Dorothy Knowles: Academic and leading authority on French literature who was also a champion fencer

Dorothy Knowles was a woman of immense talent and charm who excelled in many fields. A respected academic and authority on French 20th-century theatre, she was also a talented dancer and musician as well as a champion fencer.

Known to her friends as Diana, she was born in 1906 in Johannesburg where her father was a mining engineer. Following his death in 1911 her mother brought her to Leeds in 1912 to sort out the family's financial affairs. Prevented from returning home by the outbreak of the First World War, she attended the Notre Dame School and Leeds University, where she gained a BA in French in 1928. This was followed by postgraduate study at the Sorbonne. The research she did there formed the basis of her first two published works: La Réaction Idéaliste au Théâtre depuis 1890 and The Censor, the Drama and the Film (both 1934).

These were followed by French drama of the inter-war years 1918-39 (1967), which remains to this day essential reading for students of French theatre. During the 1950s she became acquainted with the works of avant-garde playwrights such as Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett and produced articles and conference papers on the theatre of the absurd, always stamped with her uncompromising opinions. How she enjoyed it if a fellow scholar disagreed; a furious debate would ensue. For more than 30 years she taught French at Liverpool University where her kindness was legendary – some of her students kept in touch with her to the end of her long life – and she directed student productions that attracted audiences from all over the region.

As a child Diana Knowles had been a talented dancer and had performed alongside Marie Lloyd and Lupino Lane. During her years in Liverpool, she gave one-woman dance shows in the Philharmonic Hall. She also excelled at fencing and in 1936 started the Liverpool University Fencing Club, organising an open foil tournament, only the second provincial fencing competition in the country. This was an event she was to win many times.

In 1948, she won the Leamington Easter tournament and the following year was elected first chair of the Amateur Fencing Association's Northern Section, which won the first inter-section tournament, the Winton Cup, in 1950. She later became a prominent member of the London Fencing Club. In 1966, aged 60, she once again reached the final of the Liverpool tournament and two years later she was still accumulating enough points from the three senior British competitions to be ranked among the top 20 of Britain's women foilists. She also took on all-comers at the Dynamo Fencing Club in Moscow in 1965 and won the Gisor Challenge in France. Her remarkable achievements continued until she was in her 70s.

During the Second World War Knowles, like many academics, visited military bases in Great Britain where she provided entertainment with her solo dance show, and valuable insights into French life and culture. Such information was particularly useful to young pilots who faced the possibility of being stranded in France.

With her husband, John Stephenson Spink, she visited the Soviet Union frequently from the 1930s until the 1980s; they both lectured at Moscow and Leningrad Universities and broadcast on state radio. The Spinks were committed to fostering Anglo-Soviet cultural exchanges, and through the auspices of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR, they brought to Britain such prominent Soviet artists as the composer Aram Khachaturian and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Retirement was an alien concept to Knowles. On leaving Liverpool she continued to teach postgraduate students as an Honorary Research Fellow at Bedford College, University of London. She was still in her post when Bedford College amalgamated with Royal Holloway College to form Royal Holloway and Bedford New College in 1984.

Now able to spend more time in France indulging her passion for avant-garde theatre, she became especially interested in the work of the playwright Armand Gatti, producing a pioneering study of his life and works, Armand Gatti in the Theatre (1989), and throughout her 80s she assisted with rehearsals of his revolutionary productions all over France. On her 90th birthday she presented a paper to the French studies conference, the annual forum for university teachers of French.

Diana Knowles was an outgoing and vivacious character and a great cook. During her husband's lifetime the couple's north London home provided hospitality and lively debate for visiting scholars. She remained physically and mentally active throughout her final decade and was still working on a translation of one of Gatti's plays until shortly before her death.



Dorothy Knowles, academic: born Johannesburg 28 March 1906; lecturer, Liverpool University 1934 -1967; Honorary Research Fellow, Bedford College, University of London 1967-1984; Honorary Research Fellow, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College; married 1940 John Stephenson Spink (died 1985); died London 10 November 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
football
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us