Obituary: Professor Donald Charlton

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The Independent Online
A characteristic feature of the more successful new universities of the early 1960s was the flair shown by their founding fathers in choosing dynamic young scholars for the headships of key departments. There could be few better examples of this than Donald Charlton, who was appointed to the Chair of French at Warwick in 1963, when he was two years short of 40. By the time he retired in 1989, he had become a father-figure to younger colleagues and a wise counsellor in academic matters generally, as well as the long-standing head of what his inspiration and dedication had made into one of the outstanding French departments in the country.

Charlton himself would certainly have wanted it emphasised that his department was a department of "French Studies": that is, one with a distinctly wider range than the "language and literature" regime characteristic of most modern language syllabuses. A relatively new departure in the early Sixties, this expressed the breadth of vision reflected in his own principal publications: Positivist Thought in France during the Second Empire, 1852-1870 (1959); Secular Religions in France, 1815-1870 (1963); and New Images of the Natural in France: a study in European cultural history 1750-1800 (1984: delivered as the Gifford Lectures at St Andrews, 1982-83), as well as in the valuable "oeuvres de synthese" which he edited: France: a companion to French Studies (1972) and The French Romantics (1984), for both of which the teams of authors he recruited included specialists in political and social history, thought, music and the visual arts.

Recruitment of his departmental colleagues was equally eclectic; and courses on offer to students were to include French cinema, art and music long before such variety became fashionable. The quality of teaching and commitment to students maintained a high level of undergraduate applicants, while graduate research was given a focus it often lacked in arts faculties by the creation (largely due to Charlton) of a European Humanities Research Centre.

An outstanding feature of the Warwick French Department during his headship was the calibre of his colleagues: their record of research and publication remained consistently high. This led inevitably to a constant flow of able colleagues to senior posts elsewhere; but it was a "brain drain" that could be replaced with younger appointees of similar calibre. Similarly, Warwick graduates were soon well represented in other universities' departments of French so that Donald Charlton was rightly proud of the fact that when a festschrift, French Literature, Thought and Culture in the Nineteenth Century: a material world, was presented to him on his retirement - a token of affection for the man, as much as of admiration for the scholar. The contributors comprised in almost equal numbers his Warwick colleagues from various disciplines and his own ex-students.

In retirement, Charlton and his wife settled in Bath; although he took up a part-time visiting professorship at Bristol, this left ample opportunity to enjoy travelling abroad. He died while on holiday in Tenerife.

William D. Howarth

Donald Geoffrey Charlton, French scholar: born 8 April 1925; Lecturer, Hull University 1949-62, Senior Lecturer 1962-64; Professor, Warwick University 1964-89; married 1952 Thelma Masters (one son, two daughters); died Tenerife 22 December 1995.

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