Professor Anthony Levi

French scholar who courted controversy

Wednesday 12 January 2005 01:00

Anthony Levi was an early-modern scholar of broad outlook. His family background was in the carpet and textile importation business, but he became at first a priest, and later a scholar of French at the universities of Warwick and St Andrews.

Anthony Herbert Tigar Levi, French scholar: born Ruislip, Middlesex 30 May 1929; ordained priest 1962, resigned priesthood 1971; Reader in French, Warwick University 1967-70, Professor 1970-71; Buchanan Professor of French, St Andrews University 1971-87 (Emeritus); married 1972 Honor Riley (died 1994; two daughters); died Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire 31 December 2004.

Anthony Levi was an early-modern scholar of broad outlook. His family background was in the carpet and textile importation business, but he became at first a priest, and later a scholar of French at the universities of Warwick and St Andrews.

Anthony Levi was born in Ruislip, Middlesex, in 1929, into a comfortably off family with some exotic forebears. His paternal grandfather, Moses Levi, traded with Constantinople. His Orthodox father converted to Catholicism, and his mother was from an eminent Catholic family. Levi was educated at Prior Park College in Bath, leaving in 1946, seeming destined to take over the family business. In 1949, however, he joined the Jesuits, and then came study and training at the Jesuits' house in Oxford, Campion Hall, at the Berchmanskolleg in Munich (forerunner of the Munich School of Philosophy) and at the Jesuit Heythrop College in London.

Ordained priest in 1962, from 1964 Levi taught at Campion Hall and from 1966 also at Christ Church. He held a Readership in French at Warwick University from 1967, which became a personal Chair in 1970. In 1971 he resigned from the Jesuits on theological grounds, and moved to St Andrews to take up the Buchanan Chair in French. He retired from St Andrews in 1987.

Anthony Levi's first big publication was French Moralists: the theory of the passions derived from his Oxford DPhil of 1963. The French 17th century remained a centre of his attention, with biographies of Richelieu ( Cardinal Richelieu and the Making of France, 2000) and Louis XIV ( Louis XIV, 2004) rounding off his publications on the period. In between he was very active in the production of the Toronto edition of Erasmus in English, and produced, among other things, the huge Guide to French Literature (1992-94). But Renaissance and Reformation: the intellectual genesis (2002) indicated his continued interest in the earlier period.

Levi courted controversy and revelled in it. The jury is still out on his view that Louis XIV, aware that Cardinal Mazarin was his real father, suffered "a neurotic, or sometimes even psychotic, lack of self-confidence", but it was typical of Levi bravely to advance this view of Louis's psychology as an explanation of his extravagancies.

He drew on a profound knowledge of theology, and insisted on its importance at all levels of intellectual discourse, from tutorial to monograph. For Levi, you just couldn't begin to understand early-modern Europe without it. He was lucky to have it all at his fingertips, and was able - more or less patiently - to go over it again and again for the uncomprehending. We all knew Jansenism was important: Levi knew why!

Although he purported not to remember, my first encounter with Anthony Levi was probably in December 1966, when he floored me with a question at the interview in which I failed to persuade Christ Church to admit me as an undergraduate. I need not have worried: Anthony became my personal tutor at Warwick University, and a friendship of nearly 40 years ensued; it was largely his encouragement and support which launched me into research.

His and my time at Warwick was exciting, not least because of the "dream team" of early-modern scholars assembled by Donald Charlton in the French Department. Levi shouldered a huge burden of university committee work, which did not endear him to politically minded student leaders. But he also effectively founded the University Subscription Concerts, an endeavour which was to encourage the development of the now flourishing Warwick Arts Centre.

He cut a literally dashing figure as he strode at high speed around the then muddy and undeveloped Warwick campus. The combination of the clerical collar, the red or blue corduroy jacket, and the prominent and smelly pipe were instantly recognisable. He gave tremendous parties, rather to the consternation of the Catholic Chaplaincy, where he lodged. There was a view, shared by more than one female student, that here was a handsome man, wasted on the Jesuits. Others coveted the Triumph Vitesse which he drove rather fast when commuting between Coventry and Oxford.

I always had the feeling that Anthony Levi was not altogether comfortable at St Andrews, but colleagues there recollect great personal charm, and commitment to research, reflected in the buzz which his enquiring mind, Catholic background and continental outlook brought to the hitherto Anglo-Saxon and Protestant St Andrews department.

After leaving the Jesuits, Anthony had married Honor Riley, who had been his student in Warwick. They recounted with glee that Anthony's still-Jesuit brother Peter (later Professor of Poetry at Oxford) had officiated at the Latin ceremony in Westminster Cathedral and slipped in an extra vow by which Anthony was to get Honor breakfast in bed ( ientaculum in lectulo). He complied. They had two daughters, whom he idolised.

Honor's PhD thesis on the art patronage of Richelieu was important to Anthony's later biography of the Cardinal, and together they produced the World's Classics translation of Pascal's Pensées (1995). Honor died suddenly in 1994; Anthony missed her dreadfully and never fully recovered.

He left Scotland soon after, and diabetes and cancer dogged him for the rest of his life. None the less his 10-plus years back in or near Oxford produced a tremendously fruitful burst of work: what he had for years called his "big book" on the background to the Renaissance and Reformation finally appeared in 2002. A biography of Erasmus is nearly complete, and his upbeat 2004 Christmas card cheerfully and typically announced that it contains "a lot of surprises". The next venture would have been "The Visual Transmission of Christianity": alas, we will not now witness his excitement in bringing it to fruition.

Never afraid to be tendentious, Anthony Levi was all the more stimulating (if occasionally irritating) as a result, but his charm could override almost anything. He was generous with time and hospitality. He made some enemies, but the last few years in Oxford saw him in calmer contact with colleagues, meeting regularly for lunch, and, although he could no longer enjoy alcohol or tobacco, relishing the cut and thrust (and he could be cutting and thrusting) of intellectual discourse which, alongside his family, was the mainstay of his life.

Stephen Rawles

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments