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In Memoriam: Christine Elizabeth Fell (1938-1998)


Kathryn A. Lowe, University of Glasgow

Chris Fell (1938-1998) was an undergraduate at Royal Holloway College, London, and was awarded first-class Honors in English in 1959. She completed an M.A. in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at University College, London and held posts at Ripon Training College (1961-3), Aberdeen University (1963-5) and Leeds University (1965-71) before being appointed to a Lectureship at Nottingham University in 1971. She spent the rest of her academic career there until her retirement due to ill health in 1997, becoming Reader in 1976 and Professor of Early English Studies in 1981. She served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor from 1985-9, became the first Director of the Humanities Research Centre in 1994 and was instrumental in attracting Leverhulme-sponsored funding in 1992 for a major research project to revise A. H. Smith's English Place-Name Elements. She lived to see the publication of the first volume, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names (Á-Box), in 1997.

Chris's published work covered both Old English and Old Norse. Her early work was largely in Old Norse studies, and included an edition of Dunstanus saga (1963), and a superb Everyman translation of Egils Saga (1975) which has never been out of print. Her contribution to Icelandic Studies was recognized when she was presented with the Order of the Falcon in 1991 by the President of Iceland. Chris will, however, chiefly be remembered by readers of OEN for her insightful work on Old English lexis. One example gives an indication of her range. In an article published in Anglo-Saxon England in 1984, she re-examined Æthelberht ch. 73 ("Gif friwif locbore leswæs hwæt gedeþ, xxx scll' gebete"), generally translated along the lines of "If a freeborn woman, with long hair, commits any misconduct, she shall pay 30 shillings as compensation." She adduced evidence from, inter alia, The Wanderer, cemetery finds, wills, Old Norse cognates, Riddles, and — most importantly and characteristically — common sense. She offered instead the less picturesque but more plausible interpretation "If a free woman in control of the keys does anything seriously dishonest she is to pay thirty shillings compensation." Her research, however, has more to offer than a series of improved readings: Chris's work as a whole reveals the dangers inherent in the sloppy-minded habit of unquestioningly accepting and transmitting translations from scholarly generation to generation, despite the availability of such reference tools as the Toronto Microfiche Concordance. While such interpretations have achieved a patina of respectability through age and repetition, Chris elegantly demonstrated their direct line of descent from the likes of Lambarde, Nowell, and Somner, scholars working at a time when guesswork in large measure necessarily supplemented meagre resources.

Chris also produced material of a more popular nature, including the soundtrack to the Jorvik Viking Centre and the children's pamphlet Toki in Jorvik! Her book, Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066 (1984), is illustrative of her output—learned, yet accessible to a general readership. It is for this combination of scholarship and her ability to reach out to a wider audience that she was awarded an OBE for her work on Early English Studies in 1997.

Chris was an inspiring teacher (I speak from personal experience), whose research interests informed everything she did. She introduced her students early on to the problems of evidence and to the full range of Anglo-Saxon material rather than the narrowly canonical. Her lectures were insightful and provocative, never dull. They invited the audience to engage with a text by revealing its complexities, its sharp edges, and by challenging assumptions. Chris encouraged her students to form their own opinions and to question those of others. We learned from a master.

Chris's hospitality was unrivalled in its generosity. Visitors to her North Yorkshire house were treated to trips both to Anglo-Saxon churches and local hostelries, studied lack of interest from her two Burmese cats, and spirited debate with frequent sorties to her superb personal library, conservatory, and cellar. She was, by turns, infuriating and witty, irascible and warm-hearted. All of these qualities are evident in her work, but it was a privilege to have witnessed them at first hand and to have been counted amongst her many friends.

Editor's note: a Memorial Fund has been set up in Christine Fell's name, for the benefit of postgraduates in Old English at the University of Nottingham (bursaries, studentships, and the like). For further information, contact Stephen Vesse at the Univ. of Nottingham's Development Office (stephen.vesse@nottingham.ac.uk).