In memory of Barbara Hardy (1924-2016)

Barbara Hardy, emeritus professor of English Literature at Birkbeck and distinguished Victorian scholar and literary critic, has died aged 91.

Birkbeck at dusk

Barbara Hardy, emeritus professor of English Literature at Birkbeck, has died aged 91. She was recognised as one of the most distinguished Victorian scholars, and literary critics, of our time. 

Assistant Lecturer, Lecturer, and Reader-Elect when Geoffrey Tillotson (distinguished for work in Eighteenth-Century Poetry and Nineteenth-Century Literature, and a poet) chaired the department of English; she was subsequently appointed Professor of English at Royal Holloway, then latterly Birkbeck.

In 1959 she published the highly acclaimed The Novels of George Eliot: a Study in Form which set the foundations for her distinguished career and did much to revive academic interest in Victorian literature. Throughout her career, she taught and lectured in France, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, Japan and the USA.

In addition, she published a memoir, Swansea Girl, a novel, London Lovers, and three volumes of poetry, Severn Bridge, The Yellow Carpet and Dante's Ghosts, published in 2013.

Here, former student Jeremy Worman remembers Professor Barbara Hardy in a personal reflection on what it meant to know her.

Remembering Barbara Hardy

I first met Barbara in March 1983 when she interviewed me for a place on the BA English degree in her large, comfortable room in Malet Steet.  Well dressed in a two-piece suit, set off by an exuberant scarf, she was a compelling figure.  At the end she asked, ‘Do you write poetry?’ and gave me a warm, distinctive smile.  She was an excellent lecturer, lucid and interesting, with a clear and lively voice.  I recall her seminars on ‘The Novel’ as examples of engaged, democratic enquiry.

She encouraged debate from every student but demanded a seriousness of attention.  You could never get away with a comment meant to impress unless you had evidence for it but she had no objection if your views diverged from hers.  Her colleague Professor Peter Mudford told me last week that ‘She ran a department which was a happy as well as a stimulating place in which to work and where the best interests of the students was always preeminent.’  This was shown in her lifelong enthusiasm for Birkbeck where she continued to run the Poetry Workshop long after her retirement.  Barbara was appointed Assistant Lecturer at Birkbeck in 1951 and went to Royal Holloway as Professor in 1965.  She returned to Birkbeck in 1970 as the first Geoffrey Tillotson Professor of English Literature.

Beginnings

Born in Swansea, she and her brother were brought up in modest circumstances by their mother and an extended family; she recalls in her engaging memoir A Swansea Girl that ‘there was always song’ in her home and remembers February 1941 when ‘the German planes dropped bombs and smashed the centre of Swansea’.  A lifelong socialist she never lost her anti-Conservative zeal nor an interest in, and compassion for, for all kinds of people.  She had a gift for getting on with children and visits to her cottage in Llanmadoc, Gower, ‘not the Gower, Jeremy,’ with our daughter, Myfanwy, were times of fun, walks and hospitality.  Barbara had a strong bond with her two daughters and was devoted to her grandchildren, Rhiannon, Simon and Nathan, who loved her back.

Literary interests and recognition

Barbara wrote about, amongst others, Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Joyce and Beckett.  Her latest book, Ivy Compton-Burnett, which is, I believe, the twentieth, will be published by Edinburgh University Press on 31 March 2016.  For over twenty years she reviewed for The Telegraph and the Spectator.  Barbara had style and was a stylist.  Tellers and Listeners: The Narrative Imagination (1975), about the nature of narrative in various forms, is superbly written, and the chapters are models of elegant critical thinking.  She was always modest about her achievements but told me recently that her proudest accolade was being elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature ‘because this was for my writing ability’.  It is timely now for a reappraisal, and a new selection, of her criticism: there is no doubt she stands in the first rank with Gillian Beer, Frank Kermode and Christopher Ricks. 

Later years

She survived with courage and humour two bouts of cancer.  Her mind never dimmed but she was frail and in recent years did not get out so often from her airy bohemian flat in Earl’s Court.  However, a few months ago we had a lovely lunch in a rather grand Polish restaurant.  Barbara, dressed stylishly in sequinned loose-fitting black trousers and a colourful silk blouse, was in fine form as we discussed her new interest in the graphic novel, the quality of book reviews, the types of vodka on offer, and the attractiveness of the staff.  Barbara always made you feel more alive: whatever she did mattered to her and that vitality transferred to you.  She lived a life of exuberant commitment until her last day.  How lucky I am to have last seen Barbara at her most brilliant.