To the ears of a modern don it probably sounds like a fairy tale. But once upon a time there were University tutors who knew nothing of career development or student feedback, business plans or impact assessments; to whom peer review was a foreign concept because they never published anything. A rare breed, they slipped into their positions and held on securely without ever examining a PhD or giving a single lecture. One such enviable case was my French tutor at Lincoln College, Donald Whitton.
My first encounter with Donald was at a scholarship interview in late 1965. The application form had asked for a subject of special interest and, like umpteen perfervid and angst-ridden language students before and since, I had put down Franz Kafka as one of mine. I can still see the slight, nervously energetic figure at the far end of the table fix me with his razor-sharp look as he asked: “Mr Wells, what do you think of the view that Kafka is really a comic writer and that his works are to be considered largely as jokes?”
Kafka? Jokes? Possessed of a readier wit I might have laughed at the idea but I took myself – and Kafka – far too seriously for that. I forget what lame response I came out with but I left the interview crestfallen and crushed, convinced of having completely failed my first engagement with the Oxford mind. What an idiot I was.
Donald Whitton did not go out of his way to make his students feel like idiots — but it was easy in conversation with him to feel very stupid indeed. In fact, his intellectual demands on us were by way of being a veiled compliment: he thought we were up to following what he said, and even getting his jokes. “What do you think about ‘boondoggle’ as a translation of ‘vivre aux dépenses de la princesse’?” Silence. I’d come across neither the French nor the American expression.
Other questions led further: “What is the most famous recent reworking of the Tristan myth?” Pause; more silence. “Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, of course. The greatest novel ever written. Go away and read it.” Go away and read it I did, closeting myself in my rooms in Museum Road for a couple of long weekends in the winter of 1967. Good advice.
A little closer to home, Donald was opening up other entirely unsuspected worlds. First, the language and literature of medieval and early modern France; second, the burgeoning new field of linguistics. The first was his real passion. A devout Christian, he seemed – although there were rarely any personal revelations – to believe that the medieval world view cohered properly, and gave a satisfactory explanation or interpretation of our human existence. At one tutorial, which had started with a hunt for his contact lenses among the several open packets of Gold Leaf cigarettes strewn on mantelpiece and tables – he was a chain smoker – he more or less ordered us to go, as soon as we could, to see the great doors of the cathedral of Hildesheim. There, we would “see the medieval understanding of the world, with every incident in the Old Testament shown in the one door counterbalanced by an event from the New Testament in the other”.
Isn’t that what the great teachers are for? To spark ideas and set hares running which last a lifetime? And, in so doing, pass on the great tradition of Western learning and culture? So far as I’m aware, Donald left no printed work behind him, not even a scholarly paper, so this process was oral. He was one of that vanished generation of academics who were under no pressure to publish, or, if they were, could safely ignore it. Their business was to teach, and this Donald did not so much by assiduously marking essays – quite often he failed to get round to the reading never mind the marking – but by talking, discussing, explaining, imparting, and conveying his admiration and enthusiasm: for the Song of Roland, for Beroul, for Montaigne and above all for Francois Villon.
There were rumours he had done his own translation of Villon’s Testament but, like one or two other projects, I don’t think it ever saw the light of day. The attempt, though, was testimony to his great love of the poem, which communicated itself unmistakably as he took us line by line through the main passages. It was a great exercise, first in scholarship, then in literary appreciation, and then in human understanding, as the poet’s compassion, wit, rebelliousness and sympathetic scope grew more apparent. It was a model of what the study of the humanities should be.
I saw little of Donald in later, post-Oxford years. Life quickly entered its next stage, leading me like a runaway train away from Lincoln College and its environs. But Donald had done his job: I kept the memory not only of the works he took us through and illuminated so brightly but the names of the men and works he scattered along the way. Montaigne and the Roland are here on my shelves, Dante – “read it in the Italian, it’s not difficult” – like the Hildesheim doors still awaits. And Villon is at my elbow as I write, the same copy from the days of Donald’s tutorials, with his immortal refrain: Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?
In Rossetti’s translation: Where are the snows of yesteryear? “Not a bad coinage,” was Donald’s comment, if I remember correctly.