Category Archives: Classics and ancient history

The cult of Mary Beard

How a late-blossoming classics don became Britain’s most beloved intellectual. By Charlotte Higgins

The first time I saw Mary Beard, I was 17. It was 1989, and she was speaking at a joint open day for the Oxford and Cambridge classics faculties. She was utterly unlike the other speakers, who, as I recall them, were Oxbridge dons straight from central casting: tweedy, forbidding, male. Instead of standing at a lectern like everyone else, she perched rakishly on the edge of a desk. She was dressed in a vaguely hippyish, embroidered black dress, and a cascade of black hair tumbled around her shoulders. Greg Woolf, now director of the Institute of Classical Studies at the University of London, recalls another one of those open days, in the early 1990s. “I spoke, and then another big hairy bloke like me spoke. And then Mary came on and said: ‘Well, you’ve heard what the boys have got to say.’ And you could see that she’d already won everyone’s hearts.”

Everyone who has met Beard seems to have a story about encountering her for the first time – usually involving her rigorous intellect, her total lack of formality, and her sense of mischief. One of her former students, Emily Kneebone, remembers supervisions – one-to-one or two-to-one teaching sessions – at Newnham, the women-only Cambridge college to which Beard has been attached for most of her adult life, first as a student, then as a don. She would teach from a chaise longue: “At first she’d be in a normal position, but as the hour progressed she would gradually slide further and further down so you could only see her feet.” One junior colleague still remembers Beard introducing herself, at a conference almost 25 years ago, with the overture, “Give us a fag, darlin’.”

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Source: gad