How often have I heard those words spoken by people who have discovered that I am writing a biography of Germaine Greer. They are speaking not of her, but of me.
I am not especially brave, but nor am I afraid of Germaine Greer. Well, maybe just a little bit. In 2015, when I embarked on the project, my knowledge of her personal life was sketchy. I did not know how opposed she was to the idea of anyone writing a biography of her. She had sold her archive to the University of Melbourne by that time, and it seemed reasonable – even obvious – to me that the archive should be used as a biographical source. I had read and enjoyed Christine Wallace’s 1997 biography Untamed Shrew, but it was not until I was well advanced into my research that I discovered the full extent of Greer’s opposition to that book, and was shocked by her venomous attacks on its author. By then I had found a publisher and it was too late to go back. Not that I would have anyway, for Germaine’s life was proving much too interesting.
Before I started work on the biography I wrote politely to Greer, telling her that I was planning to study her archive and asking her if she had any preferences as to how it might be explored by researchers such as myself. I addressed her as ‘Dr Greer’. She responded coldly – rudely, actually – that it was not up to her but to the university, who now owned the archive, to decide how it should be used. She would not interfere, she wrote, but nor would she assist me in any way. Finally, she admonished me for failing to get her title right. She was ‘Professor’, not ‘Dr’.
In February 2018, she wrote to me again, addressing me as ‘Mrs Kleinhenz’, knowing full well that my title is ‘Dr’. ‘Oh Germaine,’ I sighed.
I first heard the name ‘Germaine’ in 1959, when I was a student at the Toorak Teachers’ College in Melbourne. I had become friends with a group of girls who had been at school with Germaine Greer at the Star of the Sea convent in nearby Gardenvale. They, like me, were two or three years younger than she was and they spoke of her often with a kind of reverence that annoyed me. It was: ‘Germaine would have something to say about this’ or ‘Germaine would never agree with that’, or simply, with eyes raised adoringly to the heavens, ‘Oh Germaine!’ We were all still into our religion at that time, and some of those ‘Star’ girls had concerns about this Germaine person’s soul. ‘She could be such a force for good’, ‘Oh, I’m sure she would never give up her faith . . .’ So the conversations went. I was bored and began to conceive a mild dislike for this distant, unknown figure. Why should she be any different from the rest of us?
It would be another ten years before I found out just how different she was. I had gone on from teachers’ college to Melbourne University, started on a career as an English teacher at Melbourne’s top government girls’ secondary school, got married, had a baby, stopped work, was living in a raw new house in a raw new suburb and was getting used to being called ‘Missus’ or ‘Mum’ by the men who delivered the bread and groceries, or tried to sell me a vacuum cleaner. All should have been well – I was doing exactly what I was expected to do – but something, something major, was wrong. In 1971 I read The Female Eunuch and I began to understand. Urged on by my mother, who turned out to be an unlikely feminist of the first wave, I went back to work and bought a car. ‘I think you’ve become a women’s libber,’ my brother-in-law accused. ‘And you,’ I replied tartly, igniting a family feud that did not heal for years, ‘are a male chauvinist pig.’
Who was this Germaine Greer, who changed my life and the lives of millions across the world in the middle years of the twentieth century?1 She was born on a hot Melbourne day, 29 January 1939, as some of the bushfires of Black Friday on 13 January – the worst in Victoria’s history – were still burning around the city. Her mother, Peg, was a housewife; her father, Reg, sold advertising space in a newspaper. Her parents’ marriage was not happy and the situation in the Greer household worsened after Reg came back from the Second World War. Over the years, the family’s economic situation improved somewhat, two more children were born and the Greers moved into larger houses, but there were few books and little conversation. Ultimately, the levels of dullness and cultural deprivation, together with a jumble of unresolved family tensions, drove Germaine to furious rebellion.
School was her great escape. An obviously gifted pupil, she won a series of scholarships that allowed her to receive the best education a financially strapped Catholic education system could provide. At Star of the Sea, the convent of the Presentation Order of nuns where she completed the final four years of her education, she shone as the brightest pupil, soaking up knowledge, and was popular with the nuns and the other girls. She stopped believing in the nuns’ God, but she never lost the sense of spirituality they had instilled in her.
Her contemporaries’ memories of the tall figure of Germaine Greer striding around the campuses of her two Australian universities have become the stuff of legend. At the University of Melbourne, she completed an honours degree in English and French, and at the University of Sydney she wrote her master’s thesis on Byron. She excelled in university theatre productions and gravitated to bohemian circles, namely the Drift in Melbourne and the Push in Sydney. The influence of the libertarian, anarchist philosophies and principles so fiercely argued by her Push friends and her lover of that time, Roelof Smilde, never left her.
From Sydney she won a Commonwealth Scholarship to Cambridge, where she wrote her doctoral thesis on love and marriage in Shakespeare’s comedies. Once again she was a star in university theatre, becoming one of the first women to be elected to the elite Footlights dramatic club. She worked furiously on her thesis, aiming to gain a post at an English university. This turned out to be Warwick, one of the newer universities that were starting to appear in England at that period, where she was appointed as an assistant lecturer in 1967.
No family or friends were present to support her when she proceeded to the dais of the ancient Cambridge Senate House to receive her PhD from the Vice-Chancellor in March 1968. She was also alone, in a different sense, in her three-week marriage to Paul du Feu, scholar turned labourer, which took place in May of the same year. She did not marry again and she has never sustained any long-term partnerships. She has many good friends but true intimacy has eluded her. ‘I am unusually insecure in relationships,’ she told psychologist and television presenter Anthony Clare in 1989. ‘I’m a bolter, when things get difficult, I bolt . . .’2
For the first few years after she left Cambridge, Germaine Greer had three identities. Mostly, she was Dr Greer, brilliant teacher and serious scholar at the University of Warwick, but each week, she travelled to the Granada studios in Manchester to perform in the national TV comedy Nice Time. At weekends, she caught up with friends in the emerging London underground, rock music and hippie scenes, to become a self-proclaimed, flamboyantly attired groupie. She wrote provocative articles for the London Oz magazine and was a founding editor of the Amsterdam-based pornographic publication Suck.
Her life, and the lives of millions of women across the world, changed in 1970 with the publication of her first book, The Female Eunuch. This book’s central argument – that ‘castrated’ women should look to their own minds and bodies to recover and assert their female power before trying to change the world around them – was received more enthusiastically by ordinary women than by the established feminists of the second wave. She had never been a paid-up member of any feminist group, and many in the sisterhood were irked when she became, overnight, an icon of feminism. Nevertheless, The Female Eunuch became a – perhaps the – classic text of their movement. It brought Germaine wealth and fame. It made her an international celebrity.
In the 1970s, she bought and decorated beautiful houses in London and Tuscany, she created magnificent gardens, and entertained and was entertained by some of the most famous literary and artistic figures in the world. But always she remained a committed professional with an extraordinary work ethic. After her resignation from Warwick University in 1972 she became a working journalist, travelling extensively to report on the lives of ordinary people, especially women, who were suffering in countries like Vietnam, India, Bangladesh and famine-torn Ethiopia. Her archive houses many of the remarkable photographs she took in those communities.
In 1979, she accepted a position at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as Professor of Modern Letters. On taking up the appointment she became founder and director of the Tulsa Center for the Study of Women’s Literature. By that time she was beginning to realise, with great sadness, that her efforts to become pregnant, which included expensive Harley Street surgery, had failed and that she would never bear a child.
In 1985, after returning to England, she sold her home in London and moved to Mill Farm, later The Mills, a house on a small acreage at Stump Cross, near the town of Saffron Walden in Essex. Her years at The Mills, which Greer put on the market in 2018, have probably been the most contented of her life. She has been incredibly busy – away from home for long periods on lecture and promotional tours, regularly appearing on television and radio, writing books, articles and newspaper columns, attending to a huge volume of correspondence and carrying out literary research on her special interests: Shakespeare, and women artists and writers. She has done most of her work in her workshop, a large building separate from the main house at The Mills, with the aid of an assistant. This building housed her archive before it was sold to the University of Melbourne in 2013. It was also the home of Stump Cross Books, a self-financed venture dedicated to publishing the works of women writers.
No long-term lovers or friends ever lived with Greer on a permanent basis at The Mills; instead, she shared her house with a moving feast of individuals she called ‘Other Peoples’ Children’ (OPCs) and ‘Non-Paying Guests’ (NPGs), many of whom were university students who were expected to work in the house, workshop and garden in exchange for their keep. Most of all she loved her standard poodles, her parrot and her cats.
From The Mills, which is only a short drive to Cambridge, Greer was able to resume her connections with Newnham College and its library. In 1989 she was appointed as a special lecturer and unofficial fellow of Newnham, posts she held until 1998, when she resigned because of her opposition to a transgender woman becoming a fellow of the college.
In 1989, Greer wrote her most personal book, Daddy, We Hardly Knew You. It tells of her lonely journey across several continents to find out the truth about her father’s life, only to discover, finally, that he was a liar and a fraud.
Between 1979 and 1999, in addition to scholarly works (notably Shakespeare, for the Oxford University Press Past Masters series), and Daddy . . ., Germaine Greer wrote three major books about women: Sex and Destiny: The politics of human fertility in 1984; The Change: Women, ageing and the menopause in 1991; and The Whole Woman in 1999. In each, she set down her thoughts about women’s lives at particular life stages – each stage matching the one she herself was experiencing at that period.
Germaine Greer has lived most of her life in England, but for the past twenty years or so she has spent at least four months of each year in Australia. In 2013 she published White Beech: The rainforest years, which tells of her discovery and purchase of Cave Creek, a former farm in Southern Queensland, where she decided to live and work for part of every year as the director of a major rainforest rehabilitation project.
She has donated most of the three million dollars she was paid for her archive to Friends of Gondwana Rainforest, a charity she founded, whose flagship project is the Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme (CCRRS).
On 29 January 2019, she will turn eighty. She continues to appear regularly on radio and television programs and to perform on public platforms in England and Australia.
The main source of information for this biography has been Germaine Greer herself – her writing, her theatre and media performances and interviews, her lectures, her academic research, her journalism. She does not hold back. For a person who insists that her personal life is not interesting, she has told us all we need to know about herself and more.
Another major source for the biography was the large volume of writing about Germaine from authors like David Plante, James Hughes-Onslow, Barry Humphries, Clive James, Ian Britain and Richard Neville.
Some of her old friends and acquaintances, most notably Richard Walsh, Phillip Frazer, Professor Stephen Knight, Fay Weldon and Carmen Callil, were happy to share their memories of Germaine Greer with me, but others I approached chose to remain silent. Some asked to be anonymous and I have respected their wishes while noting their comments.
In 2016, I was fortunate to meet and make friends with a group of former Star of the Sea nuns and students who were Germaine’s contemporaries at school and had known her well. They and various other people who remembered her at university were more than happy to reminisce about their association with her.
The Germaine Greer Archive is another rich source of information about Greer’s life and work. To say that it is massive would be an understatement. Currently, it occupies eighty-two metres of shelf space at the University of Melbourne Archives repository in Brunswick. There are about five hundred boxes that include personal, professional and other correspondence; notes and drafts relating to all of her academic studies; copies of all of her major works, with drafts, research materials, proofs, clippings and publicity; files on her print, radio and television journalism and appearances, with contracts and commissions; photographs; records relating to university appointments; research files on women and literature and women artists; the records of Stump Cross Books; honours and awards; and an extensive collection of audiovisual material.
Between March 2017 and February 2018 I spent many hours going through the boxes and listening to the audio tapes in the Germaine Greer Collection, searching for material that would inform the kind of biographical study I wanted to write. Greer has claimed that the archive is more of a representation of the times she has lived in than of herself, but in saying this she is only partly right, for what emerges from those five hundred boxes is a portrait of an extraordinary woman whose influence on the culture and mores of her time has been immense.
When deciding to write Germaine’s story, I wanted to discover ‘the truth’ about her life, but one of the first lessons she taught me was how hard this was likely to be. ‘None of us,’ she wrote in 1989, ‘grasps more than a little splinter of the truth.’ I have endeavoured to gather some of those splinters and piece them together to create a ‘truthful’ coherent narrative about her life and work, but splinters they are and must remain.
In shaping the narrative, the first task I set myself was to consider her contribution to second-wave feminism. I had no wish to embark on an academic study of the many facets of this subject – better to leave that to the professional scholars in the burgeoning field of women’s studies. My conclusions have been drawn from extensive study of Greer’s work in light of the professional literature, but they are also based on a series of more personal impressions about a movement from which I and my contemporaries benefited and in which we participated. Only two things are certain: first, women’s lives today are very different from how they were when Germaine Greer and I left school, and second, much of the change that has occurred over the past half century can be directly attributed to her influence.
My next task appeared to be more straightforward. I wanted to find out who she was – really. At first, I thought this would be a matter of exploring behind what I perceived to be the mask of her public appearances. My original working title for the book was, in fact, ‘Behind the Mask’, but this had to change when I realised that there is no mask. In public, as in private, as in her writing and performances, she is complex, engaging, amusing, often puzzling and frustrating, occasionally downright nasty, but if she is hiding anything of significance about herself, I have not been able to find it.
In other words, what you see with Germaine Greer is what you get. When she says, ‘I don’t know why I am the way I am’, and ‘Bugger me if I know why I’m famous’, she is telling the simple truth. Rare talent like hers is never contrived. Her gifts were apparent in her earliest years and it has been natural though not easy for her to hone and cultivate those gifts through a lifetime of intense scholarship and unremitting hard work.
Some people of her own generation, especially old white males and illiberal women, still tend to dismiss her as a ratbag and, to be fair, she often acts like one. Others, however, including feminist publisher Carmen Callil and writer Fay Weldon, consider her to be a genius. I have come to believe that history will prove them right, that new generations will acknowledge the genius of Germaine Greer, and that she will ultimately be recognised as one of the most influential and significant women in the Australian diaspora.