And yet this crusading spirit brings problems of its own, often to do with tone.
Like AA Gill, with his knowing references to "the Blonde", Beard speaks of "the husband" or "the daughter" — turns of phrase that suggest both intimacy and distance. Blogs create a disarming illusion of personal communication, while depending on the artful construction of a voice and a point of view. Beard is a serious scholar and the resolute breeziness of her stream of opinions, calculated to produce an air of demotic informality, sometimes jars. It sits uncomfortably with the inclination — also difficult to resist in a blog — to present a life that is a dazzling round of high-powered success and glamour.
She deprecates the aura of golden privilege surrounding her position in Cambridge and rightly so; the perception is misleading and it reinforces damaging social barriers. But it is the secret of her blog's appeal. Few would be interested if these revelations emerged from a researcher on a temporary contract in a struggling new university, demonstrating laboratory skills to roomfuls of students and hemmed in with financial constraints that would make sunlit expeditions to California the stuff of dreams.
Its a Dons Life
The classics still carry powerful associations with the cultural elite and so does the University of Cambridge. Readers are curious about what went on in Nero's court he really did fiddle, or at least play his lyre, while Rome burned , and what the well-brought-up Roman wore under his toga disappointingly, that particular question remains unanswered. They are also eager to learn about Cambridge colleges, places that can seem as exotically remote from their lives as ancient Rome.
Promising an insider's access to arcane knowledge, Beard runs the risk of confirming the very prejudices that she wants to challenge. A self-mocking description of the political complications surrounding the installation of a coffee machine for the senior combination room makes Newnham seem harmlessly eccentric, but the glimpses it provides of the domestic style of the college — "kitted out with lots of delicate 'ladylike' chairs — not made for bulky blokes, who tend to look a bit silly in them" — will either delight or exasperate those who want to think of it as a charmed island, invulnerable to change.
Such niceties are not what matter to Cambridge or to its classical scholarship. It is the exercise of a rigorous discipline of thought that animates the university.
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This is an intractable reality, not to be conjured away by the winning chattiness of a blog. Beard's book is at its best when it rests on the solidity of her work and her fierce belief in its value. Topics Biography books The Observer. Reuse this content. Most popular.
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