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Downs, Brian Westerdale (1893–1984), literary scholar and translator, was born on 4 July 1893 at 5 Beech Grove, Beverley Road, Newland, Kingston upon Hull, the son of James Downs, mechanical engineer, and his wife, Ethel Ester, née Wilson (1866–1958). After attending Abbotsholme School, he went up to Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1912, and graduated with first-class honours in modern and medieval languages (German and Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon) in 1915. In 1918 he was made a college lecturer in English and modern languages, and in 1919 a college fellow. From 1920 he taught English and modern languages for the university and for much of the next decade lectured on ‘Tragedy, Medieval and Modern’ for the first two terms of the academic year and the Victorian novelists for the third term, varying this occasionally with aspects of German literature. He also taught elementary Dutch, and in 1921 with H. Latimer Jackson published a Manual of the Dutch Language. His next publication was Cambridge Past and Present (1926). In 1927 he lectured for two terms on Samuel Richardson and his predecessors and in 1928 published a study of Richardson as well as an introduction to an edition of Richardson's Familiar Letters on Important Occasions. Given his interest in the Victorian novelists, it is perhaps not surprising that the name of George Eliot should appear among his publications, but when it did it was not as his own work, but as a translation of a study of her life by the French writer George Romieu. He also published a translation of André Maurois's novel Bernard Quesnay in 1927, a year after its original publication in France.

On 1 July 1924 Downs married Elsie Ada Maud Drew (1887–1965). Born in Singapore, the daughter of Alfred Henry Drew, solicitor, she was an English scholar who had taught at Girton College, and who evidently resembled Virginia Woolf. The author of the Christ's College obituary of Downs wrote of the hospitality that Downs and his wife extended at their home in Trumpington. From the late 1930s Downs began acquiring more administrative posts, starting with membership of the council of senate of the University of Cambridge, a post he held from 1939 to 1944 and again from 1954 to 1960.

But the war years also brought personal tragedy. In 1930 Brian and Elsie Downs had a son, Jonathan, and at the outbreak of the Second World War Elsie followed advice and sought the safety of America where Jonathan, who was then nine years old, was killed by a truck while playing outside his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. The marriage did not survive this tragedy, the couple divorced, and Downs is reported never to have spoken of his son again. On 14 September 1946, however, he married Evelyn Faith Marion Wrangham, née Doubble (1907–1977), widow of Stephen D. Wrangham and daughter of Meredith Sedgwick Doubble. She had worked in the Foreign Office in Portugal, but had more recently served as Downs's secretary. This relationship brought him lasting happiness and when she died in 1977 Downs is reported to have said that ‘When Evelyn died, I died too’. Before that, however, she supported him as his life now entered a full and busy phase. In 1950 he was appointed master of Christ's College, a position he held until his retirement in 1963, and in the same year he was appointed as the first professor of Scandinavian studies. He had already published in 1946 his first book on Ibsen, Ibsen: the Intellectual Background, and in 1949, with Brita Mortenson, Strindberg: an Introduction to his Life and Work. These were followed in 1950 by A Study of Six Plays by Ibsen, and in 1966 by Norwegian Literature, 1860–1918. These were much-used works until literary scholarship developed in a different direction in the late 1960s.

From 1955 to 1957 Downs served as vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge. He was a founder trustee of Churchill College and also maintained links with his home town of Hull and its university where he served on the academic court and council, for which services he was awarded an honorary DLitt. His services to Scandinavian literature and culture were recognized with honours by Sweden and Denmark, and he was also made an officer of the Légion d'honneur.

Downs belonged to a tradition of gentlemen scholars, and during the 1920s and 1930s his duties as lecturer and tutor did not prevent him ‘delighting in the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, or organizing theatre parties and acting as host to undergraduate play-readings’ (Christ's College Magazine, 29). He clearly had a warm and hospitable nature but was also a deeply private person, who presented to the world an urbane but rather formal façade, nowhere more evident than in his legendary sartorial elegance, which by the 1960s must have seemed strangely archaic. In his duties as master of Christ's or vice-chancellor of the university he was one of the last of a line of men who reigned and administered before the need for innovation and radical shake-up took over. He lived after his retirement in 20 Marlborough Court, Grange Road, Cambridge, but died in the Hope Nursing Home, Cambridge, of bronchopneumonia and diabetes mellitus, on 3 March 1984. He was cremated. A memorial service was held in the chapel of Christ's College on 2 June 1984.

Marie Wells


Cambridge University Reporter (1920–30) · The Times (13 March 1984) · Christ's College Magazine (1984), 28–30 · WWW · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert. · private information (2012)


Christ's College, Cambridge |  Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Drew papers


W. Stoneman, bromide print, 1955, NPG, London · P. Dodd, oils, 1957, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, Christ's College; repro. in J. W. Goodison, Catalogue of the portraits in Christ's, Clare and Sidney Sussex colleges (1985), 12 · P. Dodd, oils, U. Hull · Ramsey and Muspratt, photograph, repro. in Christ's College Magazine · R. Tollast, line drawing, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, Churchill College

Wealth at death  

£326,028: 30 May 1984, The Times