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A Tribute to Lisa Jardine

27 October 2015

Asked to imagine her own funeral, Lisa Jardine would respond, ‘my funeral? I really couldn’t imagine the world without me’. It was the mark of a resilient self-belief that infected those of us who adored her, even as it infuriated those, in academia or public governance, who came up against her. But like all Lisa’s frankest statements, it could only be said with the brightest twinkle in her eye, a deep throaty giggle which admitted she and her addressee were both in on a secret human knowledge. A knowledge probably shared over her home-made biscuits (she was never unproductive, even in leisure). Her books, her research centre, her wide-reaching human influence survive, but it is hard to imagine we will not hear that warm, bright laugh again.

Lisa Jardine was born brilliant, eventually speaking eight languages (she admitted to weaknesses in Ancient Greek, but still knew enough to score a point off my non-Erasmian pronunciation of Erasmus’ emendations to Euripides). She was also born the daughter of Jacob Bronowski, an intellectual and emotional challenge she only began to discuss with more ease in later years. Bronowski was the public voice of scientific intellectualism: from a young age, it was clear that Lisa was his heir: ‘we had a little secret game of maths problems’. Her eventual shift to English, in her final year at Cambridge, felt a disappointment to him, but it was never a betrayal – she would become the preeminent historian of the scientific method, and the one accolade that thrilled her most was her Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Society, finally awarded earlier this year. But she identified, early on, the central problem of the clever girl. Her father expected her to be a genius, his second self; but did he expect her, like her mother, to do the washing-up, to humour masculine ego, even infidelity?

There is an irony in any tribute to a feminist pioneer which spends so many words on the fame of her father: Lisa kept her first husband’s surname, Jardine, after a difficult divorce, precisely because she was tired of being ‘Dr Bronowski’s daughter’. But he was the patriarch’s shadow cast over the female trail she blazed. Much of her early work traced the disunion of fathers and daughters: Still Harping On Daughters, named for Polonius and Ophelia, is still the classic appraisal of the constraints on women in Shakespearian imagination.

Likewise, she fixed her gaze on female education in the humanist tradition, knowing full well that behind every educated woman lies a deeply invested father (from Margaret More to Malala Yousafzai). So her key paper, ‘Woman Humanists: Education for What?’, also a book chapter and a case study of the Italian educationalist, Isotta Nogarola, concluded darkly that the educated daughter was all too often a decorative object, a celebration of a household’s discretionary education budget. ‘He even educates his daughters, just to show he can’. With her long time friend and collaborator, Anthony Grafton, Lisa traced the early social networks of the humanist confraternity, even if the female nodes were ornamental end points, rather than hubs. Lisa’s own networks, of female, queer or feminist academics, would be her modern redress.

Meanwhile, she took on Oxbridge, and won. She was fluent in the rhetoric of imitatio and sprezzatura; she kicked ass and took names. She was punk, before punk, turning up with shocking pink hair to her inauguration as first female fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge in 1976. Perhaps she was always better suited to the dissident universities of London (she loved the ‘alternative’ undergraduates she discovered at Queen Mary, from which she moved to UCL in 2012), but she fought her way into the establishment before she moved beyond it.

Lisa will be remembered for the intricacies of her work on annotated manuscripts; the work that shed new light on how Renaissance and Enlightenment scientists read, circulated and scribbled on their printed texts. But in truth, Lisa was the first to recognise that all academic work is superseded by new discoveries: she was, despite her age, gleefully excited by the possibilities of Digital Humanities and, celebrating it without any sense of threat, instinctively grasped the way computers would open new worlds onto the analogue archival work she’d done as a graduate student.

Instead, her real legacy will be the spaces she created for atraditional academics. Her weekly seminars at UCL were peppered with childcare advice and fashion tips (male Oxbridge dons talked cricket, so why shouldn’t Professor Lisa Jardine validate traditionally female ways of bonding?) Yet nowhere else did anyone ask the fundamental questions as unflinchingly she did over those cupcakes: What is history? What is an archive? What is a text? She inspired in the truest sense: we all wanted to be her. The questions of process and methodology were always keen and raw: one former student recalled on Twitter how she brought her father’s letters home from Nagasaki and Hiroshima to seminars, sharing with us the ‘fraught intimacy’ of the archive, the Actaean exposure of personal secret, historical witness.

She brought the knack for intimacy to her work on Radio 4, the same scrupulous respect for process to her time as Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Faced with the sharp end of fertility controversies, Lisa’s forensic legalism was matched only by an intense and innate pull of empathy to the human lives at stake. She was, of course, committed to the Left, if a pragmatic operator – keeping her criticisms of the ministers she advised largely, if not always, off-the-record. (Jeremy Hunt’s civil servants used to bring his scrawled notes to her for help deciphering, citing her expertise with palaeography.) But she was nothing if not intellectually curious: she loved to debate a Tory, and most of all, she loved any of us who would challenge her.

Grief engenders jealously. A friend, the literary agent, Toby Mundy, wrote yesterday of seeing her two weeks before she died – rarely have I felt such searing anger towards an inoffensive rival (Lisa had twice called me on the day of scheduled visits in recent weeks, apologising with characteristic charm for being too busy vomiting to keep our date). It is an expression of utter self-absorbedness on my part with which the only human who might have entirely sympathised was Lisa. But the truth is we all wanted more of her.

We yearned for more of her. I was not her official graduate student, nor her colleague – she adopted me informally, as she did many, from a rival department (decorum at political boundaries not being her thing). And there were, over the years, so many of us. She understood, acutely, the dynamics of desire and denial that drive a pedagogic disciple – always keeping a little of herself back, until we’d achieved the stated goal, but never letting us doubt the unflinching solidity of the faith she’d placed in our abilities. Her blessing was confidence enough to take on the world.

Grief, too, engenders hypocrisy. As real tributes have come flooding in, so have a few false ones. Lisa would have called them out by name, were she still here. For she had no fear of making enemies – a fact for which some of us adored her all the more. She was strategic, never burning a bridge until she’d crossed it (most of the time). And she would not have advanced as she did if she hadn’t instinctively understood bureaucracies: she had the politician’s trick of bending their natural trends to her will (most of the time). One former boss was said to introduce himself at parties, to some sympathy: ‘I have two jobs. The first is managing Queen Mary University, the second is managing Lisa Jardine.’ And she was typecast, inevitably, as ‘a difficult woman’ by her detractors in the institutions she joined. But how else would have she been so early, so often, the only woman there at all?

For she was not quiet. Her voice was not made to be low and gentle. She taught her students to be disruptive women. She sent us out into the world with one message: behave badly. We will.

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 4.0; original image cropped)