Professor A. Norman Jeffares

Distinguished Yeats scholar and a pioneer in post-war English Studies
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The Independent Online

Alexander Norman Jeffares, English scholar, writer and critic: born Dublin 11 August 1920; Lecturer in Classics, Dublin University 1943-44; Lecturer in English, University of Groningen 1946-48; Lecturer in English, Edinburgh University 1949-51; Jury Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Adelaide 1951-56; Professor of English Literature, Leeds University 1957-74; Professor of English Studies, Stirling University 1974-86, Honorary Professor 1986-2005; married 1947 Jeanne Calembert (one daughter); died Crail, Fife 1 June 2005.

A Norman Jeffares was an ebullient, humorous, tough-minded, generous and efficient pioneer in the post-war field of English Studies. The great centre-piece of his long and distinguished career was his tenure in the chair of English at Leeds University, 1957-74. Yet he was Irish by birth, and virtually Scottish by adoption in the final decades of his life. His original degree was not in English Literature, but in Classics. Jeffares was a scholar and a gentleman for all seasons.

Alexander Norman Jeffares - known as Derry to one and all - was born during the Irish War of Independence. He came from the small Protestant minority of the southern counties, and was educated first at the High School in Dublin, then at Trinity College. Although he read Classics, he had already found his life's mission when, as a schoolboy, he wrote to W.B. Yeats requesting a poem for the school magazine. The result, after some huffing and puffing from the Nobel Prize-winning poet, was "'What Then?', Sang Plato's Ghost". Yeats had been a pupil in the same school in the 1880s.

The Second World War impinged on Jeffares's career by detaining him in Dublin when he might have gone further afield for his primary degree. However, Classics in Trinity College Dublin was a good school; Jeffares was elected a Scholar of the House in 1941. In 1944, newly graduated, he assembled Trinity College, Dublin, Founded 1591, an enterprising collection of 34 drawings and descriptions by himself, published through a local jobbing printer. With the return of peace, he moved to Oriel College, Oxford, where he wrote the thesis which led to his first major publication, W.B. Yeats: man and poet (1948). Richard Ellmann's Yeats, the Man and the Mask appeared the following year.

In 1946, Jeffares commenced his career as a teacher of English at the University of Groningen in the recently liberated Netherlands, an appointment effected through the British Council. He held posts in the universities of Edinburgh and Adelaide, before moving to Leeds in 1957 as Professor of English Literature.

This was the year of Harold Macmillan's accession to Downing Street or, in broader terms, the first murmurings of "the winds of change" in the British Commonwealth. English at Leeds had a distinguished past, its chief of men including Bonamy Dobrée and J.R.R. Tolkien. The former had taught in Cairo, and was especially interested in Restoration Comedy.

Jeffares followed his example in both regards, developing a hugely influential network of contacts in Africa and Asia and publishing studies of dramatists such as Congreve and Wycherley, leading up to his edited anthology Restoration Comedy (1974) . Relations with the Marxist Arnold Kettle were less harmonious, until the latter found a refuge with the Open University. The British Council's mission to bring culture and understanding to the former empire, and indeed partibus infidelibus also, suited Derry Jeffares down to the runway: he steadily became a global presence, and facilitated the development of Commonwealth Literature in the ever-expanding Leeds School of English.

His native country had been the most anomalous member of the Commonwealth until, in 1948, the Irish government withdrew and established a wholly independent republic. In literary terms, Ireland was not so much anomalous as extraordinary - in the 20th century alone there was Beckett, Joyce, O'Casey, Shaw, Synge, and Yeats. In parallel with his Commonwealth initiatives, Jeffares was instrumental in founding the International Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature, of which he became co-chairman in 1968, and Honorary Life President in 1973.

Jeffares and Leeds remain a potent combination in the memories of many involved in higher education at mid-century. Edward Boyle, who had been Macmillan's minister for education, became Vice-Chancellor in 1970 when the Professor of English was at his zenith as a shaper of the discipline and a missionary on its behalf. In many ways, Jeffares was a one-nation Tory of the Macmillanite sort, caring but cunning.

He was editor of A Review of English Literature from 1960 to 1967, and general editor of the influential "Writers and Critics" series of short monographs from 1960 to 1973. An activist in every field he entered, Jeffares developed a wholly new relationship between academic research and commercial publishing. Macmillan, as Yeats's principal publisher and as the firm in which the young Harold Macmillan had been employed, soon became a notable arena for Yeats scholars and editors, many of whom had been trained by, or had worked with, Derry Jeffares.

Yeats remained unchallenged as the focus of his scholarly and critical attention. His 1948 biography was re-issued in revised versions twice, most recently in 1996. Editions, commentaries, selections, collections of essays by diverse hands, summer-schools, a second new biography (W.B. Yeats, 1988 and 2001) - Jeffares employed every avenue of academic approach to the poet whom he had corresponded with as a schoolboy.

He was not alone in this pursuit. Jeffares, however, had a more intimate relationship with the poet than any other academic scholar: like Yeats, he felt both alienated from and attached to modern Ireland. A modest collection of poems, Brought Up to Leave (1987), may exaggerate the facts of alienation but simultaneously it demonstrated the powerful affection which endured.

When he resigned from Leeds University in 1974, to take up a chair at Stirling, incomprehension was widespread. The School of English he had nurtured was the largest in any single- campus university in the country (that is, excluding only Oxbridge and London). Its many sub-divisions attended to American Literature, Bibliography, Commonwealth Literature, Drama, Folk-Life Studies, Stylistics and - rather less formally - Anglo-Irish Literature. The post-graduate population was large, diverse and thriving. West African students in the Workshop Theatre met PhD researchers from northern India and Malaysia. Leeds also drew in many local students, for town and gown got on well in Leeds, and the mixture of cultures was exhilarating.

In the aftermath of Jeffares's departure, Leeds found it difficult to recruit a replacement. Various eminent names were mentioned, but for two years there was an awkward interregnum, only really concluding with the appointment of John Barnard to the chair in 1978. The elaborate structures which the former professor had created, together with a power concentration among senior academics only, had not entirely suited altering conditions. The winters of discontent were approaching, nowhere more painfully and poignantly than in Yorkshire. Thatcherite economics destroyed the basis of overseas recruitment within one season.

Jeffares's School of English had always been positivistic in its general outlook, tending to ignore (sometimes to deplore) the new interest in theory evident in neighbour departments such as Art History and Sociology. The strength of his approach lay in a close attention to textual nuance allied to a keen sense of the biographical and historical significance of Yeats's words. Some other readers were inclined to reach different conclusions, most notably Conor Cruise O'Brien (Jeffares's near-contemporary in Trinity College Dublin) who, in the centenary-year of Yeats's birth, laid charges of political authoritarianism, amounting to a Fascist predilection, at the poet's door. O'Brien's essay, which offended many, was published in a collection, In Excited Reverie (1965), co-edited by Jeffares and published by Macmillan.

In Scotland, he quickly settled into academic and administrative responsibilities, not only at Stirling University but also through the Scottish Arts Council. Living in some isolation by metropolitan standards, Derry Jeffares acquired a reputation among southerners as a man who occasionally drove a posh taxi in Fifeshire, simply for the pleasure of getting behind the wheel. His enthusiasms were unsuppressable, his humour and energy in old age exhausting to some younger folk. Nothing diminished his intelligence or soured his outlook: he could be cheerfully unforgiving.

It would be self-defeating even to short-list Jeffares's multitudinous publications. (The National Library of Scotland holds a 27-volume compendium of offprints by or associated with Jeffares.) A list of the authors upon whom he concentrated is, however, revealing - Congreve, Cowper, Edgeworth, Farquhar, Gogarty, Goldsmith, Lever, George Moore, Scott, Shakespeare, Sheridan, Swift, Whitman, Wycherley, and always Yeats. There is an obvious Irish preponderance, also a strong preference for dramatists and poets over novelists.

There was also a generous inclusion of co- editors and collaborators who were introduced to publication through an invitation of Jeffares'. At Leeds, he had recruited colleagues from broadcasting, pedagogy and publishing. In 1975, on leaving Leeds, he set up Academic Advisory Services through which dozens of curious and valuable things were achieved. From 1980 onwards, the York Notes series (of which he was editor) provided other outlets for aspiring or needy lecturers. Since 1978, he was a director of Colin Smythe Ltd, an independent firm specialising in the republication of classic Irish literary material.

In 1947, the young lecturer at Groningen married Jeanne Calembert of Brussels; they had one daughter, Bo. In Leeds, and then in Scotland, the Jeffares household exuded hospitality, gossip, learning and shrewd judgment. Derry Jeffares was a great entertainer as well as an educator, and he devoted a portion of his final years to editing an edition of Oliver St Gogarty's poetry in which wit and classical erudition met.

At the time of his death, a multi-volume anthology of 18th-century Irish writing was nearing completion, under his guidance and that of a co-editor.

W. J. Mc Cormack

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