Obituary: Professor A. H. Diverres
Saturday 06 June 1998
A fine scholar, with an unassuming approach to intellectual problems and to people, he rapidly became the father of the two university French departments he headed in the 1960s and 1970s. Today's universities, with their system of rotating chairpersons, may avoid some of the vices of the old regime, but at the price of the wisdom and responsibility of figures like Armel Hugh Diverres.
Diverres spent his academic career in three universities: Manchester, Aberdeen and Swansea. After studying at Swansea Grammar School, where Dylan Thomas was one of his contemporaries, he graduated with first class honours in French from the University College of Swansea in 1936. Two years later he obtained the Licence-es-Lettres at the University of Rennes and the MA of the University of Wales for a thesis on the Breton writer Paul Feval. After war service in the artillery and the Intelligence Corps, in 1946 he was drawn into the brilliant circle of medievalists which was growing up around Eugene Vinaver in Manchester.
He remained as Lecturer in French at Manchester University until 1954, when he moved to a Senior Lectureship at Aberdeen, succeeding Professor F.C. Roe in the Carnegie Chair of French in 1958. His sound, long-term view of the university scene and developed capacity to lead were just the qualities needed to steer his department and faculty through turbulent years following May 1968. To the dismay of his colleagues, in 1974 he accepted the Chair of French at Swansea. In this way, the last seven years of his career were spent in his home university where he was in fact renewing a family link, for his father had been a lecturer in French from 1923 to 1946.
Diverres's main contribution to scholarship is in the field of Old French language and literature. His early work in Manchester was on medieval French chronicles: his doctoral thesis of 1950 was an edition of La Chronique metrique attribuee a Geffroy de Paris, which still provides a model, not simply of meticulousness, but of insights into the workings of the medieval French mind and of the Old French language.
He then moved on to Froissart with an edition of the Voyage en Bearn. However, as a Welshman with strong Breton connections working in Scotland, it is inevitable that the Celtic legends of Arthur and Tristan should have become his strongest preoccupation. He produced numerous studies of the romances of his favourite Arthurian poet, Chretien de Troyes. A founder member of the International Arthurian Society, Diverres served first as Vice-President then as President of the British Branch. This was crowned by his two-year appointment as International President of the society in 1981.
As a speaker of Welsh, Breton, French and English, Armel Diverres was fascinated by language. Language, thought and culture were inseparable. I vividly remember being ticked off as a junior lecturer for innocently ordering for the library a translation into modern French of the Chanson de Roland. This, Diverres felt, would discourage the students from reading the real text.
However, he was not trapped in the world of traditional philology - he saw the richness of contemporary linguistics and was concerned that it should be central to Modern Languages in universities, at the time when philology was coming under pressure. He was instrumental in setting up a Linguistics Department and well-resourced language centre in Aberdeen. He acted as Governor of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research. Had his foresight in this area been imitated elsewhere, the situation of Modern Languages in schools and universities today would have been much stronger.
Son of a Breton father and a Welsh mother, he could not have a narrow prescriptive view of culture and education. His achievements in the field of expanding French studies in Scotland were recognised by the award by the French government of the Palmes Academiques in 1971. From 1976 to 1978 he was President of the Society for French Studies.
At the same time he was pure Celt. He was extraordinarily proud of his Welsh language and background: after returning to Wales at the end of his career, he thrust himself energetically into Welsh national life, serving on the University of Wales Press Board and acting as a Governor of the National Museum of Wales. As a man steeped in many cultures he was ideally equipped to teach generations of British students respect for equally valid worlds far removed from their own.
On the personal level, Diverres will be remembered for his friendliness and generosity. At Christmas-time, he would visit all colleagues in the French department with small children and distribute toys to them. All this in the greatest simplicity and with a total lack of condescension.
His enthusiasm for his subject and his gift of communicating meant that we all held him in a mixture of affection and awe. Any claim to have seen the Loch Ness Monster at Castle Urquhart would normally be dismissed as ridiculous, but not when the person making it was A. H. Diverres.
Armel Hugh Diverres, French scholar: born Liverpool 4 September 1914; Lecturer in French, Manchester University 1946-54; Senior Lecturer in French, Aberdeen University 1954-58, Carnegie Professor of French 1958- 74; Professor of French, University College of Swansea 1974-81 (Emeritus); married 1945 Ann Williams (one son, two daughters); died Swansea 27 May 1998.
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