OBITUARY : Agnes Latham

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The Independent Online
First impressions of Agnes Latham presented a woman frail in build and stature, but graced with the penetrating intellect and single-minded dedication of the born scholar; her manner was cautious and grave and the overall effect was in some measure formidable. This was her public persona which her achievements and reputation ably supported.

One of three sisters, she was born in 1905. An entrance scholarship to Oxford took her from Wakefield Girls High School to Somerville, where she graduated with a First Class degree in English Language and Literature in 1926. Three years later she published what remains the definitive edition of the poems of Sir Walter Ralegh; it was remarkable proof of her energy (the research was completed on a one-year grant from the corporation of Wakefield). She immediately embarked on what was to prove her lifetime's project of editing Ralegh's letters, a challenge which won her international recognition; their publication is being completed by scholars at Exeter University.

Despite so early distinguishing herself, it was some years before Agnes Latham established herself in a university post. Over a decade of schoolteaching concluded with an appointment to Bedford College in London University in 1939, but with the outbreak of war the post was suspended till 1946.

Teaching brought Latham insights into ways of sharing with younger minds her own profound engagement with literature and the delights to be found in a precise command of English language and syntax, which became the hallmarks of her lecturing at Bedford. Once established there, she wrote on Nashe and Jonson, attained a Readership in 1958 and embarked on the teaching of Shakespeare and Milton (her passionate espousing of their work is how she will best be remembered by generations of undergraduates).

A new facet to her career began at this time with her constant flow of reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement, where her exact and exacting criticism and pithily phrased deliberations can readily be detected, despite the anonymity then imposed on reviewers. The best fruit of these years, though, proved to be her exemplary edition of As You Like It for the Arden Shakespeare (1975), impressive not only for its weight of scholarly insight but also for its careful consideration of the reader's need to be persuaded to share her prodigious knowledge of the Renaissance period and its values the better to appreciate the power of the text as drama.

But this is the public face. Colleagues, and especially in later years her younger colleagues, learnt to value a rather different person in Agnes Latham: warm-hearted, witty, generous and a fund of anecdotal reminiscence that showed her to be as passionately curious about the vagaries of the world as dry and droll in her trenchantly sustained detachment from its follies. Coffee-time or lunch was when she would establish a mood of quiet and generally revealing intimacy, when in a tactfully phrased sentence she would expertly offer guidance about handling a difficult student or intimate refreshingly pertinent ways of teaching particular authors.

Then there were the surprising confidences, such as her admission that she joined the Communist Party in the late Twenties, since it was the only way of getting to see Russian and some German films. After a well- timed pause for effect, she would go on to tell how she had observed decorum and opened her request for membership with "Dear Comrade" and been wholly offended at being addressed in the reply with "Dear Miss Latham". Or again there was the chance reference to her friendship during the war years with the novelist Bryher, followed by the recommendation that one should read A Heart for Artemis for the best account she knew of London in the blitz (she was right: it is).

There were the times too when she would arrive beady-eyed with suppressed pleasure at resolving a problem of transcription that had bedevilled some editor whose publication she was currently reviewing; there was no malice in this, only the scholar's satisfaction in verifying an accurate reading.

After her retirement in 1973, her insatiable curiosity was turned not so much on her home town of Pickering as on the countryside around, which through her Workers' Educational Association classes she began to explore with more than a walker's scrutiny. Her letters (always neatly handwritten and at Christmas-time always personal and not xeroxed circulars) shared this new-found knowledge with a disarming and transparent wonder ("Why, when stags shed their antlers, do they not litter the woodland?"). The same tone informed her observations on her own failing powers of sight and hearing: there was no pathos, only frank statement enlivened with a witty stoicism. Unfailing wonder and unfailing detachment: they were the qualities that made her an ideal interpreter of Renaissance literature in general and of Ralegh in particular.

Richard Cave

Agnes Mary Christabel Latham, English scholar: born 31 January 1905; Lecturer in English Literature, Bedford College, London 1946-58, Reader 1958-75; died Pickering 13 January 1996.