Obituary: Professor Dudley Wilson

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The Independent Online
Dudley Wilson was for 35 years a member of the French department at Durham University. He was a well-known scholar in the field of French Renaissance poetry, but his investigations extended into many other areas. Books, gardens, woodcuts, scientific instruments, real tennis, farming implements, food, wine - this is only to begin the list of his interests. He was endlessly curious; and his research and his personal life amply demonstrate why the encyclopaedic aspirations of the Renaissance scholar were so congenial to him.

A scholar at the Manchester Grammar School, in 1941 he won an Exhibition at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, to study French and German. His degree was interrupted by the Second World War and after his graduation in 1947 he proceeded to the Sorbonne, where he obtained his doctorate in 1952 with a study of the poetry of Pierre de Ronsard. His thesis became the kernel of his first book, Ronsard, Poetry of Nature (1961), followed by Descriptive Poetry in France from Blason to Baroque (1967) and an anthology, French Renaissance Scientific Poetry (1974). His very last book, Signs and Portents, (1993) dealt with the observation, recording and interpretation of so-called "monstrous" births from the Renaissance onwards.

In all these books he was exploring the relationship between writers' world view, their experience of the real world and their means of expression; not surprisingly, the author who most vied with Ronsard for his affection was Michel de Montaigne, particularly the Montaigne of the Apologie de Raymond Sebond.

After three years lecturing in French at Aberdeen he came to Durham in 1952, becoming Reader in 1969 and Professor in 1980. As a colleague, he was variously entertaining, exasperating, stimulating, perverse and immensely kind. Generations of Durham students have vivid memories of his idiosyncratic lecturing style; the reverse of a spoon-feeder, he could leave first-year students shocked to their core or else bemused that the course on La Fontaine seemed primarily devoted to Beatrix Potter. He was an excellent tutor who responded to students, talented or not, in whom he could discern a love of their subject. Generous with hospitality, with time and with ideas and knowledge, he was particularly supportive of his many research students and of younger colleagues in his field. At his retirement in 1988 he endowed a Wilson Renaissance Prize both at Durham University and at Sidney Sussex College, hoping to encourage undergraduates who might go on to undertake research in French 16th-century studies.

The love of books, both as literary media and as artefacts, was fundamental to him. No Renaissance scholar can ignore the specifics of the printed book; Dudley Wilson delighted in them. A trenchant supporter of the University Library in Durham, he also worked whenever possible in the Paris libraries, and it was here that he prepared another major publication: jointly with his former research student Professor Alison Saunders he undertook a project culminating in the Catalogue des poesies francaises de la Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal 1501-1600 (1985).

During the last year of his life he devoted many hours to cataloguing his personal collection of early printed books and private press books which, with typical generosity, he donated to the University Library in Durham. That collection and its catalogue will constitute a singularly appropriate monument.

An equally appropriate monument is the garden he created with his wife Dorothy at their home in Durham. Dudley Wilson was as happy constructing ponds, building bridges over streams, digging potatoes and cooking artichokes as he was examining early printed books. He took delight in his family and was proud and supportive of his wife when she was ordained deacon in the Church of England in 1988 (whatever he may have said from time to time about that institution, he was himself confirmed in 1983).

He leaves many friends both in Britain and in France, the country whose civilisation he so greatly loved.

Jennifer Britnell

Dudley Butler Wilson, French scholar: born Manchester 22 January 1923; lecturer in French, Aberdeen University 1950-53; lecturer in French, Durham University 1953-64, Senior Lecturer 1964-69, Reader, 1969-80, Professor 1980-88 (Emeritus); books include Ronsard, Poetry of Nature 1961, Descriptive Poetry in France from Blason to Baroque 1967, Catalogue des poesies francaises de la Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal 1501-1600 1985, married 1958 Dorothy Parker (one son, two daughters); died Durham 28 June 1995.