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Germaine Greer, Untamed Shrew

Christine Wallace
Pan MacMillan, 386pp
ISBN: 0 7329 0866 3

review by Ann Skea

"Greer was, in her way, a classic Australian figure in a modernising
Australian landscape. Her style and language were unmistakably antipodean…"

Germaine Greer is three years older then me. On the face of it, we should have much in common: we were both war-time babies; both undertook tertiary studies as part of a small female minority; both dabbled in theatre and were drawn to a 'bohemian' lifestyle (black stockings and jazz); both obtained Ph.D’s in English and we both write. But there the resemblance ends. Greer, as Christine Wallace’s unofficial biography shows, is as much a product of her Australian background as I am of my English upbringing.

In fact, were the Greer of Wallace’s book to materialise before me, I would probably be prissily disapproving of her exhibitionism and her foul mouth, and intimidated by her aggression.. But I would have to admire her gutsy determination to get what he wants and her ability to manipulate her audience.

Christine Wallace’s biography is by turns gossipy, analytical, critical and fascinating. Her extensive and careful detective work draws on the written and verbal testimony of many who know, or have known, Greer - including her long-suffering mother, Peggy, and Greer’s husband, Paul de Feu, who was deserted three weeks after the wedding. Wallace also makes extensive use of Greer’s own writing, from her Ph.D thesis on The Ethic of Love and Marriage in Shakespeare’s Early Comedies (where Greer approves Petruchio’s tactics in the taming of the shrew, Kate), to her pornographic pieces in the European sex paper, Suck, of which she was a co-founder.

Greer, Wallace acknowledges, writes superbly. She knows how to hook her reader’s interest and how to question, challenge and entertain. For me, one of the most interesting passages in this book is a brief aside on a linguistic analysis made by Rodney Miller of the last chapter of The Female Eunuch. Did Greer consciously employ these techniques to keep her readers reading? I think not. She seems to know instinctively how to be provocative.

Greer’s contribution to feminism, however, from the perspective of a young modern feminist like Wallace, is more controversial. She acknowledges the impact of The Female Eunuch (the "advocacy of delinquency among women", according to Greer), commenting on its easy style and its impact on "the tens of thousands of Western women who read it". But she questions Greer’s commitment to anything beyond her own emancipation. Greer was never part of any feminist movement, never aligned herself with others to promote social change, and she was always a maverick. She upset other feminists by attributing women’s lack of power to their own lack of will: she, herself, being supremely wilful - as well as being a publicity-grabbing Vaudeville performer par-excellence, so that her every proclamation was (and still is) widely publicised.

Wallace is good at analysing the various factors and experiences which have shaped Greer’s beliefs, and at demonstrating her strengths and weaknesses. She is less convincing when attempting to attributing various of Greer’s character traits to childhood traumas, most of which turn out to be little more than the parental inconsistencies that most children suffer.

Curiously, Wallace’s report of the impact of The Female Eunuch in Australia is not how I remember it at all. I never came across heated argument at middle-class dinner parties - perhaps I didn’t mix in the right circles. Amongst the young women with whom I played ‘hit and giggle’ tennis (as it was known in Australia) whilst the children played, few had read the book but all knew that Greer’s language was shockingly unacceptable. "But do you think that ‘fuck’ is any worse than ghastly euphemisms like ‘having a naughty’?", I asked. "What words do your husbands use when they tell you dirty jokes?". None of their husbands, apparently, *ever* told them dirty jokes! Christine Wallace’s book paints a vivid picture of a flamboyant personality and it gives a fair analysis of Greer’s contribution to feminist debate. 'Germs' may not like it, but she is more than capable of devastating counter-attack. She’ll probably publish Wallace’s life-story on her web-site - maybe alongside the column listing the ‘vital statistics’, foibles, failings and facts of the men who have crossed Greer’s path. Greer is currently exhorting women to adopt this ‘outing’ ploy in the cause of sisterhood. It sounds like a typical Aussie, convent-educated girl’s over-reaction to me.

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