I like Mary Beard. I bookmarked her Times blog years ago, long before the Twitter rows. Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker has a profile of her.
Beard’s academic concerns have kept her busy for decades: she can be seen scouring the classics library at Cambridge with her arms full of volumes, like an eager undergraduate. But in recent years, and somewhat to her surprise, Beard has found herself cast in the very public role of a feminist heroine. Through her television appearances, she has become an avatar for middle-aged and older women, who appreciate her unwillingness to fend off the visible advancement of age. Beard does not wear makeup and she doesn’t color her abundant gray hair. She dresses casually, with minor eccentricities: purple-rimmed spectacles, gold sneakers. She looks comfortable both in her skin and in her shoes—much more preoccupied with what she is saying than with how she looks as she is saying it.
Identify! That’s me, except that I don’t have any gold sneakers. I have fancy socks, instead.
Beard, in her unapologetic braininess, is a role model for women of all ages who want an intellectually satisfying life. She estimates that she works thirteen hours a day, six days a week. On more than one occasion, I have e-mailed her at 8 p.m. or later from New York, expecting to hear from her by morning, only to discover an immediate and exhaustive reply in my inbox. Among those in the audience for “Oh Do Shut Up Dear!” was Megan Beech, a student at King’s College, whose spoken-word ode “When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard” was posted on YouTube last summer. (“She should be able to analyze Augustus’s dictums, or early A.D. epithets / Without having to scroll through death, bomb, and rape threats.”) Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, where Beard is the classics editor, sometimes appears with her at literary festivals; together they conduct a seminar on how to read a Latin poem. “Afterwards, a few people will come and talk to me,” he told me. “And there will be a line of schoolgirls and middle-aged women lining up to have their photo taken with Mary.”
Beard’s output is prodigious. She has written a dozen books, produces scholarly papers and book reviews by the pound, and appears not only on her own television programs but on shows such as “Question Time.” She is a frequent contributor to Radio 4, the British equivalent of NPR, offering audio essays on subjects as varied as dementia, the four-minute mile, and academic testing.
Hang on one second. Radio 4 is not exactly the British equivalent of NPR for one simple but crucial reason: it is about a billion times better. And that’s just Radio 4; there’s also Radio 3, which is the highbrow branch. Radio 4 (let alone Radio 3) isn’t as terrified of intelligence as NPR is, or as determined to sound warm and cuddly and non-threatening. NPR would never have a Mary Beard on.
Mead claims she’s even inspired an uptick in the popularity of classics among university students, which is brilliant if true.
Readers of Prospect, a political magazine, recently voted Beard the seventh-most-significant world thinker—behind Amartya Sen and Pope Francis, but above Peter Higgs, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. In 2013, The Oldie, a magazine devoted to counteracting the unearned deference paid to youth in popular culture, named her its pinup of the year. And the Queen recently appointed her to the Order of the British Empire, for services to classical scholarship. Beard, who is generally a republican in the British sense, dithered about accepting it, and decided that she could refuse it only if she refrained from ever mentioning it. “So, I thought, would I really not tell anyone?” she wrote on her blog. “Answer, no, of course I’d blab . . . at some evening or other after half a bottle more of pinot grigio than I should have consumed.”
All right to accept it I think. Good for women, good for dons, good for classics.
Appearing on television made Beard famous in the U.K., but what has made her even more famous has been the suggestion, put forward by certain male observers, that she is too old or unprepossessing to be on television at all. A. A. Gill, the television critic for the Sunday Times, greeted her Pompeii series by remarking, “Beard coos over corpses’ teeth without apparently noticing she is wearing them. . . . From behind she is 16; from the front, 60. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment.” Gill dismissed “Meet the Romans” by declaring that Beard “should be kept away from cameras altogether.”
Beard responded to Gill’s snark, meanwhile, by contributing a piece to the Daily Mail in which she observed, “Throughout Western history there have always been men like Gill who are frightened of smart women who speak their minds, and I guess, as a professor of Classics at Cambridge University, I’m one of them.” She suggested that Gill, who had not enjoyed a university education, had been obliged to resort to insult as a substitute for well-reasoned argument.
Like so many. “Hur hur you ugly hur hur.”
Gill’s review of “Meet the Romans” had been a turning point, Beard explained. “That is when it became kind of a personal calling, because I spoke out and said, ‘Sorry, sunshine, this is just not on,’ ” she said. “The people who read the Mail are middle-aged women, and they look like me. They know what he’s saying. For all the very right-wing, slightly unpleasant populism that the Mail trades in, its readership is actually people who know an unacceptable insult when they see it. They’ve got gray hair. He’s talking about them.”
And Mary Beard has a way to reply, so it’s good that she did and does.