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Obituary: Professor Roy Knight

ROY KNIGHT, who for 24 years until his retirement in 1974 was Professor of French at the University College of Swansea (now the University of Wales Swansea), was one of the leading scholars in the field of French 17th-century tragic drama.

After his early education in Bournemouth, where he was born, in 1926, he entered Oriel College, Oxford, as an exhibitioner, and characteristically combined a fine undergraduate career with coxing a successful Oriel eight and being active in the Dramatic Society and the Christian Union. He was a man who found his abiding interests, his values and his very varied enthusiasms early in life and remained true to them throughout his university career and his long retirement.

Graduating with first class honours in 1931, he became in the same year a temporary lecturer at Queen's College, where he subsequently held the Laming Travelling Fellowship before being appointed successively Assistant Lecturer (1933), Lecturer (1936) and Senior Lecturer (1948) at Birmingham University, during which period he saw war service, including time at the intelligence code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park.

When he took the Chair in Swansea in 1950, the Department of French was small. What it lacked in size, it soon made up for in quality. Three factors were instrumental in this: Knight's own scholarship, his skills as an inspiring teacher and the astute appointments he made - all three of Knight's appointments in the 1950s were later to fill chairs themselves.

What united Knight's Swansea department academically was the belief that the greatest service a teacher can perform is to help the student to understand a work of literature by paying close attention to linguistic precision as the only sound basis for appreciation. The basic approach was described and justified in a series of telling articles and in the much-consulted Advice to the Student of French (1955), written in collaboration with F.W.A. George. The department's success is proved by the number of its graduates who went on to make highly successful careers in schools and universities all over the world.

Yet Knight was no empire builder, believing that an essential element of a worthwhile university education was the close contact, both social and academic, between teacher and student. He did, however, cherish breadth of learning, so championed the introduction of Italian and Spanish at Swansea, as well as advocating diversification within the Arts Faculty as expansion took place in the 1960s, and was particularly proud to be Head of the newly created Department of Romance Studies.

Knight's scholarly reputation was made by the publication of his French doctoral thesis, Racine et la Grece (1951 - a work he often claimed that nobody but he himself had ever got the whole way through) and consolidated by his many articles and reviews. Some of his most characteristic achievements as a scholar and teacher are however to be found in his editions of plays by Racine and Corneille and in his translations of the "untranslatable" Racine, the last of which appeared this year thanks to the efforts of his old friend and collaborator Harry Barnwell.

Knight's academic status was recognised by the French government when it created him Chevalier (1956), then Officier (1968) in l'Ordre des Palmes Academiques and Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur (1960). His sphere of influence expanded further still when he received a special Commonwealth Award to act as Professor of French for two years between 1965 and 1968 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Civil war prevented him serving his full term but he put the French section on a sound footing, created the opportunity for several Nigerian postgraduates to come to study under his supervision in the UK and was able to return as Visiting Professor for a term after his retirement, much to the great pleasure of his hosts and his own delight.

He played an active part in his university's affairs (not shirking stints as Dean, 1960-62, and Vice-Principal, 1962-64) and nationally, becoming President of the Society for French Studies, 1962-64, and Chairman of the Association of University Professors of French, 1971-73. This he did not because he was a natural administrator but out of his profound belief in the Christian ideals of service and his sense of responsibility as a natural democrat: as he said on the occasion of the presentation of his Festschrift in 1977, "The price of liberty is eternal meetings. And none of us, I think, would have it otherwise." His democratic impulses did not always endear him to some colleagues and administrators of a more hierarchical, authoritarian cast of mind.

The same sense of duty also marked his involvement in local church affairs. With his wife Ena, he formed a formidable team until her too early death in 1967. They were both deeply involved in the planning of the new parish church of All Souls in Swansea, and became founder members of the congregation. Roy later became its historian. He was extremely proud when his son, Andrew, chose to enter the ministry and he was especially pleased when he learned that Andrew's first post was to be in Llanwrtyd Wells where they used to go pony-trekking.

Roy and Ena Knight were also promoters of artistic cinema and drama (the French department's annual play was a highlight of the academic year), and Roy's sketching ability (sketching his colleagues was his way of surviving meetings) developed into an interest in portraiture in oils through his involvement with Swansea Arts Society, whose historian he also became.

Even after a major stroke in 1988 he continued to write, publish and socialise, and it was only in the late 1990s that, sadly for his family, friends and colleagues, he became inactive. With his dry wit, his academic's absent-mindedness, his propensity to confuse names and his unnerving ability to drive his car while facing the person in the back seat he was talking to, few have engendered, in colleagues and students alike, such great affection and gratitude for many kindnesses, as well as such profound respect, both as a scholar and a man.

Roy Clement Knight, French scholar: born Bournemouth, Hampshire 10 April 1907; Assistant Lecturer, Birmingham University 1933-36, Lecturer 1936- 48, Senior Lecturer 1948-50; Professor of French, University College of Swansea 1950-1974 (Emeritus); married 1933 Ena Stanbury (died 1967; one son); died Swansea 16 June 1999.