- ObituaryJohn Fox (1925–2015)
The death of John Fox in February 2015 marks not only the end of a distinguished and lengthy career, but also in some ways the passing of an era of British French scholarship. John was one of the few remaining representatives of the pre-war generation that built up French studies in British universities in the 1950s and beyond, through the 1960s expansion, and up to and including the beginnings of the cutbacks that were to be imposed in the early 1980s. He typified that generation in his insistence on the core values of traditional scholarship and teaching, and, at the same time, in his acceptance of certain duties and responsibilities which came with rank. John patently did not enjoy committee work (which he referred to as ‘drudgery’) but he got on with it when it was his turn, always impatient to get back to his teaching, his research, and his books. He embodied an essentially humanist conception of academic activity which we are the poorer for having substantially lost.
A proud Yorkshireman, educated at University College Hull (as it then was), John Fox went, after his first degree, to study for a doctorat d’université in Paris, as was at that time conventional, his Paris thesis leading to his first book on Robert de Blois in 1950. This was not only a study of Robert, but an edition of his Enseignement des princes and Chastoiement des dames. In 1948 John took up a post as Assistant Lecturer in Exeter, then the University College of the South West (and thus part of the same family as distant Hull), and there he remained (in a way which might now be incomprehensible to young academics) for the rest of his career, becoming Lecturer in 1950, Reader in 1964, and being elected to a Chair of French in 1967. During his time in Exeter he dutifully served as Head of the Department of French and Italian (1975–82) and Dean of the Faculty of Arts (1979–82). The French government made him, in 1983, Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes académiques for ‘services rendus à la culture française’. His publications went on to cover Villon, in a thoroughly readable and perceptive monograph entitled The Poetry of Villon (1962; reprinted 1976), which introduced any number of undergraduates — at Exeter and elsewhere — to the enigmas and the fascination of that writer; Charles d’Orléans; the history of the French language; and fifteenth-century poetry. He was, in other words, a traditional philologist; and that extended to his teaching, which ranged widely over medieval French language and literature, and the history of the language. In the latter domain, his remarkable memory for texts and impressive command of modern French came to the fore. He was not restricted to French: he taught and had considered compiling a dictionary of medieval Occitan (which he always called ‘provençal’). In part his [End Page 435] knowledge of French was the result of his time in Paris in the 1940s, in part the consequence of having a French wife, Jacqueline, an Agrégée de grammaire who also taught at Exeter. Sadly, Jacqueline died quite suddenly in 1984.
In large measure, John achieved what he did because he had an insatiable appetite for reading and for language, and an endless and boyish curiosity. Irreverent and witty, he enlivened oral examinations and departmental meetings alike. To a junior lecturer in 1985, he came across as a senior and respected figure who nevertheless retained a strong sense of the absurdity of some parts of the academic world. He had a perhaps unexpected enthusiasm for fast cars, once claiming rather improbably that he had ‘inadvertently’ bought a Lotus Cortina, which he enjoyed driving at speed up the A303 to London to carry out bibliographical work for the Year’s Work in Modern Language Studies. On another occasion, on the way back from a visit to Berkeley Castle, where we had been looking at the Anglo-Norman inscriptions, in response to a passenger’s anxious comment on the speed at which we were travelling John blithely announced that his car (a Saab Turbo that he piloted with...