Tuesday, 16 December 2014
In a long and eventful career as a literary scholar and educator, Professor Simon Dentith's work was characterized by a passionate advocacy for the discipline to which he contributed distinguished research. Simon was educated at The John Fisher School, Purley, between 1959 and 1969. He studied English at Churchill College, Cambridge, graduating with First Class Honours in June 1973. After a brief period as a schoolteacher, he undertook postgraduate study at the University of Leicester, and in 1981 was awarded his doctorate for a thesis on Ideology and the Novel in the 1850s.
While at Leicester, he was part of a vibrant and learned circle that met to debate Althusser, Macheray, Structuralism, Feminism, Marxism and other matters urgent to this particularly theorizing moment in English Studies. Its most lasting marks upon his intellectual formation can be found in his committed William Morris-influenced socialism, his championing of Raymond Williams' work and legacy, and his writings on the theorist of dialogic and carnevalesque literature, Mikhail Bakhtin. He will also be long remembered for his stubborn and passionate debating of cases and causes, a debating that frequently dissolved differences in recognitions of shared presuppositions, understandings and aspirations. He did not argue for victory, but for the vitality and fellowship of intellectual exchange.
From his first academic appointment at the University of Liverpool in 1980, Simon established his reputation as an engaged academic and a loyal colleague. His sustained publication record is impressive, including the volumes George Eliot (1986), A Rhetoric of the Real (1990), Bakhtinian Thought (1995), Parody (2000), and Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2006). Simon's contribution to Victorian studies is widely recognised and his latest book, Nineteenth-Century British Literature Then and Now: Reading with Hindsight, published early in the year of his death, has already been well received and, among other plaudits, been described as ‘a major landmark in serious, fresh thinking about the massive issue of how to read literature in time'.
Simon was also an invaluable supporter in the early days of the British Association for Victorian Studies. Though BAVS now has an established presence in the lives of Victorian researchers, it was founded as recently as 2000, Simon being among the key scholars involved in making this happen. He was, likewise, a great supporter of the English Subject Centre where he worked closely with Ben Knights and Nicole King to explore and promote the values and extend the influence of the discipline. When the English Subject Centre closed in 2011 he was chairperson of its Advisory Board and one of its greatest champions. At the final Board meeting, he bid farewell to his colleagues with the warmth and passion that were his trademarks.
During the first three months of 1995, Simon was a Visiting Professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He had moved from Liverpool in 1994 to a Readership at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education. There he worked with Professor Peter Widdowson, appointed in the same year, to establish the vibrant research culture that was a prerequisite of the institution's subsequent elevation to being the University of Gloucestershire in 2001. The following year he was promoted to a Professorship. During this period, Simon's contribution to this culture included the supervision of research students, many of whom remain profoundly grateful for his extensive and committed support. His professional and personal values remained steadfast, and he is remembered for his advocacy of returns to first principles in curriculum formation and the defence of library holdings in the Humanities.
When Simon moved to the University of Reading in 2007 he agreed to take on the role of Head of Department, which he duly did in August 2008. It was a period of great change, which involved the Department's incorporation, during the three and a half years of Simon's tenure, into first one and then another School structure, including a short-lived merger with the Department of English Linguistics. Throughout all these changes Simon guided those above and around him with diplomatic tact, skill and vision, being particularly concerned for the welfare of colleagues undergoing personal difficulties, which he did without reference to his own.
Simon will also be remembered from his time at Reading as an ardent sustainer of the values in literature, criticism, and the humanities, as well as a gifted teacher, a great raconteur and an administrator righteous in defence of core cultural standards both in and outside of the academy. In 2011 he organized a conference on The Good of Criticism which explored a language to articulate the value and purpose of researching and teaching literature at university, and which gave him an opportunity to speak alongside long-cherished peers such as Dinah Birch and Isobel Armstrong. As the son of the distinguished character actor, Edward Dentith, of whose filmography he was evidently proud, Simon showed himself thoroughly attached to the performative and intonational aspects of speech and writing, one ambition left unfulfilled being the introduction of a module that based the teaching of poetry on its recitation out loud. He was a vital presence in the world, ready to challenge and to contribute, a person both fierce and tender, who cared about ideas and people with equal force, only too aware of how neither can thrive without a nurturing of the other. Many were the days made more cheerful, more illuminating and illuminated because Simon had given intellectual stimulus, practical advice, and personal support.
Simon Dentith was born on Saturday 22 March 1952. He died in his sleep and without pain in the early hours of Sunday 23 November 2014. He leaves his wife, Kath, and their two children, Imogen and Jack, to whom profound condolences are offered.
Peter Robinson, Head of the Department of English Literature, University of Reading