Laureation address: Professor Dame Gillian Beer

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Professor Susan Sellers, School of English

Friday 13 September 2013

Professor Beer is one of the world's great literary scholars. Before her retirement in 2002, she was King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge. More recently she has been the Andrew W Mellon Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature; an Honorary International Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Several leading universities have honoured her with degrees, including London, Oxford, the Sorbonne, and most recently Harvard. MIT and the National Autonomous University of Mexico have awarded her gold medals. She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1998.

Dame Gillian was born on 27 January 1935. She was brought up by her mother, who, as a primary school teacher in London's East End, was evacuated during the war with her school pupils and daughter to Somerset. Despite the difficulties of these years, Dame Gillian passed her 11-plus and was granted a county place at Sunny Hill, a boarding school for girls. At 14, following a spinal injury, her life-long passion for literature was ignited as she spent the long months of convalescence reading Shakespeare and Ibsen. In 1954 she won an Exhibition to St Anne's College, Oxford, to read English, where her lecturers included the legendary Tolkien. She completed her studies in Oxford with a BLitt under the supervision of Lord David Cecil. Since her undergraduate course had taken her only as far as 1832, Professor Beer resolved to focus on nineteenth-century literature.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the term 'science' to denote the study of the material world is itself a nineteenth-century coinage. In a series of ground-breaking books and essays, Professor Beer dismantled the 'two cultures' thinking that had hampered the disciplines of literature and science by demonstrating the indissoluble connections between them. In Darwin's Plots, she shows how the questions that preoccupied Darwin also preoccupied the poets and novelists of his day, and how their shared common language shaped the innovations of each. She reasons that language is not something that can be skimmed off, leaving the ideas beneath it intact, and that scientists and creative writers alike must angle the stories, metaphors and words we inherit so that fresh thinking can occur. A particular difficulty for science is that new hypotheses will always initially appear fictitious. As she argues in relation to Darwin: “He did not invent laws. He described them.”

This problem of how to think outside the accrued meanings of our time is one Professor Beer has pursued throughout her career. Darwin's Plots reveals how Darwin imbibed and troubled the prevailing narratives of his day as well as how its writers — and in particular George Eliot and Thomas Hardy — absorbed, filtered and redrafted Darwin's revolutionary discoveries for the general public. In Arguing with the Past – with its counter-chronological subtitle 'From Woolf to Sidney' – Professor Beer explicitly rejects the pervasive idea, theorised by Harold Bloom, that each generation of writers exists in a relationship of anxiety to the past, which consequently must be fought against. Instead, she explores the collaborative conversations that take place between books as remote in time as Philip Sidney's sixteenth-century pastoral romance Arcadia and Samuel Richardson's eighteenth-century epistolary novel Pamela. Dame Gillian's pioneering study of twentieth-century writer Virginia Woolf – to whom she was attracted because of Woolf's seemingly endless ability to re-imagine the world in each of her books – aptly titled The Common Ground, was one of the first to establish Woolf's passionate engagement with history, classical literature, Darwin, Freud, Dante, the philosophy of Hume, sexual politics, contemporary travel innovations including the motor car and aeroplane, Einstein's physics and wave theory. Professor Beer's more recent work on Lewis Carroll explores his playful literary experiments with the scientific controversies of his day.

It was during her first teaching post at Bedford College in the University of London that Dame Gillian met and married John Beer, whom we have the honour of also welcoming today, and who is in his own right a highly distinguished scholar of English Romantic poetry. The arrival of three sons and more recently grandchildren has been not only a great joy, but a powerful reminder of the thrill and risk of childhood curiosity when what we discover changes not only the world but ourselves. While acutely aware of the pitfalls of interdisciplinary working, Professor Beer remains an advocate for 'the fresh eye' those from outside can bring, and of the powerful and productive transformations knowledge generates once it escapes.

Following her marriage, Dame Gillian moved to the English Department at Liverpool University, then to Cambridge in 1964, where she was first a junior research fellow at Girton College, then a university lecturer. She remained a fellow at Girton for nearly thirty years, recalling it today as a place of hospitality and learning, aided by the College's steadfast commitment to its library. In 1994, she became President of the graduate college Clare Hall, a position she accepted because of its open, secular and international ethos. Almost uniquely in Cambridge, Clare Hall has no high table, hosts a high percentage of international visiting scholars and is a college where families and children are welcome.

When talking about Professor Beer, the epithet that comes most easily to people's minds is her generosity. It was not unknown for PhD students to be lodged in her home. Taking seriously perhaps Virginia Woolf's proposal that the most crucial ingredient in intellectual enquiry is a room of one's own, Dame Gillian spent her final years in the Cambridge English Faculty fundraising for a communal building. Her Presidency at Clare Hall similarly involved bold decisions to acquire and furnish a series of properties that could provide scholars and their families with accommodation, as well as spaces in which to meet and dine. She is remembered as a President of exceptional intellectual calibre, full of warmth and encouragement to others.

Professor Beer's generosity as a scholar is amply demonstrated by the extraordinary array of writers and writing she has edited for us — a seminal edition of Virginia Woolf's The Waves, a fresh edition of Lewis Carroll's 'nonsense' verse, the monograph series 'Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture' — as well as in her tireless championing of scholarly and artistic endeavour. She has served as judge of the Booker Prize for fiction twice, of the Orange Prize for women's fiction, the T S Eliot Prize for poetry, and she was for several years Chair of the Poetry Book Society. She was a trustee of the British Museum for ten years, is President of the British Literature and Science Society, and a former President of the British Comparative Literature Society.

The list is formidable and long but the picture it paints is incomplete. Professor Beer's daunting schedule might include the Dean's Lecture at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Harvard, but she is just as likely to be found in more humble surroundings, aiding young scholars, inspiring readers in local libraries, and supporting practitioners right across the arts.