THE WARDEN OF ENGLISH by Jenny McMorris

THE WARDEN OF ENGLISH

The Life of H.W. Fowler
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A generous, sympathetic biography of the shy scholar (1858–1933) whose Modern English Usage (1926) earned him a prominent place in the pantheon of language mavens.

An archivist for Oxford English Dictionaries, McMorris admits that her task was sometimes frustrating: there is no archive of Fowler family papers, and no one remains alive to be interviewed. But she did locate a treasure chest of letters to and from Fowler in the files of Oxford Univ. Press (for whom he labored for nearly 30 years)—in addition to the many letters Fowler sent back to his wife while he was in France during WWI. And she employs both her assiduous scholarship and considerable imagination to fill in the many blanks. McMorris begins when Fowler, 21, is returning home to be with his dying father, a teacher of mathematics. Fowler was a bright young man who at an early age developed rigorous daily routines of running and swimming that he was to practice virtually his entire adult life. In 1886 he completed a degree at Oxford and then settled into a secondary-school teaching career, for which he did not display much aptitude. (McMorris unearths comments from former students who characterized Fowler as something of a cold but competent fish.) After nearly 20 years in the classroom, he moved to London to try to establish himself as a writer. In the spring of 1904, he and his beloved brother Frank approached Oxford Univ. Press about a new translation of Lucian, and thus began a long, productive association—with time off only for marriage (he was 50), WWI (he lied to recruiters, who accepted him for combat duty at age 56), family tragedies (a sister committed suicide), and personal illness (he took a few days off to have an eye removed). The text is most lively when McMorris delves into the animated correspondence between Fowler and his editors.

An amiable account of a gentle man whose greatest love was language. (12 plates, not seen)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-19-866254-8
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2001