Professor Alan Raitt

Oxford French scholar

Thursday 22 September 2011 05:48

Alan William Raitt, French scholar: born Morpeth, Northumberland 21 September 1930; Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford 1953-55, 1966-97 (Emeritus), Lecturer in French 1966-97, Senior Tutor 1976-79, Vice-President 1983-85; Fellow and Lecturer in French, Exeter College, Oxford 1955-66, Sub-Rector 1956-59; FRSL 1971; Special Lecturer in French Literature, Oxford University 1976-79, Reader 1979-92, Professor of French Literature 1992-97 (Emeritus); General Editor, French Studies 1987-97; FBA 1992; married 1959 Janet Taylor (died 2000; two daughters; marriage dissolved 1971), 1974 Lia Rodrigues Correia; died Parede, Portugal 2 September 2006.

Alan Raitt was one of the most distinguished post-war British scholars of 19th-century French literature, particularly noted for his work on Flaubert and on Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. A Special Lecturer in French Literature at Oxford University from 1976, and then from 1979 Reader, he was appointed to a personal chair in 1992. The novel with which Julian Barnes made his reputation, Flaubert's Parrot (1984), is indebted to his undergraduate studies, when Raitt was his college tutor.

The clear, concise commentaries in Raitt's volume for the "Life and Letters in France" series Life and Letters in France: the nineteenth century (1965), with their emphasis on intellectual trends, are still fresh after 40 years. His 1957 DPhil thesis, "Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and the Symbolist Movement", which demonstrates for example the influence of Baudelaire on Villiers, and the importance of Villiers himself (to whom Mallarmé devoted his most fulsome literary tribute), was published in Paris by José Corti (as Villiers de l'Isle-Adam et le mouvement symboliste, 1965) and established itself as an essential reference work.

He also made important contributions to literary biography (Prosper Mérimée, 1970; The Life of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, 1981), wrote several other historical and critical books, and published over 50 major articles dealing mainly with Flaubert and Villiers, but also with Balzac, Baudelaire, Mérimée, Nerval, Mallarmé and Maeterlinck, among others.

After his retirement he continued to publish widely (e.g. The Originality of Madame Bovary, 2002; Gustavus Flaubertus Bourgeoisophobus, 2005), and founded and edited a series for Peter Lang in which some of the volumes were written by former students of his.

His supreme achievements, however, were his monumental editions of Flaubert's L'Education sentimentale (in the Imprimerie Nationale series, 1979) and the Oeuvres complètes of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam for the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (with his friend the late Pierre-Georges Castex, 1986).

A Festschrift published to mark his retirement (The Process of Art, 1998), with contributions from French as well as British colleagues, attempts to do justice to the range of his work.

Alan William Raitt was born in 1930 and educated at King Edward's Grammar School, Morpeth. He read Modern Languages at Magdalen College, Oxford, winning Heath Harrison Travelling Scholarships in French and German in successive years, and taking a First in 1951. His tutor was Austin Gill, later Professor of French at Glasgow, and himself a major 19th-century scholar, particularly of Mallarmé.

Raitt went straight on to do research on Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and the Symbolist movement. He was one of the first student residents of the Maison Française, on whose committee he later served. He spent a year in France on a Zaharoff Travelling Scholarship in 1952-53, and was elected to a Fellowship by Examination at Magdalen. In 1955, before he had completed his doctorate or the tenure of his Fellowship, he was elected to a full Fellowship at Exeter College, where he remained until 1966. He then returned to Magdalen, where he was Fellow and Tutor in French until his retirement in 1997.

For many years the trio of Raitt, the Kafka specialist Sir Malcolm Pasley and the Spanish medievalist David Pattison ensured the high quality of Modern Languages at Magdalen, where their students included Julian Barnes and Jonathon Porritt, as well as many future academics.

As General Editor of the leading international journal French Studies for 10 years (1987-97), Raitt made an invaluable contribution to the continuing health of French studies as an intellectual discipline. As Chairman (for 18 years) of the Monographs Committee of the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages he made sure that a steady stream of excellent theses appeared under the imprint of Oxford University Press. As a teacher his impeccably prepared lectures were deservedly popular, whether dealing with cultural questions such as the figure of the dandy or the bourgeois, with intellectual influences such as that of German literature on French, or with specific novels or passages chosen for detailed commentary.

He was also known as a demanding but inspiring and conscientious tutor and supervisor. Tutorials with him could be somewhat daunting, not least because he often set titles of huge scope: when faced with the question "What was the contribution of X to French literature?", one's feeble grasp of content, context, relevance and balance (all important to him) was all too easily exposed. On the other hand, the essay was invariably listened to with great concentration, its strengths and weaknesses were clearly demonstrated, and one was treated to a summary of the appropriate evidence which would eventually serve as excellent revision material.

Prose classes were equally daunting and equally valuable: if one could get over the embarrassment of having mistakes pointed out and discussed in public, there was always much to learn, particularly from the analysis of nuance that involved consultation of dictionaries of synonyms or Grevisse's Le Bon usage.

As a postgraduate supervisor, Raitt displayed an ideal combination of immense erudition and benign neglect. Before letting his supervisees loose in France, he would instruct them in the idiosyncrasies of the Bibliothèque Nationale, provide them with introductions, and make sure that they knew where to have lunch. His editorial thoroughness was legendary, and his support to former students unstinting. In a viva, he could be counted on not only to have an intimate knowledge of relevant bibliographical details, but to put his finger on the central issue being addressed in the thesis, and to formulate it in terms that were genuinely enlightening to its author.

Alan Raitt loved words: fine distinctions, puns, cryptic crossword clues (and crime mysteries), bons mots of all kinds, and jokes that often assumed knowledge of more than one language. In 1974 he married Lia Rodrigues Correia, whose The Oxford Paperback Portuguese Dictionary was to be published in 1996, and he added Portuguese to the set of languages that he mastered.

His talent as a raconteur was appreciated by generations of colleagues and students. It may have been more puzzling to the KGB official who accompanied Academician Vitaly Ginzburg when he came to Oxford as a Visiting Fellow, and whom Raitt kept occupied for a whole afternoon, regaling him with anecdotes and with a trip to watch Oxford United, in order to give the academician some much-needed privacy.

The football was not an idle diversion: sport was important to Raitt, who was a regular supporter of Oxford United (even in the days when it was Headington United), and a keen tennis player, despite the restricted mobility caused by childhood polio. He might have found it hard to see why an undergraduate should not work on a Sunday, but sport was accepted as a legitimate activity, though not of course as an excuse for handing in an assignment late. He was also an accomplished pianist, and an excellent cook, who loved entertaining.

Alan Raitt was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1971 and of the British Academy in 1992; in 1987 he received the Grand Prix du Rayonnement de la Langue Française (Médaille d'Argent) of the Académie Française, and in the same year was appointed Officier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques, being advanced to Commandeur in 1995.

While his international reputation took him to give lecture courses at the Sorbonne and at the University of Georgia, and to present individual lectures and papers in many different countries, Raitt was an intensely loyal "college man" in the old sense.

His first wife, Janet, who predeceased him, was also a French scholar, and the author of Madame de Lafayette and "La Princesse de Clèves" (1971).

Toby Garfitt

While Toby Garfitt's obituary of Alan Raitt rightly celebrates his distinction as scholar and teacher, there is another part of his life that deserves recognition, writes Denys Potts. In retirement he was smitten by ill-health and disability, but with great stoicism gave in to neither, continuing to research, write and publish to the end. His personality mellowed, revealing a touching openness to painful emotions and a warm appreciation of the love of friends and family.

His wife Lia, who tended him unstintingly in his final years, was the rock from which he drew strength. His obvious devotion to her was what sustained him.

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