‘one of the most distinguished classical scholars of the modern age’
(The Times, 13 May, 2011)
Written by Frances Muecke, The University of Sydney
On Friday 18 September, 1953 The Adelaide Advertiser (p.15) reported that ‘[a] young woman graduate of the University of Adelaide, Miss Margaret Hubbard, has returned home for a short visit after four years at Oxford, with a record of attainment in classical scholarship that has never before been achieved by a woman or by an Australian, man or woman.’ Apart from observation of Adelaide University in the 1940s, I don’t know what made Margaret say to the reporter ‘Women scholars have a bad run in Australia’. I do know that this remained true for decades and that she did not get the job that she was interviewed for at the University of Sydney c. 1955. If she had she would have been the first female professor in Australia (the first were in 1962-63, a palaeontologist and a professor of French.
At school Margaret had a passion for Egyptology, but, as Adelaide University did not teach hieroglyphics, she studied Latin, Greek and English there, eventually tutoring in English. Her knowledge of English literature was deep and extensive and partly accounts for the special character of her work on Latin literature. At Oxford she read for the undergraduate degree (as was usual at that time for graduates from abroad), and afterwards had a period working for the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae in Munich, and studying manuscripts of Cicero’s agrarian speeches in Florence.
Margaret was as good a textual critic as anyone but the Cicero edition was not to be. In 1957 she became a Founding Fellow of a new Oxford college for women, St Anne’s, and their Mods don (classical languages and literature tutor), absorbed for the next nearly thirty years in the heavy duties of teaching, examining, and college and university governance, all of which she took very seriously. Research was done between 4 o’clock in the morning and breakfast. The long vacations provided the opportunity for camping trips in Greece and Italy.
Margaret’s way of teaching was to treat her students as her equals. If you worked really, really hard you might just be able to understand. Then it was exciting, but it was easy, despite her kindness, to feel intimidated by her force of intellect and superb memory. She was a generous teacher. Some graduate students I knew, dissatisfied with their designated supervisors, found their way to her, completed successfully and became devoted friends. Such friendships were consolidated around her dining table with excellent food and wine.
In keeping with the prevailing expectations of her time — the one book that was the summation of a lifetime’s research — and her own high standards (she prized truly new insights) Margaret did not publish much at first. What must have been many years of early-morning labour came to fruition in 1970 with the publication of the famous 440-page Oxford commentary on Horace Odes Book 1, written jointly with R. G. M. Nisbet. One quote sums up the enthusiastic reactions of reviewers: ‘no commentary of equal stature has appeared in our days.’ (Sullivan, 1971, 116) To students of my era it came as a revelation: traditional commentaries could be cutting edge. The second volume followed in 1978.
But where Margaret can be seen most clearly is in her ‘own’ book, Propertius (London, 1974) — trenchant, original, erudite and focussed on questions that matter. It is still a landmark, even if was overtaken by the ‘New Latinist’ innovations of the next generation. (She examined the D. Phil. thesis of one of the most famous New Latinists, Don Fowler.) Around the same time she published a carefully considered and highly-regarded translation of Aristotle’s Poetics (1972), and her final project was a history of the reception of that work, abandoned after her retirement, which she spent happily with her partner Gwynneth Matthews, in her favourite pursuits: wide reading, cooking, gardening, travel and cross-words.
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