Oxford tutor accused of professional jealousy

A popular biographer has accused her former University of Oxford tutor of "potent professional jealousy", in a row over credits in her work on Jane Austen.

April 2, 2009

Claire Harman, author of Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, was publicly accused last month of failing to properly credit the work of her former tutor, Kathryn Sutherland, professor of textual criticism at Oxford.

Professor Sutherland was quoted on 15 March as saying that "several sections" in Ms Harman's book were "terribly close" to her own 2005 study, Jane Austen's Textual Lives, from Aeschylus to Bollywood.

Professor Sutherland said: "It feels a bit like identity theft. I am finding that I cannot write about my own research because people tell me it is too similar to the key arguments in Claire's book."

Ms Harman hit back this week, suggesting that Professor Sutherland may not have read her book, which was due to be published on 2 April.

"If she had read it, she would have found herself mentioned in the text, the notes, the bibliography, the acknowledgements and the index," Ms Harman said.

"Could it be that she was fabricating some agitation, while my book was still unavailable for comparison, to publicise her own scholarly study?"

She added that readers would see that accusations of inadequate acknowledgement were "groundless", and that the books were "very different ... in scope, theme and style".

Ms Harman said that she had known the professor since 1976, but had never been given or sought access to her unpublished research, adding that she bought a copy of the professor's book when she was invited to her office in St Anne's College, Oxford, in 2006.

"It had been published the previous year by a university press with, one assumes, the aim of promulgating its views and stimulating the work of fellow scholars," Ms Harman said.

She added: "This is not a matter of identity theft or intellectual property at all, but of a potent professional jealousy."

Professor Sutherland told Times Higher Education this week that she had read Ms Harman's book, and insisted that her own work was not adequately credited.

She said that both books examined the changing reception of Austen's novels through the latter part of the 19th century, and also considered the Austen family's management of her biography.

She said: "My name, but not the book, is mentioned in general terms as 'among the current generation of editors and critics'. Nor is my book included in Harman's closing survey of major critical and scholarly work on Austen.

"At no point does she suggest that her wide and accumulating critical approach has been taken by any other scholar. Rather, the book's blurb and pre-publicity proclaim complete originality."

Professor Sutherland said her experience was symptomatic of the worrying lack of respect accorded to the academy.

"We seem to live in anti-intellectual times, when new ideas couched in challenging terms get short shrift - until, that is, they are repackaged in easier form.

"Over recent decades, academics have become ever more marginal figures in the larger cultural conversation. Part of the reason for this lies at our own door: sometimes we need more commercially attuned writers to help our ideas circulate and grow.

"But those who spread ideas must be scrupulous in acknowledging the routes they travel. If academics stand by as our voices are suppressed, then we deserve our humiliation."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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