The relationship between a scholar’s subject matter and his or her personal life interests me. Some of my colleagues in grad school chose their dissertation topics based on what was marketable. They were duly rewarded. I chose something I felt passionate about, and was lucky to land a job. But I always wondered how they could write in the absence of inspiration. In today’s chapter, we learn that Milton scholar Jonathan Sebelius has a dubious passion of his own…
3. The Olive Grove of Academe
Back in her office suite, she knocked on Juniper’s door and explained what had just happened. Juniper “June” Jamieson was the enfant terrible of the Classics department, a tiny, wiry ball of energy with spiky black hair. She burst out laughing, cackling so uproariously that Owen Griffith, the third inhabitant of their suite, called out in Latin, “Aut taceat aut abeat!” Which meant, more or less, “Shut up or get out.” June pulled Jennet into her office, and, still chuckling, said, “Kiddo, prepare to be love-bombed. Hearts. Flowers. Long, soulful looks. And touchy-feely togetherness during those long hours of consultation… it’ll be like meeting Joe Biden at a campaign stop where you’re the only Democratic voter for miles around. Before you know it, you’ll be sitting in his lap.” She cracked up again.
“I do love your twisted sense of humor,” said Jennet. “What’s the deal with Sebelius?”
“He’s famous for attracting salivating crowds of female undergrads to his lectures on World Lit and Milton, especially when he wears those puffy Errol Flynn shirts. Lots of women faculty have put the moves on him too. I remember once he came to a Christmas party at Lynn Melton’s. He had this burgundy smoking jacket with satin lapels, and every woman there was freaking out, except me of course.” June was a lesbian and presumably immune to Jonathan’s charms, though she surprised Jennet by adding, “Even I thought he was kinda hot. But he won’t have anything to do with a woman. Basically, he’s Hippolytus. Or maybe Peter Pan.”
Jennet laughed, thinking of Euripides’ play Hippolytus, in which the misogynist hero spurned Aphrodite’s gifts in favor of perpetual adolescence with the virgin huntress Artemis. “Then what am I supposed to do with him?”
“Try talking to Lynn Melton. She’s the Chair of English and has to work with Jonny every day. Laura Livingston gets along with him pretty well, too. He and she are both gaga about old books. But she’s got an endowed chair now and works in New York during the Fall.”
Jennet made an appointment with Lynn, and stopped by her office the next morning. When she explained that she needed advice on working with Sebelius, Lynn smiled wryly and told her to take a seat.
“You know Jonny’s a Milton scholar, right?” she asked. “He’s also written several articles on Joseph Swetnam, who is chiefly remembered today for two things. He published one of the earliest manuals on fencing in English. And he produced a very popular and inflammatory 1615 pamphlet called The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and Unconstant Women.”
“A misogynist pamphlet,” said Jennet.
“Yes. That’s partly how Jonny got his reputation. Then a gender discrimination complaint was filed against him by Jeanne Dupont a couple of years ago. She wanted him to fund a pet candidate of hers, since she was about to lose her graduate faculty status because of a lack of students. When he refused, and instead recommended a slate of male candidates…” Lynn shrugged. “It was the perfect opportunity to slam Jonny, given his jumpiness with women.” She paused again, as though remembering Jeanne Dupont, and said fervently, “Thank goodness she’s retired now.”
“How was the complaint resolved?” asked Jennet.
“Oh, they concluded that it was groundless, and even noted her obvious conflict of interest. But by then, Jonny’s name was already dragged through the mud. He’s not as bad as everyone says. He takes his job very seriously. In fact, he’s a perfectionist workaholic. If you pull your own weight and don’t miss any deadlines, he’ll respect you.”
A stickler for deadlines, eh? Jennet decided that “Jonny” could damn well email her himself to set up their meetings. If he was that obsessive, he would break down and contact her first. “Any other pointers? And what’s his problem with women, anyway?”
“Nobody knows,” said Lynn. “He’s been at Parnell for about ten years and has never had a girlfriend or wife, as far as anyone can recall. Of course, he could be hiding one away somewhere.”
“Is he gay?” Jennet’s son Kyle was gay, and she thought she understood some of the challenges that gay men faced. But Lynn shook her head. “No, I don’t think so, though it’s anyone’s guess what his sexuality is. And there’s plenty of speculation. In any case, I’ll tell you what works for me. Don’t sit across from him so that you’re looking straight into his face. Sit next to him. Direct eye contact seems to make things worse. Speak calmly and slowly in a low-pitched voice, and don’t let your voice rise at the end of sentences as though you’re asking a question.”
Jennet nodded, but said, “Sounds like advice from a manual on dealing with feral cats.”
Lynn smiled faintly. “That’s exactly what it is.”
Sebelius was getting angrier and angrier. Day after day had passed, and he had heard nothing from the Woman regarding the tenure files. If they waited much longer, they’d risk missing their deadline. Christ, he hated people who dicked around and then tried to get things done at the last minute. All right, Woman. I’ll abase myself and send you the first email. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? He sent her a curtly worded message suggesting that they meet Thursday afternoon for two hours, and again Friday afternoon for another two hours. With luck, that would do the trick. Unless she turned out to be one of those females who babbled incessantly about trivialities and wasted precious time that he might have spent on something productive. God knew they were all too abundant on this campus.
She surprised him by answering immediately and agreeing to his proposed times; she’d already asked George’s secretary whether the college conference room was free. Good, he thought, feeling slightly mollified. I didn’t want to have to meet in her office or mine. It’s neutral ground.
After that day in the gym, he had remembered seeing her in Chester Hall and realized that she must be the new faculty member in Classics. Jennet Thorne. He vaguely recalled walking past her office once, to talk to Juniper Jamieson about a graduate student who was doing a double M.A. in Classics and English. Jennet Thorne’s office door was covered with feminist slogans and placards proclaiming her support for NOW, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and Femen, a Ukrainian/Brazilian group that used naked, body-painted protestors to combat sexual exploitation. Definitely someone I should avoid, he’d thought at the time.
The word “feminist” brought to mind Jeanne Dupont, a Faulkner scholar who was now retired, much to Sebelius’ relief. Back when he’d first started as Graduate Coordinator, the gravelly-voiced Dupont had taken it on herself to file a complaint of gender discrimination against him on behalf of a prospective graduate student who, she insisted, had been wrongly excluded from funding. That year, Sebelius recommended four male candidates, based on the discussion in the review committee he chaired, as well as the clear superiority of their GRE scores, personal essays, and academic records. The accusations were baseless, yet he had to answer for them again and again as the humiliating charge moved through the bureaucratic machinery of the Affirmative Action office. Dupont had proclaimed his guilt far and wide, tarnishing his reputation at Parnell from the start. And all because he didn’t want to fund a barely sentient student who wrote a puerile, error-filled essay about The Sound and the Fury.
Now he was stuck working with another feminist on the tenure files. He’d be lucky to emerge this time with his career intact, Sebelius thought bitterly.
Thorne had been hired at the Associate level, with tenure, because of her outstanding research reputation. According to Jamieson, they needed an ancient historian to teach Greek history, and Dr. Thorne specialized in the Hellenistic period and Ptolemaic women. She probably studies Cleopatra. That figures. But Thorne came with a bonus: she was also a well-published papyrologist. This piece of information caught Sebelius’ attention. He himself owned a papyrus, a bequest from his grandfather, but he’d never found time to have it evaluated. He’d almost forgotten about it. It was tucked away somewhere in his files, in an acid-free archival folder. Maybe he ought to ask her about it. No. The less I say to her, the better.
Copyright by Linnet Moss 2015
Notes: I like to feature characters from one story in another. All my characters have some sort of connection with the fictional university town of Parnell, Pennsylvania. Juniper Jamieson appears as Laura’s best friend in the London Broil trilogy, while Owen Griffith is a character in The Libertine Belles.
In this story, I set myself the challenge of making a woman-hating man attractive. As a feminist, I wanted to explore the reasons an essentially good man might find feminists threatening or worrisome. Of course, some men simply can’t see a woman as an equal. But that’s not Jonny’s problem…
I wrote this while Barack Obama and Joe Biden were on the campaign trail. Biden, our current Vice President, is famous for being overly touchy-feely, especially with women. This cringe-worthy video shows him in action.