John Davies meets Pat Easterling, Cambridge's first female regius professor of Greek. It is hard to find a bad word said about Patricia Easterling. The newly appointed regius professor of Greek at Cambridge - she became the first woman to hold the professorship when she returned from University College London to her alma mater in the autumn of 1994 - seems to be highly thought of everywhere.
"The important thing about Pat Easterling is that she raises the moral tone wherever she goes,'' says Edith Hall, a classics lecturer at Reading, who has followed Easterling's career with admiration.
From Oxford come similar sentiments. Oliver Taplin of Magdalen says: "In terms of critical fashions she has remained amazingly independent . . . She is a pluralist who has managed to bridge opposing schools by taking something from each." He feels she is the right person to lead a "coalition government" in a Cambridge classics faculty split between traditionalists and modernisers. "If anyone can get the best out of that diversity, it is she."
Cambridge could, a dozen years ago, have had the benefit of Easterling's leadership earlier, perhaps. It is said that when a new regius professor was being sought, she failed to get the job partly because she was a woman. Soon after, in 1987, she left Newnham - where she had been vice principal - to become professor of Greek at UCL. But by 1994, when the regius professorship became vacant again, the climate had clearly changed, and she was, one observer says, "almost the only person all sides could agree on".
Easterling herself plays down the factionalism of classics. "When I was appointed people said: 'You're going into a hotbed', but it's nothing like as nasty as those on the outside think. There are certainly doctrinal differences, but personal relations in the classics faculty are good. People have made a great effort to be co-operative."
She is, of course, no stranger to Cambridge. Patricia Fairfax, as she then was, first set foot in Newnham College in the early 1950s; she has an MA as well as a BA from the university and, apart from a short spell teaching at Manchester in the late 1950s, remained there until she left for London.
Still, "seven years is quite a long time to be away from Cambridge, and a great many things have happened in those seven years". Indeed there have been a great many changes in the classical field since she began teaching, she goes on. As in other disciplines, it is that five-letter word, the canon, that has come under scrutiny.
Nowadays, "there's far less concern with just the highest possible style and the grandest of authors". There is more interest in Greek literature after the "golden age" of 5th- and 4th-century Athenian writers such as Aeschylus, Thucydides, Euripides and Plato, she explains. A generation ago, "I bet nobody urged you to read the ancient novel. That is now very prominent in classical studies . . . There's a great deal of interest in narrative theory and the ways in which narrative functions. And so the novel's been really opened up. You don't only study the very high genres, but you look at the more everyday and more unheroic kinds of literature."
It would be a mistake, then, to think of classics as unchanging. As well as the continual redefinition ("as with Shakespeare") of the major literature, there are still new texts being found, she points out. "By comparison with 100 years ago, the story of archaic Greek poetry is now very different. There's actual new material - it's not a closed book." All the same, the great authors must still be read. "It's still true, and will go on being true, that people should read the Iliad and works like that," she says. Undergraduates should have "the opportunity and encouragement to read the central, influential works".
Among these is Easterling's own main specialism: the plays of Sophocles. Her edition of the dramatist's Trachiniae is highly thought of -"an exemplar of a modern commentary'' in Hall's words. Taplin talks of Easterling's "strong sense of how a dramatist orders things to affect an audience'' and praises her work on "the relationship between the world of the audience and the world of the play". She is currently editing Sophocles's last play, Oedipus at Colonus.
Is there perhaps a definitive study of the dramatist due? For Hall it is a matter of regret that the "numerous wonderful articles" Easterling has written about Sophocles have not been put together in book form ("but it's typical of her, that she has not played the game of self-promotion"). The regius professor herself admits to being "in two minds" about such a project. "Some of those articles are in rather out-of-the-way places. Perhaps if I get into the right mood and if a publisher is interested . . ."
Colleagues have also noted the amount of time Easterling spends on graduate students - "completely selflessly'' in the words of one. She is still "unofficially" looking after a handful of UCL doctoral students. As for undergraduates, she takes her turn at teaching just like anyone else. "We all share," she says. "You just take your part and do bits at various levels."
Which includes, of course, Greek for beginners. The time has long gone when the truly educated left school with a working knowledge of classical Greek; now Latin, too, is getting sidelined. As a result, Cambridge is planning to follow other universities in accepting for classics courses those who have no background in either language. "We're just beginning to discuss the implications of the fact that very few schools can guarantee Latin with the way the National Curriculum has been designed," says Easterling.
"All other universities are willing to take candidates who haven't studied Latin. Cambridge will just have to devise a way of doing the same. Otherwise, we're going to miss some very good candidates."
She likes to think classics "can stand on its own feet" in the competition for bright students. "One of the things I got most out of at UCL was having a lot of mature students who had been drawn to antiquity for all sorts of different reasons. The subject doesn't depend on a privileged path at the school stage.
"But, of course, it's no good saying it's easy. It would be a mistake to say: 'Learn it all in translation, that's as much as you can aspire to'. What the educator has to do is give people the skills and the access to a subject so they don't have to take things on trust - they don't have to be told: 'This is one of the great works, I can translate it but you will have to take my word for it.' We don't want just to hand things down."
So is the future bleak for classics? "I don't subscribe to the view that everything is in a state of decline. There used to be lots of people very well drilled in Latin and Greek who came up very expert and then rather went off because they lost interest."
Now, rather than arriving as "conscripts'', undergraduates reach Cambridge with a range of what she calls "imaginative contact with their idea of what the ancient world might have been''. What's more, "people were not encouraged to have ideas of their own when I was a student. It's different now".
Still, is the idea of "decline" not in some ways part of the fabric of the classical tradition? Having just taught a course on "19th- and 20th-century perspectives on classics", she agrees. "It's fascinating to see how people wrote in the 1850s, 1860s and up to the First World War - the Glory-that-was-Greece kind of stuff, the idea of a golden age that somehow embodied a whole lot of ideals one couldn't really recapture. But I think the way that people now write about classical antiquity has changed enormously, and there's a great sense of the limitations of a society that is based on slave-owning, for example.
"There's been a more realistic willingness to look at the ancient world as if it wasn't by definition a glorious time. The interesting thing is that it keeps being redefined - it's open to so many different sorts of reading."
These include the insights of feminism. "A lot of good work has been done on women in antiquity. But you're more hard put to it in literature than in social history; though there were many women poets, not much survives . . . I think distorting effects are created by people treating Sappho as though she were a completely isolated case."
She laughs self-depracatingly. "I'm a bit old for feminist analysis myself. If you weren't brought up with it, as it were, it doesn't impinge so much on your way of looking at things."