Fiona Stafford

Address by the Public Orator, Dr Paul Jenkins, to be given on 17 July 2018

Fiona Stafford was born in Lincolnshire. During her childhood she moved around to wherever her father was posted by the RAF.  She studied English at the University of Leicester and it soon became apparent that Fiona was an extraordinarily talented student. Her undergraduate dissertation was a wholly original account of RAF slang.  The distinguished external examiner of her finals commented that one of her examination answers was worthy of publication. In the event, Fiona achieved first-class marks on 9 out of 10 papers. That would make her the most able student in the 89-year history of the English department.

Following graduation Fiona took an MPhil and DPhil in Oxford, and then, after initial experience of higher education teaching at the University of Evansville, Nene College and as a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellowship in Oxford, she was elected to a Fellowship at Somerville.

Fiona Stafford is Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford.  She is a distinguished academic with a dozen books to her name and an impressive list of published articles on a bewildering range of subjects.

It takes a very special author to write about a novelist as famous as Jane Austen.  In her book, ‘Jane Austen, a Brief Life,’ Fiona points out the different groups of people who are interested in the author who lived for just 41 years.  There are the academics, who spend their lives researching the life and work of Austen.  There are the writers and artists who respond creatively to the themes in the Austen novels like the Bridget Jones interpretation of Pride and Prejudice.  Finally there is the largest band of Austen followers eager to buy any Austen merchandise to cater for their needs.

James Macpherson is widely regarded as the first Scottish poet to attract international recognition, he translated poems attributed to the ancient Celtic poet Ossian.  Macpherson’s celebrity status made the hero Fingal into a popular figure, as can be seen in Mendelssohn’s Overture Fingal’s Cave, a painting by Turner and many French paintings commissioned by Napoleon, who took the poems on all his campaigns.  The Ossian poems were very popular and highly regarded by many critics and other poets, however some doubted the role of Macpherson as translator.  Fiona researched this subject and wrote a startlingly original book on the Ossian poems called ‘The Sublime Savage.’ The book later won her election to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a rare honour for anyone based south of the border.

In the book the ‘Last of the Race’ Fiona investigates the perennial fascination with the end of the world which has given rise to many 'last men', from the ancient myths of Noah and Deucalion to contemporary stories of nuclear holocaust.  Fiona begins with Milton and ends with Darwin, exploring the myth-making of their texts in the light of contemporary literary, scientific, political and religious views.

In a more recent book, ‘Local Attachments,’ she explored the critical relationship between writers and places starting with Seamus Heaney and tracing the importance of the local back to Burns and Wordsworth in the romantic period.

In addition to her academic work Fiona frequently gives public lectures to general audiences on a range of topics.  She gave three series of essays on Radio 3 amounting to fifteen programmes in all on the subject of ‘The Meaning of Trees.’  This led to a book called The Long, Long Life of Trees published in 2016 by Yale University press. She speaks and writes enchantingly about 17 species of trees celebrating their beauty, their distinctive characteristics, their cultural history, their uses and their meaning to humans.   The book was well received and was chosen as ‘Sunday Times Nature Book of the Year,’ for 2016.

The range of subjects in the chapters is quite amazing, for example in the chapter on the Ash Tree Fiona is initially on the home territory of an English Professor writing about the poems of Hardy, Edward Thomas, Wordsworth, Seamus Heaney, the paintings of Constable and even the Welsh song the Ash Grove.  However, she is just as fluent in descriptions of the medicinal value of the Ash tree and the snake repellent properties of the Ash as described by Roman natural history writer Pliny the Elder.  In a more practical section, Fiona describes the use of Ash in hockey sticks and cricket stumps, in the Morris Traveller car and even in the construction of the World War 2 Mosquito Bomber. Finally she describes the ravages of Chalara fraxinea, the fungus that causes ‘Ash dieback’ which has proved fatal to so much of Europe’s Ash population.

Writing about trees led Fiona to becoming a champion of the Woodland Trust Tree Charter of 2017, she was responsible for writing the Charter which brought her into contact with many people whose lives are spent working with trees and woodland.

Fiona enjoys teaching especially for the new insights students bring when reading the great works of literature for the first time.  Fiona speaks of her years at Leicester with great affection.  We are all proud of her achievements and it is with great pleasure that we present her today as an inspiration to this generation of Leicester students.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and Council I present Fiona Stafford, that you may confer upon her the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.

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