Early life and education
Greer was born in Melbourne to a Catholic family, the elder of two girls followed by a boy. Her father, Eric Reginald ("Reg") Greer, told her he had been born in South Africa, but she learned after his death that he was born Robert Hamilton King in Launceston, Tasmania. He and her mother, Margaret ("Peggy") May Lafrank, had married in March 1937; Reg converted to Catholicism before the wedding. Peggy was a milliner and Reg a newspaper-advertising salesman.[c]
The family lived in the Melbourne suburb of Elwood, at first in a rented flat in Docker Street, near the beach, then in another rented flat on the Esplanade. In January 1942 Greer's father joined the Second Australian Imperial Force; after training with the Royal Australian Air Force, he worked on ciphers for the British Royal Air Force in Egypt and Malta. Greer attended St Columba's Catholic Primary School in Elwood from February 1943—the family was by then living at 57 Ormond Road, Elwood—followed by Sacred Heart Parish School, Sandringham, and Holy Redeemer School, Ripponlea.
In 1952 Greer won a scholarship to Star of the Sea College in Gardenvale, a convent school run by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary; a school report called her "a bit of a mad-cap and somewhat erratic in her studies and in her personal responses". She abandoned the Catholic faith a year after leaving school, as a result of finding the nuns' arguments for the existence of God unconvincing, and left home when she was 18. She had a difficult relationship with her mother who, according to Greer, probably had Asperger syndrome. In 2012 she said that her brother might have forgiven her for "abandoning" them, but she was not so sure about her sister, "whom I love more than anyone else on earth".
Melbourne and Sydney
From 1956 Greer studied English and French language and literature at the University of Melbourne on a Teacher's College Scholarship, living at home for the first two years on an allowance of £8 a week.
Six feet tall by the age of 16, she was a striking figure. "Tall, loose-limbed and good-humoured, she strode around the campus, aware that she was much talked about", according to the journalist Peter Blazey, a contemporary at Melbourne. During her first year she had some kind of breakdown as a result of depression and was briefly treated in hospital. She told Playboy magazine, in an interview published in 1972, that she had been raped during her second year at Melbourne, an experience she described in detail in The Guardian in March 1995.
Royal George Hotel, Sydney, 2010
Just before she graduated from Melbourne in 1959 with an upper second, she moved to Sydney, where she became involved with the Sydney Push and the anarchist Sydney Libertarians. "[T]hese people talked about truth and only truth", she said, "insisting that most of what we were exposed to during the day was ideology, which was a synonym for lies—or bullshit, as they called it." They would meet in a back room of the Royal George Hotel on Sussex Street. Clive James was involved with the group at the time. One of Greer's biographers, Christine Wallace, wrote that Greer "walked into the Royal George Hotel, into the throng talking themselves hoarse in a room stinking of stale beer and thick with cigarette smoke, and set out to follow the Push way of life, 'an intolerably difficult discipline which I forced myself to learn'". Greer already thought of herself as an anarchist without knowing why she was drawn to it; through the Push, she became familiar with anarchist literature. She had significant relationships in the group with Harry Hooton and Roelof Smilde, both prominent members. She shared an apartment with Smilde on Glebe Point Road, but the relationship did not last; according to Wallace, the Push ideology of "free love" involved the rejection of possessiveness and jealousy, which naturally worked in the men's favour.
When the relationship with Smilde ended, Greer enrolled at the University of Sydney to study Byron, where, Clive James wrote, she became "famous for her brilliantly foul tongue". One of her friends there, Arthur Dignam, said that she "was the only woman we had met at that stage who could confidently, easily and amusingly put men down." She became involved in acting at Sydney and played Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children in August 1963. That year she was awarded a first-class MA for a thesis entitled "The Development of Byron's Satiric Mode", and took up an appointment at Sydney as senior tutor in English, with an office next door to Stephen Knight in the university's Carslaw Building. "She was undoubtedly an excellent teacher," he said. "And one of the best lecturers—one of the few who could command the Wallace Lecture Theatre, with its 600 students. She had a kind of histrionic quality which was quite remarkable, added to her real scholarship."
The MA won Greer a Commonwealth Scholarship, with which she funded further studies at the University of Cambridge, arriving in October 1964 at Newnham College, a women-only college. She had been encouraged to move from Sydney by Sam Goldberg, a Leavisite, who had been Challis Chair of English Literature at Sydney since 1963. Initially joining a BA course at Cambridge—her scholarship would have allowed her to complete it in two years—Greer managed to switch after the first term ("by force of argument", according to Clive James) to the PhD programme to study Shakespeare, supervised by Anne Barton, then known as Anne Righter. She said she switched because she "realized they were not going to teach [her] anything". It was Muriel Bradbrook, Cambridge's first female Professor of English, who persuaded Greer to study Shakespeare; Bradbrook had supervised Barton's PhD.
Left to right: Hilary Walston, Germaine Greer and Sheila Buhr, joining the
, Cambridge News
, November 1964
Cambridge was a difficult environment for women. As Christine Wallace notes, one Newnham student described her husband receiving a dinner invitation in 1966 from Christ's College that allowed "Wives in for sherry only". Lisa Jardine first encountered Greer at a formal dinner in Newnham. The principal had asked for silence for speeches. "As a hush descended, one person continued to speak, too engrossed in her conversation to notice":
At the graduates' table, Germaine was explaining with passion that there could be no liberation for women, no matter how highly educated, as long as we were required to cram our breasts into bras constructed like mini-Vesuviuses, two stitched, white, cantilevered cones which bore no resemblance to the female anatomy. The willingly suffered discomfort of the Sixties bra, she opined vigorously, was a hideous symbol of male oppression.
As soon as she arrived, Greer auditioned (with Clive James, whom she knew from the Sydney Push) for the student acting company, the , in its club room in Falcon Yard above a Mac Fisheries shop. They performed a sketch in which he was Noël Coward and she was Gertrude Lawrence. Joining on the same day as James and Russell Davies, Greer was one of the first women to be admitted as a full member, along with Sheila Buhr and Hilary Walston.[d] The Cambridge News carried a news item about it in November 1964, referring to the women as "three girls". Greer's response to being accepted was reportedly: "This place is jumping with freckle-punchers. You can have it on your own." She did take part in its 1965 revue, My Girl Herbert, alongside Eric Idle (the Footlights president), John Cameron, Christie Davies and John Grillo. A critic noticed "an Australian girl who had a natural ability to project her voice". Other members of the Footlights when she was there included Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Peter Cook and David Frost.
Greer lived for a time in the room next to Clive James at Friar House on Bene't Street, opposite The Eagle. Referring to her as "Romaine Rand", James described her room in his memoir of Cambridge, May Week Was In June (1991):
Drawing on her incongruous but irrepressible skills as a housewife, she had tatted lengths of batik, draped bolts of brocade, swathed silk, swagged satin, niched, ruffed, hemmed and hawed. There were oriental carpets and occidental screens, ornamental plants and incidental music. The effect was stunning. ... Romaine, however, once she had got her life of luxury up and running, did not luxuriate. She had a typewriter the size of a printing press. Instantly she was at it, ten hours a day. Through the lath-and-plaster wall I could hear her attacking the typewriter as if she had a contract, with penalty clauses, for testing it to destruction.
Greer finished her PhD in Calabria, Italy, where she stayed for three months in a village with no running water and no electricity. The trip had begun as a visit with a boyfriend, Emilio, but he ended the relationship so Greer had changed her plans. Rising before dawn, she would wash herself at a well, drink black coffee and start typing. She was awarded her PhD in May 1968 for a thesis entitled The Ethic of Love and Marriage in Shakespeare's Early Comedies. Her family did not fly over for the ceremony. "I had worked all my life for love, done by best to please everybody, kept going till I reached the top, looked about and found I was all alone."
The Female Eunuch relies extensively on Greer's Shakespearean scholarship, particularly when discussing the history of marriage and courtship. In 1986 Oxford University Press published her book Shakespeare as part of its Past Masters series, and in 2007 Bloomsbury published her study of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's Wife.