Inside the Greer files
In a converted barn at Germaine Greer’s home in Essex, England, are more than 150 filing cabinets documenting her extraordinary life over six decades.
The trove includes multi-coloured hand-written notes on The Female Eunuch, her best-selling feminist manifesto published in 1970, along with letters from actor Warrren Beatty, director Federico Fellini, writer Margaret Atwood and serial killer Myra Hindley, to name but some of the better-known correspondents.
There’s also Professor Greer’s work on a translation of Lysistrata for the National Theatre, which was never performed, and video recordings of her many television appearances.
University of Melbourne archivist Dr Katrina Dean travelled to Essex to inspect the collection last year. “It took me a couple of days to survey the archive and to see enough to satisfy myself it is sufficiently rich in unpublished content and has substantial research potential,” she says.
“Because the archive was offered for sale we needed a valuation and I worked with a very experienced and able valuer who has a strong track record of valuing modern archives. She is brilliant at being able to drill down and pick out items and snippets of significance, which really helps to indicate the potential of an archive. It also just helps to have a second opinion.”
Dean says the collection is “in good order’’ and arranged by theme or format. The correspondence files, for instance, are stored in a group of about 40 filing cabinet drawers. “There is also an index which is a good guide but is not comprehensive,” she says.
The papers shine a light on Germaine Greer’s writing process, with her notes on works such as The Female Eunuch and The Obstacle Race (a book on the historic barriers facing women artists published in 1979) forming part of the collection. “There is a lot more background, context and personal perspective than can be gleaned from simply reading her published works,” says Dean. Greer’s notes on The Female Eunuch, for example, describe it as “my book on women for which I have not yet devised a title”.
In addition, the archive documents how Greer’s work was received: by other writers, by women whose lives were changed after reading Greer, and by those disturbed by the ways in which she challenged tradition.
“Historians are very interested in social networks and how they operate in terms of political and social change and cultural production,” Dean says. “The archive is network-rich if one wanted to understand some currents of UK and international public life in the second half of the 20th century.”
The University’s chief librarian Philip Kent says the University was interested in buying the collection “because we have a strength in related areas … the Women’s Electoral Lobby archive, archives of the feminist publishers the Seven Sisters, the McPhee Gribble archive … ”
He describes the archives as the raw material of research – “the pay dirt of history, as Germaine calls it”.
Greer was an English major at the University of Melbourne. She moved to Britain to study at Cambridge in 1964. A young Greer described Melbourne as a “progressive university at the time”, says Kent. “She found the place to be invigorating academically.”
The Australian material includes family history, school reunions and papers relating to the protest movements of the early 1960s, including the women’s liberation and anti-war movements.
A Cambridge diary from 1964-5 describes “a round of lectures, poker, parties and evensong”, says Dean. In the 1970s and early 1980s Greer went on journalism assignments in Africa and Asia, and material from this period is included, too. It documents her life as a public intellectual and environmentalist.
Dean will travel again to Essex to pack up the collection in coming weeks. She says important unpublished parts of the collection, such as Greer’s own correspondence, will be converted to digital form.
The extent of Greer’s archive, with its extensive correspondence – including a “nutter file” – is unusual, says Dean. She believes that in a computer age it will become increasingly rare to find such a rich and varied collection.
“The art of fulsome correspondence on matters of substance seems to have waned as email and most forms of social media are not the mediums for this,” she says. “People are more likely to outline arguments and personal perspectives in blogs these days but the fact that these are self-published online means they have a slightly different character, no longer a personal communication between individuals: more like a printed circular letter.”
Dean expects it will take a year to provide basic access to the collection, which will be open to researchers and the public, and detailed cataloguing and selective digitisation will take three years.
The acquisition of the archive was possible due to the support of a number of donors, but the fundraising continues as part of Believe – the Campaign for the University of Melbourne.
To donate, visit Germaine Greer Archive
– Kathy Kizilos