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Cecil, Hugh

Hugh Cecil

Elected: 1997

Year of death: 2020

Author of Obituary: Jonathan Keates

Obituary :

A bit like Birmingham for Mrs Elton in Jane Austen’s Emma, the term ‘academic’ has ‘something dreadful in the sound’, redolent of dreary seminars, turf wars within the faculty and the tyrannical im-peratives of ‘publish or perish’ research. Hugh Cecil was emphatically not that kind of professor. If he was ambitious, it was on behalf of his subject and his pupils. Enthusiasm and curiosity were his genuine motivations as a teacher, scholar and writer. An academic is required to master a field, with all that term suggests as to narrowness of focus and restricted perspectives. Hugh’s field – the early 20th century in Britain and the literary im-pact of the Great War – was one which nourished our understanding with fresh perceptions and constant surprises.

Both sides of his family contributed to his breadth of vision. His father, David Cecil, Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford and himself a notable biographer, was a grandson of Lord Salisbury, the Victorian prime minister. His mother, Rachel, as daughter of the literary critic Desmond MacCarthy, had strong links with Bloomsbury and a family connexion with Thackeray.

Hugh grew up in the classic donnish enclave of north Oxford with his brother and sister, going to school at the Dragon and Eton before reading history at New College. Postgraduate work, supported by a Harkness Fellowship at Harvard, concentrated on the figure of his great-uncle Lord Robert Cecil, a founder of the League of Nations. He eventually joined Leeds university as lecturer in Modern History, where students over the course of three decades enjoyed the seasoning of humour and constant encouragement essential to his approach as a teacher. At Leeds he embarked on a detailed study of the Great War in its impact on the individual and the nature of civil society.

From such an intense absorption sprang his share in developing, with his fellow historian Peter Liddle, an archive collec-tion of documents and oral narratives covering both major 20th-century global conflicts. For what eventually became Liddle’s Second World War Experience Centre at Otley, outside Leeds, Hugh was instrumental in raising funds.

His own love of modern fiction led him to focus more keenly on the singular worlds evoked by novelists of the Great War. The result was The Flower of Battle: How Britain Wrote the Great War, masterly in its fusion of scholarly research with profound empathy towards writers he felt had been unjustly forgotten. Hugh had inherited his father’s delight in the craft of writing and a collaboration with his wife, the journalist Mirabel Walker, produced three outstanding biographies. Clever Hearts, the story of his grandparents Desmond and Molly MacCarthy, won the Duff Cooper Prize, Imperial Marriage was an enjoyably acidulous portrayal of two notably ill-suited Edwardians and In Search of Rex Whistler represented the first major study of the artist and decorator in the context of his period.

More work on Whistler went ahead even as Hugh began to deal with supra-nuclear palsy, a degenerative illness affecting his speech and movement. Yet he remained, almost to the end, the most stimulating, roguishly funny and power-fully analytical of conversationalists, an enriching presence in the life of his family and among many friends.

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Fellows are nominated by peers and elected by our Council of writers – our governing Board. Being elected a Fellow of the RSL is a lifetime honour. This role gives them the opportunity to support other writers, readers and the future of literature. The RSL connects writers in the Fellowship to one another, and to a wider readership.