The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NZ, T +44 (0)1227 764000
Professor Molly Mahood
Doctor of Letters
Molly Mahood is a writer and literary critic, whose titles within her long and distinguished career include Poetry and Humanism (1950), Shakespeare’s Wordplay (1957), The Colonial Encounter (1977), Bit Parts in Shakespeare’s Plays (1992) and The Poet as Botanist (2008). The latter was awarded the Rose Mary Crayshaw Prize of the British Academy. In addition, she has published numerous articles on poets including Shakespeare, Keats, Kipling and John Clare, and has contributed short pieces and reviews to various national and international publications including Modern Language Review, Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Education, New Statesman and African Affairs.
She was Professor of English Literature at the University of Kent between 1967 and 1979 and remains Professor Emeritus at the University. Her other academic posts include professorships at the universities of Ibadan (1954-63) and Dar es Salaam (1963-67), and she was also Visiting Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Public Oration by Dr. Marion O'Connor
"It is a happy coincidence that brings degree candidates from the School of English and from the School of Architecture together at this morning’s ceremony. Our honourary graduand, an internationally acclaimed critic and teacher of English literature, is a builder of many bridges.
Molly Maureen Mahood was born in 1919, schooled at Surbiton High School, and educated at King’s College, University of London, from which she was awarded a Ist-Class BA in English in 1941 and a research MA, for a thesis on seventeenth-century comedy, in 1944. During her second undergraduate year, King’s was evacuated to Bristol, away from the wartime dangers of central London, and perhaps the experience encouraged her to watch for opportunities off the beaten path. She held an assistant lectureship at King’s for three years and then, in 1947, moved to Oxford, where she was tutor and fellow of St Hugh’s College until 1954. Although by her retrospective account, `Oxford.. was a good place to be in a post-war society alive with hopes of a better world,’ she set off to help build that world elsewhere.
While still teaching at Oxford, she visited South Africa and subsequently undertook a term of teaching at Fort Hare, then that country’s only tertiary-level institution for black students. Elsewhere, in seven centres of the British territories across Africa, plus another in the Caribbean, the University of London was sponsoring the transformation of colonial colleges into independent universities. Leaving England, Miss Mahood played a big part in this process by serving as Professor of English at Ibadan in Nigeria from 1954 to 1963, and then Professor of Literature at Dar es Salaam in Tanzania from 1963 to 1967. Her inaugural lecture at Ibadan made a case for the study of English literature as enabling the writing of new national literatures in English. Her argument proved so true a prediction that the lecture is now a reference point in the history of African – and Caribbean -- literature. And Professor Mahood herself did much, by way of guidance and support, to foster some of the new writers during, and after, her thirteen years at work in Africa.
Meanwhile universities, including this one, were also being founded in England. Recruited to the University of Kent at Canterbury for 1967, its first year of operation, Professor Mahood served as Professor of English Literature for a dozen years. In ways which are hard to remember, let alone imagine, now that many resources are accessible online, staff and students at 20th-century new universities – everywhere, even the Home Counties -- were disadvantaged by the minimalism of their library holdings, particularly for earlier periods. Professor Mahood, who had experienced book shortages in African university libraries, was soon responsible for a significant expansion of Kent’s: she gave our library some 12,000 printed books which had been amassed by John Crow, a celebrated collector of books and her former colleague at King’s. And in the establishment of Kent as a centre for what was initially called African & Caribbean Studies, later redesignated and redefined as Post-Colonial Studies, the presence of M.M. Mahood was crucial. So, sometimes, was her absence -- or, rather, the international contacts secured by the lecture tours which she made, over the years, in Poland, India, Morocco, Senegal, the Gambia, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. A worldwide network of scholars and students know her (to quote a recent email message from Western Australia) to be living proof of the rule that the more distinguished and eminent the scholars, the more generous they are with their willingness to help others.
M. M. Mahood became Emeritus Professor of English of the University of Kent in 1979. The title is, of course, a special distinction conferred at point of retirement. Her only gesture towards retirement, however, was to move from the centre of Canterbury, where she had a riverside house in Blackfriars Street, to even more picturesque addresses in Warwickshire and then West Sussex. In an amazing turn to an already remarkable curriculum vitæ, Emeritus Professor Mahood started all over again with the Open University, from which she took another B.A. in 1985, this time in biological subjects. She also became active in both the Green Party and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. And she continued to publish, as she has done since 1950, literary criticism which is internationally recognised as groundbreaking.
It is very much to the honour of Kent that Professor Mahood retired from this university, for her affiliation is proclaimed on the dustjackets, and in the reviews, of some very distinguished publications. Besides editing two Shakespearean comedies (Twelfth Night for Penguin and The Merchant of Venice for Cambridge) and writing stacks of essays and reviews for leading journals in several fields, she has published six books: Poetry and Humanism (1950), Shakespeare’s Wordplay (1957), Joyce Cary’s Africa (1964), The Colonial Encounter (1977), Bit Parts in Shakespeare’s Plays (1992) and The Poet as Botanist (2008). In a research culture which currently assesses quality by counting quantity and estimating “impact”, six books across six decades might not seem like much. But that is precisely the point: value over volume. Professor Mahood writes classics: her books excel, influence, and endure. Consider the record of her study of Shakespeare’s Wordplay.
Shortly after its initial publication (by a company which disappeared long ago), Shakespeare’s Wordplay was recommended for A-Level study, and it has been a staple of reading lists on undergraduate Shakespeare courses for well over half a century, as critical fashions came and went. First published in 1957, Shakespeare’s Wordplay was reprinted in 1964 and 1988; its 40th anniversary was celebrated in an entire issue of a critical journal in 1997; and in 2004 it appeared as an e- Book. Several other titles by Professor Mahood have also undergone Internet metamorphosis, and most have gone through print reissues and revised editions.
Professor Mahood’s books, then, last. They also get around. Her latest two books were published by a leading academic press, and the most recent was awarded a prize by the British Academy -- whose annual Shakespeare lecture she gave in 1972. (Only five women, of whom she was the second, have given that lecture in the 45 years since its establishment.) Yet she does not address academics: she does not write as a professional speaking to, and about, other professionals, and seeking to impress them with scholarship and specialist jargon. Writing to be read, by whomever, she communicates deep learning and acute thinking in prose which delights. To quote her apology for her Shakespearean criticism, `I have never thought of myself as a real Shakespearean of the kind who could never rest with an unresolved crux under all those mattresses. From time to time I have been struck, even a bit hypnotised, by one or other aspect of Shakespeare’s art and have tried to share that fascination with other playgoers and readers.’ Those things which have struck Professor Mahood from time to time have been things unremarked by others: she finds new topics even in the overworked field of Shakespeare studies – and not only there. Her latest book, The Poet as Botanist, discusses `a fundamental experience of artist and biologist alike’: this experience, which she calls `biophilia’ [life love], is that of `life recognising itself’. With characteristic clarity, wit and grace, she analyses expressions of that experience -- from William Wordsworth’s early nineteenth-century primroses in the Lake District to Les Murray’s late twentieth-century sunflowers in Australia – and she also articulates it from her own life story.Throughout that life, Professor Mahood has linked people, institutions, disciplines, cultures all over the English-speaking world. It is appropriate that University of Kent is honouring her achievements here, in this glorious building which is the mother church of the Anglican communion." back to top