Obituaries Devendra Varma

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Devendra Varma was one of the world's foremost authorities on Gothic literature. Long based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Varma was Professor of English and Gothic Romance Literature at Dalhousie University, where he had taught for 31 years. He suffere d a fatal stroke in Oceanside, New York, while on the latest of his innumerable American lecture tours.

His birthplace, Darbhanga, a Himalayan village in the province of Bihar, has a view of Mount Everest, a place of great spiritual and mystical significance to Hindus, to which religious group Varma belonged. During his early life, he was also closely associated with educational establishments in Patna, the provincial capital, where he came under the influence of an English teacher, Professor Hill. Varma became a pronounced Anglophile and, shortly after the Second World War he chose to research for a PhD at Leeds University under Professor G. Wilson Knight, who also influenced him greatly.

Having taught English at universities in India, Nepal, Syria and Egypt, Varma joined Dalhousie in 1963, became a full professor in 1969 and, although he retired formally in 1991, he still remained an honorary adjunct professor.

Apart from his pioneering studies The Gothic Flame: being a history of the Gothic Novel in England (1957) and The Evergreen Tree of Diabolical Knowledge (1972), Varma's greatest achievement was his making available modern editions of over 200 Gothic romances and tales of terror, many of them extremely rare, or even dismembered. He said: "My researches are archival. You'll find 40 pages in one treasure room, another 50 with a collector, the title-page somewhere else."

An anecdote he used to tell sums up his lifelong Gothic quest. One day, he was walking in the foothills of the Himalayas and saw among the wares of a poor bookseller laid out by the roadside a tattered copy of a Gothic novel so scarce that none of the world's great collections possessed a copy.

Among other memorable projects, Varma edited facsimile editions of the complete works of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, many volumes of the Dublin University Magazine (in which appeared in original versions of several tales and the classic penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, 1970). For the Folio Society, he edited Jane Austen's Horrid Novels, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1976), Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1984) and Ann Radcliffe's complete Gothic Romances (1987).

More recently, he had been conducting research into William Beckford, the author of Vathek, and had published an edition of Beckford's much-neglected poetry, The Transient Gleam (1991).

Although Varma would sometimes say, in a self-deprecating way, that English was only his fourth language, he spoke and wrote it not only fluently but also beautifully and rhythmically, if often with an Oriental richness.

Harvey Peter Sucksmith

Devendra Prasad Varma, English scholar: born Darbhanga, Bihar, India 17 October 1923; Professor of English and Gothic Romance Literature, Dalhousie University 1969-91, Honorary Adjunct Professor 1991-94; married (one son); died Oceanside, New York 24 October 1994.