Obituary: Professor Alison Fairlie
TO BE taught by Alison Fairlie, sometime Professor of French at Cambridge University, was at once exhilarating and alarming. As a Fellow of Girton she supervised mainly for her own college, so she was teaching modern languages to those whom she had herself selected. She had a flair for seeing through a coating of dutiful schoolgirl learning or gambling on a spark of lively interest (or revolt) glimpsed in an interview, to assemble each year a dozen or so young women from very varied backgrounds, many of whom were startled to find themselves at Girton.
She was the least dogmatic of teachers, encouraging her students to find their own way into texts, guided but not commanded by her careful criticism and annotation of their essays and by her taxing supervisions. Here she employed a nerveracking technique of posing hard questions and waiting in patient silence for a diffident answer which she could always turn to good account. The supervisions of her friend and Girton colleague Odette de Mourgues were elegantly structured and finished punctually. Fairlie's roamed unpredictably and invariably ran over time, and her supervisees emerged exhausted, feeling that they urgently needed to re-read the text they had just discussed.
Alison Fairlie was born in Lerwick, Shetland, the eldest of four children. The premature death of her father (a minister of the Church of Scotland) left her with a strong sense of family responsibility; and it was perhaps her Presbyterian upbringing which gave rise not only to her fondness for the Scottish metrical psalter (she claimed that one of her favourite lines of verse was 'Nevertheless, continually') but to a certain puritan seriousness and austerity in her character, which was counterbalanced by her great capacity for generous friendship and support of all kinds to pupils, relatives, and colleagues.
After attending Ardrossan Academy, Dumfries Academy, and Penrhos College, Alison Fairlie went up to St Hugh's College, Oxford, in 1935 and graduated with First Class honours in Medieval and Modern Languages. She remained devoted to Oxford and was delighted to be made an Honorary Fellow of her old college in 1972. Postgraduate research in Paris was interrupted by the fall of France, but she gained the D Phil in 1943 (by which time she was already working at Bletchley Park) for a dissertation which became her first book, Leconte de Lisle's Poems on the Barbarian Races (1947).
This work she later described as 'turgid' but it was innovative in the way it brought archaeological and anthropological scholarship to bear on its subject. Writing did not come easily to Alison Fairlie (except the penning of satiric verses during boring college or faculty meetings) and only three more books were to follow. Short monographs on Les Fleurs du Mal in 1960 and Madame Bovary in 1962 helped several generations of sixth-formers and undergraduates to enjoy these texts, thanks to Fairlie's spare but suggestive style, and the sense of a broad, subtle, and sympathetic understanding of human experience which her writing transmits.
To mark her retirement, Professor Malcolm Bowie edited a collection of Alison Fairlie's essays on Constant, Baudelaire, Nerval, and Flaubert which appeared in 1981 as Imagination and Language, and his description in the editor's note of the 'extended campaign of argument and subterfuge' which was needed to overcome Fairlie's modesty and self-doubt and permit the publication of this volume will ring true with all those friends of hers who found how much more difficult it is to overcome true modesty than the false variety. Apart from these book-length publications, Alison Fairlie made her mark through numerous articles and conference papers, as well as through a great many reviews, in which penetrating critical acuity and enormous erudition were tempered by charity. Some of those who had enjoyed and benefited from her published critical writings regretted that she chose latterly to work in a more narrowly scholarly mode, preparing Benjamin Constant's correspondence for a forthcoming edition of his complete works, a task interrupted by her final illness.
Alison Fairlie was a resident Fellow of Girton for many years, but moved in the late 1960s to a rather murky three-storey house in Parker Street which soon filled up with books and companionable clutter. Here she liked to receive colleagues and former students, finding Girton a little intimidating as the Fellowship grew and contained more and more unknown faces. Many academics who had been taught by her still relied on her judgement of their writings, and she read and annotated their typescripts with the same thorough care that she had given to their undergraduate or graduate efforts. They will miss her, but remain grateful for what she taught them about the possibilities and limitations of literary language.
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