Professor Ruth Aproberts

Canadian English scholar who championed Anthony Trollope from the campuses of California


Evelyn Ruth Heyer, English scholar: born Vancouver, British Columbia 14 November 1919; Professor, Department of English, University of California, Riverside 1971-90 (Emerita); married 1942 Robert apRoberts (died 2002; one son, three daughters); died Riverside, California 26 March 2006.

Ruth apRoberts, Professor of English Literature at the University of California, Riverside for 19 years, was an internationally recognised authority on the writings of Anthony Trollope, Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, as well as a distinguished literary analyst of the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

In 1971, in the same year that she took up her position at UC Riverside, she published her most influential work, The Moral Trollope (entitled Trollope, Artist and Moralist in the UK). It was a quietly audacious work of literary criticism that rejuvenated Trollope's reputation and vaulted him into the front ranks of the eminent Victorian novelists.

ApRoberts's aim was to counter the image of Trollope, perpetuated by English "cultists" such as Michael Sadleir and Lord David Cecil, that he was a novelist without ideas, style and technical sophistication. For apRoberts, it was this very absence of "style" that distinguished Trollope's art. His fiction was more realistic because it refused to draw attention to words, and instead offered the reader direct and dramatic access to the inner feelings of its characters.

ApRoberts touched on another theme in her study of Trollope that would dominate her later writings - the value of fiction in liberating human beings from the enervating constrictions of dogma and ideology, and in awakening them to what she called "the dear lovely complicated reality of men and women in society, the delicious possible".

In her next book, Arnold and God (1983), she focused on the author's neglected religious writings and introduced new manuscript evidence that revealed his indebtedness to the German higher critics, notably J.G. Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schleiermacher and David Strauss. For Arnold, the German ideal of Bildung or self-development through culture offered a way out of the trap of religious dogma, which hardened human sympathies and narrowed the intellect. Arnold had discovered a bridge between religion and culture that enabled him to shape his life around "fictions of belief", that were provisional yet inspiring, relative yet true to circumstance. In poetry and literature, Arnold found a way of surviving the upheavals of his age without having to sacrifice the supreme fiction, which was God.

ApRoberts pursued a similar path in her research on Thomas Carlyle, whose Sartor Resartus (1833-34) she regarded as one of the landmark texts of modern times, signalling a profound transition from theological absolutism to spiritual pluralism and many-sidedness. In The Ancient Dialect (1988), she demonstrated the astonishing originality and influence of Carlyle's religion of "natural supernaturalism". His ability to assume the religious viewpoint of others was the direct consequence of his religion of wonder. Carlyle was both a scientist and a poet, and he understood that the true miracle of life lay in the existence of man, "the miracle of miracles".

It was no coincidence, apRoberts reminded her readers, that Carlyle was the first writer in either East or West to attempt to fathom the inner experience of the founder of Islam. Others in Europe had seen in Mohamed's ideas an expression of the essence of all true religion. Carlyle alone was interested in the man, the human person, grappling with the problems of human life and destiny that are common to all men and women.

In her later work on the Hebrew and Christian bibles, apRoberts applied these liberating insights with a refreshing fidelity to language and form. The Biblical Web (1994) reveals a playfully metaphorical approach to the study of Hebrew poetry and the Book of Job. With a Carlylean reverence for the necessity of faith, apRoberts continued to explore this modernist conception of spirituality in essays, lectures and in the classroom.

Born Ruth Heyer in Vancouver in 1919, she may have been inspired by the majestic natural surroundings of her childhood home to cultivate Goethean ambitions of her own intellectual and spiritual development. Her father, who had fled New York and an engineering career in order to practise journalism in Canada, had imbued his daughter with a strong sense of the sacred value of art, literature, music and European high culture. Her mother, who worked as a nurse in the Canadian army, instilled in her a keen awareness of the primacy of compassion in human relations.

As an undergraduate studying English literature at the University of British Columbia in the late 1930s, Ruth Heyer met Robert apRoberts, who shared her passion for the Bible, medieval literature, the French and German languages, and scatological humour. They were married in 1942 and for 60 years were inseparable companions.

Drawn to California and its renowned state university system, the apRobertses studied at Berkeley in the late Forties, Ruth receiving a master's degree. But economic pressures drove the family eastward to White Plains, New York, where Robert taught at the North Campus of New York University while Ruth raised her four children. For over 15 years, she remained outside the academy, yet her love of literature and culture never diminished. At home her children were taught to appreciate triangular cloth napkins and were discouraged from either participating in, or discussing, American sports.

In 1960 Robert apRoberts obtained an academic post at California State University, Northridge, and the family moved to Los Angeles. Ruth apRoberts later claimed that it was the free university system of California that rescued her from a life of nappies and laundry. In the early 1960s, she enrolled as a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles and began preparing a dissertation under the supervision of Professor Bradford Booth on her favourite English novelist, Anthony Trollope.

At least initially, Ruth apRoberts must have seemed an anomalous figure at UCLA, an institution that had already begun to feel the impact of the social and political counter-culture taking over campus life. The profound divisions that would divide the United States over the next decade were already apparent in the Berkeley riots in December 1964, and in the police attacks on black civil rights pacifists at Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.

It was a curious time for a 45-year-old mother of four to begin pursuing graduate studies in Victorian literature in Los Angeles. But apRoberts was closer in spirit to many of the campus radicals than many of her peers realised. Tall, elegant, slightly rumpled, with a relaxed charm and a girlish propensity to laughter, she concealed her fervent egalitarian ideals behind an appearance of genteel eccentricity. Her instructors and her fellow students quickly recognised that this quirky woman who peered at them through oversized spectacles possessed a fierce intelligence and a richly erudite critical imagination. Fluent in French, German, Hebrew, and Latin, she was intimately familiar with a vast range of literature and philosophy, and displayed an instinctive commitment to multiculturalism long before the notion became fashionable.

At the University of California, Riverside, she never took herself too seriously. She delighted in her Riverside home and the prodigious orange groves that bordered it on three sides, and, even after her retirement in 1990 and the death of her husband in 2002, refused to abandon what she called her "sanctum".

In her eighties, she lived an active life, attending concerts and lectures, and sipping margaritas at the splendid Mission Inn in Riverside. To her last days, she demonstrated Trollope's conviction that laughter, so impossible to atomise, "is in itself a great questioner of things".

David R. Sorensen

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