Laurence Lerner

b. 1925 – d. 2016

Laurence Lerner was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984.


Laurence Lerner remembered – by Courtesy of Laurence Learner's family

Laurence, Larry, Lerner was born in Seapoint, South Africa on 12th December 1925 as the only child of Israel and May (née Harrison) Lerner.  His father was from Zhitomir in Ukraine, went to England at the age of 3, and moved to South Africa aged about 10.  May was from Abinger Hammer near Dorking.  Although his father was Jewish, Larry attended Anglican schools in Cape Town. He took his BA and MA at the University of Cape Town.

A two week University camping trip introduced him to Natalie Winch to whom he was instantly attracted and they were engaged by the end of a second trip in 1945.  They both won scholarships to Cambridge, where Larry took a second BA, Natalie a PhD and they married in June 1948.

They both secured jobs at the new University of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1949 where they stayed until 1953.  They started a family with David and Edwin, and Larry’s main work interest appears to have been acting and directing plays.  Not wishing to spend a lifetime in ex-colonies, they resigned and Larry came to England to hunt for a job, which he eventually found at Queen’s University, Belfast.  The family grew with the addition of Martin and Richard.  Here he published his first collection of poetry, Domestic Interiors, his first novel, The Englishman, and first book of literary criticism, The Truest Poetry; he credits the latter with getting him a post at the new University of Sussex in 1962.  He progressed from lecturer to Reader to Professor, and did his best to focus on teaching and scholarship rather than administration and management.

After many enjoyable years at Sussex, the increasingly antagonistic politics of the era and a looming retirement age took Larry and Natalie to the University of Vanderbilt, in Nashville, Tennessee where he was the Kenan and then Mims Professor of English from 1985 to 1995; he was amused to have given two inaugural lectures at the same university.

His academic and literary career flourished in this period, with a further eight poetry collections, two novels and six literary criticism books as well as many lectures, edited volumes, essays, radio appearances and reviews.  In the 1960s, he edited anthologies of modern criticism of Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Comedies for Penguin which were widely used by A level students.  Four more books appeared after formal retirement.

Larry taught in many universities around the world in addition to those where he had jobs: Munich, Dijon, various in the USA and Canada, Kashmir, Wurzburg, Vienna, and British Council lecture tours in France, Germany, Spain, South America, Turkey and India.  These experiences led to his most personal book, Wandering Professor.

They moved to Lewes in 1992 where they made many friends and were very happy.  Larry taught many literature classes for the Centre for Continuing Education and the U3A (University of the Third Age) only finally stopping in 2012 when he was no longer sure of remembering the quotations he needed.

Although he described himself as a follower who was surprised to be accepted, Larry was an active member of the Society of Friends (Quakers), attending Brighton, Nashville and then Lewes meetings.  For many years, he taught a Shakespeare summer school at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre with trips to Stratford to see plays.  He gave the Swarthmore Lecture in 1984 (The Two Cinnas – Quakerism, Revolution and Poetry).  He was Clerk to the Lewes meeting for several years.

Larry appreciated his family, particularly once they had left home!  He was always interested in the evolving life of his four sons (David, Edwin, Martin and Richard), their partners (Fiona, Pippa, Rachel and Leena), and the eight grandchildren (Rose, Robin, Roubaix, Henry, Julia, Deborah, Anouska and Hannah), who will miss him greatly.  The death of Natalie, an equal half of their 70 year partnership, in November 2014 was a blow.  Larry retained his smile and interests in people and ideas until the end, which came quickly and comfortably on 19 January 2016.