My revolting past: Lisa Jardine

August 6, 2004

Lisa Jardine recalls her fear of being expelled when a man climbed up to her room at 2am - to talk politics

Lisa Jardine was supposed to have been a mathematician. That she did not fulfil her destiny as a nine-year-old maths prodigy, but is instead director of the Arts and Humanities Research Board's Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, University of London, owes something to her first experience as an undergraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge. She remembers: "It was our first briefing as new students and the director of studies said: 'Of course, girls can't do maths as well as boys.' I've never forgiven her. I left the meeting close to tears and rang my father. He exploded and practically told me to come home."

At Cheltenham Ladies College, as a maths scholarship girl, she had loved the lessons - "it was intellectually fantastic and I owe all my maths and science training to it" - but as the daughter of Jewish immigrants, she felt ill at ease socially. Her three years (1963-66) at Newnham reversed that pattern. She came from a Labour background and was sufficiently political to have spent part of her gap year working for New Left Review .

"Gareth Stedman-Jones and I recently took part in a panel discussion about our time there. While he was talking socialism with Perry Anderson (now editor of the New Left Review ) and the others, I was typing and making tea.

Gender may have been top of our concerns, but it was far from top of the Left's agenda."

Even so, there was inspiration from Juliet Mitchell, then Anderson's partner and now professor of psychoanalysis and gender studies at Cambridge University. "They were an important role model in terms of intellectual partnership, and I loved watching Juliet more than holding her own with the men in debate."

Jardine's undergraduate years encompassed two general elections, innumerable demonstrations and meetings and endless intense debate. "We were doing the thinking for a lot of the practice of the later 1960s. The quality of the debates on the Left was much higher than most of the official university seminars." Debate sometimes carried on in unlikely places. She recalls the young man who climbed the drainpipe to her room at 2am to communicate some sudden political insight. "He sat on the floor talking terribly excitedly about what he had just discovered, while I reacted in a rather girly fashion - all I could think of was that if anybody found him there, I'd be thrown out."

She grew to envy friends whose studies could also focus on political issues: "Raymond Williams always said that culture is the place for learning about and understanding inequality." Nor, she admits, was her mathematical career stellar enough to match her considerable personal ambition. She made the career-changing switch to literature for the second part of her degree, enjoying the teaching of cultural theorists such as Williams and F. R. Leavis and English professor John Carey - refuting the myth that Carey wouldn't teach women.

Forty years on she remains politically committed, although constitutionally incapable of conforming to a party line. "You have to go out and demonstrate," she says. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she believes that today's students are politically committed, too. "I think it is patronising and insulting to say that they are not interested in politics.

The issues have changed - if I were a student nowadays, I could imagine being particularly concerned by the problems of Muslim women - but politics is still there."

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