Jane Roberts is a senior research fellow in the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of English Studies (IES) and emeritus professor of English language and medieval literature, University of London. She has recently published Kane from Canada, the memoir of George Kane (1916-2008) edited with his daughter, Mary Kane.
George Kane, who grew up on a farm in the North American plains, came to University College London (UCL) in 1938 to write his PhD thesis. His active war service was short, ending at Calais. Much of the memoir deals with his years as a prisoner of war in Germany. The last chapters in the book cover his return to UCL and the years during which he later held chairs at Royal Holloway College (1955–65) and King’s College (1965–76).
Where did the idea for Kane from Canada come from?
When I was writing an obituary of George Kane for The Times early in 2009, his daughter Mary lent me the memoir George had written for his grandchildren. It was such a good read that I suggested it should be published. Robert Bjork, the medieval scholar who runs ACMRS (The Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies), was quick to snatch it up, and so Mary and I found ourselves preparing the text for publication.
Tell me about your research process…
You could hardly say it was research, but there were things to find out, to look up and to check. Mary and I had enormous help from Ron Waldron, a colleague from my King’s days who had sat in on Kane’s UCL lectures when a graduate student at Royal Holloway College. Ron read the proofs with the eye not just of a fine medieval scholar but of one of George Kane’s closest friends and colleagues.
He was a fund of diverse information, whether spotting that a popular wartime song sung by the Andrews Sisters was Working for the Yankee dollar, not ‘Waiting’ as Kane remembered, or explaining that for George’s generation the First World War was the World War and that over here we didn’t say World War 1 ‘until US English became so familiar through the media’.
He and I worried long about how to deal with a Piers Plowman quotation before arriving at a short translation to put in a footnote. But Kane’s memoir is not an academic book – Mary and I decided early on to keep footnotes to a minimum and to have copy-editing as light as possible. Like Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale, the memoir ends abruptly, its final paragraph referring to ‘a goodlooking, smartly dressed woman in her thirties with a couple of somewhat older, bearded men in tow whose faces were familiar’. I did eventually work out that she was Katie Wales, which she confirmed, telling me that ‘the “two beards” are of course Tony Davenport and Tony Ladd’. We supplied a couple of footnotes only, to identify Katie and explain ‘Kane wrote no more.’
One great stroke of luck was the Foreword which Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Notre Dame) wrote for us. Kathryn was, like George Kane, born in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, though 40 years later. Not only does she come from Kane’s own prairie hometown but she is, like him, a Langland scholar. She too had first come to Britain on an Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire fellowship. Kathryn and her mother set off back home to Saskatchewan, they sifted through archives in ‘St Pete’s’ (the nearby Benedictine school Kane attended), winkling out photographs of his schooldays, and they took new photographs too for the book.
Mary’s children had typed the memoir up from George’s manuscript, and they’d sometimes found it hard to read his handwriting. Constructing a family tree was not easy, and we drew on the memories and records of the Canadian family, whom Mary visited for the first time after we got the book to press. Mary and I supplied an ‘Introduction’ and ‘Afterword’ respectively, as a way of giving some cover for the many years that lay ahead after 1965, when the memoir ends. I hope we caught most of the errors that had crept into the typescript.
Which book changed your life?
I’ve never really thought to ask myself this question before, and now I think about it, it was Beowulf. I’d gone up to university (Trinity College Dublin) too early to be admitted to the medical school, and was filling in time reading English and French. Curiosity took me along to reading classes in Old English with Professor M F Liddell, where he patiently took me through many texts in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader before we embarked on Beowulf. I was hooked, both on the poem and on the language in which it is written, and found myself deciding not to read medicine after all.
What are you working on now?
There are quite a few things on the go, among them a four-volume collection of papers published by major scholars that Dr Cynthia Johnston (also at IES) and I are drawing together on Medieval Book History and a collection of papers on Guthlac of Crowland which Dr Alan Thacker (senior research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research) and I are editing; and I still write odds and ends on topics related to the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. But I suppose my main preoccupation is with the psalter in Anglo-Saxon England – its varied shapes and sizes and its impact on the Anglo-Saxons themselves.
Kane from Canada is published by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies