Obituary: Merlin Thomas

Simon Lee
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:46

Merlin Thomas was an outstanding teacher of French literature and language as well as an enthusiastic provider of theatre in the Oxford of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

He held a Fellowship at New College (where he remained throughout his career), to which he was elected in 1952 after completion of his DPhil thesis on the Quart Livre of Rabelais. Yet he seemed to be of a disposition to look on scholarship less as a passage to research achievement than as matter and insight for direct communication (the study of Rabelais led directly to lectures on the French humanist tradition), in which he was a product of the Oxford of his time. He was an excellent linguist; furthermore, French and France gave him something he perhaps valued more than he realised - another identity. And beyond this he had the gift of empathy, with both his subject and his students (graduate as well as undergraduate), to whose interests he was totally devoted.

His publications were few: two school editions of modern French plays, of which one - dealing with Anouilh's L'Alouette - has enjoyed continuing success; a Festschrift for W.G. Moore, Moliere: stage and study, edited by him and William Howarth in 1973, on the occasion of the Moliere tercentenary; Louis-Ferdinand Celine in 1979; and, with Raymond Escoffey, the Penguin French Dictionary in 1985. His advocacy of Celine as novelist and polemicist was the outcome of a notable series of lectures, which with earlier sets of lectures, more particularly on Balzac and Zola, led to a projected critical study of the 19th- and 20th-century French novel, which illness prevented him completing. Most likely, the format of the lecture with its emphasis on performance suited him best.

His pursuit of theatre was wholehearted and falls into three phases: his organisation of Oxford University Drama Society tours in France, propitiously launched with an invitation to the Avignon festival in the trail-blazing days of Jean Vilar, and continuing into the Fifties; his close association (as directorial board member) with the now legendary Meadow Players, founded by his friend Frank Hauser in 1956, who was its director of productions until the mid- Seventies, in the reopened Oxford Playhouse; finally, his own productions with the Oxford University French Club of rarely seen French classical theatre at the Playhouse (a performance of Le Mariage de Figaro was given to mark the play's bicentenary, in the presence of Jacques de Beaumarchais, the playwright's direct descendant).

Thomas was the only child of a Congregationalist minister, whose calling required him to move home at regular intervals. He attended first Bolton School, then Taunton School, from where he won a scholarship to New College. However, before taking this up, he chose to spend six months in the French Alps at Grenoble, where he undoubtedly developed his mountaineering skills (these remained with him: his post-war rooms in a corner of the New College quad provided a traverse which had to be undertaken without touching the floor) and a short period teaching at the Dragon School, Oxford, where he was strongly impressed by Jock Lynam's libertarian methods. He graduated in Modern Languages in 1941, thereafter serving in the Army until 1946 when he returned to New College as tutor and lecturer in French.

Thomas played a full part in the life of the university. If he showed signs of developing a taste for intrigue in college politics this was not entirely out of character nor inconsistent with the centrality of college life. He had fierce likes and dislikes, expressed with gusto, and his invariable good-humour (characteristic was his view that the Maison Francaise under a new director was acquiring an unacceptable "PPE strain"). To some extent he lacked tolerance where his sympathies did not lie, and this at times affected his judgement of people; but he was quick to puncture pretentiousness and self-importance. He always had the outlet of a social life away and apart from Oxford. Vacations were spent in France and in Italy, which early on became a second home with a flat of his own in Syracuse close to his great friend Giovanni Saleri, who lived there with his wife and family. Increasingly after retirement he came to centre his life there and visits to Oxford grew more infrequent. Sicily more than anywhere else afforded him sanctuary.

In him there was a degree of tension between the public and the private man, and certainly at times he gave the impression of not being quite at ease with himself. He was uneasy too if certain codes of behaviour were breached: many conventions he eschewed, but unconventionality disturbed him as did a too public display of exuberance. These contradictions may have contributed to his full and real charm, but they made for emotional loneliness. The lasting impression, however, is of his good nature and generosity. In his Savile House rooms he was always accessible to those who needed him, unaffectedly welcoming to friends or as host in the spontaneous parties he threw. He was a good raconteur and the ideal companion.

His colleagues and friends (many of them French) and students (who often became friends) valued him highly, as he did them, being ever solicitous for their welfare (a remark of his - "I have to tell you Gianni does not like chicken" - with each syllable given English-as-a-foreign-language articulation, on being offered roast fowl at an al fresco meal in Normandy, stays in the mind). Among his recreations were strenuous hill-walking in Wales in all weathers, reading thrillers and accounts of mountaineering, and listening to Italian pop music.

Simon Lee

John Merlin Thomas, French scholar: born Coventry 10 May 1920; Fellow and Tutor, New College, Oxford 1952-87; died Syracuse 17 July 1996.

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