'ISN'T it terrible? There's a strike on, and here I am at work, " says Professor Janet Todd. "To think of all that support I gave the miners and now I'm a scab."

Aghast that conservatism might be seen to have crept up on her, Todd, a feminist academic of the Germaine Greer generation, has a good excuse. The one-day industrial action by Aberdeen University lecturers coincides with her first day back at the English department after a bout of flu, so she has been caught rather on the hop.

In fact, Todd is still very much in pioneering mode. One of the UK's most distinguished English academics, and a world authority on Jane Austen, she is harnessing her love and knowledge of literature to launch a radical innovation: the Centre for The Novel.

The only forum of its kind in the country, the centre will explore all aspects of the novel in English, from theory to its development since its modern inception in the late seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries and how the novel can shape a nation's sense of itself.

Though the centre will aim initially to attract scholars and postgraduates to its new unique Masters (MLitt) in the novel, Todd hopes to branch into the community. "I'm keen to reach out to other people in the Aberdeen area so that conferences and seminars and meetings will be open to the public - reading groups and people who just enjoy novels - because I'm conscious the university has not done enough of that in the past."

The tone will be set at the official launch on Thursday, when the author, academic and journalist John Sutherland will be discussing "the popular novel before the novel became (really) popular". "I'm hoping the event will appeal to the city and schools, as well as to our academics, " Todd says.

Her interest in the form is anything but academic. It would be more accurate to call it a passion that began as a lifeline. An only child born in Wales, Todd was sent to a Welsh-speaking boarding school while her parents were in Sri Lanka and Bermuda on colonial business. She didn't even stay with them in the holidays because "the distances were too great - it took too long". Instead, she was put up by a maiden aunt.

"I really loathed school. It was a lonely business, " Todd says. "That's when I got into reading in a big way. The novel is both an escape and an enrichment. It allows you to get away from the humdrum and the painful and, at the same time, it throws light on that ordinary life. It's better than psychology; it can teach you as much, certainly, and possibly more."

The Russians, particularly Dostoevsky, bowled Todd over in her early teens. "I lived in that world for a long, long time. But I didn't come from a particularly intellectual family. At first I was an Enid Blyton sort of person, while children from more bookish families were reading Jane Austen and the Brontes."

Todd has caught up on the Austen front, to say the least. She was general editor for a recent Cambridge edition, the first entire academic revision since Chapman's in the 1920s, and she has written a book on the novels as well. Todd, who has worked at Glasgow University and at universities in the US and Africa, is also an acclaimed biographer of of Aphra Behn, the first professional woman writer in English literature, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the radical writer and activist, and mother of Mary Shelley.

Austen remains a source of great joy for Todd, who can read and reread her work. She views Wollstonecraft, though, as "interesting" but hardly pleasurable. "Austen herself said of Pride and Prejudice that she 'lop't and crop't it successfully' and it has that shortness and great surface ease. She mocked writers who put in great chunks of didactic information, as she believes Scott does. Fashion changes and some seem to survive through it all. I think Austen is now proving one of those. She was highly experimental yet is also extremely popular."

This has undoubtedly been helped by recent television and film adaptations, Todd admits. She preferred the BBC Pride and Prejudice to the Keira Knightley movie, of which the most she will say is that it was "very pretty". She was irritated that "the whole thing was raised socially" so that Darcy's home was Chatsworth House, which would make him on a parwith the Duke of Devonshire. "The world of her books always referred to the upper reaches of the middle class, not the aristocracy."

The Centre for The Novel will be grounded in Aberdeen University's exceptional resources, and the long tradition of rhetoric and literary criticism built up over its 500-year history. One of the original copyright libraries, the university holds one of the best collections of popular fiction published between 1790 and 1830. It has also recently acquired an important SirWalter Scott collection.

The centre will work with other university departments at Aberdeen, particularly the Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies. It is hoped, ultimately, to explore beyond its English language form. "It would be good to look at, say, the novel and European consciousness, but we need to start small and build up."

Todd came of age in the early 1960s and was taught by the legendary critic F R Leavis at Cambridge. Throughout that decade and the 1970s, her political and cultural views were shaped by feminism. "My generation has been a noisy one. It's acted as if all the stages it was going through, all its experiences, were for the first time in humanity. Nowwe're making quite a bit of noise about growing old and dying."

She is fascinated to hear her young students' interpretations of some books, and by extension the world. "Many of my students are now embarrassed by the term feminist because it smacks of an older generation, something deeply passe. Some of them appear to have taken the sexual liberation without taking much of the social and emotional liberation that were part of early feminism. Their dependence on the approval of men seems to be as great as it would have been in the 1950s. " Can she really still read without her critical faculties getting in the way? "Absolutely, that's why I like crime fiction, which is often minimal in terms of characterisation. But it has a forward-thrusting plot, which I enjoy. It would be a poor novel that didn't take one over to some extent. I suspect the more novels you read, the easier it is to lend yourself to the experience."

When it comes to contemporary Scottish writers, Todd rates Alasdair Gray very highly, though "he can get over political". She also admires Ali Smith, Janice Galloway and others. Less so James Kelman. "The trouble is, one ought to admire him, " she says, hinting at the pressures of academic orthodoxy.

As forwriting a novel herself, Todd does not seem tempted. "I know I'll never be an Austen or an Eliot so maybe it's not worth trying. But perhaps a kind of memoir: my life in fiction. It's quite interesting to think of one's own life in terms of the books that have inf luenced one."

The Centre for The Novel will be launched on Thursday in the Linklater Rooms, King's College, Aberdeen University. An exhibition of rare books from the university's special collections runs from 2pm to 5pm, and John Sutherland will be speaking at 5.15pm. Visit www. abdn. ac. uk/english/novel for more details.