Aileen Christianson obituary

Other lives: Writer and academic driven by her twin obsessions, Scottishness and femaleness

My friend of 50 years, Aileen Christianson, who has died of cancer aged 75, was a prominent Edinburgh-based academic and writer, driven by what she called her “twin obsessions”: Scottishness and femaleness.

She spent more than 50 years as researcher and editor at Edinburgh University working on The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle and wrote a compelling series of books and essays on Scottish women writers, both 19th century and contemporary.

Aileen was born in Rhos, near Llandudno, north Wales, to Alan Christianson, an accountant decorated with the Military Cross during the second world war, and Gladys (nee Barker), a teacher. After a brief spell in Manchester, the family, including elder sister Janice, moved to Scotland when Aileen was six, settling eventually in Helensburgh, 25 miles north-west of Glasgow.

After taking a MA in English and history at Aberdeen University in 1966, Aileen toyed with the idea of doing a BPhil on Orwell but chose instead to become a research assistant (to Professor Ken Fielding) on the Carlyle Letters project (now at Vol 48). She later began part-time teaching but had to wait until October 1993 before becoming a lecturer (a delay that continued to rankle with her as a feminist) and, two years later, a senior lecturer. Upon “retirement” in 2010, she carried on as an honorary fellow in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures.

Aileen garnered a wide range of non-academic friends in Scottish politics, journalism and culture, and in 1978 met and befriended the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, and her partner, Graeme Gibson, when they lived in Edinburgh for a year.

She was known as “Auntie Aileen” to Atwood’s daughter Jess. Peggy, as she called Margaret, and Aileen would discuss books and feminism over tea whenever the novelist visited the Scottish capital. She helped Atwood research her novel Alias Grace, providing name, age and background of the Scot Thomas Kinnear, whose murder was a famous case in the 19th century.

Also in 1978, she helped to found and fund the Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre as she stepped up her activism in the Edinburgh women’s movement. But writing and editing remained centre-stage. She wrote extensively about Willa Muir (mainly Moving in Circles, 2007), the Shetland-born novelist and wife of poet Edwin Muir, and other women writers such as Muriel Spark, Janice Galloway, AL Kennedy and Carol Ann Duffy. She co-edited the books Contemporary Scottish Women Writers (2000) and Scottish Women’s Fiction, 1920s to 1960s (2000). Her work won her a 2019 Saltire Society Fletcher of Saltoun award.

Outspokenly pro-independence, and pro-European, with homes in Edinburgh, Pittenweem and Agde, in the south of France, she was in Atwood’s words “a true original” – highly intelligent, no sufferer of (male) fools, funny, driven by a strong moral sense and commitment to feminism and social justice – and friendship.

She is survived by Janice.


David Gow

The GuardianTramp

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