transferred to English for Part II and went on to do a PhD on the writings of that archetypal boundary-crosser, Francis Bacoll.

A committed socialist, Jardine became secretary of the university Labour Club, and found links between her political and intellectual worlds in the inspired radicalism of Raymond Williams, whose advocacy of a more democratised culture shone through Culture and Society and The Long Revolution. At the time, Williams was (somewhat improbably) a Fellow of Jesus College, and it was here (after a three-year research spell at the Warburg Institute, and brief stints at Essex, Cornell, Girton and King's) that Jardine herself was to settle in 1976.

Her intellectual centre of gravity as a young academic was 16th-century Humanism, and many of her early articles are formidably learned, calling upon sources in French, Italian and Latin. She was officially a Lecturer in English. But what interested this working mother with a strong socialist-feminist conscience was the politics of the texts she read. Thus, in Still Hmping on Daughters, Jardine tried to draw out the underlying relations of power and gender in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. …

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