View all news

Emeritus Professor Bill Howarth, 1922-2015

Emeritus Professor Bill Howarth

10 July 2015

Emeritus Professor William Driver Howarth, a member of the Department of French from 1966 to 1988, died on 3 July. His colleague Dr Edward Forman has provided this tribute, acknowledging help from the late Dr Stan Taylor and from the friends mentioned in the notice.

The Bill Howarth whom we all respected, admired, loved and often enjoyed sparring with – on topics as diverse as French limericks, experimental productions of classical opera, teaching methods and philosophies and sports results (not only those involving Yorkshire) – was cruelly taken from us a few years ago by the decline in his mental faculties. Having been cared for since then with phenomenal devotion by his adored wife Barbara, Emeritus Professor William Driver Howarth died peacefully on 3 July 2015, in his 93rd year.

Bill was born in Yorkshire and educated at Silcoates School and Queen’s College, Oxford. After war service in Bomber Command – a context of which he seldom spoke, but in which ‘the European theatre’ took on a very different meaning from that which dominated the rest of his life – he began his academic career at Jesus College, Oxford, where he was Fellow and Tutor from 1948 to 1966. Then began his extraordinarily rich and faithful connection with the University of Bristol, which he served with distinction as Professor of Classical French Literature (in succession to William McCausland Stewart) from 1966, as Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1978, as Head of the Department of French from 1981 and as Pro-Vice Chancellor from 1983. He retired from the University in 1988, but not before he had with characteristic aplomb ventured onto the stage of the Students’ Union theatre in the part of the incompetent but not unsympathetic judge Brid’oison in a departmental production of Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro.

The bald list of ‘offices held’ does not do justice to his energetic and imaginative contribution to the life of the University community. His skills as a mediator may well have gone some way to ensure that what became ‘événements’ in Paris were at Bristol – despite an occupation of Senate House – resolved quite rapidly and with no lasting rancour, and thereafter his administrative roles included involvement with the Publications Committee, the Victoria Rooms, the Careers Advisory Service, the Library, and the University’s finances. It was largely under his leadership that the hitherto autonomous departments of modern languages at Bristol were first melded into a closely integrated School of Modern Languages, in which cross-departmental modules were encouraged and first began to thrive.

In the wider academic world it is as a scholar who combined a meticulous attention to detail with an unfailing ability to perceive the full picture that he is best known. The bibliography of his publications, whilst retaining a close focus on both Classical French and twentieth-century drama, ranges widely from perceptive analyses of the droit du seigneur (its reality, if any, and more importantly its use in the Enlightenment period as a symbol of all that was corrupt and corrupting in the ancien régime), through close studies of several plays, some well-known, many unfamiliar, from every century since the seventeenth, to his magisterial full-length studies of Molière and of the Romantic Drama, both of which remain fundamental to the reading lists of English-speaking undergraduates to this day. He was also a generous and supportive editor, overseeing the production of many collections of essays, surveys of periods and genres and illuminating teaching materials on many aspects of French and other European comic drama. This spirit of collaboration and leadership was also evidenced by his role in founding the Society for Seventeenth-Century French Studies, of which he was an early chairman and long-standing committee member through the 1980s.

This devotion to the world of academia, and to Bristol in particular, did nothing to inhibit Bill’s involvement with an impressively wide range of social and cultural interests. He was an active participant in local and regional politics, in support of what was then the Liberal party, and a stalwart supporter of many activities and enterprises with an international perspective. Most notably he served a long stint as chairman of the Bristol-Bordeaux Society, one of the first twinning links to be established after the war: Bill presided over its fortieth anniversary celebrations and was the proud recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Bordeaux.  He was also well informed about the world of opera and dedicated to it; past and present committee members, directors and producers of Bristol Opera have paid tribute to his chairmanship of that organisation too, as one where he succeeded in evincing the greatest interest and engagement in what was being prepared, without ever seeming to tread on the toes of those whose responsibility it was to bring their projects to practical fruition.

Bill was above all a family man. He and Barbara sometimes found space in their home for student lodgers, and both they and he have admitted that although breakfast was essentially a family meal, he would sometimes be observed ‘just quickly revising’ a Racine text (or some such) for a seminar later in the day – no doubt because family-related responsibilities, or one of the many DIY tasks for which he had an equally well-founded reputation, had kept him from that chore the preceding day.

Emeritus Professor Haydn Mason, who succeeded Bill as Head of the Department of French, has revealed that many years before, Bill had been his ‘moral tutor’ at Jesus College, and that he had appointed Bill as his first external examiner at the University of East Anglia – an institution ‘thought by some at that time to border on the heretical’ and certainly far removed from the educational philosophy of Oxford and Bristol. He goes on to say: ‘As a colleague he brought the same qualities of judgment that I had seen in Oxford, Norwich and all around the scholarly circuit. As a scholar he was always impressive for the mastery of his material, the lucid quality of his judgment, and the soundness of his conclusions. His book on Molière was an outstanding addition in a crowded field, being also translated into Italian. But it was only one of many major studies in diverse fields, not to mention critical editions galore of French plays. Above all, he was a man of the theatre, often seen at performances of new plays in the West End, and warmly supportive of the Department's own productions of classical theatre which were often deemed to be important enough to merit recognition in the French Institute in London.’

In similar vein, Ted Freeman’s Preface to the Festschrift presented to Bill on his retirement (Myth and its Making in the French Theatre, CUP, 1988) stressed that the contributors had been urged ‘to pay tribute to the eclectic critical taste and unfailing personal curiosity and energy of the man who has been to so many a stimulating colleague and friend’.

The loss of his company and conversation had already been deeply felt, and it is no doubt good that his mind is now at rest. His legacy, however, vibrant and inspiring, will live on for a long time.

Edit this page