English expert helped shape Canberra's cultural life

Jul 5, 2012

T

he term ''A scholar and a gentleman'' is often over-used but Ralph Elliott epitomised that phrase. Elliott was born Rudolf Ehrenberg in Berlin in 1921, which, as he recounts in his 2009 memoir, A Kilted Kraut, was not a wise time to be born, given the social and economic turmoil in Germany. He was born into a distinguished family, which traced ancestors back to Martin Luther, while more contemporary relatives included the 1954 Nobel Laureate physicist Max Born, Olivia Newton John and comedian Ben Elton.

Elliott attended the Bismarck Gymnasium in Karlsruhe from 1931 until 1936, when the family experienced increasing anti-Semitism. Elliott was therefore sent, in 1936, to stay with his uncle Max Born in Edinburgh, where he remembered Born's many scientific contacts, including Albert Einstein and Max Planck.

Elliott attended St Andrews University in 1939, but in 1940 he was interned as an alien, first on the Isle of Man and later in Canada. Within a year, he was back in England in the Aliens Pioneers Company, which led to him being offered a place at Sandhurst, where he won the Sword of Honour. Wartime shortages meant he only received a medallion rather than a sword. The medallion and Elliott's father's World War I German Iron Cross are now held in the Australian War Memorial.

Elliott subsequently served in the British Army in Germany, where he was badly wounded in 1945.

In 1943, Elliott changed his name from Ehrenberg to Elliott. In October 1944, he married Liselotte Spiro, but the marriage later broke down. Elliott's two children from the marriage, Oliver and Christine, pre-deceased Elliott.

After the war he graduated from St Andrews University, where he subsequently lectured in medieval English language and literature, and then at University College, Keele. In July 1958, Elliott married Margaret Robinson, whom he had met at Keele, and who is well known in Canberra for her piano accompaniments. Elliott and Margaret had two children, Francis and Hilary. In 1959, Elliott emigrated to Australia to become a senior lecturer at Adelaide University. In 1963, he joined vice-chancellor Peter Karmel at the new Flinders University, where Elliott was professor of English.

In January 1974, Elliott was appointed master of University House, a position he held for 13 years. Elliott reinvigorated the House, as documented in Jill Waterhouse's history of University House. He also encouraged members of the wider Canberra and diplomatic communities to congregate at his ''academic hotel''.

Elliott's many cultural initiatives included launching the Music at Lunchtime series with students from the School of Music. Elliott was president of the School of Music Friends when he was master. He continued the University House wine symposia and chaired the university convocation lunches. He worked with Alison Broinowski and myself to establish the National Word Festival and was particularly pleased his long-time friend, the British writer Alan Garner, was the guest of honour at the first University House Word Festival in 1983.

Elliott made many contributions to Canberra's cultural life. He was a regular reviewer for The Canberra Times and, for 10 years, had a regular fortnightly linguistic talkback session on ABC 666. He served on the council of Canberra Boys Grammar and was chairman of the Gabriel Foundation at Canberra Girls Grammar. His love of books and reading was profound. He served as chair of the ANU library committee and was honorary librarian of the ANU Humanities Research Centre. Elliott donated signed book collections both to the ANU Library and University House.

Elliott was able to combine significant academic achievements along with his stewardship of University House. His main fields of interest were English language, medieval English literature, Thomas Hardy and children's literature. He published numerous scholarly articles, as well as runes, including An Introduction (1959, second edition 1989), Chaucer's English (1974), Thomas Hardy's English (1984, 1986) and The Gawain Country (1984). He was an inspirational teacher both at the undergraduate and doctoral level.

His last publication, Chaucer's Landscapes (2010), dedicated to his wife, collected his essays, speeches and reviews from 1951 to 2009 . His 116-page memoir, which he said was neither a family history nor an autobiography, came about after Garner introduced him to a publisher as a German who grew up in Scotland. The publisher's response was ''A veritable kilted kraut! You ought to tell your story someday.'' Elliott subtitled his memoir, The Recollections of Rudolf Ehrenberg, as Narrated by Ralph Elliott.

Elliott's considerable achievements were recognised in 1990 when he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of ''service to the community and to education''. In 2001 he was awarded the Centenary Medal for ''service to Australian society and the humanities in the history of the English language''. He guest lectured at many Australian and overseas universities.

Elliott was a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and served as its treasurer and deputy secretary. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and honorary doctor of letters of Flinders University.

Elliott remained intellectually active, although in his last years he was hampered by his deafness. Only two months ago, his long-time love of a local restaurant, Maestral in Weston Creek, was commemorated in a tribute wall to mark his nearly 300 meals there over the years. Elliott commented: ''I can't hear very well now, but I can eat very well.'' Elliott similarly concludes his memoir, to his ''dear reader, while reaching for a glass of my favourite Merlot''.

Elliott will be long remembered in the university and in the Canberra community for his scholarship, his conviviality, his humour and his friendship with a wide range of people. A true scholar and a gentlemen. Colin Steele

A memorial service to celebrate Ralph Elliott's life will be held at University House, ANU, today at noon.

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