His extraordinary record of scholarly achievements, spanning a career of 45 years of publication, represents the very best of traditional British literary criticism, largely impervious to more recent theoretical constructs but ever informed by daring insights and bold incursions into new areas of enquiry. His seminal studies of Emile Zola and his works, for which he is best known, have gained him a lasting international reputation and have inspired generations of critics in the English-speaking world to turn their attention to a major writer whose novels were universally admired by the reading public but largely ignored by the academic community.
Frederick William John Hemmings was born in Southampton in 1920, and went to Taunton School, where his father was headmaster. After completing a first degree in languages at Exeter College, Oxford in 1941, he did war service decrypting German codes in the Army Intelligence Corps. In 1946 he returned to academic life in Oxford, completing his DPhil in 1949, a groundbreaking study that was published the following year by Oxford University Press, The Russian Novel in France 1884-1914. He had secured in 1948 an assistant lectureship at the University College of Leicester, where, with remarkable loyalty, he remained for almost 40 years until his complete retirement in 1985. He had been the first appointee to a personal chair at Leicester University in 1963.
By then he had already made his mark as a pioneer of Zola studies and as the foremost Zola critic in the English-speaking world. Along with eminent co-researchers such as Guy Robert and Henri Mitterrand in France and Elliot M. Grant, Robert J. Niess and Philip Walker in the United States, he gave rise to an extraordinary groundswell of interest in the career and works of the author of Germinal, firmly and irretrievably establishing the novelist's status, which only the most grudging and die-hard literary aesthetes might still deny, as a leading literary figure.
He edited Zola's art criticism, charted the genesis of much of his fiction, explored his career as a journalist and literary critic, revealing, as never before, the rich complexity and significance of the novelist's multiple achievements. His biographical and critical study Emile Zola (1953), of which he produced a thoroughly revised edition in 1966, is arguably the most influential book on Zola ever written and undoubtedly the most cited authority on the writer's life and works, though inexplicably never translated into French. It remains the standard English study on the creator of the Rougon-Macquart novels and author of "J'accuse".
The 1960s were remarkably fruitful years. Few days could have gone by without Hemmings's applying to the letter Balzac's and Zola's motto: Nulla dies sine linea. Stendhal joined Zola as a major preoccupation, leading to an extraordinary series of parallel studies in the most prestigious journals, to a further classic work, Stendhal: a study of his bovels (1964), with a volume entitled Balzac: an interpretation of "La Comedie humaine" (1967) for good measure. This latter work grew out of seminars presented during a year as Visiting Professor at Yale University and a lecture tour of major North American universities.
The framework of Hemmings's criticism during this period was biographical, but the central focus remained the writer's works, to which he applied sagacious powers of interpretation unimpeded by elaborate theorising and bolstered by a wealth of unobtrusive erudition. During these years he still found time to produce regular reviews of recent British fiction for the New Statesman (in 1964-66) and the Listener (1968-70).
Further studies on Zola and Stendhal unfailingly appeared in later years, as did books on two other major 19th-century French writers: The King of Romance: a portrait of Alexandre Dumas (1979) and Baudelaire the Damned (1982). But the publication of The Age of Realism (1974), and, in particular, of Culture and Society in France, 1848-1898 (1971) - followed in 1987 by a companion volume for the earlier period: 1789-1848 - marked a considerable broadening of the scope of Hemmings's scholarship and a new direction in his research as his interest shifted to the social, political, intellectual and cultural history of the whole 19th century.
This project of Balzacian and Zolaesque proportions was realised all the more remarkably during a busy nine-year term of office as head of the French department at Leicester University. Then, far from resting on his laurels, he devoted himself with renewed vigour in early retirement to a further major task and another new venture, nothing less than a history of the French theatre from the latter half of the 18th century to the eve of the First World War, delineating the world of the French theatre on-stage, off-stage, back-stage, in all its aspects and in its evolving trends as text, performance, staging, commercial venture. Two volumes of this huge enterprise - The Theatre Industry in Nineteenth-Century France (1993) and Theatre and State in France, 1760-1905 - had already appeared when, tragically, his failing health prevented him from completing a third.
John Hemmings was and will continue to be for all that knew him a lasting source of inspiration, not only for his monumental achievements, for his erudition transmitted in the most elegant and lucid of styles and for his exemplary sense of commitment to his research, but for his total intellectual honesty, his total lack of pretentiousness and his unfailing readiness to share his knowledge, his enthusiasm and his interests with students, colleagues and friends.
Frederick William John Hemmings, literary scholar and critic: born Southampton 13 December 1920; Professor of French Literature, Leicester University 1963-85; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Leicester 9 May 1997.