Professor Michael Freeman: Influential scholar of French studies admired in both Britain and France

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael Freeman could be justly described as the most well-known figure in French Studies in the UK. This distinction was undoubtedly related to his role as general editor of the journal French Studies, from 1997 to 2008, but it was also due to his great gifts as a communicator, a colleague and a friend to many in the academic profession.

Freeman was born in North London, and though he was a child of wartime austerity, his outlook on life was shaped by the optimism born of the immediate post-war conviction, especially prevalent in left-wing circles, that society could be fundamentally transformed for the better. While he spent most of his adult life away from it, Freeman was deeply im-mersed in the culture of his native city, its people and its politics. As a teenager he earned his pocket money working in a record shop on Tottenham Court Road and the knowledge he acquired of the social microcosms of Fitzrovia and Soho stood him in good stead as a young activist campaigning for the Labour party at election time. It was a love of urban spaces and the cultures that they generated that would give him a natural affinity with other great cities, Lisbon and Paris in particular. As for the other great Tottenham in his life, the North London football club, he continued to sustain his fellow devotees in the hope, rather than the expectation, that it could recapture the glory days that had marked his youth.

Freeman went up to the University of Leeds to read French and Portuguese, graduating with first-class honours in 1964. He returned some years later to begin a doctoral thesis on the 15th-century satirist Guillaume Coquillart, which he completed in 1972. Between these two courses of study he taught in Portugal.

It was a period of residence that would alter the course of his personal life and reinforce his political convictions. He met Manuela during this time, his future wife and partner in life for over 40 years. Freeman's natural warmth, curiosity and genuine concern for those around him propelled him into those intellectual circles that were naturally hostile to the suffocating consequences of life under the Salazar regime and he made enduring friendships, such as with the future president of post-Salazar Portugal, Mario Soares. Freeman's anecdotes of life during that period illustrated his characteristic ability to deploy his urbanity to defuse potentially difficult situations but also his determination not to betray his natural sense of justice, qualities he would invest in the defence of his discipline and his colleagues throughout his career.

Freeman continued to develop a commanding knowledge of Portuguese language and culture but focused his university career on French studies and was appointed a lecturer in that field at the University of Leicester in 1968. It was a momentous year globally and a period of unparalleled optimism in the British university sector. While at Leicester, Freeman came into contact with some of the leading figures in French literary criticism, such as F.W.J. Hemmings, and revelled in a climate of intellectual experiment and discovery that allowed him to develop his other interests, such as music and dance.

As is not always the case with major figures in French studies in the English-speaking world, Freeman also engaged with, and was much admired by, the leading authorities in his field in France. The critical editions he produced of the works of the 16th-century poet and dramatist Etienne Jodelle, and his contemporary and fellow dramatist Pierre de Larivey, are widely used there. His long and fruitful friendship with Jean Dérens went back to a chance meeting as research students in the dusty recesses of the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Later, with Jean Dufournet and others, they constituted a focus for research excellence on the poet François Villon, resulting in numerous colloquia, especially in Paris, and publications, including Freeman's last major scholarly monograph, François Villon in His Works: the Villain's Tale (2000).

During 1995-96, Freeman accepted a professorial appointment at the University of Bristol, ultimately taking the Ashley Watkins Chair of French Studies which was previously held by his great friend and doyenne of film studies, Jill Forbes. This opened a chapter of exceptional professional activity in his life. As well as responsibility for steering the fortunes of the School of Modern Languages at Bristol, in 1997 he assumed responsibility for editing the journal French Studies, the leading periodical in the field.

Taking on the editorship at a challenging juncture, and with no material recompense for his efforts, Freeman's inexhaustible patience and goodwill, allied with the unwavering support of his deputy, Paddy O'Donovan, meant that prospective contributors to the journal were quite unaware of the pressures he was under. In that respect he was, as he later confided, a victim of his own success. In addition to these responsibilities, Freeman was constantly in demand as a referee, assessor, peer reviewer and for the myriad other functions that grease the wheels of the profession. Nevertheless, unless constrained by force majeure, he always responded positively.

Though a man gifted with the ability to find common ground with the overwhelming majority of people, Freeman did not subscribe to the religion of consensus. With the benefit of his vast experience, especially as editor of French Studies, he could see the risks of ever more tangential approaches to the discipline in pursuit of originality, diverting much needed research talent away from the mainstream that had proved its enduring worth. But he balanced this with a solid commitment to renewal through innovation, as many younger colleagues can testify.

While himself a man of great intellectual range and reading, Freeman was often inclined to paraphrase Montaigne's belief that what singled out an individual was his capacity and quality of judgement. Academic life will miss his judgement greatly, and in a profession too often limited by the individual focus on scholarship, there are many who will miss his unselfish commitment to others. He is survived by his wife, Manuela, and their son, Richard.

Gino Raymond



Michael Freeman, French scholar: born London 20 April 1942; married Manuela (one son); died 30 April 2009.

Comments