Obituary: Dorothy Gabe Coleman

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The Independent Online
Dorothy Gabe, French scholar, born Godregraig Swansea 26 March 1935, Assistant Lecturer Glasgow University 1957-60, Assistant Lecturer Cambridge University 1960-66, Lecturer 1966-81, Reader in French Literature 1981-92, Fellow New Hall Cambridge 1960-92 (Senior Fellow 1980-92), married 1958 Robert Coleman (one son; marriage dissolved 1992), died Cambridge 16 September 1992.

AT YSTALYFERA Grammar School in Swansea, Dorothy Gabe was introduced by a Leavisite schoolmaster to the poetry of John Donne, and found in him some of the qualities of intellect and feeling she was later to expound so vigorously in the poetry of the French 16th-century poet Maurice Sceve.

Going up to Girton College, Cambridge, in 1953 as a Scholar, she read French, Latin and Italian, and after obtaining a starred First she began a doctoral study on Sceve. Interest in Sceve as an emblem poet led her to the riches of the Stirling Maxwell collection at Glasgow University, where in 1958 she took up her first teaching job under Alan Boase, who had done much to put Sceve and other French 'metaphysical' poets on the academic map. In 1960 she and her classicist husband Robert Coleman returned from Scotland to university posts in Cambridge; Dorothy became a Fellow of New Hall, Bob of Emmanuel (he later became Professor of Comparative Philology).

Dorothy Gabe Coleman was interested in prose as well as poetry, and her first published full-length study was on Rabelais (Rabelais, a critical study in prose fiction, 1971); Montaigne held perhaps the highest place of all in her esteem (Montaigne's Essais, 1987) and she chose to have a passage of Montaigne, along with Donne and Dylan Thomas, read at her funeral. But it was Sceve to whom she returned again and again (Maurice Sceve, Poet of Love; tradition and originality, 1975; An Illustrated Love Canzoniere: Sceve's 'Delie', 1981), obliged to do so perhaps more than she would have wished because her reputation as a critic of Sceve was so well established that she was constantly asked to contribute papers on him to conferences and colloquia. She never forgot her early reading of Latin poetry, and this emerged most clearly in The Chaste Muse (1980), a study of Du Bellay, and in The Gallo-Roman Muse: aspects of Roman literary tradition in 16th-century France (1979), a study of 16th-century French poetry in which she argued that French writers and readers of the Renaissance were virtually bilingual in French and Latin.

A stroke fractured Coleman's life when her son was born in 1965, imposing dreadful burdens on both her and her husband. On a practical level, these were eased by her mother, who came to live with them. But Coleman felt that her use of language was permanently impeded by the stroke, even when she had recovered from the aphasia which it caused. It is true that her writing was inelegant. But her scholarship was sound, her perceptions acute, and her convictions strong, and whether writing in English or French she punched and thumped the language into submission, excelling at communicating the excitements of reading, the sensuous qualities of language, its suggestiveness and allusiveness.

In an essay on Rabelais and Queneau which she wrote for a collection in honour of Alison Fairlie who, with Odette de Mourgues, had taught her French literature at Girton, Coleman mentions Rabelais's and Queneau's 'treatment of words as living things' and gives a definition of poetic prose as exhibiting 'imagination, judgement, sensitivity, word-consciousness and the interlocking of rhythm and imagery' (in Words of Power, 1987). These were the qualities she most enjoyed in literature and taught her pupils to enjoy, while also impressing on them by precept and example the need for erudition and exact scholarship.

As friend and colleague Dorothy Gabe Coleman was convivial and vehement, affectionate but critical, fiercely Welsh, given to passionate enthusiasms and generous indignation. During her last illness she was uncharacteristically quiet and patient; it seemed to her friends that Montaigne was probably her best guide in these weeks.