David Nokes, 1948-2009

December 17, 2009

A leading authority on 18th-century literature, who took his subject to a wide audience through television adaptations and acclaimed biographies, has died.

David Leonard Nokes was born on 11 March 1948 and went to school in Wimbledon. He then attended Christ's College, Cambridge, where he obtained an undergraduate degree, an MA and a PhD.

By the time his doctorate was awarded in 1974, he had already been working for a year as a lecturer at King's College London. He was to remain there for the rest of his life, promoted to reader in 1986 and professor of English literature in 1998.

Although they were rather out of fashion when he began his career, Professor Nokes soon revealed a gift for making the leading 18th-century writers attractive and accessible to both students and a general readership.

Along with a study of Augustan satire, Raillery and Rage (1987), he was the author of Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed (1985), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; John Gay: A Profession of Friendship (1995); and Jane Austen: A Life (1997). His final book, Samuel Johnson: A Life, was widely praised on its publication this year, the tercentenary of Dr Johnson's birth.

Alongside these landmark books, Professor Nokes wrote a screenplay for the BBC, No Country for Old Men (1981), about the end of Jonathan Swift's life. This was followed by further TV productions: The Count of Solar (1991), the true story of a mysterious deaf-mute boy set just before the French Revolution; and Frankenstein: Birth of a Monster (2003), a dramatised account of the making of Mary Shelley's novel.

Perhaps even more unusually for an academic literature specialist, Professor Nokes was commissioned by the BBC to produce three-part adaptations of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1991) and Anne Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996).

He also wrote a campus novel, The Nightingale Papers (2005), which he saw as "helping to show that I understand the difficulties that assail writers, and justifying my position as a teacher of creative writing".

Clare Brant, professor of 18th-century literature and culture at King's, described Professor Nokes' biographies as notable for their "clarity", enlivened with "touches of wit and elegance".

"His interest in people, in verse forms, in literary friendships and the influence of human forces demonstrated a tact that was sensitive to historical conditions, in part because he refused to follow critical fashion," she said.

Professor Nokes, who had long suffered from a form of rheumatoid arthritis, died on 19 November 2009 and is survived by his wife Marie and daughter Imogen.


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