George Watson was born into a Queensland farming family in Australia on 13 October 19 and educated at Brisbane Boys’ College and the University of Queensland, where he graduated in English in 1948. He then secured a scholarship for a second degree in English at Trinity College, Oxford (1950), where he was greatly impressed by the teaching of C. S. Lewis.
A talented linguist, Mr Watson spent much of the 1950s working for the European Commission, both as an interpreter and checking the different versions of its publications. He stood as an unsuccessful Liberal parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham in the 1959 general election.
In the same year, however, Mr Watson switched to an academic career as a lecturer in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. In 1961, he also became a fellow of St John’s College, where he continued to live and work until the end of his life, even after retirement from the faculty in 1990.
In print, Mr Watson was known for his powerful polemics and for his major contributions to scholarship.
He devoted considerable time and energy (initially with F. W. Bateson) to the compilation of the massive multi-volume Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (1969-77). The Literary Critics: A Study of English Descriptive Criticism (1962) was widely used by sixth-formers and undergraduates. Other publications include The Story of the Novel (1979), The Idea of Liberalism: Studies for a New Map of Politics (1985), The Certainty of Literature: Essays in Polemic (1989) and Never Ones for Theory? England and the War of Ideas (2000). His final book, Heresies and Heretics: Memories of the Twentieth Century, celebrating his many contacts within political, academic and cultural life, appeared in March this year.
“In person, as on the page,” recalled John Kerrigan, professor of English at Cambridge, “Watson liked to provoke, amuse and perform. His conversation could be sparkling, with a Wildean line in well-honed epigrams that were as penetrating as they were paradoxical.
“During the great upheavals in English studies of the 1970s and 1980s, Watson was firmly in the traditionalist camp, with little time for relativism and none at all for deconstruction.
“Unlike some others involved in the quarrel, he had done his philosophical homework and was a capable linguist. He had many pupils, including such luminaries as Douglas Adams, but he never looked for disciples, although he wanted, and found, friends.”
George Watson died on 2 August 2013 after he was injured in a fall.