Professor Kenneth Fielding

Dickens and Carlyle scholar who revelled in upsetting received opinion
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The Independent Online

Kenneth Fielding, Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh University from 1966 to 1984, was an internationally recognised authority on the life and writings of Charles Dickens and, later, Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle.

Kenneth Joshua Fielding, English scholar: born Great Yarmouth, Norfolk 19 July 1924; William Noble Fellow, Liverpool University 1951-53; Lecturer, Malayan College of Education, Kirkby, Liverpool 1954-56, Senior Lecturer 1956-57; Vice-Principal, City of Liverpool College of Education 1957-66; Saintsbury Professor of English Literature, Edinburgh University 1966-84 (Emeritus), part-time 1984-87, Fellow 1984-2005; Senior Editor, Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle 1970-2001, Advisory Editor 2001-05; married 1956 Jean Ferguson (died 1994; one daughter deceased); died Edinburgh 20 May 2005.

Kenneth Fielding, Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh University from 1966 to 1984, was an internationally recognised authority on the life and writings of Charles Dickens and, later, Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle.

Born in Great Yarmouth in 1924, Fielding began his long intellectual journey at the local grammar school. His upbringing imbued him with a quiet sense of his own considerable abilities and a prickly streak of independent judgment. Like his hero in fiction, David Copperfield, who roamed the same coastal paths, Fielding had a strong faith in self-help and perseverance.

Between 1943 and 1946 he served with the Royal Signals before he went up to University College, Oxford, where he studied with the Dickens scholar Humphrey House. Fielding took his DPhil in 1953, following a fruitful graduate experience during which he unearthed new journalism and correspondence that would strengthen Dickens's reputation as a major Victorian author.

But Dickens was not yet the established author he now is, and Fielding was destined to pursue his research interests outside Oxford. He settled in Liverpool, where he became William Noble Fellow at the University from 1951 to 1953. For three years he lectured at Liverpool's Malayan College of Education in Kirkby, and later at the College of Education. Throughout this period he worked at what he liked to call the "rockface" of manuscripts, preparing the ground in articles for the eventual publication of two still-important books: Charles Dickens (1956) and The Speeches of Charles Dickens (1960).

In the first, he challenged Marxist and Leavisite critics who had reduced Dickens's novels to anti-capitalist morality tracts. Appealing to the extensive and almost wholly neglected record of Dickens's journalism, Fielding revealed a very different side of the author, which was grounded in a nuanced study of his social and religious views. In his fine edition of the speeches, he reinforced this historical approach by throwing fresh light on Dickens as not simply a writer of popular tales, but a man of ideas. Fielding was then invited to join Graham Storey in the production of the fifth volume (eventually published in 1981) of the monumental Pilgrim edition The Letters of Charles Dickens, a role that would prepare him for the project that would dominate the later years of his intellectual life, The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle.

In 1966 Fielding was appointed Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh. He was encouraged by John Butt, Regius Professor at Edinburgh, to explore the vast holdings of Carlyle manuscripts at the National Library of Scotland, and Fielding soon began his second great scholarly investigation, one that would occupy him for the next 40 years in various capacities - as chair of the department, later as part-time professor, and, in his final years, as Research Fellow.

The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent years and, as chair, he was a steadying influence during a period when factionalism and political posturing too often dominated academic life. He needed all of his stoicism and humour to survive personal tragedy, as well as professional upheaval. The death of his beloved daughter, Elizabeth, in 1968 crushed him and his wife Jean, but their mutual love and support enabled them to cope with this terrible loss.

Fielding found comfort in work, and he continued to be a vibrant intellectual force. He was a tireless and supportive mentor who brought the same qualities to his teaching as he did to his research, and students who were brave enough to follow his example were amply rewarded by his generous advice, supervision and friendship.

John Butt's selection of Fielding to join the Edinburgh side of the great Duke-Edinburgh edition of the Carlyle letters, which began publication in 1970, was an inspired choice. Fielding was genially contentious by nature, and he revelled in upsetting received opinion. The Carlyles presented him with a daunting challenge. Carlyle's reputation had never recovered from James Anthony Froude's compellingly perverse biography (Thomas Carlyle, in two volumes, 1882, 1884), in which he portrayed the "Sage of Chelsea" as a violent and insensitive husband who drove his loving wife to illness and nervous collapse.

Carlyle's image had darkened in the 1930s and 1940s, as his name became identified with political authoritarianism and racism. The publication of the Goebbels diaries in 1978, with references to the Führer reading Carlyle's Frederick the Great in his bunker in 1945, provided fodder for critics both in England and America who wanted to excommunicate Carlyle from the ranks of serious Victorian writers. By the 1970s, Carlyle was associated with all of the forces reviled in the modern university: Fascism, racism, authoritarianism and sexism. Even in Scotland, Carlyle was something of a forbidden subject.

Fielding found a far different story hidden within the vast archival resources he explored, not only in the National Library of Scotland, but also in the libraries of London, Oxford, Dublin, Krakow, Massachusetts, New York and Texas. With tenacity, patience and meticulousness, he quietly proceeded to unravel the myth of Carlyle, cramming the famous green-and-white volumes of the Duke- Edinburgh edition with annotations that in themselves constituted a fresh and intimate history of 19th-century Britain and Europe.

The correspondence showed Carlyle as he was to his contemporaries: elusive, paradoxical and bewilderingly complex, but also warm, loyal and defiant against the demise of the dynamic individual at the hands of dogmatic "isms". Fielding demonstrated that behind the mask of Carlyle the ogre lay a deeply intelligent man, whose profound understanding of religion, politics, philosophy and society transcended national boundaries and distinctions.

In notes to the Collected Letters and in separate articles, Fielding disposed of the tired and complacent critical assumptions that had accumulated around Carlyle and his remarkable wife, Jane Welsh. As volume after volume of the Collected Letters appeared - their number has now reached 33 - it became apparent that the Carlyles could no longer be ignored. The two figures who emerged in the pages of the Duke-Edinburgh edition were gloriously human in their strengths and weaknesses. Intellectuals, activists, politicians, aristocrats, and revolutionaries and reactionaries of every persuasion and nationality, were drawn to their modest Chelsea, savouring their conversation and their spirited opposition to humbug and political correctness.

Inexhaustible in his desire to give a complete picture of the Carlyles, Fielding produced exemplary Oxford paperback editions of Carlyle's greatest history, The French Revolution (1989) and (with Ian Campbell) his Reminiscences (1997). More recently, he fulfilled a long-cherished ambition and published a selection of Jane Welsh Carlyle's letters (Jane Carlyle: newly selected letters, 2003).

Although he had formally retired in the mid-1980s, he continued to mine archives and to produce a dizzying number of essays on a host of subjects; at the same time he worked as senior editor and subsequently from 2001 as advisory editor of the Collected Letters. While he welcomed the rise of critical theory and remained open to its arguments, he reminded his students and his colleagues of Carlyle's observation that "at the bottom of all theory there lies great darkness". Fielding was often dismayed by the complacency of scholars, many of them quite distinguished, who parroted orthodoxies without bothering to check manuscripts, and who seemed more concerned about tenure and promotion than accuracy or truth.

Although he had a reputation for sternness, Fielding was a warm-hearted and gentle individual who possessed a splendidly dry sense of humour. An Edinburgh colleague recalled a conversation in which Fielding asked him whether he had read a recently published study of Macaulay, to which the colleague replied, "I reviewed the book in the New York Times." Pausing slightly, Fielding then asked, "But did you read the book?"

In the 1990s he confronted further personal strife in his wife's debilitating physical illness. With remarkable good cheer and devotion, he nursed her until her death in 1994, all the while continuing his research. Carlyle surmised that the "meaning of life here on earth might be defined as consisting in this: To unfold your self, to work what thing you have the faculty for." Students of Victorian literature and history will always be grateful that Kenneth Fielding "unfolded" himself in his work with such indefatigable energy, insight and humanity.

David R. Sorensen