Obituary: Professor Vivienne Mylne
Monday 06 July 1992
VIVIENNE MYLNE's career was decisively shaped, and her life was almost certainly foreshortened, by the Second World War.
After a childhood in China, where her father was a Methodist missionary, and secondary schooling in South Essex, the outbreak of war found her teaching classics at the Girls' College in Jersey. In the autumn of 1940, following an anonymous tip-off, she was arrested by the Germans for operating an illicit radio-set and imprisoned for nine months in a French jail. As a consequence, her health was permanently impaired, Greek was replaced by French as her major interest and and this is what she chose to read when, with the end of the war, a dramatic improvement in the student grant system opened university doors that had earlier seemed permanently closed to her. From then on, her progress towards academic eminence was initially slow but increasingly sure.
After graduating at Oxford in 1948, she moved to University College London, where, in 1952, under the supervision of Professor Brian Woledge, she completed her PhD thesis, 'Interjections in the French Eighteenth-Century Theatre: a semantic study'. She stayed there as a part-time assistant lecturer till 1955, then moved to University College, Swansea, where she stayed for 11 years. In 1966, she accepted an invitation to join the small but rapidly expanding French Board at the University of Kent: she was promoted to a senior lectureship in 1967, to a readership in 1973 and to a personal professorship in 1976.
In 1971 she became a founder member and first Secretary of the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies and in 1978 and in 1979 served as its President. She retired to Oxford in 1985.
Readers who never met Vivienne Mylne and students still unborn will continue to admire the solidity of her scholarship and the polish of her prose. Her international reputation as an authority on 18th-century French studies at present rests on an impressive array of essays, on her monographs on Manon Lescaut (1972) and La Religieuse (1981), on her seminal study of techniques of illusion in The Eighteenth Century French Novel (1965) and on the monumental Biblographie du genre romanesque 1751-1800 (1977), painstakingly compiled in collaboration with Professors Angus Martin and Richard Frautschi. It is likely to be further enhanced by her book on the use of dialogue in fiction, English as well as French, written in her much enjoyed and admirably active retirement and safely delivered to her publisher a month before her sudden death.
Those who had the good fortune to know her as a colleague or as a teacher will treasure her memory for a host of additional reasons. Her acts of kindness great and small which, like the fact that she had only one working lung, went unpublicised. The sheer professionalism with which she taught, served on the innumerable committees that academic life is heir to and which ensured that she never once failed to keep an academic engagement. The marvellous meals she would lovingly prepare, the laughter throughout, the music that would invariably follow. The enthusiasm of her singing and its range, from the classical choral canon to Gilbert and Sullivan: nobody who was present will ever forget the end- of-term Common Room cabaret when, appearing as a Britannia, and equipped with burnished helmet, dustbin-lid and pitchfork, she led the company in a spirited rendition of 'Land of Hope and Glory'.
Her taste in reading was equally eclectic, ranging from the arid wastes of la nouvelle critique to 18th-century erotica and from Proust's textual variants to detective stories, of which she read at least one a night. Her subjects of conversation were no less diverse: she would switch effortlessly from demolishing Derrida to appreciating a McEnroe volley or from discussing metaphysics and Monteverdi to savouring the latest mot in a vintage episode of Minder.
It is hard to accept that we shall never again hear her laughter or see that quizzical look, like that on her bust of Voltaire, which would precede her demolition of the latest piece of hocus-pocus to emanate from the upper reaches of university bumbledom. She was one of Stendhal's Happy Few, a wonderful life-enricher.
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