Haydn Mason obituary

Other lives: Distinguished scholar of 18th-century French literature

While still in primary school my brother Haydn Mason, who has died aged 89, found his vocation as a teacher: using his own phonics system, he taught his three-year-old sibling to read. He went on to become a distinguished scholar of 18th-century French literature and the Enlightenment, with a special interest in Voltaire. His career spanned six decades and he ended up as emeritus professor of French and senior research fellow at Bristol University.

Haydn was born and grew up near Tenby, Pembrokeshire. Our father, Herbert, was a farrier and blacksmith and our mother, Margaret (nee Jones), a Welsh-speaker from Cardiganshire, had been in domestic service until her marriage. Educated at the local village school and Greenhill grammar school in Tenby, he got a first in French at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, then spent an exchange year in France. Following this, he won a Rotary fellowship to study for a master’s degree in the US.

After national service in the army Haydn returned to the US to teach at Princeton, one of eight universities, including the Sorbonne, at which he held appointments during his career. Before joining Bristol University in 1981 he had been professor of French at the University of East Anglia. He also spent three years at Jesus College, Oxford, working for a doctorate on Voltaire and the French philosopher Pierre Bayle.

The author of numerous publications on Voltaire, including a 1981 biography translated into Italian and Spanish, Haydn was for nearly two decades editor of the journal Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century put out by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford. For three further years he was general editor of the foundation’s complete works of Voltaire. Among his distinctions he was an Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques in recognition of his contribution to French scholarship and a fellow of the Learned Society of Wales.

A former colleague, Edward Forman, said of him: “While Voltaire and Enlightenment studies were his central and ongoing focus, his curiosity and erudition were extraordinarily wide-ranging, and conversations with him, whether on literature, art, music, theatre, sport or current affairs, were characterised by sparkle and insight.”

Haydn is survived by his wife Adrienne (nee Barnes), whom he married in 1982, his children, David and Gwyneth, from his first marriage, to Gretchen Reger, which ended in divorce, his stepdaughter Kate, five grandchildren, three step-grandchildren and me.

Towyn Mason

The GuardianTramp

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