The announcement of Professor Susan Manning’s passing came as a shock to all those who knew her, and the tributes left on the University’s webpage are a testament to the esteem in which she was held, not just in Edinburgh but around the world.
I first met Susan almost 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in Cambridge. She was fiercely intelligent, with a wealth of reading at her disposal, yet at the same time generous with her time and curious about other people’s work. Those qualities of personal and intellectual curiosity characterised her as an academic and as a friend.
In an environment that could be intimidating, Susan was a welcome blast of normality, able to combine a successful career and a life outside of the university that mattered just as much as her teaching and research.
As a model for a well-balanced academic, she could not be bettered. In 1999, Susan was appointed to the Grierson Chair in English Literature at Edinburgh, and the Manning family transplanted themselves north of the border to make a new life in Scotland, the country of her birth.
I followed in 2002, happy to renew my ties with her. I listened to Susan give a number of talks and seminar papers over the years, and what struck me most forcibly was her ability to find affiliations across and between different writers and national literatures.
Her perspective was both historically deep and geographically wide, and this made for some thrilling and unexpected readings.
While, like most academics, she had an area of expertise — broadly late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Scottish and US literature — she also had the enviable ability to bring that expertise to bear on a wide range of subjects and disciplines, to create an environment of intellectual conversation that was the epitome of those principles of the Scottish enlightenment — civility, openness, diversity — that she held so dear.
Her books, The Puritan-Provincial Vision (1990), Fragments of Union (2002), and The Poetics of Character (forthcoming later this year) are written in the belief that ideas circulate; they travel to take new forms and enact new possibilities.
Susan’s entire career was built on fostering the conditions in which these kinds of exchange are possible — whether with students in the classroom or as director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Edinburgh, a vibrant home under her stewardship for intellectual debate.
Books, and the ideas in them, mattered to Susan. They were, for her, the means by which we are able to reflect, self-consciously, on our condition. They provoke, they enrage, they seduce, they convince, they make us feel.
In a university culture where the phrase 'transferrable skills' is, quite justifiably, common currency, this more fundamental sense of why English literature matters can get forgotten. Susan reminded us of it.
At her funeral, one of Susan’s daughters read Emily Dickinson’s poem 'There’s a certain slant of light', a beautiful meditation on how words compel us to acts of interpretation, but at the same time continually thwart our efforts at understanding. 'We can find no scar/But internal difference/Where the Meanings, are', says Dickinson.
Susan’s writing built on, and delighted in, this paradox. Her loss — too soon, too young — has reverberated through our subject. It is felt most acutely, of course, by her family.
In time, the knowledge that Susan inspired generations of students and academics may be a consolation. But I suspect not yet.