Elsie Duncan-Jones

Editor of Andrew Marvell and author of the first book on Gerard Manley Hopkins






Elsie Elizabeth Phare, English scholar: born Chelston, Devon 2 July 1908; Assistant Lecturer, University College, Southampton 1931-34; Lecturer, then Reader, Birmingham University 1936-75; married 1933 Austin Duncan-Jones (died 1967; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Cambridge 7 April 2003.



For more than 70 of her 94 years Elsie Duncan-Jones enriched the study of English literature by her untiring researches, and the lives of her many colleagues and pupils by her encouragement, generosity and charm. Her critical début was made in 1933 with the earliest book-length study of Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins: a survey and commentary, but, above all, she was recognised as a leading authority on the work of Andrew Marvell.

Elsie Elizabeth Phare, English scholar: born Chelston, Devon 2 July 1908; Assistant Lecturer, University College, Southampton 1931-34; Lecturer, then Reader, Birmingham University 1936-75; married 1933 Austin Duncan-Jones (died 1967; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Cambridge 7 April 2003.

For more than 70 of her 94 years Elsie Duncan-Jones enriched the study of English literature by her untiring researches, and the lives of her many colleagues and pupils by her encouragement, generosity and charm. Her critical début was made in 1933 with the earliest book-length study of Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins: a survey and commentary, but, above all, she was recognised as a leading authority on the work of Andrew Marvell.

Her earliest published contribution to the exponential growth of Marvell studies appeared in 1949 and her last as recently as 2001. Her fascination with the life and chronology complemented a deep understanding of the poems; her familiarity with the prose works was also unrivalled. The third edition of H.M. Margoliouth's Oxford text The Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, which she co-edited with Pierre Legouis in 1971, and her British Academy lecture of 1975, A Great Master of Words: some aspects of Marvell's poems of praise and blame (1976), proved merely halfway marks in an unending quest. Twenty years later, for instance, she was the first to demonstrate that a problematic piece, "Blake's Victory", had no place in the canon.

Elsie Elizabeth Phare was born in Chelston, Devon, in 1908. Though neither parent had passed beyond elementary education she attended Torquay Secondary (later Grammar) School. Her brilliance was recognised by the Headmistress, Mary Jackson, who in 1926 arranged interviews for her at both the older universities. Her decision was determined by the size of the award offered by Newnham College, Cambridge, which supplemented scholarships from Devon County and the state.

She repaid expectations with a starred First with Special Distinction in parts I and II of the English Tripos in 1929. At a time when women were not yet full members of the university she became the first of her sex to win the Chancellor's Medal for English Verse.

Under the tutelage of Enid Welsford, I.A. Richards and, for one term, F.R. Leavis, and with friends who included Elizabeth Jenkins and William Empson, she prepared herself for a long career of teaching and annotating literature. She wrote one of the "protocols" for Richards's famous experiment in criticism and contributed reviews to The Granta, then edited by T.H. White. As president of the college literary society she secured a "haughty" Virginia Woolf in October 1928 for one of the talks (the other was at Girton) that planted the seeds of A Room of One's Own, published the following year.

Elsie Phare's own memoir of the period, "From Devon to Cambridge, 1926", published in The Cambridge Review in 1982, is written with characteristic humour and lightness of touch. Miss Phare being spotted in Petty Cury without a hat was not the only sign of youthful spirits; she drew a veil over the episode of gatecrashing a May Ball with Hugh Sykes Davies.

To broaden her horizons after the Tripos, arrangements were made by the Principal, Pernel Strachey, whose interest in Paul Valéry she shared, for her to spend a year in France. There, in 1929-30, she acquired a fluency in the language that encouraged her ever after to read widely in its literature. In Paris she met Samuel Beckett, bought the Shakespeare Head Ulysses and paid a struggling Jean Rhys to type up her dissertation on the English royalist exiles. This failed to secure her a fellowship, and despite encouragement to resubmit she left in 1931 to become an assistant lecturer at the then University College of Southampton.

Elsie Phare's marriage in the same year to a colleague in the Classics department and former Cambridge contemporary, Austin Duncan-Jones, whose father was Dean of Chichester, cost her her post. In 1936, after her husband took up an appointment (and later a Chair) in Philosophy at Birmingham, she was offered part-time teaching, becoming a full-time lecturer in English in 1939. The pressures of being a mother and joint breadwinner in wartime meant that her publications were mostly confined to Notes and Queries and the letter pages of The Times Literary Supplement.

At Birmingham she developed a close friendship with Helen Gardner, in whose edition of John Donne's The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets (1965) Elsie Duncan-Jones's advice is praised as her "greatest debt in commenting on Donne". By the time that she retired with the rank of Reader in 1975 she had been a widow for eight years, but she took great satisfaction from the academic achievements of a son, daughter and two granddaughters.

Though brought up a Wesleyan Methodist, who sang temperance hymns to soldiers wounded in the First World War, at Cambridge Duncan-Jones became a devoted Anglican. Her preparation, as later her marriage, took place at Little St Mary's, where Richard Crashaw's sacred poems were conceived. This deepened her feeling for the English devotional poets, and in particular George Herbert. Small wonder that in 1935 and again in 1939 she gained the Seatonian Prize for religious poetry.

Her passion for books, kindled at the age of six, grew into a habit of voracious reading; she read retentively and with uncommon attention. As her published notes on Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf testify, novels were an early and enduring love. Long into retirement at Amhurst Court the latest biographies, collected letters and critical works jostled for a place on her table with the elegantly phrased postcards in which she conveyed gently corrective insights to editors.

Her last half-dozen years, when following a near-fatal illness fatigue and physical discomfort often overtook her, were greatly cheered by the companionship of her ex-pupil Anthea Morrison, who lovingly filled the roles of reader and amanuensis. Even in her final months a visitor would be greeted with "What news of the 17th century?" – and a suitable response always raised the familiar twinkle.

Hilton Kelliher

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