Laura Marcus obituary

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Laura Marcus, who has died aged 65 of pancreatic cancer, was an astute critic, above all of female writers, both elite and popular, from the early 20th-century age of modernism. She focused on the work of Virginia Woolf, and in two books forged new ideas about the relations between literature and the emerging medium of cinema.

Early in The Tenth Muse: Writing About Cinema in the Modernist Period (2007) she quotes Rudolf Arnheim’s remark that “for the first time in history a new art form is developing, and we can say that we were there”. She goes on to reconstruct what that “being there”, as witness and midwife of cinema’s momentous, sometimes monstrous birth, must have been like.

The new art form is presented through the rapt and restless eyes of early cinema enthusiasts such as Woolf and her fellow writers Dorothy Richardson and HD (Hilda Doolittle). Laura shows how the effort to put the intrigues and excitements of the new medium into writing prompted new forms of writing into being – bolder, swifter and with different, more darting, rhythms and inflections.

Dreams of Modernity: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Cinema (2014) uses Sigmund Freud’s analysis of dreams to explore the affinities between cinema, reverie and modern experiences of motion, especially by train.

Central to Laura’s understanding of cinema was that it came into being in parallel with the development of psychoanalysis, on which she was a shrewd, pensive, undoctrinaire commentator, perhaps most particularly in the searching introduction to the collection of essays on Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams that she edited in 1999.

There she draws particular attention to the support that Freud offered in his book to popular understandings of dreams, but emphasising the ways in which he joined the popular understanding of dreams as foretellings of the future to a grasp of their roots in the dreamer’s past. She lingers on the question of where the dreamer is in relation to their dream: are they spectator or actor?

Such a question had a special piquancy for Laura, whose first book, Auto/biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (1994), invigorated the study of autobiography, transforming it from a whiskery, waistcoated Edwardian preoccupation into a nursery of new understandings of what it means both to live, and write, a life.

In this book and in her Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction (2018), she established herself as the foremost theorist of autobiography, showing how, where autobiography had previously been the self-satisfied prerogative of the eminent, it exploded into the many different forms of life-writing generated during the 20th century, ironically encouraged rather than inhibited by growing doubts as to the possibility of simple truthfulness and reliability.

Born in Hammersmith, west London, Laura was the daughter of Joyce (nee Kreeger), a social worker, and Norman Marcus, a businessman. From St Paul’s girls’ school, she went to Warwick University to study English and American literature, with a year spent on a scholarship to the University of Georgetown, Washington, before graduating in 1978.

An MA in modern literature (1980) and PhD (1989) followed at the University of Kent, and then a series of teaching appointments at the universities of Indiana, Southampton, Sussex and Westminster. At what is now Birkbeck, University of London from 1990, she helped build the BA humanities course into one of the most ambitious interdisciplinary degrees in the UK.

In 1999, she moved back to Sussex, appointed to a readership and then, from 2004, a professorship. In 2007 she went to Edinburgh, and in 2010 to Oxford, becoming Goldsmiths’ professor and a fellow of New College. The following year she was elected fellow of the British Academy, applying herself with characteristic vim to its work, and there were visiting fellowships and professorships also at Yale, Montpellier, Leuven, New South Wales, Zürich and Paris.

Passion is never in short supply among writers, but Laura took the more amicably democratic role of impassioned reader. She was never happier than when reading a book with a pencil in her hand – in her view an indispensable adjunct to any proper act of reading.

Some of her sharpest critical intuitions and responses came from the many texts she edited, as in her edition of Twelve Women Detective Stories (1996). She turned what for many editors is sloggingly inglorious spadework into blithe horticulture. No draft chapter or book manuscript passed under Laura’s eyes without being improved, in a gentle manner that allowed writers to believe they had done it on their own. Her own writing was lucid, always directing the reader’s attention at its object rather than its author.

A generous person fascinated by the arts of life-writing, she nonetheless avoided writing about herself. Her last book, Rhythmical Subjects: The Measures of the Modern, to be published next year, is a study of the idea of rhythm in modern culture, showing that the “measure of the modern” beats like a pulse through the work of philosophers, poets, artists and theorists from the 19th century onwards.

She argues that it lies at the heart of attempts to reconnect art and science, through accounts of the relations between the rhythms of biology, physiology, history, culture and aesthetics, as brought together in Havelock Ellis’s argument that “we are now again enabled ... to view the dance as a symbol of life”.

She met the sociologist William Outhwaite in 1987, and they married in 1994. He survives her, along with their son, Daniel.

Laura Kay Marcus, teacher, critic and writer, born 7 March 1956; died 22 September 2021

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