Britain's greatest interviewer, Lynn Barber considers Germaine Greer, who's just turned 82
Like many of my generation, I see Germaine Greer as the great betrayer. She thrilled and inspired us with The Female Eunuch (1970), encouraging us to cast off the shackles of the patriarchy and to take charge of our own lives. Also, to sleep around.
But then – horror – in 1984 she published Sex and Destiny which reneged on almost everything she had said before. Sleeping around, she warned, resulted in STDs, botched abortions and barrenness – we would end up childless, like her. She also seemed to endorse female genital mutilation and infanticide.
All her later books – with the exception of her most personal work, Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989) – have seemed equally bewildering.
Greer grew up in Melbourne but always felt herself a misfit because she was ‘too tall, too clever, too noisy’. She also suffered from depression and ‘read books the way other people sniff glue, to get out of my miserable self’.
The benefit of all her reading was that she sailed through the universities of Melbourne, Sydney and Cambridge, and ended up with a teaching fellowship at Warwick. She was a serious academic during the week, and a TV presenter on Nice Time and groupie at weekends. She liked hanging out with rock stars. In 1968, she married a builder called Paul du Feu but the marriage lasted only three weeks – she later claimed he was a violent drunk.
The Female Eunuch made her an international star with its provocative declaration that ‘women have very little idea of how much men hate them’. Her book was castigated by older feminists who rightly saw that she was not a sister, but it certainly inspired the young.
They’d thought of feminists as gloomy lesbians like, say, Kate Millett, but here was this flamboyantly dressed warrior queen who was a wow on TV shows and not afraid to flirt with Norman Mailer. When her New York publicists booked her into the fusty Algonquin Hotel, she insisted on switching to the Chelsea, which was more her style.
But her huge international success meant she had to give up her teaching job at Warwick and become a tax exile. She bought a cottage in Tuscany called Pianelli, where Federico Fellini wore silk pyjamas in bed but was terrified when a bat got into the bedroom. He sent her a generator by way of thanks and corresponded with her for 20 years.
In her late thirties, she wanted to have a baby and chose James Hughes-Onslow (The Oldie’s Memorial Service reporter), followed by William Shawcross, to be its father but with no success – her doctor told her that her fallopian tubes were so damaged that she would never conceive.
In 1979, she wrote to a friend, ‘I don’t have any enduring relationships of any sort, except with animals and plants. Human beings come and go…’
In 1984, she moved to The Mills, a smallholding on a noisy roundabout near the M11, where she grew vegetables, kept geese, hens, cats and dogs, and invited students and non-paying guests to stay.
But her generosity was often ill rewarded. In 1994, she told Big Issue
that homeless people could apply to come and live with her. One of the first through the door turned out to be a
Mail on Sunday journalist who went through her bathroom cupboard and duly spilt the beans.
In recent years, she has spent more time in Australia with her botanist sister, Jane, preserving a patch of rainforest. This year, she put The Mills on the market.
Greer will no doubt scream at this biography, as she screamed at the previous one, Untamed Shrew by Christine Wallace, published in 1997.
She really went overboard with Wallace, calling her a ‘dung beetle’, a ‘tapeworm’ and a ‘brain-dead hack’.
Perhaps she’s calmed down a bit now – she turns 80 on January 29 – but then again perhaps not. When Kleinhenz wrote to Greer to say that she was writing her biography, Greer told her off for addressing her as Dr Greer (she is a professor) and pointedly addressed her as Mrs Kleinhenz, though she knew she had a PhD. Kleinhenz held her nerve, and has made good use of the recently opened Greer Archive at the University of Melbourne. But she still doesn’t solve the conundrum of Greer’s baffling personality.
Perhaps the last verdict should be Salman Rushdie’s. When she called him ‘a megalomaniac’, he responded coolly, ‘What people don’t often say about Germaine Greer is that she is barking mad.’