Obituary: Angela Kershaw (1971-2018)

On this month’s Raymond Williams Society blog, the first of 2019, we have an obituary of our much-missed colleague Angela Kershaw. Written by Jennifer Birkett, it will appear in this year’s issue of Key Words, a journal which Angela contributed so much to during her decade on the Editorial Board.

Jennifer writes…

Angela Margaret Kershaw Snape, born in Bolton in 1971, sadly passed away on 6 June 2018. She was a friend and colleague loved and admired by all who had the privilege of working with her. Just to meet her, and to be greeted by her unfailing smile, was a privilege. Her husband John remembers how, towards the end of her life, when her bed was wheeled onto a new hospital ward-bay, she looked round at the other patients, smiling: ‘Hi, I’m Angela .’

Angela joined the Editorial Board of Key Words in 2008, and her hard work, organisational capacities, and astute critical judgement played an important part in the journal’s rising fortunes. Whether it was in her contributions to the lively discussions of articles around the editorial table, her rigorous but sympathetic assessments of submissions for the postgraduate essay prize, or her ready shouldering of the slog of copy-editing and proof-reading, colleagues recall how Angela’s enthusiasm, and not least, her sense of humour, made the work of Board meetings into an occasion to look forward to.

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Angela began her academic career reading French at the University of Nottingham (1989-1993), graduating with a First Class degree and a Swiss Embassy Prize for French. She went on to complete a taught Masters with Distinction, writing her dissertation on the work of Simone de Beauvoir, and then decided to focus her PhD on political writing in the inter-war years, under the supervision of Rosemary Chapman. ‘Fiction, Politics and Gender in 1930s France’, completed in 1998, was an original analysis of the writing of gender in political fiction, combining the study of canonical male-authored texts and lesser-known female-authored texts. Her supervisor recalls a series of fascinating readings which drew on a range of critical and theoretical approaches and raised important questions about the literary representation of political commitment, sexuality and the body. She too recalls the sheer pleasure of working with Angela: ‘I remember our supervisions as efficient and organised (Angela always worked hard to keep to agreed targets) but also full of fun. Angela was never precious about her work; she loved trying out new ideas and different theories to see how far they might be useful and whether they produced new and interesting readings.’

In Autumn 1995, Angela met her future husband John Snape, who was then lecturing in Law at Nottingham Trent University. Both were singing in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard. From her mother, Irenee, Angela inherited a love of music, especially in the form of high-standard amateur choral music. (From her father, John, a bank manager, she inherited the administrative skills from which the Raymond Williams Society certainly benefited.) She continued to perform in Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and other musical theatre, until 2005. She also sang with Solihull Choral Society, the Birmingham Bach Choir, and the choir of her local parish church. A practising Christian, she greatly admired Benjamin Britten’s work, his mixture of Left-wing sympathies and Anglican faith, and his dedication to providing relevant, high-quality music in community settings. She was also attracted to the work of William Morris, for his socialist principles, and his commitment to crafts and design which could bring beauty to the objects and surroundings of everyday life. Never a member of a political party, her views and actions were nevertheless, as John says, ‘all of the Left’.

Angela’s academic and intellectual career was shaped by intense and principled commitment. Following posts at Leeds and at Oxford (St Anne’s), and then Aston (as Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer, 2001-2008), Angela joined the University of Birmingham in 2009 as a Senior Lecturer in French Studies. From 1990, the Birmingham Department of French Studies had set out on a new orientation to Cultural Studies, recontextualising its commitment to traditional literary analysis, and undertaking a radical programme of internal diversification and cross-departmental collaborations. Angela’s own rapidly-expanding research had found its proper working space. On her website page, she described herself as having particular expertise in the inter-war and Second World War periods, and then added: ‘My academic interests also encompass comparative literature, translation studies, travel writing and gender studies.’ Alert to these important new directions in literary studies, Angela approached them from her own angles, and asked her own questions.

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Her first book, Forgotten Engagements: Women, Literature and the Left in 1930s France, was the first study to look at the points of contact between inter-war writing by women and the literature of commitment. She described it as the product of ‘a cross-fertilisation between political and literary and/or cultural studies which is part of a more general turn towards a contextualising approach to literary analysis and away from an exclusive focus on “textuality”.’[1] She showed how women’s political writing revealed different experiences of politics from those discussed in men’s committed literature, and she raised new questions about the nature and functioning of political literature. She pointed to a neglected corpus of inter-war political fiction by women, and picked out for close study five neglected women writers from over the political spectrum. Across a range of historical moments (the aftermath of the Great War, the Popular Front, the Spanish Civil War), and different class positions, her five subjects were shown exploring and challenging through their individual political engagements the options offered by their socially- and class-constructed sexualities. Citing Foucault, she emphasised that sexuality cannot be discussed outside contexts of cultural power. (And Frenchwomen, she noted, didn’t get the vote until 1944.) Diverse narrative strategies of resistance to oppressive conventional female roles come into play in these texts, to challenge romantic tropes, and show women seeking to exploit rather than be entrapped by the different situation of the female body. Unpicking the theme of maternity, for instance, she discussed Henriette Valet’s novel Madame 60bis and its attack on the reduction to numbers of poor women in the maternity ward. Valet (who was married to Henri Lefebvre) is interested not in the mother-child bond but in the bond between women embodied as procreators; she ‘bases her concept of politicisation on the shared somatic experience of being a child-bearing female.’[2] Her account of the camaraderie of the women disrupts conventional expectations, figured in the petty bourgeois narrator, fallen on hard times among the women of the ward, who uneasily distances herself as she leaves. Here, as Angela described in entertaining detail, is all the Bakhtinian grotesque of pregnancy, the obscene comedy of the belly, and the messy and undignified carnality of the experience of giving birth. Such writing, she showed, brings out the energy and the strength in this inchoate collective, awaiting its realisation.

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Angela wrote her second monograph on the French-Russian-Jewish novelist Irène Némirovsky, entitled Before Auschwitz: Irene Némirovsky and the Literary Landscape of Inter-war France. Némirovsky’s Suite Française, first published in 2004, and translated into English in 2006, to become an international sensation, had been written in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. Arrested in July 1942, Némirovsky was promptly deported to Auschwitz, where she died on 17 August. For Angela, the challenge was to set aside the ideological perspectives of a post-Auschwitz reader, and the charges of anti-Semitism which many critics had levelled against Némirovsky’s work, in order to consider the whole of her writing, from the mid-1920s to this last, posthumously-published text, in the changing literary field of each text’s production. Her methodology draws extensively on Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of literature, which she describes as considering literature not simply in terms of texts, but as a social field inhabited by agents struggling for dominance, each influencing the choices of the others: author and text, and also commissioning editors, reviewers, and readers. All of a piece, Angela brought to the intellectual sphere her fascination with the operations of community. Bourdieu’s opposition of the literary and the commercial fields of production was the framework in which Angela explored not only Némirovsky’s best-selling novels and stories, but important issues of inter-war French literary production: ‘the popularity and commercial success of the novel as a genre; the ‘crisis’ of the novel and of representation more generally in the aftermath of the First World War; the politicisation of literary production; the relationship between ‘particular’ identities (such as Jewish identity) and ‘French’ cultural production; international cultural exchange and the presence of foreign writers and intellectuals in inter-war France; the representation and reconstruction of the French nation via imaginative literature; the re-imagining of gendered subjectivities in fiction.’[3]

Angela’s interest in travel writing led to numerous articles and essays on inter-war journeys by French and British intellectuals to the USSR. With Martyn Cornick and Martin Hurcombe she produced a co-authored monograph, French Political Travel Writing in the Interwar Years: Radical Departures (Routledge, 2017). Her own third and final monograph focused on translation, adding a new element to the fields of production studied in her first two books. Translation had become a major research and teaching interest; she was involved in popular undergraduate and postgraduate courses, as well as further articles and papers, and she organised the first, highly successful Translation Studies Research Forum for the Birmingham Modern Languages Department in 2009. Almost as soon as the new writing project began, she was diagnosed with cancer.

 

Translating War – Literature and Memory in France and Britain from the 1940s to the 1960s (Palgrave, 2018) studies the complex publication histories which have helped construct Western societies’ ‘memories’ of the Second World War, and their interaction with ideas of national identity. Through key works of French war fiction, and their translations into English, the book moves through different phases and spaces of translation and reception: translating the French Resistance in London and New York, the war novel in post-war France and Britain, and the languages of Holocaust fiction. It sets out the challenges set for the translator who must find the words to bridge these very different cultural contexts, and to convey the traumatic experiences at the heart of modern history – not least, the almost unspeakable experience of the survivor.

Understanding the experience of others, writing to build bridges, and to create a community for change, was at the heart of Angela’s life and work. It was a commitment bred in the bone, carried through in Angela’s very distinctive way. In the Acknowledgements to Forgotten Engagements, she wrote: ‘It was once suggested to me that much research is at least partly autobiographical. If this is true of the present book, then it was inspired by my grandmother, Constance Mary Kershaw (1911-2003), who never stopped defending her own [Conservative] political commitments from the 1930s into the twenty-first century. Whilst I could not agree with her politics, I always admired her commitment.’[4] Radical, determined disagreement, with respect and understanding for the other side, was Angela’s way. In the words of one friend and colleague in Birmingham, hers was the calm, cool voice of reason cutting through the chaos. Angela was tough, bright, honest, and joyful. We lost her far too soon, and we will always miss her.

Jennifer Birkett is Professor Emeritus of French Studies at the University of Birmingham. Her most recent books are Margaret Storm Jameson: A Life (OUP 2009), and Undoing Time: The Life and Works of Samuel Beckett (Irish Academic Press, 2015).

[1] Angela Kershaw, Forgotten Engagements: Women, Literature and the Left in 1930s France, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007), p. 6.

[2] Kershaw, Forgotten Engagements, p. 228.

[3] Angela Kershaw, Before Auschwitz: Irene Némirovsky and the Literary Landscape of Inter-war France (Routledge, 2010), p. 5.

[4] Kershaw, Forgotten Engagements, p. vi.

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