Peter Widdowson

Length: 656 words

An only child of lower-middle-class parents, he was in many respects a classic postwar rammer-school boy, excelling at school and being the first in his family to go on to university: he went to Nottingham to read English In 1 961 . He also gained his PhD there In 1969, studying first world war poetry and painting; he had a life-long Interest in the visual arts and was tempted by further study in this area. But in the event he continued with literature, going with his first wife, Frances, to teach in Sweden for three years in the late ass, and then returning to the UK in 1971 to work at Thames Polytechnic as head of the division of English.

These were exciting times to be working In English. Peter was a leading figure Involved in the ferments around the subject, co-founding the Journal Literature and History In 1975, and bringing his fine analytical intelligence to bear on some of the founding assumptions of the discipline. In a series of articles and books he articulated a distinctive and challenging historicist’s position in the debates about literature that have characterized academia over the past 30 years, and the collection of essays that he edited in 1982,

Rereading English, occupied a pre-eminent position in the controversies around the re-conceptualization of the discipline. HIS editing, with Peter Brooke, of A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, first undertaken by Raman Selene, has been an outstanding resource for generations of English students in this country and overseas for the past 20 years. In 1 986 he moved to Middlesex Polytechnic, where he became head of the school of English. He began to write extensively about Thomas Hardy, producing Hardy in History: a Study in Literary Sociology in 1989, and many editions, essays and collections about the novelist and poet.

For Peter, Hardy’s so- called minor fiction was as Interesting as the best-known novels; as he put It, “The Hand of Athlete is as significant as Tees of the derailleur’s,” and he saw It as part of his Job to understand and explain why the opposite view has come to seem a matter of common sense. His scholarly work was marked by a high talent for exposition, scrupulous attention to detail, and the capacity to subject the commonplaces of the subject to forensic critique. After his second marriage, to Jane

Maxwell-Smith, he moved briefly to Brighton University in the early sass, and then In 1 994 became professor of English at Challenged and Gloucester College of Higher Education, later the university of Clotheshorse. A very productive period included a book simply called Literature (1999), more work on Hardy, the foundation of the university’s publishing imprint, the Cider Press (of which he was general editor), an immensely detailed aid to the study of the subject, the Palaver Guide to English Literature and Its Contexts, 1500-2000 (2004) and a study of the work of Graham Swift 2006).

Peter was a witty and engaging lecturer and speaker and a benevolent His remarkable powers of concentration and attention to detail made him an outstanding editor, and these qualities also meant that he was much in demand as a reader of colleagues’ unpublished work, where his generosity and sharp editorial eye combined to produce at once a formidable and a supportive critic. His career shows a lifelong commitment to the polytechnics and new universities, and this was perhaps most evident in his sustained work and support through the sass for the Council of

National Academic Awards, the degree-awarding body for polytechnics. There are many thriving English departments today in the new universities that are indebted to the invaluable advice and time freely given by Peter and his colleagues at the point of their inception. Though Peter had suffered from medical problems for some time, the final prognosis was made in February. He lived long enough to see the manuscript of a festivities in his honor, due to be published later this year; the testimonies of affection that fill the book deeply touched him.

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