Lisa Jardine

Daniel Snowman meets Lisa Jardine, Renaissance and Shakespeare scholar, historian of science and biographer of Erasmus, Bacon, Wren and Hooke.

'I have never understood the difference between the arts and the sciences, or felt the need to choose between them.’ The sentence could have come from Dr Jacob Bronowski, the Polish-born mathematician, scientist, presenter of TV’s Ascent of Man and expert on the poetry of Blake. In fact, it comes from his daughter, Lisa Jardine, whose writings are peppered with statements to the effect that intellectual boundaries are for crossing.

As you read Jardine’s work or spend time in her company, you get a firm impression of someone – like Erasmus or Bacon – unconfinable within conventional borders.  In an early, feminist study of Shakespeare, she identifies herself with those scholars ‘who struggle to position ourselves between the disciplines of history, cultural studies, and text criticism’. Various universities have made her professor of History or of English. But London University’s Queen Mary probably have it right, pinning her down as their Professor of Renaissance Studies.

Except that I doubt whether this energetic, intellectually omnivorous Renaissance woman is ever fully pinned down. Jardine’s conversation bubbles with exhibitions she’s just reviewed, novels she’s just read (she was Chair of last year’s Man Booker Prize jury), radio and TV programmes she’s been asked to present or appear on, conferences she’s shortly to address, committees she sits on, grants she is applying for, new books she’d like to write, trips she’s about to make. The day we met for lunch, she’d just been to Dallas for the weekend to visit one of her sons and his family. She also talks with infectious glee about students, friends and colleagues. This is clearly someone who loves to work collaboratively, as so many of her joint-authored books demonstrate. One of Jardine’s latest innovations is the annual ‘Masterclass’ she has set up at Queen Mary (under the aegis of the new AHRB-funded ‘Research Centre for Editing Lives and Letters’ that she heads) where postgraduate students, in full view of an audience, spend a day honing their textual research skills under the critical eye of a major historian.

The eldest child in a household where dinner guests in the 1950s and early 60s included people like Aldous Huxley and C.P. Snow, Lisa was a clever little girl with a well-developed ego who sailed effortlessly through Cheltenham Ladies’ College (‘I was probably an obnoxious, opinionated little swot!’) and thence to Cambridge. Here, doubtless to her father’s delight but without his prompting, she registered to do maths. Was there any sign yet of the budding historian? Lisa remembers borrowing history books from the Boots Library as an adolescent, but points out that, in the Bronowski home, everything was fair game: history, literature, languages, politics, the sciences and the arts. All these came together when, having stumbled slightly in maths, she transferred to English for Part II and went on to do a PhD on the writings of that archetypal boundary-crosser, Francis Bacon.

A committed socialist, Jardine became secretary of the university Labour Club, and found links between her political and intellectual worlds in the inspired radicalism of Raymond Williams, whose advocacy of a more democratised culture shone through Culture and Society and The Long Revolution . At the time, Williams was (somewhat improbably) a Fellow of Jesus College, and it was here (after a three-year research spell at the Warburg Institute, and brief stints at Essex, Cornell, Girton and King’s) that Jardine herself was to settle in 1976.

Her intellectual centre of gravity as a young academic was 16th-century Humanism, and many of her early articles are formidably learned, calling upon sources in French, Italian and Latin. She was officially a Lecturer in English. But what interested this working mother with a strong socialist-feminist conscience was the politics of the texts she read. Thus, in Still Harping on Daughters , Jardine tried to draw out the underlying relations of power and gender in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She wrote about shrews and scolds and tongues, considered Shakespeare’s representation of ‘strong’ women and analysed the cultural significance of cross-dressing in his plays and the importance of inheritance laws to the status of women in Elizabethan England. Some of these themes recur in a later series of essays published as Reading Shakespeare Historically . In a tightly argued book about Erasmus, drawing on close study of the texts and Erasmus’ own marginalia, she showed how the celebrated Humanist teacher manipulated and manufactured his own image and reputation, even to the point of systematically elevating the stature of one of his supposed intellectual forbears. Jardine’s most avowedly political book, What’s Left? (with Julia Swindells), was in part a homage to Raymond Williams, who died while it was being written. Stimulated by the oft-repeated mantra that women voted to the ‘right’ of men (and were keeping the Thatcher government in power), Jardine and Swindells argued that the Labour party should develop a more inclusive culture, moving beyond its somewhat atavistic preoccupation with working men. 

Fiercely independent-minded, at times combative, Jardine already felt herself to be part of an international community of like-minded scholars. In the introduction to Still Harping on Daughters , she took to task what she saw as the dogmatism of certain feminist American critics, while in Reading Shakespeare Historically she recorded the ‘differences of opinion’, ‘head-on confrontations’ and ‘crossed swords’ her approach had stimulated. But there is no fight so vigorous as one between comrades, and she proclaimed that she had learned far more from her intellectual bunfights with the Americans than from their ‘dignified’ British counterparts. I suspect Lisa Jardine would be rather a fun person to cross swords with. 

For nearly fifteen years, Jardine has been at Queen Mary. From here, she has produced a torrent of books which – alongside a busy subsidiary career as broadcaster and reviewer – have brought her name to a wider audience than the young researcher into the textual arcanae of Erasmus could ever have imagined. In some ways, Jardine appears to have re-invented herself. Her biographies of Bacon, Wren and Hooke, like her studies of the Renaissance and of the scientific revolution, may be substantial works of scholarship based on original textual research. But all are distinguished by an easily readable narrative style, the scholarship (and the residual politics) worn lightly. 

Sometimes, like a writer of detective novels, Jardine starts with something familiar, raises questions about what it signifies, and then picks up clues from a wide variety of sources to help clinch a final verdict. Thus, in Worldly Goods (and again in the later Global Interests , co-authored with Jerry Brotton), Jardine considers some of the most famous artworks of the Renaissance. Since Burckhardt, it has been the fashion to think of the Renaissance as signifying the re-emergence of individualistic artistic creativity. Jardine proposes a different approach. Take a well-known work like the Arnolfini Marriage by Jan van Eyck. A sensitive portrait of a happy couple? Perhaps. But note the oriental rug, says Jardine, the lavish furniture, the rich fabrics of the couple’s clothes, the ornate chandelier and the kitsch little lap dog. This painting, she concludes, is best understood as a display of the acquisitiveness of a wealthy Flemish merchant, ‘a celebration of ownership – of pride in possessions from wife to pet, to bed-hangings and brasswork’. Similarly, Holbein’s Ambassadors is ‘a painting of French aristocrats, executed in England by a German artist, and replete with allusions to commercial centres in Nuremberg, Wittenberg and London, and to political exchanges between France, England, Germany, Venice and Istanbul’. The underlying message of works such as these, in other words, lies not so much in their being aesthetic masterpieces, but rather in what they reveal of the power and wealth of those who commissioned and owned them at a time of ever-widening diplomatic and trading patterns. 

Jardine’s 1998 biography of Bacon, Hostage to Fortune (written with Alan Stewart), similarly, scarcely touches on the aesthetic or intellectual qualities of Bacon the essayist and philosopher of science, and you would search here in vain for enlightenment about, for example, Mary Queen of Scots, the Shakespearean theatre, the succession of James I or the Gunpowder Plot. The monarchs and hierarchs of Bacon’s day do appear, but chiefly as recipients of the stream of anxious supplications for preferment Bacon submits throughout his ‘troubled life’. It was a troubled death, too, traditionally attributed to a cold this inveterate experimenter caught while stuffing a dead chicken with snow to see whether that would preserve the flesh. Like Holmes and Watson, Jardine and Stewart adduce strong evidence to suggest, on the contrary, that Bacon had been ill for some time, that he was a chronic physic-taker (or drug addict), and that he probably killed himself by the self-administration of inhaled nitre or opiates in a vain attempt to alleviate his suffering. Hostage to Fortune (misfortune, the authors ought perhaps to have entitled their book) is a gripping story in close focus of a man of huge and varied talents constantly seeking the fame and fulfilment (and wealth) that eluded him.

A year later came Ingenious Pursuits , a hugely successful book about the scientific revolution containing largely anecdotal (and richly illustrated) chapters on some of the great breakthroughs in 17th-century science and technology in such areas as astronomy, anatomy, horology, cartography and the identification and classification of new flora and fauna. Here, Jardine introduces a new dramatis personae , a galaxy of starry scientific savants: Newton, Boyle, Flamsteed, Jonas Moore, Halley, Hevelius and Huygens – as well as Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, whose full-length biographies she went on to produce. Surprisingly, perhaps, there is virtually nothing about the great artistic figures of the day such as Purcell, Dryden, Lely, Kneller or Congreve. At first blush, it seems the scholar of Renaissance Humanism has abandoned art and literature entirely and re-invented herself as expert on Restoration-era science and technology. And has the feminist firebrand of old had her claws trimmed by the flattery of the establishment? All Jardine’s recent books are about men – and men whose private lives, or what we know about them, offer little incentive to speculation about gender or sexism. The ‘Ascent of Man’ redivivus?

Every first blush requires a second and, on closer reading, it becomes evident that much of Lisa Jardine’s recent oeuvre in fact builds on principles that have guided her from the outset. Far from abandoning an interest in the arts, she is at pains to demonstrate how the human and commercial interrelationships that lie behind scientific advance are similar to those that stimulate artistic creation. In both, people look at the work of other people, meet, talk, argue, correspond, raise money, judge, misjudge, interact with a constantly shifting wider environment – and use their ‘ingenuity’ to try to advance the things they care about. The creation of a play or painting may require different skills from the invention of a telescope or microscope. But what about the attempt to portray, and then to classify, the heavenly bodies or fossil fragments revealed by the latest scientific technology? Art or science? What of Newton’s struggle to understand the principles governing the cosmos? Or the meticulous drawings of insects as seen under a microscope done by Wren and Hooke – not to mention the rebuilding of London after the Fire and creation of St Paul’s Cathedral? Wren is just the kind of person Jardine particularly admires (and obviously identifies with): someone of widely varied talents ‘whose enterprises regularly transgress, fearlessly and with apparent ease, the disciplinary boundaries traditionally policed under the labels “arts” and “science”’. To Wren or Hooke, ‘the beauty of the interior of a dome, the patterns of nerves in the human neck or the detail of the viscera of a bee were equally compelling’. 

Thus, whether in the arts or sciences, great ideas are ‘the product of collisions of minds and broken boundaries’. They are also, more often than is realised, the result of collaborations. Throughout Jardine’s recent books, we encounter busy big-wigs marching in and out of labs and observatories, encountering one another in elegant dining rooms, royal palaces, noble houses and interminable meetings of the Royal Society. Even the most successful collaborations can contain elements of grit and acrimony. Newton, a touchy personality (Jardine calls him ‘socially dysfunctional’), nearly withdrew part of the Principia in response to the querulousness of Hooke and might not have completed and published the work without the constant support and encouragement of Halley. On the other hand, the ubiquitous Hooke had such a fruitful partnership with Wren – the archetypal collaborator – that you sometimes cannot be sure what was Wren’s work and what Hooke’s. At times, English, French and Dutch scientists were working together to develop better clocks and watches, maps and navigation charts even when their countries were at war. 

There are other respects, too, in which Jardine’s new books build on some of her earlier themes. The Bacon biography built upon research done long ago for her doctoral dissertation while all her latest books, like the earlier ones, contain lengthy direct quotations from the historical texts, as though to let the authentic voices of contemporaries tell their own tale as far as possible. Furthermore, these figures – like Erasmus – conspicuously struggled between old and new kinds of knowledge. Thus both Bacon, the consummate philosopher of inductive science, and Newton, the magisterial author of the Principia , were drawn to the quasi-alchemical power of certain drugs, while the creator of St Paul’s Cathedral apparently believed he could cure his wife of thrush by ‘hanging a bag of live boglice about her neck’. Such men inhabited the cusp of past and future: another intellectual ‘boundary’ that most people find constricting but which provided both challenge and opportunity to Jardine’s host of historical heroes. Several of them, too, were deeply concerned, as Erasmus (and Shakespeare’s Othello) had been, with their public reputation. Newton commissioned many portraits of himself (outsmarting his adversary Hooke, of whom there is no authenticated portrait), carefully manipulating his image as paintings, busts and medallions spread the message of his genius around the world. Wren’s papers, assembled by his son and grandson, more or less airbrush the unfortunate Hooke out of the picture – which helps explain why Jardine went on to write a biography, rescuing this extraordinarily versatile man from a degree of obscurity he didn’t deserve.

Looking back, Lisa Jardine says she has always enjoyed working at different levels of the intellectual rock face at the same time. Thus, the media don, Booker jury chair and editor of the introduction to Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition is currently editing (with Amanda Foreman) a series of short volumes for HarperCollins on great moments, inventions or encounters that ‘made history’. The deeper striation is represented by Jardine’s work, with Graham Rees, on a multi-volume ‘Bacon edition’ for OUP, and her forthcoming book on published collections of Latin letters and the stories they tell. She is also contemplating a possible book which, by calling upon the political, economic and scientific history of the seventeenth century and digging deep into the records of both the Dutch and English East India Companies, could amount to a multi-dimensional reinterpretation of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ – and, incidentally, show the inadequacy of purely national history. 

‘I’ve always liked to try and hold large bodies of disparate information in my head, from fields that don’t usually talk to each other, and then find the links between them,’ she says. To Jardine, history is a constantly shifting dialogue between the present and the past; like Penelope, she is constantly weaving the tapestry – and then unravelling and re-weaving it. She also admits to a shameless compulsion to share the results of her endeavours with as many people as possible. All in all, her father would have been proud of her.

Daniel Snowman’s most recent book was The Hitler Émigrés: The Cultural Impact of Refuges from Nazism . He is currently working on a book about our current and changing attitudes towards the past.