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Shackleton, Robertfree


Shackleton, Robert (1919–1986), French scholar and librarian, was born in Todmorden, Yorkshire, on 25 November 1919, the eldest in the family of two sons and one daughter of (Robert William) Albert Shackleton, shoemaker, and his wife, Emily Sunderland. He attended Broomfield Boys' School and Todmorden secondary school, and subsequently went to Oriel College, Oxford, as a scholar in modern languages, taking a first class in 1940. The next five years were spent in the Royal Corps of Signals, serving in north Africa and Italy. In 1946 he was elected the first modern languages fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford. The college became the physical and affective centre of his life; he resided there, served as senior dean in the difficult post-war years (1954–61), was college librarian (1948–66), and came close to the principalship. An enthusiastic gastronome and a connoisseur of wines, he was a generous host to both young and old.

Born and bred in north country nonconformity, Shackleton was a lifelong Liberal, taking an active part in politics early on and standing for parliament, unsuccessfully, at Blackburn in 1945. A man of unusual elocution—his nasal intonation was a striking characteristic—he was nevertheless a good lecturer. Factually based academic research was, however, one of his real strengths and he soon gained a considerable reputation as both a scholar and an academic administrator. A leading member of his faculty, he was president of the conference of university teachers of French in 1958 and an editor of French Studies from 1960, and in 1965 succeeded Enid Starkie as university reader in French literature.

Shackleton's early edition of Bernard de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1955), linking his childhood love of astronomy with his deep devotion to the European Enlightenment, was followed by his magisterial, if dry, critical biography of Montesquieu (1961), which was translated into French in 1977. Shackleton's identification of Montesquieu's different scribes and the painstaking research behind this volume contributed largely to the resurgence of Montesquieu studies with which his name became synonymous. He took the Oxford degree of DLitt in 1966. A regular traveller abroad and an easy speaker of French and Italian, Shackleton became a major figure in the international learned field, being president of the International Comparative Literature Association (1964–7) and in 1975–9 of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (where in particular he did much to improve relationships), and chairman of committee of the Voltaire Foundation (from 1983), the transfer of which to Oxford University he did much to assist. From 1972 to 1981 he was a delegate of the Oxford University Press.

An expert committee man, Shackleton was, though often of firm views, notably articulate in their expression and deft at either compromise or the maintenance of an entrenched position. A frequenter of libraries at home and abroad, and from early days a bibliophile and book collector, he became a curator of the Bodleian Library in 1961 and in 1965–6 chaired the special Oxford committee on the university's libraries. Its report, written at the end of the period of post-war expansion, foresaw notable developments in storage, co-operation, and automation, but took funding for granted. The office of Bodley's librarian fell vacant in 1966 and Shackleton was elected to it. Retaining his rooms in Brasenose, he was active in promoting the cause of the Bodleian and that of sharing the labour and cost of cataloguing between major libraries by using automated techniques. He travelled much during these years and lectured throughout the world. Shackleton was an excellent ambassador but less effective as head librarian in the changed financial and academic climate of the 1970s. The desire for a more active participation in the development of the Bodleian by staff, curators, university administrators, and library users did not chime easily with his autocratic management style. Already suffering from a blood complaint, he resigned the librarianship in 1979 in favour of a return to the more strictly academic post of Marshal Foch professor of French literature (1979–86).

This translation required removal from Brasenose to All Souls and, for Shackleton as an unmarried man, to the difficulties of practical domestic life. He had built up a renowned private library, and an informal portrait of him by Margaret Foreman (later placed in the college), standing in his beloved rooms in Brasenose, depicts the man better than his formal portrait by Sir William Coldstream in the Bodleian. His superlative Montesquieu collection, the basis of his 1983–4 Lyell lectures in bibliography, was ultimately bequeathed to the Bodleian while many of his books were sold to the John Rylands University Library of Manchester. He was appointed CBE (1986), was a fellow of the British Academy (1966), of which he was publications secretary (1974–7), and a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur (1982), and he held numerous other awards, including honorary degrees from Bordeaux (1966), Dublin (1967), Manchester (1980), and Leeds (1985).

Shackleton was tall with a domed brow and long arms, which at times made him appear ungainly in his movements. His last professorial years were clouded by illness and he died in Ravello, Italy, on 9 September 1986, a few weeks before he was due to retire. He was buried at the English cemetery in Naples.


  • G. Barber and C. P. Courtney, eds., Enlightenment essays in memory of Robert Shackleton (1988) [incl. list of pubns]
  • G. Barber, ‘Robert Shackleton, 1919–1986’, PBA, 73 (1987), 657–84
  • personal knowledge (2004)


  • W. Coldstream, oils, Bodl. Oxf.
  • M. Foreman, oils, Brasenose College, Oxford
  • photograph, repro. in Barber, ‘Robert Shackleton’

Wealth at Death

£168,780: probate, 16 Feb 1987, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Proceedings of the British Academy
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]