Professor Inga-Stina Ewbank

Shakespeare and Ibsen scholar

Monday 14 June 2004 00:00 BST

Professor Inga-Stina Ewbank was probably the only holder of an English chair of English Literature to have spoken no language other than Swedish till the age of 19.

Inga-Stina Ekeblad, English scholar: born 13 June 1932; William Noble Fellow, Liverpool University 1955-57, Assistant Lecturer 1960-63, Lecturer 1963-70, Senior Lecturer 1970-72; Fellow, Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham University 1957-60; Reader in English Literature, Bedford College, London 1972-74, Hildred Carlile Professor 1974-84; Professor of English Literature, Leeds University 1985-97 (Emeritus); married 1959 Roger Ewbank (one son, two daughters); died London 7 June 2004.

Professor Inga-Stina Ewbank was probably the only holder of an English chair of English Literature to have spoken no language other than Swedish till the age of 19.

Born Inga-Stine Ekeblad in 1932, she was at school in Gothenburg before winning a scholarship to Carleton College, Minnesota, where she was elected Phi Beta Kappa, in 1950. As her exceptional talents came to be recognised there followed a string of research appointments: at Sheffield, where she took an MA under William Empson, at Liverpool where she was William Noble Fellow from 1955 to 1957, and at the Shakespeare Institute of Birmingham University from 1957 to 1960. During the later part of this period she taught at the University of Munich at the invitation of the doyen of German Shakespeare scholars, W.H. Clemen.

Clemen, who was to dedicate a book in part to her, was a great man but something of a martinet; Ewbank was fond of him and his family, but would tell nevertheless of how he would bark at his secretary in German while speaking charmingly to her in English. An accomplished linguist, she read widely in English, German and French as well as in the Scandinavian languages that came to her by right of birth. Her early research centred on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and she wrote notably on George Peele, John Webster, and Thomas Middleton.

In 1959 she married Roger Ewbank, a distinguished vet with special interests in animal behaviour. It might have seemed an improbable match. A compulsive and unrepentant smoker who needed constant potations of strong coffee, she was (and remained), thin, nervy, a wittily articulate talker as well as a sensitive listener. With her fair hair tied back, her sunken cheeks and her big eyes, she looked a little like Virginia Woolf. Roger was (and happily is) robust, laconic, even bucolic, a stoic pragmatist. But they had many interests in common, and she benefited greatly from his common sense and his sensitive awareness of her emotional and intellectual needs. They were happy in their children, Jane, Kit and Emily, and Inga-Stina's home life meant much to her. Christmas was celebrated with full respect for Scandinavian traditions, and after long working days she would stay up to all hours baking gingerbread houses for children's birthdays.

She returned to Liverpool as Lecturer in 1960, and was promoted to a Senior Lecturership in 1970. Her interest in women's literature was demonstrated in her pioneering study Their Proper Sphere: a study of the Brontë sisters as early-Victorian female novelists (1966). In 1972 she became Reader in English at Bedford College, London, where she took up the Hildred Carlile chair in 1974, succeeding, among other distinguished women incumbents, Anne Barton, Kathleen Tillotson and, further in the past, Una Ellis-Fermor, an expert on Ibsen whose work, along with Shakespeare's, was to play an increasing role in Inga-Stina Ewbank's intellectual life.

Her inaugural lecture in 1975, "Shakespeare, Ibsen and the Unspeakable", linked these interests, and the move to London facilitated involvement with the theatre. She had strong views on the failure of many translators to render the essentially poetic qualities of Ibsen's language, and was delighted to be asked to collaborate with Peter Hall on a National Theatre translation of John Gabriel Borkman and to work with, especially, Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson in its production.

Later she and Hall also jointly translated The Wild Duck, and she was to collaborate with John Barton on Ibsen, Katie Mitchell on Strindberg, and Adrian Noble on Brand.

Her distinction as an Ibsenite was recognised by election to the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in 1991 and the award of an honorary doctorate from the University of Oslo in 1998. She worked increasingly on Ibsen in both England and Norway during the later part of her life, and had agreed to edit a volume of his plays for Penguin Books at the time of her death, a few days before her 72nd birthday.

Deeply unhappy about the merger of Bedford and Royal Holloway colleges, in 1985 Ewbank accepted a chair at Leeds. In spite of continuing to live in London she accomplished as always a prodigious amount of work, much of it in the small (and not so small) hours, some of it on trains. She was famous for her ability to go without sleep as she marked essays and prepared lectures (though anyone who accompanied her to the theatre will know that in the dark eyelids were liable to droop and head to drop.)

Greatly in demand as a lecturer and at overseas conferences, she travelled widely, with spells as a visiting scholar at Harvard and other American universities, as Alexander Lecturer at Toronto in 1987, and from 1982 to 1997 as a member of the University Grants Committee for the University of Hong Kong, revelling in the opportunities for sleep provided by long flights, and in the luxury of the accommodation with which she was rewarded for the intensive work that the position entailed. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hong Kong and the Governor's Bauhinia Silver Star in 1999.

Indefatigable in the service of others, she was a working member of the board of Shakespeare Survey and of the International Shakespeare Conference, editor of several volumes of essays, and a member throughout her career of innumerable university and other committees.

As a teacher she was unparalleled. She could entrance audiences at every level from schoolchildren to fellow academics with the Swedish lilt of her voice, her gentle smile, her confidingly humorous manner, and her ability to convey complex thoughts with total clarity. She dedicated herself to her students' welfare, personal as well as intellectual, with an unselfconscious generosity that won their deserved adoration.

Her admirers might have wished her to take time off to write the books on, especially, Shakespeare's language and the Jacobean drama for which she was uniquely qualified, but her utter unselfishness stood in the way of personal ambition.

There was also, perhaps, a scepticism about the values of academic endeavour. In her last postcard to me, only weeks before she died, she wrote that she was "putting the last touches to the Cambridge Catiline" - she was editing that "tedious though well-laboured play" (as Leonard Digges called it) for the forthcoming edition of Jonson's works - "into which I have put an enormous amount of work that few will bother to benefit from". This is still to come, as are her contributions to the Oxford edition of Middleton.

Amusing and amusable, irredeemably optimistic, totally without self-importance, endlessly but unsentimentally charitable, capable of suffering fools with apparent equanimity, Inga-Stina Ewbank enhanced the lives of all who encountered her.

Stanley Wells

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