Philobiblon: Long journeys

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Long journeys

Jill Ker Conway, the subject of my last post, moved from the outback of Australia, which she left at age 12 to go to Sydney, where she went to school for the first time. (She's funny on the subject of "not understanding" what PE classes were FOR - in the Bush you got plenty of exercise anyway.)

She went (eventually) to a posh private school, where teachers, parents and pupils were split on whether the pupils were seriously studying, or just waiting for marriage (just as they were in my semi-posh private school in Sydney some 30 years later).

Next was the University of Sydney still, at least in the field of history, a humble colonial outpost, then on to Harvard. Along the way she'd done the obligatory tour of Europe (that is something else that hasn't changed), although in her case with her mother, during which time she learnt a healthy contempt for English snobbery, understandingly enough.

She seems to have an unfortunate almost hero-worship for America at the end of The Road from Coorain. I've already ordered the next volume of her memoir, True North, which takes her from Harvard, to Toronto, to the presidency of Smith College. It will be interesting to see where she ends up on that point.

She's obviously a brilliant intellect, yet there are so many points at which this chain could have been broken and she could have ended up yet another bored, frustrated housewife suffering from Betty Friedan's "the problem that has no name". There's part of a fair answer there to the anti-female head of Harvard University's claim that women don't get to the top because they lack "innate ability". (Doesn't he look curiously like a pig, by the way?)

I was trying to think of any people of whom I have read who've made longer journeys - temporally, socially and culturally - than Jil Ker Conway and I only came up with one, Pascal Khoo Thwe, author of From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey. A member of a hill tribe from Burma, he ends up, after a brief period at the University of Mandalay, fighting in the jungle against the government. Then, through the intervention of a don, he suddenly finds himself at Cambridge, studying English literature.

If I could find my copy I'd provide an extract; I really am going to have to have a total bookshelf reorganisation. Sigh.


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