“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
― from TO THE LIGHTHOUSE By Virginia Woolf, 1927
Despite her books, Warner never thought of herself as academic, she tells Matthew Reisz
The scholar who quit the University of Essex last year in protest against a system in which she said “academics are subjugated to the managers” has been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious scholarly prizes.
Dame Marina Warner, now professor of English and creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London, was named on 12 March as the 11th winner of the Holberg Prize, established by the Norwegian parliament in 2003 for scholars who have “made outstanding contributions to research, either within [the arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology] or through interdisciplinary work”.
The novelist, who will receive prize money of close to £400,000, said she was “very surprised” to be ranked in the company of scholars she had long admired. From the time of the books that made her famous – Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) and Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (1981) – her own work was largely supported by journalism and conducted outside the academy, not least because she “had a very high opinion of academics and never thought of myself as very academically strong, though I was good at languages, and always very interdisciplinary”.
Despite a few visiting positions, it was only in 2004 that Dame Marina became a full-time academic as professor of literature, film and theatre studies at the University of Essex. Yet, after what she described as “the university’s extraordinary volte-face” in 2014, she resigned in protest at a new teaching load she saw as incompatible with the already agreed research commitments that made up 70 per cent of her contract.
Dame Marina told Times Higher Education that the general trend within universities was “not fostering the sustained thinking which is necessary for any kind of book. It’s too cut up, there are too many strains and demands, too many boxes and tables and figures”. She remains a passionate advocate for humanistic education. She has become increasingly interested in forced migration and hopes to use some of the money from the Holberg Prize to help to create communal cultural spaces in refugee camps that currently provide only “food, shelter and water, the basic necessities, in a minimal way”.
More generally, Dame Marina said she was keen to promote alternatives to “the business model of universities”. This was something she first came across, she recalled, in New Zealand, “where there were thousands of Chinese and Singaporeans doing business studies in English”.
“I thought it was a marvellous opportunity to teach the history of culture to a captive audience of students, to open up the grounds between us in what has become an international language. Were they taught a single class of literature? Nothing! They were just taught pure business studies,” she said.
“It’s not just some aesthetic thing, it’s about ethics. You can’t understand business studies if you don’t understand what it is to make a contract, which you can understand from a Greek tragedy or a Dickens novel far better than you can from a sheet in a ledger.”