We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Nokes, David Leonard (1948–2009), biographer and literary scholar, was born in Paddington Hospital, London, on 11 March 1948, the son of Anthony John Nokes (1922–1999), a clerical officer in the Central Office of Information, and his wife, Ethel Murray, née Smith (1919–1996). At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at 204 Gloucester Terrace, Paddington. At an early age he contracted Still's disease (juvenile idiopathic arthritis), which stunted his growth and made walking painful. He was educated at King's College School, Wimbledon, before entering Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1966. After obtaining a first-class degree in English in 1969 he embarked on research into the work of Scriblerian satirists, which brought him a PhD in 1974. By that time he had been appointed to a post as lecturer in English at King's College, London, where he spent the remainder of his career, gaining promotion to reader in 1986 and professor in 1998.

Nokes soon acquired a reputation for scholarly work on authors such as Swift and Pope, and he would subsequently write a general introduction to this area of literature under the title Raillery and Rage: a Study of Eighteenth-Century Satire (1987). He also edited Henry Fielding's Jonathan Wild for the Penguin English Library (1982), as well as contributing reviews on a regular basis to the Times Literary Supplement and other journals. However, it was with Jonathan Swift: a Hypocrite Reversed (1985) that he first achieved wide recognition, as the book brought him the James Tait Black memorial prize. From that time his major publications lay in the field of biography. First came John Gay: a Profession of Friendship (1995), the most significant of his works in terms of underlying scholarship. It was followed by Jane Austen: a Life (1997) and Samuel Johnson: a Life (2009), published a few weeks before his death. The last two books showed an increasing concern with the psychology of authorship, and revealed a dark side to the life of their subjects which prompted extensive discussion among critics and readers.

Meanwhile Nokes had developed a secondary career as a writer for television. His first screenplay, No Country for Old Men (1981), centred on the elderly Swift, played by Trevor Howard. The Count of Solar (1991) told the story of a deaf mute child in the eighteenth century, and enlisted Nokes's sympathy for those struggling with a handicap. His last screenplay, a dramatization of the process by which Mary Shelley's Frankenstein came to be written, was screened in 2003. Together with his longtime collaborator, Janet Barron, he produced for the BBC well-received adaptations of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1991), which was nominated for a BAFTA award, and Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). His varied achievements led to his election as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1994.

All this time Nokes continued to play an active part in the life of his department and university. He managed to inspire a taste for his chosen field of literature among his students, as well as hosting lively parties in a hall of residence. A new string to his bow proved to be courses in creative writing, begun at a time when such undertakings still faced considerable opposition in many schools of literature. Among his students who later came to prominence as authors were David Profumo and Lawrence Norfolk. His own novel The Nightingale Papers (2005) treats the splendours and miseries of the academic world with comic zest.

In the late 1990s Nokes suffered a major stroke which added to his physical disabilities. But he was as always resolute in the face of problems and soon regained his full level of activity. In this he was aided by a colleague at King's, (Margaret Andrée) Marie Denley, née Riffard (1949–2012), whom he married on 18 July 1997. The daughter of André Riffard, schoolmaster, and the former wife of Peter R. Denley, historian, and before that of Paul B. C. Collins, she was a lecturer in medieval English with a special interest in education whose literary skills allowed her to make a considerable number of ‘suggestions and explorations’, as she put it, while he was writing his life of Johnson. She described her husband as ‘a bonny fighter, who in a small and bent body, punched far above his weight’ (http://ellenandjim.wordpress.com). The couple settled in Great Shelford, near Cambridge, and enjoyed a happy though curtailed marriage. Having been a ‘cheery atheist’ most of his life, he became a regular worshipper at St Mary's, Great Shelford, in his latter years (ibid.).

Nokes collapsed suddenly while visiting friends on 19 November 2009 and later that day died from the effects of a cerebral haemorrhage in King's College Hospital, Denmark Hill, London. His wide range of acquaintance inside and outside academia felt acute grief at the loss of his cheerful, occasionally mock-lugubrious, manner; his wit; his love of the pleasures of the table; and his deep feeling for literature. His funeral service was held at St Mary's, Great Shelford, and a memorial service took place at King's College on 27 November 2010. He was survived by his wife, who died on 17 June 2012, and by the couple's adopted daughter, Imogen.

Pat Rogers

Sources  

The Times (3 Dec 2009); (8 Dec 2009) · The Guardian (8 Dec 2009) · Times Higher Education Supplement (17 Dec 2009) · Christ's College Magazine (2010) · Comment [King's College, London] (March 2010) · ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/david-nokess-samuel-johnson-a-life/, accessed on 16 Aug 2012 · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, performance recording


Likenesses  

obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£614,832: probate, 24 Aug 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales