Professor Kenneth Fielding

Dickens and Carlyle scholar who revelled in upsetting received opinion

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



Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?