Obituary for Carol Clark

Friday 17 July

Balliol is very sad to announce the death, on 20 June 2015, of Carol Elizabeth Clark, MA, PhD, Fellow 1973−2004 and Emeritus Fellow from 2004.

22 June 2015

Carol Clark (1940-2015): obituary by Diego Zancani (Emeritus Fellow)

Carol Clark, as we all knew her, was born Carol Elizabeth Gallagher in Glasgow on 25 November 1940. Her father was an engineer, and her mother, whose family came from the Tuscan town of Pietrasanta, a bookkeeper. Since her parents were frequently travelling abroad because of work commitments, at the age of seven Carol was sent to a boarding school in Girvan, approximately 56 miles south of Glasgow. St Joseph’s Convent was a Catholic school run by the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, members of a French congregation established in Scotland in 1879. Being recognised as an intellectually gifted pupil – she had also grown up as a bilingual child – Carol was put in a class with children who were two years older than her and who were most likely bigger, stronger and came across as a little menacing. Although she could manage very well on the intellectual side, she did not feel at ease in sporting activities. Moreover, her myopia passed unnoticed both by her family and by the nuns, who simply put her nearer the blackboard, and this increased her negative perception of school. Most of her summer holidays were spent in Italy with members of her maternal family.

At the age of 16, she matriculated at the University of Glasgow on an Arts MA course, where she studied French, Italian and History of Fine Arts, gaining certificates of Distinction in her first year. In the 1958–1959 session, Carol took classes in Higher French, Higher Italian, Higher History of Fine Art, and Moral Philosophy, gaining prizes and certificates of Merit. In September 1958, on the recommendation of her tutors, she received a travel grant to attend an Art summer course at the British Institute in Florence.

In December 1958 she was awarded an exhibition at Somerville College, and she took up residency in Oxford in the following October. When she travelled to Japan with her parents, she learnt some Japanese, and she later did the same with various other languages before visiting the relevant countries. According to her close friend Diane, Carol ‘always enjoyed an intellectual challenge as well as being a fiendish Scrabble player’. She graduated in French and Italian with first-class honours in 1962. The following year she married David Blair Clark and their son Paul was born two years later.

Carol loved teaching from the very start of her career and taught in various schools in London and later in Bamako, West Africa. In 1966 she obtained a research scholarship at Westfield College, University of London, where she gained her PhD in 1971. In 1968 she had already been appointed Assistant Lecturer in French at Glasgow University, and promoted to a full Lectureship two years later. In 1971 her husband passed away.

In February 1973 she applied for a Tutorial Fellowship at Balliol, was interviewed in March and elected in October as the first woman Fellow of any ancient college in Oxford and the first Modern Languages Tutor in Balliol, where she taught Renaissance French literature, and in particular two of her favourite authors: Montaigne and Rabelais, as well as 19th-century poetry, especially Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont.

In the introduction to a 2009 booklet celebrating 30 years of women at Balliol, she wrote: ‘When first elected I agreed to do a few newspaper and radio interviews. The main question was always “What is it like with all those men?’’’ But instead of stereotyped answers Carol simply insisted on the Fellows being ‘undemonstratively welcoming’ and the pupils totally unfazed by having their tutorials with a woman. One could say that this was a typical trait of Carol’s character: she did not like to make an issue, or dramatise events, and would never exaggerate, at least in public. In private she was very effective at defending her position, but in general I believe that what she had learnt from Montaigne was always at the forefront of her mind, including a healthy dose of scepticism in assessing situations.

She served on innumerable committees (‘we must have a woman’ was the mantra) and participated in sporting activities. On the front page of the May issue of Floreat Domus 1999 celebrating ‘Twenty years of Women in Balliol’, she talked of her ‘terrifying’ experience as the cox of an SCR eight, crewed mostly by JRFs, and inspired by ‘the ever-optimistic Jonathan Barnes’. In 1979 when the College was expecting the first intake of women undergraduates and graduates, she was asked to inspect ‘what the then Bursar still called the Ablutions’ because it was felt that the ‘bathing facilities’ would need some adjustment, including an increase in the number of mirrors, which never materialised. Carol herself, by October 1979, was somewhat anxious about ‘teaching young women’, but the class of 1979 turned out to be ‘spirited, confident’ and mostly ‘threw themselves into College life with energy and obvious enjoyment’. One of the College activities which Carol always cherished, until the very end, was the Choir, and she soon became involved in its expansion. The presence of female students meant that the Choir did not need to import sopranos and altos, and it increased in size and standard. Carol ended her lively report of the varied achievements of Balliol women by mentioning that in 1999 she would probably become the first Balliol grandmother. Paul had married an artist, and her beloved grandson Gabriel was on his way.

In the 1970s Carol published two substantial essays in scholarly journals, and two more articles were in the press. Her first full-length book, dedicated to her mother, was The Web of Metaphor: Studies in the Imagery of Montaignes ‘Essais (1978). This was based on her thesis, but various reviewers recognised it as an incisive study of important aspects of Montaigne’s work and language. One reviewer commented: ‘I shall be recommending this book to all who want a sane, historically informed view of Montaigne’s use of, and attitude towards, metaphor’ (Barbara C. Bowen in French Forum, 4, May 1979, 190–1).

Her second book, The Vulgar Rabelais, appeared in 1983, and in it she mentioned that her work reflected ‘ten years’ pursuit of that rather unlikely activity, “teaching Rabelais’’’. Carol always recognised other people’s help, and in the preface she valued the discussions she had with her students, and in particular with one postgraduate, Neil Rhodes (1971), who went on to a distinguished professorship in St Andrews. Professor Rhodes recognised his debt to Carol in his own successful book Elizabethan Grotesque (Routledge, 1980), which he dedicated to her. In her choice of academic work, there was a tendency not to intellectualise unnecessarily, and in her book on Rabelais she chose to focus on the popular, even folk elements in Gargantua and Pantagruel, against those who would claim that Rabelais’ aim was ‘to distrust and devalue popular culture’.

In 1995 her translation of Baudelaire’s Selected Poems appeared for Penguin Classics, and the note following the title on the inside bears the mark of Carol’s modesty and concern for students: ‘With a plain prose translation, introduction and notes by Carol Clark’.

Over the next three years, 1995–1998, Carol was Tutor for Undergraduate Admissions in Balliol, but she also found the time to edit, together with Robert Sykes (1985), a former Balliol student, Baudelaire in English (Penguin Classics, 1998), an anthology of poems by the French poet, with a substantial, clear and useful introduction. The poems were translated by distinguished poets and scholars from South Africa and the USA, and by Carol herself.

Her translation of La prisonnière / The Prisoner (vol. 5 of Proust’s In Search of Time Lost) for Penguin Books, published in 2002, was very well received as a welcome and more authentic Proust in English than the one by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, whose prose has sometimes been labelled as ‘Edwardian purple’.

The book she was most proud of, however, appeared somewhat later, in 2012, in the Oneworld series of Beginner’s guides. Carol knew that her French Literature: A BeginnersGuide, written with exemplary clarity, and with sample texts in French accompanied by her own translations and commentaries, was going to be of great practical use to students, and that is what mattered to her most. In the preface she took the opportunity to thank all those who, by appointing her to a Fellowship and a University Lectureship, had allowed her ‘to spend the best part of [her] working life reading great French books and discussing them with intelligent young people’, adding that it had been a beautiful way of earning one’s living.

Apart from literature and music, Carol had a keen interest in films. She especially enjoyed the screwball comedies of the Thirties with Katherine Hepburn or Cary Grant. These were widely available in Parisian cinemas, along with classic French movies. Among her interests there was also walking in the Alps or in the Apennines, and swimming, especially in the Mediterranean.

I worked with Carol for about ten years, until she retired in 2004. I have only good memories of working with her, choosing the students together, following their progress and anxieties at the time of exams, sharing administrative duties, as well as pleasant conversations and a number of jokes. She was particularly fond of certain linguistic jokes, especially in Italian, a language that she spoke elegantly. We had many interests in common, including good food (we both enjoyed cooking), and at a certain point Carol decided that Schools dinner should be taken in various Oxford restaurants rather than in College. These were always very pleasant experiences, even when Carol would suddenly disappear around midnight, without a word, although she had settled the bill with the staff beforehand.

Carol, like most good teachers, was very particular in choosing our future students. This was always a delicate procedure which involved, for example, the reading of a poem by Baudelaire. She always asked apparently simple, straightforward questions, and she was encouraging and helpful. By and large it was relatively easy to sort out those who were repeating what they had learned at school from the ones who were thinking on their feet and thinking well; but occasionally we had some uncertainty, and then Carol preferred to let the students be interviewed by other colleges, and when very positive responses came back, she was ready to claim that their first college of choice was Balliol, and we usually got the best students.

She was always in favour of concrete topics in most discussions, and I always recollect her way of ‘deconstructing’ Jacques Derrida when she met him in the Balliol SCR, probably in 1979. She told me that she had managed to engage him in a conversation about pensions! One former Balliol Tutor in Philosophy wrote on Facebook, after hearing of Carol’s death: ‘I never agreed with Carol about anything. But I respected and admired her enormously and always enjoyed her company.’ Carol was noted as a sharp observer, and on a trip to Antwerp, while visiting the Plantin-Moretus Museum, she noticed a mistake in the Latin type which was lying upside down in a forme.

In College, apart from her usual duties, the entertaining of students, and the Choir performances, she used to organise morning singing on her terrace on May Morning. She was also a keen supporter of the summer visits to the Chalet in the Alps, where she conducted the reading parties on many occasions, and was very good at cutting through the waffle that was sometimes generated.

After retiring, she moved to Paris, where she had bought a small apartment in the Marais, and many colleagues, friends and students were to spend happy periods there in the subsequent years. In Paris she became a member of the American Cathedral choir, enrolled in art classes, carried on with her translation work, and did a bit of private teaching.

Later she moved to Faversham to be near her son and his family, and there she offered her services as a volunteer to some local schools, worked in a charity shop, and joined a local choir. When Paul moved to Canada, Carol returned to Oxford, where she bought a house near Iffley; in 2010 she was made a Lecturer in French at St Peter’s College, and three years later at Merton, an experience she enjoyed considerably.

During this period she used to come to College fairly regularly, and participate in Chapel functions and the Choir. In the summer of 2014 she went with a reading party to the Chalet in the Alps, but more as a cook than anything else, as she would say. The following May she had a minor operation on her spine, and spent her convalescence with Kate McLuskie, an old friend from Somerville. Early in June 2015 we had lunch in College and she was in good spirits; the operation had gone well and she was hoping to be able to swim again. A few weeks later, in mid-June, I met her while she was walking towards Waitrose with a mini Zimmer frame, and when I stopped, she immediately informed me, ‘I don’t really need this, but I’ve had some physio …’ We agreed to attend the Leaving Fellows’ dinner in a couple of weeks’ time, on 22 June. On Sunday 14th she spent the late afternoon in Chapel singing with the Choir, and the same evening, on her way home, she was taken seriously ill and rushed to the John Radcliffe Hospital. There many friends visited her, but she never regained consciousness, although at times she seemed to recognise Paul, and maybe some of her colleagues. She peacefully passed away in the early hours of Saturday 20 June.

A few words that Douglas Dupree (Emeritus Fellow) recently sent me from Florida seem to sum up my own feelings about Carol:

‘She was always ‘there’, not only for her own students academically: whenever someone was stumbling, especially with exams, I could ask Carol to coach them, from whatever subject, and she would. She was a pillar of the Chapel Choir, helping it to grow from the 12 or so when I arrived in 1984 to the 40–50 it sometimes achieves now. She started singing in the Choir soon after she and I got to know one another. I also knew her as another Fellow ‘living in’. She attended all student functions (or the majority to which she was invited). Didn’t matter if it was a social, political or sports organisation: she never pre-judged it, but approached it with the same tolerance she approached individuals. Her friendships were truly ‘catholic’. No matter how different, or how conventional, she would always have a native curiosity and respect for another person she met. She didn’t mind healthy disagreement and airing of differences. It didn’t stop, post-discussion, resuming the friendship. She had such a marvellous, slightly mischievous sense of humour.’

Certainly Carol had a great vitality, and loved all that is good in life. I can’t help thinking that the title of the last chapter in her book on Rabelais could have been her motto: Vivre joyeux.                                                         

July 2015