ROBERT LATHAM : OBITUARIES

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The Independent Online
Few works of 20th-century British scholarship can have evoked such unalloyed pleasure and admiration as the Latham/Matthews edition of Samuel Pepys's Diary. Reviewers exhausted their store of superlatives: Richard Crossman asserted that "the editors haveachieved the impossible", Sir Arthur Bryant had resort to "complete perfection", and Bernard Levin lapsed into Latin. Robert Latham, whose life's work it was, has died, aged 82.

He was born at Audley, Staffordshire, for which grim village he always retained an affection, of a non-conformist family whose affiliation was with the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection. Wolstanton Grammar School at Newcastle-under-Lyme led him to Queens' College, Cambridge, and a double First in history. In 1935 he was appointed an Assistant Lecturer at King's College, London, and a Lecturer in 1939. In 1942 he moved westwards to Royal Holloway College as University Reader in History; there, for 25 years, he was an invigorating teacher: Professor Alan Everitt and Professor William Lamont are two amongst the many pupils who have paid generous tribute to his influence.

In 1947 he published Bristol Charters, 1509-1899, which was unusual in announcing, in its first paragraph, that the contents made "dull and disagreeable reading", and were, besides, written in "bad Latin". Latham's head- and footnotes did a good deal to compensate for this, but he had yet to find his proper subject. In 1950 he began work on a new edition of Pepys. It was a project fraught with difficulties. Since the original publication of the Diary in 1825 the work had been a bestseller. Yet, as Robert Louis Stevenson pointed out in 1881, this "established classic" and "historical document" had never been printed in a way that treated its reader "rather more like scholars and rather less like children". H.B. Wheatley's editio n (1893-99) merely exacerbated this complaint. There could be no confidence that the shorthand was accurately transcribed and the notes, though often erudite, were haphazard to a degree. Wheatley, quite arbitrarily, added to the text, subtracted from it, and, when it looked toomodern, half-timbered it. The whole thing needed to be done again, from the ground up.

The rights of transcription subsisted, with the manuscript of the Diary, in Magdalene College, Cambridge, to which it had been willed, along with the rest of Pepys's library, in 1703. Of all the ancient Cambridge colleges Magdalene was the poorest. The Diary was an important asset. But the Fellows had long been perturbed by the questions of propriety implicit in Pepys's frankness, and in 1895 felt that Wheatley had over-stepped the mark. It was the imperturbable work of Sir Owen Morshead (Pepys Libraria n 1920-26, thereafter King's Librarian at Windsor) that set things on course, and the canny hand on the tiller of J.F. Burnet, Morshead's friend and protege, that steered it into port. In Robert Latham they found the editor that the diary needed.

He had the historical knowledge, he had the breadth of reference, above all he had the appetite that the project required. In Who's Who he listed his recreations as "music and gossip" but this was deeply misleading; Latham never gossiped, but he loved tolisten to gossip, and in a way it made no difference whether the source was Pepys or the milkman. But when it was Pepys all inhibitions could be abandoned, and he could recreate the context, the cross-references, and the whole grid of detail that full apprehension and enjoyment required.

To do this he had to call on the skills and services of other people; the edition was a major feat of orchestration. The crucial collaborative enterprise was with William Matthews, who was responsible for a new transliteration of the shorthand. In this area, as in that of British diaries and autobiographies generally, Matthews had a unique expertise. But by the 1950s, then a Professor at UCLA, he was an embittered expatriate, and the transcription he produced was often perfunctory and sometimes nonsensi cal. The final text was Latham's, and to produce it he had to extend to the full not only his historical but also his palaeographic knowledge. Yet, with characteristic stubbornness, he refused to admit to this, always alleging an equality of responsibili ty that the evidence does not support.

In 1939 he had married Eileen Ramsay, whose pre-prep school for girls at Englefield Green, of which the Duchess of York is the least typical product, acquired a renown far beyond its immediate locality. She was of great assistance to him in the preparation of the edition. In 1968 he accepted the position of Professor of History at the University of Toronto, a move which proved a disaster, and ended with his wife's illness and death. He was fortunate in being able to accept a Research Fellowship at Magdalene, becoming an official Fellow and Pepys Librarian in 1972. In 1973 he married Rosalind ("Linnet") Birley, thenceforward the "critic on the hearth" and his tireless assistant in the tasks of indexing and anthologising. Before the final volumes of the Diary had appeared he had already begun the Catalogue of the library, a far less congenial task, and one that was to occupy him, along with his editing of Pepys's Navy White Book, for the Naval Records Society, until his l ast months. He completed both tasks in style, where others had failed.

It is a remarkable record, the more so when it is considered that, besides the edition of the Diary itself, he produced The Shorter Pepys, The Illustrated Pepys, and A Pepys Anthology. There were those in the profession who maintained that Latham had unnecessarily prolonged his work on the Diary; they did so in ignorance of the state in which the text had reached him, and of the inevitable difficulties attendant on his other collaborations. Nor can they have understood the principle that it takes time to be brief. His triumph was to have produced a truly democratic work, an edition which combined a maximum of scholarly help with a minimum of editorial interference, and presented the Diary in such a form that it has seemed perfectly natural to render it, complete, into Danish and Japanese. The Companion volume is an encyclopaedia of the early Restoration world, and the Index makes very good interesting reading in itself.

In his private life Latham endured adversity - the destruction of his flat and library in the blitz, and the deaths of both his wives (Linnet Latham, always depressive, took her own life in 1990) - stoically. But he did not repine; good-humour was constantly breaking through. He disliked solitude and, when in company, felt it natural to enliven it. His jokes were famous, and his (benevolent) imitation of Nikolaus Pevsner once put a guest in hospital. He loved music and was a good pianist, although his fondness for duets was undermined by his capacity to reduce his partners to helpless laughter. But the best jokes are still to be found, around all kinds of unexpected corners, in the pages of his Pepys.

Richard Luckett

Robert Clifford Latham, historian: born Audley, Staffordshire 11 March 1912; University Reader in History, Royal Holloway College, London 1947-72; Professor of History, University of Toronto 1968-69; Research Fellow, Magdalene College, Cambridge 1970-72,Fellow 1972-84 (Honorary Fellow 1984-94), Pepys Librarian 1972-82; CBE 1973; FBA 1982; married 1939 Eileen Ramsay (died 1969; one son, one daughter), 1973 Linnet Birley (died 1990); died Cambridge 4 January 1995.

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