Obituary: Theodore Redpath

Adrian Poole
Tuesday 04 February 1997 01:02 GMT

In 1950 Trinity College, Cambridge, steeled itself to appoint its first teaching Fellow in English. This was not a self- evidently respectable subject, at least in the college of Newton, Bentley, Rutherford and Wittgenstein. Elsewhere in Cambridge a man called Leavis was on the rampage.

But in Theodore Redpath Trinity had found someone special, even by its own high standards. Born in Streatham, south-west London, in 1913, the son of an engineer who had built the first Blue Train and the Golden Arrow, he went to school in Cambridge, at the Leys. He had read English at St Catharine's College with T.R. Henn and taken a starred first, before going on to a PhD on Leibniz under the supervision of C.D. Broad. In the Second World War he worked in intelligence and in 1948 he was called to the Bar. He sometimes wondered what a legal career might have brought him, apart - with a smile - from making more money. As Trinity's first English don he made a bit of history instead, and a difference to many young lives for 30 years after.

He was full of surprises. He edited Donne's and Shakespeare's sonnets, collected essays on the English Romantic poets, wrote books on Tolstoy and Wittgenstein (his Ludwig Wittgenstein: a student's memoir appeared in 1990), worked until only a few weeks before his death on a translation of Sophocles' tragedies. He spent an unusually active retirement through the 1980s, teaching in Japan and setting up as a wine merchant. He was not the sort of academic whose answer to the question "What are you working on now?" can easily be predicted.

He would have published more had he been a less devoted teacher and college tutor, or more ebullient in the sense of his own gifts. His modesty could be as breathtaking as the range of his abilities and interests, in languages, philosophy and music, as well as in literature. He took other people's opinions as seriously as his own, even when these issued from opinionated students. This could be alarming and educative for those prepared to be shamed by the frankness of his "So you really think that?"

A youthful quinquagenarian, he married Sarah Campbell- Taylor in 1964. Shortly afterwards he assured an undergraduate contemplating marriage as early in life as his own had been relatively late that it was a wonderful idea and that it had done him "a world of good". The world of good turned out to include three children.

He inspired awe and amusement in unpredictable proportions. A rampant stickler for rules and traditions, he could cause consternation by announcing that he could not speak to you because, as it might be, you were not wearing a gown, or could not shake hands because it was not the vacation - a bewildering taboo which he stoutly upheld even in his final months. For all his mildness and unfailing courtesy, he knew how to wield a remarkably resolute jaw.

No teacher, let alone a college tutor, could possibly recall every last one of those here-and-gone students. Yet Theo Redpath seemed to. None of them is likely ever to forget him.

Adrian Poole

Robert Theodore Holmes Redpath, English scholar and teacher: born London 17 August 1913; Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge 1950-97; Assistant Lecturer in English, Cambridge University 1951-54, Lecturer 1954-80; books include Tolstoy 1960, The Young Romantics and Critical Opinion 1807-24 1973, Ludwig Wittgenstein: a student's memoir 1990; married 1964 Sarah Campbell-Taylor (one son, two daughters); died Cambridge 30 January 1997.

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