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Jeremy Cliffe explores gentility and feminism in Cheltenham

first_imgThe word ‘genteel’ seems appropriate to the point of cliché when talking about Cheltenham. A town of Regency terraces and horse racing, antique shops and tea rooms. Hardly the ideal place to test the waters of feminist thought, we might think. But every year in October Cheltenham is shaken up – just a little – as the famous Literature Festival rolls into town. For nine days the pristine Imperial Gardens bristle with leading figures from the worlds of art, broadcasting and politics. This year the theme is ‘What does change mean to us?’ and investigations into attitudes towards women are high on the agenda. Stripy tights and silver pumps are the order of the day as Germaine Greer strides onto stage in the ornate Edwardian auditorium of the Town Hall. The windows are covered with long velvet awnings and a warm light from under the balconies provides an intimate atmosphere. She talks for an hour on her latest book, Shakespeare’s Wife.  “Every time I hear a man at a dinner party tell his wife to ‘shut up dear’, I want to take him outside and shoot him” she begins. Well-natured laughter ripples through the audience. Her introduction soon gives way to the argument. Gesticulating passionately, she outlines a radical biography of Anne Hathaway; speculative, controversial, and persuasive. A broad sense of revelation follows every new piece of conjecture. Presumptions they may be, but Greer’s claims that Hathaway had a significant impact on Shakespeare’s work seem no less valid than those of the scholars who see this mysterious character through the filter of chauvinism. In the course of the hour, Greer piles on the questions. Was Hathaway really illiterate and uncultured? Did Shakespeare really write his plays away from home? Was the model of accomplished, emotionally intelligent womanhood portrayed in Portia, Cleopatra and Silvia really a work of pure imagination? Greer describes how Hathaway is perceived by academics: “Shakespeare, an innocent youth, is skipping down the lanes of Stratford when out comes Anne Hathaway, a big, hairy, randy old woman who wraps her legs around him and gets herself pregnant.” Of course Greer is following a feminist agenda with her reappraisal of this image. She owns up to a temptation to claim that it was Hathaway who wrote the plays, “but I’m not as brave as that”. Nevertheless, Greer’s ideas are all supported by what is known about society in Stratford at the time; it is hard not to agree with her that this has to be a better approach than groundlessly disregarding Hathaway’s relationship with the Bard. She admits that her conclusions are but guesswork, adding that “some guesses are better than others”, those ‘others’ being “informed with a casual contempt”.Her speech is met with resounding applause from the audience, Greer moves onto the questions and the lights are raised in the auditorium. Here we see hints of her tendency to play up her own image: “Who’d like to go first? I’d rather it not be a man”.“What about the bed?” chirps in an elderly lady near the front, alluding to the main weapon in the armoury of the Hathaway-detractors, the fact that in his will, Shakespeare bequeathed to her only his second-best bed. Here the strength of Greer’s arguments come to the fore, as she explains that it was typical for a husband to leave his widow the ‘everyday’ bed, on which conceptions, births and deaths took place, rather than the more lavish but less emotionally significant guest bed.  The next question is from a man. The questioner stands up, takes hold of the microphone and, in a self-satisfied voice, asks “What about those women who tell their husbands to ‘shut up dear’?” There is a pause, and Greer bites her lip, the audience awaiting her response on tenterhooks. “It should be possible for spouses to communicate” she responds calmly, “This is why I can’t watch the Jeremy Kyle Show”, and points out that in Shakespearean drama women and men tend to communicate well, noting that this too could cast light on the marriage.As Greer leaves the platform at the end of the hour she is swamped by middle-aged women in cork sandals, the water pitcher is refilled for Douglas Hurd, and the hall is alive with conversation as the audience files out. Snippets such as “I had no idea”, “What I don’t like about her is…”, and “But I thought she didn’t like him?” indicate the strong impression she makes on the public. She revels in controversy, provokes inspiration in some and loathing in others, and is perfectly aware of this. But whatever you think of Germaine Greer, an hour in her electric presence leaves you unable to deny her energetic sense of purpose in questioning assumptions, unexamined truisms and the lazy acceptance of ungrounded dogma. Genteel she ain’t, but that just wouldn’t suit her. by Jeremy Cliffelast_img read more