Obituary: Kathleen Speight
Monday 23 August 1993
KATHLEEN SPEIGHT devoted her life to stimulating interest in Italian studies in Britain.
Born in 1903, she was educated at St Mary's and St Anne's, Abbots Bromley, and Manchester University, where she was only the third student to graduate in Italian Studies, having arrived with the intention of taking a degree in Geography. It is rumoured that the change of subject was due to a collision with the lecturer in Italian, Azeglio Valgimigli, which scattered his armful of books. While retrieving these she had her first, unusual, but apparently irresistible, contact with Italian literature.
After graduating under Professor Piero Rebora in 1926, Speight spent several years in secretarial work before returning to academic circles in 1932. She then worked for a year as Assistant in Italian at Manchester University under Professor Mario Praz, with whom, in 1933, she took her MA. Three years in Italy followed, teaching English in the British Institute in Florence. In 1936 she was awarded the degree of Dott Lett by Florence University. Florence became thereafter her second home: she visited the city for at least a month every year.
Returning to England, she went as Lector in Italian to Cambridge for two years, where she took her M Litt in 1938, then went back to Manchester as part-time Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Italian under Professor Walter Bullock. This period coincided with the years of the Second World War and she lectured in Liverpool as well as Manchester. Despite this she managed for two years to find time to care for three Spanish children, victims of their country's civil war.
After Bullock's sudden death in 1944, Speight was left in charge of the Manchester Italian Department, of which she continued as acting head until the chair was filled in 1961. Under her guidance and care the department grew and developed considerably and played an increasingly important part in the work of the Faculty of Arts.
Kathleen Speight was an inspiring teacher whose enthusiasm was infectious, and her profound knowledge of Italian literature was never allowed to smother a bubbling sense of humour. Her special love was for the 'golden age' of Italian writing, the 14th century, but her interests, like her teaching, covered the whole field of Italian culture.
In addition to work within the university, she was for long an active member of the directing committee of the Society of Italian Studies in Britain. She was chairman of the Manchester Medieval Society and for 25 years held the position of honorary secretary to the venerable Manchester Dante Society, founded in 1906. On the occasion of the society's golden jubilee in 1956, she organised the festivities and a 'Works of Dante' exhibition for the John Rylands Library. The exhibition afterwards toured Nottingham University and the University of Toronto. In 1965, to celebrate the seventh centenary of Dante's birth, she arranged for the Whitworth Art Gallery the exhibition 'Dante and his Illustrators', which was then shown at the Italian Institute in London and at Warwick University.
Speight attended numerous international conferences and in 1966 was visiting Professor at the University of Toronto. Later the same year, after the disastrous flood in Florence, she organised the collection of a considerable sum of money, both to help flood victims and to contribute towards the restoration of damaged works of art. She also exhorted Manchester University to give generous financial help.
Her numerous publications include the popular Teach Yourself Italian, Italian Novels of Today and TJ Mathias - an English writer of Italian verse. In 1962 she prepared the Italian part of the programme for the Writers' Conference at the Edinburgh Festival.
In 1961 the Italian government awarded Speight the Cross of Cavalicci Ufficiale della Repubblica Italiana. It was an honour of which she was justly proud. Inspired by boundless love for Italy, she was ceaselessly active and enthusiastic promoter of Italian studies. On retirement she spent winters near Cambridge and summers in her little tower in Montesi near Florence. She never really retired and to the end continued her Italian studies and contribution to the benefit of Anglo-Italian relations.
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