Professor Ronald Grimsley

Brilliant scholar who became established as the leading authority on Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ronald Grimsley, French scholar: born Leicester 19 October 1915; Assistant Lecturer in French, University College of North Wales, Bangor 1948-51, Lecturer 1951-55, Senior Lecturer 1955-62, University Reader 1962-64; Professor of French, Bristol University 1964-66, Professor of French Language and Literature 1966-81 (Emeritus), Head of Department 1966-81; married 1956 Valerie Davies (one son, two daughters); died Bristol 11 August 2003.

The centre of Ronald Grimsley's scholarly activity throughout his career was French 18th-century literature. He established himself as the leading British authority on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to whom he devoted three major studies, all of them very influential (Jean-Jacques Rousseau: a study in self-awareness, 1961, Rousseau and the Religious Quest, 1968, and The Philosophy of Rousseau, 1973) together with important and impeccable critical editions of Rousseau's religious writings and of the Contrat social.

But Grimsley's academic interests and publications ranged widely. His first book, in 1955, bore the title Existentialist Thought. He also wrote on Romanticism, modern philosophy and on comparative ideas. Most notably he developed a special interest in the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the subject of two books, Soren Kierkegaard: a biographical introduction (1966) and Soren Kierkegaard and French literature (1973), and a dozen articles.

The brilliant and prolific scholar was also a superb lecturer. Former colleagues have a shared memory of Grimsley lecturing on Existentialism to final year students. Because word had got around, some of us would be there as well. He would perch on the edge of a table, quite informally, and without any notes would deliver a perfectly crafted, eloquent discourse which made difficult concepts clear and comprehensible (albeit without over-simplification) to an audience most of whom had little if any grounding in philosophy. At exactly the appointed hour, to the minute, the lecture would reach an elegant conclusion.

Ronald Grimsley was born in Leicester in 1915, and it was to the then University College of his native city that he went in 1934 as a Senior Scholar to read for the External BA degree in French of London University. His course included a period of study at the Sorbonne. He graduated with first class honours in 1937 and then went to Oxford, where a year later he was awarded the Diploma in Education, the ancestor of the modern PGCE.

The Second World War then caused a five-year interruption in his academic career. From the Royal Artillery he moved to the Intelligence Corps, seeing service notably in France and Germany. Following demobilisation he returned to Oxford where, to adopt his own choice of expression, he "sat at the feet" of the great Gustave Rudler. He completed his DPhil in 1948, having also found time to acquire the Licence-ès-Lettres of the University of Lille.

For the next 16 years he was to remain a member of the Department of French at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, moving swiftly from Assistant Lecturer to Senior Lecturer and in 1962 to the status of University Reader.

In 1964 he was elected to the newly established second Chair of French at the University of Bristol. In 1966 he spent a semester as Visiting Professor of French Literature at Yale University before succeeding to the senior Chair at Bristol as Professor of French Language and Literature. During the academic year 1968-69 he was Visiting Professor of French and Comparative Literatures at Harvard. It is not perhaps widely known, even among his immediate colleagues, that in 1970 he was offered the newly instituted Kenan Chair of Literature at Harvard University, but was unable to accept for personal and family reasons.

Grimsley remained at Bristol as Head of Department until 1981. In his view, the academic leadership of a head of department involved setting an example in research and teaching, and offering support and encouragement to junior colleagues in both areas. Administration held few charms for him. When told that it was his turn to be Dean of the Faculty of Arts he refused, and, when pressed, said that he would rather resign his Chair. He regarded committee meetings as a waste of time. After one such, needlessly prolonged by the verbosity of the chairman, he murmured in my ear: "Alas, our colleague is not skilled in the laconic arts."

As far as the running of the department was concerned, Grimsley was fortunate to have the services of devoted secretaries and the discreet support of colleagues. In any case, in those halcyon days, life was easier. No one then talked of "line managers" and "budget holders". Though himself disinclined to initiate change (for example in course content and structure), he did nothing to obstruct proposals from others, for he was the least self-important of men.

In many ways Ronald Grimsley was the model of the absent-minded professor, but the best stories came from his own lips. It was he who recounted hilariously how he had set a hotel bed on fire by leaving a suitcase on it while the electric blanket was switched on, or how, having mislaid his keys, he was on the point of smashing his front door down when it was suggested that it might be easier to call a locksmith.

This self-deprecation did nothing to lessen the warm feelings that he inspired. But there are also many memories of acts and words of kindness and consideration and, above all, the recollection of a man who was simple and straightforward and honest, and utterly lacking in pretence and pretentiousness, for all his intellectual and academic eminence.

His family meant a great deal to him. He might grumble wryly about being at the beck and call of his children, but he loved them and, when they were little, every evening he would invent a new bedtime story so enthralling that his wife Valerie would herself come upstairs to listen.

His closing years were dogged by infirmity. A fall led to damage to the optic nerve, and to progressive deterioration of his eyesight until he became almost totally blind. Cancer, after several years of remission, became active again a few months ago. Grimsley was impressively and characteristically stoical to the end.

Tim Hemming