Barbara Hardy

b. 1924 – d. 2016

Barbara Hardy was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997.

Barbara Hardy, FRSL, FBA was a British literary scholar, author, and poet. As an academic, she specialised in the literature of the 19th Century. From 1965 to 1970, she was Professor of English at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Then, from 1970 to 1989, she was Professor of English Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Barbara Hardy remembered – by J.M. Dodsworth

A very perfect academic

Not many professors look their audience in the face and talk directly to them in beautifully formed sentences freighted with meaning. Barbara Hardy did, and people tended to remember. It was a superlative way of teaching, born of a characteristic act of will. The very first lecture she ever gave – an evening extra-mural class – she had the ill luck to be ‘inspected’. The verdict was that all had gone well but she shouldn’t look down at her notes so much. So she determined never to use notes again, and she didn’t. She prepared every lecture with meticulous professionalism, however, shaping her distinctive written style – short sentences, clearly focused, based on a multitude of analytic distinctions embodied in vigorous verbal patterns. In lectures her sweet, beautifully modulated voice gave you the illusion of keeping up with her thinking; when you met her in print, though, you knew that something more was required of you than just reading the text. She loved argument, and her books – so many, on George Eliot most famously, but also on Dickens, Austen, Thackeray, Hardy, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, the art of narrative, the art of poetry – needed to be pondered, argued through and with. She was a very perfect academic.

She was also a memoir writer, a novelist and, especially, a poet. Her three books of poems are marked by the written equivalent of that direct gaze one experienced when she lectured. The form is free, a great contrast with the deliberation of the prose. It’s a reminder that she had to discipline her own feelingful and impulsive nature to produce the argued critical work. The poems show another kind of deliberation. The form may be free, but the words are felt as inevitable.

In ‘The Fox and the Duck’ the setting must be Llanmadoc, on Gower, where Barbara had a cottage. On her early morning walk down to the sea she meets a fox, so surprised to see her he drops his prey before her and vanishes. The poem is comic and erotic, tender and appalled, no-nonsense and determinedly self-aware, and there is a lot of Barbara in the lines, including the accomplished, creative cook.

Her memoir is called Swansea Girl, a fine mix of the sort of stories that create and are created by family life. When she wrote about the creative storytelling of Hardy’s rural folk she surely had her own family somewhere in her mind. Between the ages of five and 30 she didn’t see her father, who vanished like the fox, but she was close to uncles and aunts and cousins. Perhaps this loving sense of the extended family led her to empathise with the large families of the Victorian novel, while her toughness had something to do with the need for self-assertion where money was short and opportunity had to be seized. She went to Swansea High School and on to University College, London. Most of her teaching was at Birkbeck, but she travelled the world. Her intense loyalty to old friends and institutions, as well as to her native Wales, was bound up with her upbringing; it also made her, as a teacher, unusually close to those she taught. In the days of the aegrotat degree fellow examiners came to dread her impassioned pleas on behalf of her own unfortunate students, but they were integral to her essentially humane and generous nature.

Barbara’s husband, Ernest, a gentle, modest senior civil servant, died in 1977. She continued to live for almost forty years in their beautiful Earls Court flat, working and cooking for friends and family. When she died this February at the age of 91 she had just finished reading the proofs for her forthcoming book on Ivy Compton-Burnett, and was thinking ahead to one on Elizabeth Gaskell.

J.M. Dodswoth is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of London.

Image credit: Bassano, National Portrait Gallery