The historian Irene Collins, who has died at the age of 89, made a strikingly original contribution to the study of two pre-eminent figures: Napoleon, who dominated the early years of the 19th century; and his near contemporary Jane Austen. An original and meticulous scholar, Collins was also a superb communicator. Through her teaching, lecturing and writing, she consistently demonstrated an outstanding ability to bridge the gap between academic history and a wider audience.
Although she spent nearly all her adult life in Lancashire, Irene Fozzard was born the second of identical twins in Queensbury, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1925. Her father, Fred Fozzard, was a joiner, brought up on the back streets of Leeds. Her mother, Louisa Ratcliffe, left school at 12 to work as a burler and mender at Black Dyke Mill.
Her parents, up to the moment of Collins's birth, had only been expecting a single baby; so they had no name ready for the second arrival. On his way to the registrar, Fred Fozzard passed the Alhambra in Bradford, where the first name of the current leading lady, Renee (to rhyme with "eeny"), took his fancy. The registrar, however, objected that Renee was not a proper name, so Fred settled for Irene (always pronounced as two syllables). Sadly, Irene's twin sister, Jean, died at the age of five.
Gifted with an exceptional memory, Collins won a scholarship to Brighouse Girls Secondary School, and then, at the age of 17, a major county scholarship to St Hilda's College, Oxford, to read history. Graduating with a first in 1946, she was appointed as an assistant lecturer at Liverpool University the following year. She stayed at Liverpool for the next 40 years, becoming the first female Dean and retiring as Reader. To her colleagues, she was an enduring source of common sense, good humour and encouragement.
At Oxford she had met Rex Collins, the son of a Primitive Methodist minister, who was at Brasenose College on a naval scholarship. They married in 1951 and were inseparable for 64 years. Rex, who had a successful career as a textile buyer, was universally popular for his courtesy, kindness, loyalty and humour. A marriage of equals, it was impossible for their friends to think of one without the other.
They had one much-loved daughter, Jo, born in 1961, and one grandson, Ben, of whom they were immensely proud. At Oxford, Collins had also been the secretary of the Methodist group often attended by another formidable contemporary, Margaret Roberts, who was not always able to come due to the political commitments that later made her Prime Minister.
Collins's principal subject of research was Napoleon. Her Napoleon and his Parliaments (1979) illuminated a previously unexplored aspect of the emperor's rule. It was accompanied by other books and articles on French history, by widely read Historical Association pamphlets, and by an influential textbook, The Age of Progress (1964), remembered with pleasure by many of its readers. At Liverpool University she was an inspiring and dedicated teacher to generations of undergraduates and graduates.
Small (at exactly 5ft), elegant and with piercing blue eyes, Collins had an unforgettable presence. Her ability to talk compellingly on complex subjects without notes gave her lectures an immediacy few others could match. She combined charm with acute powers of observation and a sharp sense of humour.
When lecturing, she seemed to address each member of her audience individually. Many of her lectures were to Historical Association branches. She was passionately committed to the association's aim of bringing academic history to a wider audience. She became the first female president of the association in 1982 and was awarded is highest distinction, the Medlicott Medal, in 1996.
A dedicated Anglican, despite her Methodist interlude at Oxford, she not only wrote the history of her local church, St John the Divine, Brooklands, but A Disgruntled Guide for the Reluctant Visitor, which won a special prize presented by Archbishop Runcie at Lambeth in 1983.
All Collins's great virtues came together in two books she wrote in retirement, Jane Austen and the Clergy (1994), which Paul Johnson described as "a hugely readable book, which will provide the greatest possible pleasure to all Janeites"; and Jane Austen: The Parson's Daughter (1998). The first placed Austen's novels in the framework of the church of the day. The second demonstrated the influence of her clerical upbringing. This was profound, given that Austen's early life was spent in a vicarage; and that her father, two brothers and four cousins were all clergymen.
The two books made the obvious – and major, but regularly ignored – point that Austen viewed her characters from the perspective of the vicarage rather than the grand country house. They, and her immensely popular lectures on the subject, made her something of a celebrity in Jane Austen circles in Britain and America.
In 2000 Irene was diagnosed with macular degeneration. Despite progressive loss of her eyesight, she continued to write and lecture until a year before her death. Rex, although retaining his courtesy and cheerfulness, also became unable to recognise people. As Irene said, "He is my eyes and I am his memory". When told of her death, Rex responded accurately, "She was unique".
Irene Collins, née Fozzard, historian: born Queensbury 16 September 1925; married 1951 Rex Collins (one daughter); died Altrincham 12 July 2015.Reuse content